My name is Elizabeth Knight and I am from Nashville, Tennessee, USA. I am lucky enough to live in Rome, Italy, and to have lived here twice – at different phases of my life. In the States, I am an attorney, and in Rome, I am a lot of things (but also an attorney). Life here is about 80% more difficult but 90% more fun. If I could find good Mexican food, that would be a full 100%.
1. Why did you move abroad?
The first time I moved abroad I was 21, fresh out of college, and I thought I’d come to Italy for a year to teach English. I ended up having so much fun that I stayed for four. Then, the responsibility gene in my American blood kicked in and I went back to the States, and to law school. I finished that, and practiced civil litigation for four years in Texas. Then something remarkable happened. Although everything in my life was quite fine and tolerable – there was nothing I just couldn’t stand – out of the blue, I started thinking about Italy again. It felt like a calling, and I became obsessed. I became so fixated by the idea, that even when I was forced to acknowledge that there are exactly zero professional jobs available in Italy, I decided that I would go anyway.
When I left Italy to go to law school, I never, ever thought I would come back. In fact, I didn’t even come back on vacation for five years. I went to other places. So I don’t know why I got that bug in my ear again after all that time, but that’s the way love works, isn’t it? You can’t control it. I love, love, love Italy. The way you love a person. I cannot get it out of my system. Its beauty and endless things to do constantly overwhelm me.
2. How do you make a living?
As I mentioned, there are no traditional, professional jobs to be had in Italy. Unless your company back home sends you. If anyone out there has landed one in the last ten years, I’d like to shake your hand. Maybe the economy here will turn around some day. But for now, I have completely given up on finding an Italian job. So I have created my own business(es). I firmly believe that is what you have to do in Italy to survive. I continue to practice law remotely for some clients in the States, and keep my law license active there, in case I ever need to flee Italy in the middle of the night and pick up where I left off. I also consult with a company that markets luxury vacation rentals in Italy and France. Best of all, I’ve been writing travel articles for a variety of publications about Italy and a few other places I love. If I could do that every day, I’d be in heaven.
I make a small fraction of the money I made before, working at the law firm in Texas. And my rent is twice as high. But I don’t have the expenses of a car, and I’ve simply adjusted how much I shop (i.e. never), and I cook more at home. Starting my own businesses, I didn’t expect to make a million dollars in the first year or two. Maybe in the third!
3. How often do you communicate with home and how?
I chat on Facebook almost daily with my friends and sister. It’s terrific to know where everybody is and what everyone is up to all the time. Fortunately, my parents are not on Facebook and I hope they never are. So we email almost every day, even if it’s just a funny article. About once a week, I call them – I have a Vonage box, which allows me to keep a U.S. number anywhere in the world for a monthly charge. It’s just like calling them from down the street.
4. What's your favorite thing about being an expat in Rome?
There is camaraderie among expats here. I feel like only my fellow expats can really understand the craziness of living here, because we can compare it to what we grew up with. Many of my Italian friends, whom I love, think I am out of my mind for wanting to live in this chaotic country with its depressed (and depressing) economy. But, other expats understand why some of us just aren’t satiated with an annual vacation.
Generally, I love being a foreigner in Rome. As someone who came as adult, it’s still all new to me, even after years here. I still have little freak-outs over how beautiful a fountain is, or how old a door is. I take pictures of everything. I don’t know if I would be so enthused if I had been living with it since birth.
5. What’s the worst thing about being an expat in Rome?
Dealing with immigration. I am an American, and therefore subject to the imp enetrably strict and confusing rules against immigrants from outside the EU (extracomunitari). I am not complaining that it is hard to immigrate; I respect that. My main complaint is that if you ask ten different people in official positions what you need to do to immigrate legally, start your own business, be sponsored, consult, invest, whatever you want to do, you will get ten different answers. And each person will say that the other nine are wrong. An immigration attorney told me that the immigration office doesn’t know what they’re talking about, and the immigration office told me that the immigration attorney was trying to scam me. Both are possible. It can make your blood boil. It really makes you want to give up.
