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QUALITY OF LIFE

Readers’ views: Is Italy really one of the worst countries to move to?

Italy came close to last in a recent survey of expat life around the world. Is life as a foreigner here really all that bad? We asked our readers what you thought.

Readers' views: Is Italy really one of the worst countries to move to?
Italy: better to visit than to live in? Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

It's no exaggeration to say that The Local gets emails every single day from people who want to move to Italy.

And it's clear that all our readers, whether they're here or not, are fascinated by the country, its language and its people.

So when we published the results of a survey that found international residents rated Italy poorly for quality of life, cost of living, employment opportunities, family life and ease of settling in, I expected to be flooded with messages saying the study had got it wrong.

READ ALSO: Italy rated 'one of the worst countries in the world' to move to: survey

But instead, we saw many of you agreeing.

“I've been living in Italy for six years and I still don't feel settled,” wrote Ella Connolly. “So many things are lacking. It feels like there are no rules and nobody cares about anyone but themselves. Very hard to live here.”

“The country is falling apart,” another reader put it more bluntly. “It's no longer amusing that Italians have their own pace. This is the 21st century. The excuses are no longer acceptable. Nothing functions correctly.”

Corruption, Kafka-esque bureaucracy, an inefficient tax system, woeful public transport, rubbish piled in the streets, flagrant disregard for road rules and difficulty integrating with Italians were some of the top complaints.

And before anyone puts the complaints down to language barriers or cultural differences, it's not just foreigners who struggle with life in Italy.

“I'm Italian and moved back to Italy after ten years in the UK and even I – despite being familiar with the culture and a native speaker – found it very difficult,” Riccardo Fumagalli told us. 

“Nothing seems to be straightforward and no one seems to know exactly how things are supposed to be done. Bureaucracy is illogic and byzantine and would stop anyone from doing anything.

“This is the place where you still have to personally go to a physical office to get your bills sorted (or send a fax. In 2019!), or where you might have problems paying by card. And even in cash since the ATMs dispense mostly €50 notes that no shop would happily accept. The working ethic is terrible, people seem to work 12 hours a day while it's mostly wasting time due to a basic lack of organization which creates a domino effect of 'being late'.”

READ ALSO: 'The lessons we've learned from 10 years running a business in rural Italy'

It's no coincidence that young Italians continue to leave Italy by the tens of thousands, as another Italian reader pointed out.

“I had to move abroad, and in the last few years I saw younger and younger people coming en masse to live to Ireland because they know there is no future for them in Italy… 'Life of sun and aperitivo' my ar*e, in Italy there are no such things as regular paid jobs or an efficient tax collection system, so people who cheat and exploit others are wealthy and honest people are despised.

“Catcalling women on the street is considered normal and the level of violence in online exchanges is revolting, not to talk about the widespread racism and nationalism. And I may go on.

“Pasta is good, though. Enjoy.”

It's important to point out, though, that few of the people who contacted us had only bad things to say about Italy.

Just like in the InterNations survey, where Italy earned good marks for its weather, travel opportunities and language while scoring poorly for work, we heard from our readers that life in Italy is a mixed bag.

Firoozeh Arjmand, who studied at universities in both Rome and Turin and now works in Milan, pointed out that even one of the areas where Italy scored poorly in the survey – education – wasn't all bad. 

“I have to say the universities are good, not perfect, but they are good and also free. You pay just €3,000 per year, that is eventually nothing,” she told us.

Perhaps in Italy even more than other countries, it depends on where you go. In a place that varies so wildly from region to region, it's impossible to generalize what life in Italy is like.

“Some areas are still little paradises – in the beautiful small towns life remains wonderful, from food to friendly inhabitants, climate, cultural events. Given pollution and overcrowding (including by mass tourism), life in downtown Rome has declined in quality, even as it has risen in Milan,” wrote Judy Harris, a resident of 50 years.

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That's not to say that we didn't get some of those messages I expected, telling us that the survey must be wrong and their life in Italy is indeed – as one person put it – “great food, wine, weather and stress-free living”.

It was notable that a lot of the most positive comments came from people who had chosen to retire in Italy, which is, as many acknowledged, a privileged position to be in.  

Moving to Italy with independent means saves you from what the InterNations survey said was the very worst thing about life here: working. The majority of its respondents were unhappy with their career prospects, job security or working hours, and nearly a third said their monthly income didn't cover their expenses.

“During my first year, dear friends left Florence, unable to make a living. They literally ran out of money,” reader Helen Bayley told us. 

READ ALSO: 'If you want to move to Italy, brace yourself for things not going the way you want'

An independent tour guide in Florence, after more than a decade in Italy she finds herself facing a similar dilemma.

“My taxes have become quite high and I can only work so much, to be able to afford tax and ever increasing rents. It has been and still is hard going. I have reached a point, having no partner nor family, of changing my life and moving on…

“Expats who do not stay here year round and thus do not pay tax here and have retirement nest eggs have the pleasure to enjoy all the beauty and dolce vita that Florence and Italy has to offer! For anyone thinking of moving here, do your research, come with some savings, and know it won't be easy.”

