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Interview with Elisa – an Australian expat living in Italy

Updated 17 May 2012

Elisa is an Australian expat who initially moved to Tuscany for a year, and fell in love with and married an Italian man. They live in the town of Manciano in the beautiful Tuscany region. A freelance journalist, Elisa now writes a travel blog and online travel guide about her new home.

Read more about Italy in the Expat Arrivals Italy country guide, or read more expat experiences in Italy.

Elisa Scarton - An expat in ItalyAbout Elisa

Q: Where are you originally from?  
A: Melbourne, Australia

Q: Where are you living now?  
A: Manciano, Grosseto, Tuscany, Italy

Q: How long have you lived here?  
A: Five years

Q: Did you move to Italy with a spouse/children?  
A: I married my lovely husband, who is Italian.

Q: Why did you move; what do you do?  
A: I moved to be with my husband. I now work as a freelance journalist and webmistress extraordinaire.

About Tuscany

Q: What do you enjoy most about Tuscany, how’s the quality of life? 
A: I love Manciano because it has something you don’t find too often in Italy any more – provincial charm. I sometimes say Manciano is a bit like Italy of the 1960s. It has the atmosphere that Diane Lane chirped about in Under the Tuscan Sun – the gorgeous medieval towns, the locals who sit outside their sandstone houses gossiping, the delicious traditional food and kitsch festivals.

I also admit I derive a certain amount of smug pleasure from looking outside my bedroom window each morning and seeing the magnificent rolling hills of the Tuscan countryside – complete with rows upon rows of blossoming sunflowers!

Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home?  
A: I miss the shopping centres. I know it’s such a materialistic thing to say when you live in Tuscany, but there are days when I wish I could just hop in my car and max out my credit cards on shoes. My closest shopping centre is more than an hour away. Not for all the shoes in the world would I drive that distance if I didn’t have some absolute, unavoidable need.

Q: Is Manciano safe? 
A: When I first moved here, I said Manciano couldn’t be that safe if it has its own carabinieri (Italian police), but in actual fact, I haven’t even seen a scrap of graffiti since I moved here, let alone anything more sinister. This is small-town Italy, after all. You know almost everyone who lives in the streets around you, so you can rest easy in the knowledge that if you let your kids out to play, there will always be people to keep an eye on them.

About living in Italy

Q: Which are the best places/suburbs to live in Manciano as an expat? 
A: The Maremma (the territory where Manciano is based) doesn’t really get many expats. Unless you have a driving reason to move here, like I did, I would keep to the capital city – Grosseto. Although all the expats I know live in Manciano, which happens to be the biggest town around. I guess it depends on your wants, if you’re looking for employment where you can put your English skills to use, head for the cities – Grosseto, Massa Marittima, Orbetello, Follonica. But if you’re looking for a quiet place to retire or relax, then anywhere in the Tuscan Maremma is your beautiful oyster.

Q: How do you rate the standard of accommodation in Tuscany? 
A: The Maremma has one of the highest rates of accommodation in all of Tuscany, I reckon. Tourism is our lifeblood, so you can get anything from five-star luxury hotels to cute B&Bs and agriturismo. Agriturismo literally translates into farm tourism – basically it’s a working farm where tourists can stay in, usually heritage-listed farmhouses that have been converted into comfy and affordable accommodation. There’s plenty of space for the kids to run around, as well as pools and other on-site activities like wine tasting, horse riding, cheese making and spa centres. But the best part is that they’re almost always family run, so you get a real taste of the Maremman life, food and locals. I wouldn’t recommend staying anywhere else.

Unless you mean to live, and then obviously you wouldn’t stay in an agriturismo. But apartments are pretty affordable to rent and buy in the Maremma, and there are plenty of them around.

Q: What’s the cost of living in Italy compared to home? What is cheap or expensive in particular? 
A: I’ve never really thought about this. Italy as a whole is more expensive when it comes to petrol, electricity, gas, rent, insurance, but my husband insists groceries and clothes are cheaper over here than in Australia. I guess it all comes down to where you live. If you call the city home, then your cost of living will be more than in the country where I live. We are talking about Europe, after all.

Q: What are the locals like; do you mix mainly with other expats? 
A: I love the locals. For many years, I was known as La Ragazza Australiana (The Australian Girl). The locals could pick me out as a foreigner in a crowd of thousands. They just knew I wasn’t Mancianese. I still get asked questions about whether we have coffee/ice cream/pet kangaroos in Australia, but it’s just warm-hearted curiosity. Everyone is so open and friendly in country Tuscany. If they weren't, I probably wouldn’t have met/fallen in love with my Mancianese husband!

There are so few of us expats that we’ve all made local friends. We do gather once a week for a ‘Speak English Aperitivo’. Although that’s usually more just an excuse for the locals to get free English lessons from us than a catch-up among expats!

Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends in Italy? 
A: Without a doubt. As long as you take the curious questions with good-hearted humour, you’ll have friends in no time!

About working in Italy

Q: Did you have a problem getting a work visa/permit for Italy? 
A: No. I came to the Maremma as part of a volunteer organisation to teach English for a year. Applying for a work visa is pretty simple in Italy, but you do need to get it before you leave your home country, which means you need to have employment before you pack your bags and head off. But there are plenty of volunteer or placement organisations that can set you up with a job for anywhere from a month to a year in Italy, and they’ll organise all the paperwork. It’s a good way to get your foot in the door. You can then seek more permanent employment when you’re in Italy. Of course, this only applies to non-EU expats. Members of the European Union don’t need a visa to work in Italy.

Q: What’s the economic climate like in Italy, is there plenty of work? 
A: Italy is experiencing a pretty nasty recession at the moment, so it’s not as easy to find a job as it was a couple of years ago. Tourism is still your best bet if you’re heading to Tuscany, but you might have to accept more menial jobs like waiting tables or cleaning to get by. I probably wouldn’t throw my lot in and move to Italy expecting to find a job when you get there right now – especially if you’re heading for one of the bigger cities like Rome and Milan. There’s a real risk that you won’t make enough money to pay the high city rents, let alone get by. The fact that you speak English is still impressive, but it can’t be your only trump card any more. Thousands, upon thousands of people speak English well enough to get employed in Italy these days, so you’ll need to have something else up your sleeve like a communications degree or hospitality experience.

Q: How does the work culture differ from home? 
A: Italians are the kings of the work/life balance. You won’t see Italians working themselves to the bone, and I don’t think they even have a word for overtime. Especially in country Tuscany, you can still expect most people to go home for a home-cooked two-course lunch and a bit of a siesta before returning to work in the afternoon. It can be a pain in the butt if you want to do any sort of shopping between the hours of 1–4pm – all the shops are closed!

Q: Did a relocation company help you with your move? 
A: Nope, I sort of made a gradual move. So I started by dividing my time between Italy and Australia, and then I moved to Italy permanently after I got married.

Family and children in Italy

Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions? 
A: Great. I don’t particularly agree with the no-uniforms and co-ed school system. I also don’t really like the fact that they have to pigeon-hole themselves in specialised schools at 14. Italian high schools are divided into subjects, so if you like the Arts, you’ll go to an Arts school, maths a mathematics school, science a science school and so on. But I must admit that they do get a great all-round education. In the Maremma, the schools are really small too, so all the kids grow up being in the same class every year throughout their education.

If your children don’t speak English and you live in the city, I recommend sending them to an international school, especially if they’re older. They’ll still learn Italian, but they’ll have the advantage of being with other expat kids who understand their situation. They also won’t lose their English skills and won’t have to compete with native Italian speakers. If your kids are little, kinder age or younger, send them to the local asilo. They’ll be speaking Italian like pros in a matter of weeks, and the kindergartens over here are like mini-schools, so they’ll also get a jump on their education. All the Italian kids go to asilo.

 Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Italy? 
A: Great. Italian healthcare is free for citizens, permanent residents and EU citizens, and everyone is always saying that the public system is better than the private one. If you have good insurance, you cannot only get most operations for free, but they might even pay you for your injury – i.e, my husband broke his knee and ended up getting a payout from his insurer as well as a free operation.

And finally…

Q: Is there any other advice you like to offer new expat arrivals? 
A: Don’t expect La Dolce Vita. Italy is beautiful, but its beauty can fade if you get caught up in the bureaucracy of everyday life. The cities can be congested and busy. There’s pollution and crime, and nothing seems to work like it should. Take public transport for example. The nonchalant and relaxed attitude of the locals can get on your nerves if you come from a more precise and organised country where the mail doesn’t get lost for months without any explanation and the tradesmen come when you call them. Tourists can be the bane of your existence when you’re in a hurry and if you like shopping on a Sunday, you’re in for a shock.

That said, Italy can offer you the sorts of art, culture and history you couldn’t even dream of if you come from a relatively young country like Australia. I got a kick out of living down the street from the Spanish Steps for years when I lived in Rome. There is something so enchanting about walking the streets of a city that is hundreds, if not thousands of years old, every single day. While if you live in the country, the relaxed pace and sheer beauty of your surroundings is enough to forgive the odd frustration, you just have to keep an open mind, accept that the Italians aren’t worriers and don’t like to be rushed. Sure, they aren’t quick to get things done, but they understand the concept of family, socialising and conversation. They appreciate life and living it instead of worrying about where they’re going to be in the next minute, hour, day, and whether they’re using every second productively.

~ Interviewed May 2012

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