I am 100% sure that it is intensely difficult to immigrate to many countries just because you want to, including my own. But in my experience, and from my research, at least in other countries the definitive rules and procedures are available in black and white whether you like them or not. In Italy you are just rolling the dice with the person you talk to on a particular day. That is the worst part about being an expat in Italy.
6. What do you miss most?
Besides my sweet mom and dad and big sister…CUSTOMER SERVICE! Being able to return items to stores. People answering the phone. People answering my questions. Predictable, and long, business hours, or hours at government offices. Being able to get an appointment for anything pretty much whenever I want it. Splitting the bill at the restaurant.
I used to miss American foods like brownie mix and peanut butter, but I am able to get that stuff at bigger grocery stores now. I couldn’t find it ten years ago. I’ve finally found a great Indian restaurant, but still searching for decent Mexican.
7. What did you do to meet people and integrate in your new home?
When I first arrived over 10 years ago, I started working in an office and met a great group of Italian girls there. I left Rome for a long time, and when I came back, we picked right up where we left off.
When I first got here and didn’t have much work, I heard about an English-language play in Trastevere that was already in production. I volunteered for a background part, and that’s how I immediately made a ton of great friends whom I still see all the time. And I met their friends, and friends of their friends, and before I knew it, I was performing stand-up comedy with Rome’s Comedy Club. That has been one of the most fun experiences of my life.
Besides that, it really helps to speak Italian. English is not as widely spoken here as in other European countries, so fortunately I’m confident enough in my Italian to strike up a conversation at a bar or at the beach. I wouldn’t have met, or kept, my boyfriend if I hadn’t done this.
8. What custom/ habits do you find most strange about your adopted culture?
There are a lot of arbitrary rules that don’t make a ton of sense. Like, there is a rule against a cappuccino after dinner because it is supposedly too heavy. But a plate of tiramisu isn’t? Or a cheese plate with honey? Or ice cream with panna? And everybody says air conditioning is toxic, but they say this while smoking. Hey, we’re guilty of this in the States, too (like taking vitamins for health but eating bacon all day). So it happens everywhere, and everywhere it’s funny.
9. What is a myth about your adopted country?
Back home, my friends think that having a professional degree and speaking both languages means that Italian employers (and the immigration office) will just roll out the red carpet for me. When I try to explain that it doesn’t work that way here, they don’t believe me. There are a lot of movies and books that perpetuate the myth that Americans can pick up and move here on a whim and it’s a fairy tale. That’s not true at all unless you are a zillionaire who doesn’t have to work for a living.
10. Is the cost of living higher or lower than the last country you lived in and how has that made a difference in your life?
I moved to Rome from Dallas. In Dallas you can have a New York salary on an Alabama cost of living. Compared to Dallas, Rome is much more expensive. Maybe it’s not compared to San Francisco, for example. My rent is higher, gas is higher, insurance on my scooter is higher, and food is higher. The only cheaper items are my prescriptions and cappuccinos. To compensate, I make little daily changes like bringing my lunch from home instead of going out. The biggest change is, believe it or not, that I have not purchased a stitch of clothing since I moved back to Rome two years ago. Not a sock, not an earring, nothing. I’m wearing what I came with.
11. What advice would you give other expats?
Learn Italian! Take a class before you come here, and also after you get here, and watch Italian television and movies. If you’re single, try to date an Italian who doesn’t speak English. Everyone should have this experience once in his or her life. Also, be prepared to make much less money than you used to. Adapt to this. And always remember that you can go home if you want to. Keeping that in mind doesn’t make me want to go home; it makes me enjoy my time here more.
12. When and why did you start your blog?
I started my blog in October 2012, a few months after moving here and finally finding a permanent apartment with internet. I don’t know why I started it; I think it was just something of a diary. When I got my first compliment on it from a stranger online, it was such a rush! I wanted to keep doing it, and I began to really put a lot of effort my writing, humor, and photographs. When I see a typo in something I’ve published, I want to flog myself. I enjoy it so much, I would post something every day if I didn’t have to work so much at other jobs to pay the rent!
Elizabeth's blog, Rome...If You Want To
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