Her story illustrates an important point: while many people assume that Italy's famed quality of life will make up for the pay cut or mind-numbing paperwork, those things are in fact a part of quality of life, not a separate sum in the equation.

Being surrounded by gorgeous holiday destinations is all very well if you don't have the time or money to enjoy them, and Italy's tradition of tight-knit families is a little less charming if you're a working parent who doesn't have nonni to hand and needs affordable childcare. And all the sunshine in the world won't make spending hours filling in forms “stress-free”. 

READ ALSO: Italian problems: Driving seven hours (in a heatwave) to sign a form

I suspect one of the reasons Italy consistently comes out badly in this and similar surveys is precisely because people imagine that la dolce vita is guaranteed upon arrival.

Some of us move here with romantic expectations and find ourselves disappointed with the reality; and some of us find the rose-tinted visions of Italy sold by tour operators and bought wholesale by holidaymakers getting to grate. (I'll admit to feeling a certain compulsion to point out the putrefying sacks of rubbish lining the streets to any of my visitors who are unwise enough to tell me that living in Rome “must be just like the movies”.)

Perhaps we're more given to stating the negatives as a result, whether to warn other dreamy-eyed foreigners preparing to immigrate or simply to vent.

Ultimately, a more accurate picture of our feelings might be the length of time we stay. Nearly a third of people who answered the InterNations survey (32 percent) had lived in Italy for ten years or more; across all the 64 countries they studied, the average was 24 percent.

“Italy has a lot of problems for sure but I’d pick living here every day over my own country (England), not because it’s better but because it suits me, my life and my expectations,” our reader Luke Tait said. “Like any country, some will love it, others will hate it.”

Naturally some people decide that Italy's not for them and others decide it is. It depends on so many factors that no survey can hope to calculate the likelihood of which category you'll fall into.

If you're one of the thousands of people dreaming of moving here one day, do your research, be clear-eyed, and ask yourself: what is most important for me? 

There are no right or wrong answers.

Thanks to everyone who shared their views on this subject, including those not quoted in the article.

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QUALITY OF LIFE

‘Why I used to hate living in Rome as a foreigner – and why I changed my mind’

Yet another survey of Rome’s foreign residents has rated the Italian capital dismally for quality of life. Jessica Phelan explains why she too disliked the city when she first moved here, and what helped to change her mind.

A view over the city of Rome at sunset.
Life in Rome can take a while to get used to. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

If you’d told me four years ago that I’d be coming to Rome’s defence, I would have told you: Ma va’. Yeah right, get out of town. And I would have said I’d be long gone myself. 

And yet, as the latest InterNations survey of expats around the world puts Rome in last place for city life and work, here I am not only still living here but saying out loud: this place isn’t so bad.

It’s not that I don’t get where my unhappy fellow foreigners are coming from. I never dreamed of Rome before I moved here and found it far from dreamy once I arrived, in summer 2017. I’d grown up a short flight away (the UK) and lived in European capitals (Paris, Berlin) for several years, and after a stint further afield (Japan), I naively thought that moving to Rome would feel like coming home. 

Instead I found myself complaining to anyone who would listen about the same things that InterNations’ respondents listed as Rome’s downsides. The unreliable public transport. The scant public services. The politicians on the take. The provincialism. The rubbish – good grief, the rubbish. The inequality and lack of opportunities for young people – and lack of young people themselves, as it seemed in certain neighbourhoods. 

READ ALSO: Rome and Milan ranked ‘worst’ cities to live in by foreign residents – again

Sure, I liked the food and I couldn’t argue with the weather, but it felt frivolous to enjoy the small pleasures amid what I began to see as existential flaws. They spiralled for me into the impression of a city on the brink: the trash is piled shoulder-high because people here don’t care about anyone else, I told myself.

The fact everyone assumes I’m a tourist means they’re not used to anyone who doesn’t look or sound like them. I’m struggling to meet other young professionals – it must be a sign that the best and the brightest have all left. Because really, who’d choose to live here?

Photo: Andreas SOLARO/AFP

Partly it was because I didn’t feel I had chosen to live here. I had moved for my American partner’s teaching job, and nothing was more alienating than encountering people who were stubbornly, unaccountably, in love with the place – or an idea of it. An awkward pause would ensue as I contemplated whether to mumble something innocuous about gelato or take it upon myself to debunk their romantic notions and expose what I was convinced was the ‘real’ Rome – dirty, dysfunctional, doomed. 

It wasn’t all in my head. As the InterNations survey has shown for several years straight, many foreign transplants report deep dissatisfaction with the city. So do Romans as a whole: one survey in 2020 found that most residents said their quality of life had worsened in the past five years. Global studies have named Rome one of the unhealthiest cities in Europe, and its roads some of the most dangerous. When Italians compile the list of the ‘best places to live in Italy’, there’s a reason why Rome never comes close to the top ten. 

