‘Living in Italy is not like a movie’

When Hollywood screenwriter Arlene Gibbs first visited Rome in 2005, it was only meant to be a one-off holiday. Within days, the city and its people had captured her mind and heart. She talks to The Local about writing films and books from Italy, alongside being an interior designer.

'Living in Italy is not like a movie'
Arlene Gibbs runs an interior design business. Photo courtesy of Arlene Gibbs

From Los Angeles to Rome. That must have been quite a transition. So what brought you here?

When I was younger, I had dreamed of living in either London or Paris. Rome never occurred to me. But when I visited for the first time eight years ago, it felt like home. I did not expect that to happen. I kept returning and would stay for longer periods of time to get a real sense of the city. I thought I would move when I retired, but realized I needed to stop putting my life on hold. So I quit my job and moved in 2008. 

But it must have been hard to leave the Hollywood high life behind?

Not one bit. That high life comes at a cost. 

You said you felt instantly at ease in Rome. Was there anything in particular about the city that made you feel so comfortable?

The locals I met during my first trip had a lot to do with it. A friend in NYC spoke to her friend from Milan and through him I met one of my closest friends in Rome.  Also my spinning teacher at Equinox (so LA) gave a name of a friend to look up as well. As for the city itself, the light, the architecture, the energy, all made a lasting impression.

You say the move to Italy “changed your life”. In what way exactly?

I arrived in Italy a completely different person. I didn't feel creative even though I was working in a creative field. I had no passion. I was bitter, depressed, and full of rage. I'm finally back to my normal self.   

So did you carry on writing when you got here?

Yes. I co-wrote the screenplay for Jumping the Broom, which was released in 2011. It was an idea that was pitched to me by producers Elizabeth Hunter and Glendon Palmer years back. Although I thought it was a great idea at the time, the production company I was with didn’t have the appropriate funding. So we got to work on it in 2009. The script was then bought by Sony.

Jumping the Broom was very unusual in that respect – most scripts get stuck in ‘development hell’, but this one was in cinemas less than two years after I submitted my draft. I have also written a book, The Rebirth of Mrs Tracey Higgins, a story about a reverend’s wife trying to get her life back together after her marriage fails, in 2011.

So now you also run your own interior design business. What made you get into this and how did you go about getting qualified?

I worked in home furnishings and fashion after college.  There are a lot of similarities between working in film and in interior design. Both are visual mediums that tell a story. That said, I hadn't worked in the field for a while so I did a great internship with a very talented and prominent furniture and interior designer in Italy.

Last year I also attended interior and textile designer Kathryn M. Ireland's intensive design workshop, which was incredible. I feel with interior design I'm using all the skill sets I've learned through the million different careers I've had. It's all coming together. 

You’ve managed to set up a successful business in one of the world’s toughest economies. What advice would you share with others looking to do the same thing?

Research your market. Write a business plan. Do something that you love. This will come in very handy on days when everything falls apart. You'll push on through because you're passionate about your work. 

What has working life taught you in Italy, say compared to LA?

To be patient. That even though my friends here have intense careers, they still find time to connect with family and friends. Work does not define us. It's what we do not who we are. Other things define us. That was hard for me to understand at first.  

Many people dream of living in Italy, only to return home disappointed when hit by some realities. What would you advise others looking to come and live here? 

Think long and hard about the real reason you're moving. Visiting a place on vacation and living there are two very different things. Living in Italy is not like a movie. Read expat forums and blogs. They have a great deal of information and it's important to know the good, the bad, and the ugly before you move.

Read up on Italian history and culture, especially the region you plan to live in. I've met many expats who moved here knowing nothing about Italy other than people spoke Italian. They tend to be very unhappy.

Also, get your paperwork in order before you move. Can you legally work and live here? What do you plan to do for work (unless you're retired)? Learn Italian even if you're moving to one of the bigger cities where many people speak English.

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