'Speaking the dialect made me a lot of friends'

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Karoline Steckley lives in Trieste (R:ho visto nina volare/Flickr)
15:13 CEST+02:00
Karoline Steckley moved to the northeastern city of Trieste 10 years ago, and says it makes a pleasant change from the more popular Florence and Milan. She speaks to The Local about embracing the local dialect and setting up business, as well as the Slovenian influence on the city.

First of all, where are you originally from, and why did you decide to move to Italy?

I am originally from Wisconsin but was working as a French teacher in Falmouth, Massachusetts when I moved to Trieste in 2003. I moved because I had met my now-husband on a cruise somewhere in the Caribbean.

I moved here six months after I met him, and I only waited that long because I wanted to finish the school year. Looking back on it, that was actually pretty crazy - but it worked out. I've now been here for ten years.

Did you have any reservations about the move?

I dreaded having to learn another new language, but it went pretty fast and I was old enough not to care too much about looking and sounding silly, which helped. I didn't know a thing about dialects before I moved here, but in Trieste most people speak dialect first and Italian as a second language, so I just learned both. Knowing Triestino made me a lot of friends, actually.

I'd advise expats to learn the language as fast as you can. Memorizing a few expressions in the local dialect will make you feel less foreign and people will be really flattered that you took the time to do it.

Is there much of an expat community in Trieste?

Yes. Trieste has a large community of expats working in the various researh institutions here, there is an international school that brings in new teachers every year, and there are others still who come here to retire, especially people with ties to Trieste (families that left Trieste after the war, for example). Lately a lot of foreigners have started coming to Trieste for work as well, at the two large insurance companies located here.

I've noticed that a lot of seasoned expats avoid the newcomers because they complain too much. Rather than look at the dark side, it's important to see what the long-term expats are smiling about and imitate them. I studied the ones who had been here 20 years or more for insight.

Trieste isn't very well-known to most tourists compared to the likes of Florence and Milan. What are its main selling points?

One of Trieste's selling points is the fact that it is not Florence or Milan! It is relatively "un-touristy" and for the finicky traveller who has seen the more famous cities, it is a nice change.

That being said, Trieste doesn't necessarily do much to encourage tourism either. Major exhibitions rarely offer materials or translations in English, and finding a bathroom can be a problem (hint: any place that seats customers to drink or eat is legally required to have one!), but it is a nice place to visit because it is very walkable, it is on the Adriatic, and it has a very cosmopolitan feel for a city of 220,000 people.

Another  great selling point for Trieste is its proximity to Slovenia and Venice. The train to Venice takes an hour and a half and is cheap, and Trieste's rents are about a third of Venice prices.

Have you noticed many differences from the rest of Italy, as it's so close to the border?

Near the border, street signs are written in Slovenian in addition to Italian. For me, the dual culture (Slovenian/Italian) is one of the richest parts of living here. I enrolled my three-year-old daughter in a Slovenian pre-school. I can't believe how lucky she is to already have a Latin, Germanic, and Slavic language under her belt. 

What is your job in Trieste?

In ten years I have had a few chances to reinvent myself. I started out as an English language teacher and translator, and have also worked in communications, marketing and editing.

I partnered up with a friend and started doing international communications for small and medium-sized companies. My partner is part Slovenian and part Italian, so between the two of us we offer clients a unique perspective.

I am also the director of the Italian American Association of Friuli Venezia Giulia, which is a non-profit organisation that was set up 52 years ago by Americans when they were in Trieste after the war. It is a library and language school, recognized by the American Embassy in Rome and the Consulate in Milan.

So you've not had problems navigating the Italian business world? 

No place in the world is this easy to open a business. Find a niche and go for it. I am the only expat I know who feels this way, though! Perhaps it is because the pain of working in hierarchical businesses, where I was always lowest on the ladder, was so much worse for me.

During your time there, have you picked up any 'survival tips' for life in Italy you'd pass on to other foreigners planning to make the move?

Story continues below…

Bring American vanilla with you as it is the one thing that is hard to duplicate with substitutes.

Other than that, don't be afraid of paying taxes. The important thing is that you can get healthcare here easily.

And pick up your old hobbies again when you get here. Joining clubs is how people make friends here, not so much through work.

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This article was first published in December 2013.

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