In fact, every time I lamented the city’s decline, I fitted in better than I realised: no one complains more about Rome than Romans themselves.

Photo: Alberto PIZZOLI/AFP

There was perverse comfort to be had in realising that people born and raised here saw the same things I did and found them just as galling. La grande monnezza, they call it: forget ‘the great beauty’ (la grande bellezza), it’s the great rubbish dump. Roma fa schifo, as a popular local blog has it. Rome is disgusting. 

Huh, I began to think I scrolled through photos of egregiously parked cars or smirked at another meme about the incompetents in city hall, maybe we can get on after all. It was a glimpse of a dark, deeply cynical humour that was one of the first things about Rome I had to admit I liked.

READ ALSO:

Gradually, other qualities forced their way into view. I moved from a stuffy neighbourhood in the west of the historic centre to outside the city walls in the east and discovered that yes, other people under 50 do live here, no, not every foreigner is a tourist or study-abroad student, and thank goodness, not every restaurant serves only Italian food. Our new apartment was bigger, and bigger by far than anything our relatively modest incomes would have got us in the capitals of our home countries.

In fact, I suspected I wasn’t living in a capital city at all. Milan is where most of the money and opportunities within Italy are to be found, which has long made it a more logical place to move to for Italians and foreigners alike. I envy Milan’s metamorphosing skyline and cosmopolitan population – things I associate with ‘real’ cities.

But what do you know: if Rome comes 57th in the InterNations survey, Milan comes 56th. The responses suggest that housing is more expensive and harder to find up there, and the cost of living higher. 

I’ll leave it to people who live there to say what it’s really like, but I wonder if there are other trade-offs: I’d take the people-watching and window-shopping in Milan over Rome any day, but would I have to wear the ‘right’ clothes to fit in? I might have more chances to get ahead, but would I be judged on my job title or salary, and would people be more competitive? For better or worse, these aren’t things I have to worry about in Rome.

OPINION: Why Milan is a much better city to live in than Rome

Lucky for me I can afford not to: I’m not one of the 41 percent of foreign residents in Rome who told InterNations their disposable household income is not enough to cover expenses. Salaries are low here, and the cost of living – not visiting – can be higher than you might think. I’m in the privileged position of working for international employers, who pay better than local ones, and of splitting the bills with someone else in the same boat. We’re comfortable, but Rome isn’t the place to make your fortune.

So it’s no economic powerhouse. But culturally it’s got more life than I first gave it credit for. The things I’d assumed were missing altogether – new music, interesting events, a mix of people and backgrounds – were all there, they were just on a smaller scale and correspondingly harder to find. (Places to start looking: mailing lists, venues’ Facebook or Instagram pages, Zero.)

Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

In other cities I felt I’d made inroads by the end of the first year; in Rome, I was still at least another year away from meeting the friends who’d become my group here and, in turn, introduce me to people and places I wouldn’t have found on my own.

More than other cities, people say that Rome – the Rome that’s not in guidebooks, at least – is da scoprire, ‘to discover’ or even ‘unearth’. While you’re digging, having an ‘in’ can make all the difference. 

In some ways, Covid-19 also helped to rehabilitate Rome for me. The seriousness with which most people took the pandemic, and the camaraderie my neighbours showed throughout that first bewildering lockdown, proved that Romans were more than capable of caring for strangers. The months that followed, when we were confined to city or regional limits, taught me to appreciate the possibilities I might otherwise have ignored: travel might be impossible, but at least I had woods, lakes, mountains, waterfalls and the Mediterranean on my doorstep.

Other things I had to work around, or simply live with. I’m as convinced now as I was four years ago that Rome’s public transport system is woefully inadequate, but now I mainly avoid it: I walk or cycle as much as I can. In fact a whole alternative network of shared transport has sprung up in the time I’ve been here, from e-bikes to car shares and scooters, or monopattini.

Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

I’m yet to see a fix for the city’s rubbish problem, but I no longer assume it’s all the residents’ fault. It’s the result of decades of misuse of public funds, graft and organized crime – hardly reassuring, but marginally less bleak than thinking that none of your neighbours give a damn.

Because always, of course, there are people trying to improve things – by protesting, by voting, by picking up litter, even by filling in potholes on the sly. (Remember that if you’re a citizen of another EU country living in Rome, you have the right to vote in city elections too.) Doing the work yourself doesn’t absolve the authorities of the responsibility to do it, but in the meantime, as one acquaintance put it, at least your sidewalk is clean.

And those small pleasures: I finally gave myself permission to enjoy them. I like cracker-thin Roman pizza, supposedly kept from rising by the city’s hard water. I like sun that dries my laundry even in December. I like the view of mountains on a clear day. I like the light that glows golden around half an hour before sunset and works a kind of magic on ochre walls and brick bell towers and crumbling aqueducts.

In my fifth year here, I know now that these things don’t blind me to Rome’s faults, nor do I have to pretend not to see them to prove I’m not just another tourist. I live here; sometimes it’s bad; and most days, at about 5pm, looking over the rooftops, it’s good.

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