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  • How to Make the Move to Live in Italy
    A Q&A with Someone Who Did It

    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    Since I started writing this column, many of you have written to me. Every so often, you can help me offer information to the masses. A reader, Felice Berenson, 56, is an ESL and Italian teacher in Boca Raton, Florida. Before she moved to the Sunshine State, she lived in Florence, Italy from 1969 to 1993. She even published a book of Italian poetry - and became an authentic Florentine. "Italy is a tribute to life - elegance, love, friendship, honor and tradition," she says. "You can fall under its spell easily, and you will never be the same again."

    I asked her to answer some of your most common questions about moving to Italy, and she responded thoughtfully in an e-mail. Below are edited excerpts of her responses:

    Q: What made you decide to live in Italy?
    A: The decision to live in Italy came from my first trip to Europe in 1963, when I was 15. As soon as we arrived in Florence I felt as if I had come home and instinctively, I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life there. Although I have not, I was fortunate enough to have had a home in Florence for 24 years until needing to care for family in the United States. One of the ways of thinking greatly influenced by living in Italy was my sense of family.

    I applied to graduate school in Florence through the Rosary College in River Forest, Ill., which is now part of Dominion University. It had a graduate program in art history, visual arts and music at the Villa Schifanoia, San Domenico (on the way to Fiesole). I wanted an advanced degree, but it was also the means to an end. I sailed with three trunks and seven suitcases in August 1969 and embarked on the most wonderful adventure of my life. I lived nel centro of Florence, first on Via dei Rustici behind Piazza Signoria and then in Via Santa Reparata between Piazza San Marco and Piazza Independenza.

    Q: Did you speak the language when you first arrived?
    A: I had studied for two summers at L'Universita' di Pisa per Stranieri and have a minor in Italian from Georgetown University (under the then consortium program of Washington, D.C. universities as I am a graduate of American University). I could converse in four tenses about art history and Italian culture, But no one had thought about teaching basic survival. With a good basis of Latin, a major in French, a minor in Italian, lots of friends who helped and no fear of sounding ridiculous (the advantage of being young), I literally threw myself into the language. Things that are barriers, especially for Americans, are pronunciation, rolling the "R's," the dialect of each region or city and what is proper in certain levels of society.

    One of the most important things is understanding quantities [and the metric system]. I was buying a half kilo of everything because I was still thinking in pounds, which forced me to throw out lots of food. They loved me in the neighborhood, until one day the very nice lady from whom I bought wine and olive oil asked if I was living alone. When I said, "Yes," she asked why I wasn't buying "un etto" di prosciutto or formaggio, etc. "Un etto" was a phrase I had never known. From that day on, my grocery bill dropped radically and so did the amount of little garbage bags I used. 

    I was also very lucky to have had friends from having already studied there and then was introduced to a wonderful group of people who are still my friends who, with santa pazienza, explained words, gave me synonyms and did not translate. Barriers broke also because I wanted to integrate completely, unlike some of my companions at graduate school who returned to the United States after one semester because they couldn't or wouldn't adapt.

    Q: What is your number one piece of advice you would offer to those considering such a move?
    A: I would learn the language and try to understand the culture as best possible before going. If one is moving to a non-metropolitan area, then this is extremely important. Upon arrival, I would sign up for a language course. If one is going to be an ex-patriot, then you should be well-informed first.

    Q: What resources should one consult when planning a move to Italy?
    A: One can consult the embassy and the consulates and find someone who has lived there and a good real estate agent who specializes in such moves and can offer advice on renting or buying. Take one-on-one lessons geared to one's specific needs for the language (for example, business and protocol). Check with local universities that have study abroad programs for advice because they can be quite helpful.

    Q: What's the biggest mistake you made?
    A: I do not think I made any [mistakes] at the time because, from the beginning, I always had people to help me with contracts. And the errors are part of the learning process, and I was open-minded and fresh out of college, enough so that everything was a great adventure.

    Article Published 3/27/2005


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