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LIVING IN ITALY

Six things foreigners should expect if they live in Rome

The eternal city attracts millions of tourists from around world every year. But what's it like to live there as a resident? Here are some of the things you can expect if you move to Rome from abroad.

Young women clink bottles of beer as they share an aperitif drink by the Colosseum monument in Rome on May 21, 2020,
Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

No one cares what you wear

Slobs rejoice: no one in this city cares how you dress. 

Many Romans wear a tracksuit or loungewear when moving through the city, and having lived here for several years, most of them time I do as them.

There’s a sizeable contingent of middle-aged Roman men for whom a navy windbreaker, almost always accompanied by sunglasses and a bald pate, is practically their uniform (making them look like bus ticket inspectors, whose uniform it actually is).

That doesn’t mean you can’t dress stylishly if you want, or that you won’t see plenty of well dressed people walking around, especially in the more fashionable neighbourhoods near the centre. But you’re not under pressure to dress up if you don’t feel like it.

Unlike some of Europe’s other metropolitan centres, Rome is refreshingly laid back when it comes to things like this – perhaps because the city’s so beautiful no one feels the need to compensate with their clothing.

Or what job you have

This lack of pretension extends to other aspects of life in Rome, too: dogs are allowed in most restaurants, as are small children; and while it’s not exactly taboo to ask people what they do for a living, it’s just not considered that important.

At one dinner with friends, the topic of what everyone did came up. “Io lavoro” (I work) was one person’s response – their assumption being that we were asking simply whether they had a job or were studying, as those are the two options available.

If you’ve lived in cities where the first question you get asked at a party is what you do, it can feel strangely liberating to live in a place that doesn’t care.

READ ALSO: ‘Why I used to hate living in Rome as a foreigner – and why I changed my mind’

The dark side of this coin is that the reason people don’t often want to talk about work because there are very few good jobs available in Rome. Many Romans who would like to stay in their home town are compelled to go abroad, or at least further north, in search of better career opportunities.

If you’re a foreigner who’s managing to make a decent living in Rome, then, you’re in the lucky minority.

Rome and Milan ranked among 'worst cities in the world' by foreign residents
People run along the River Tiber in Rome. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

Cash is often preferred

You can use your card at supermarket checkouts or to pay the bill at most restaurants in Rome, and you can sometimes pay by card at cafés and market stalls.

But for most smaller transactions, like paying for a €1.20 cappuccino, cash is expected; and you can anticipate a dirty look, a sigh, or even a flat out refusal if you attempt to pay such a small sum by card.

Just any old cash, though, won’t do – exact change or as close as you can get is what’s wanted, even in supermarkets.

The fact that cash machines in Italy are set up to primarily distribute €50 notes doesn’t help to harmonise the often tense relationship between customer and vendor (most of whom are not shy about making clear that they would rather be doing almost anything other than interacting with you).

All this to say that it will probably get there one day, but as things stand Rome is currently long way from becoming a cashless society.

Bad public transport and worse driving…

I’ll go out on a limb and say Rome’s metro system actually isn’t too bad. But if you need to take a bus or a tram you could be in for a very long wait, and there’s a statistically not insignificant chance it might catch fire with you on board.

As a pedestrian, you must also accept you occupy the bottom rung of the rusted ladder that is Rome’s urban transport network.

Corner junctions that require traffic lights to be safe instead have faded, poorly lit pedestrian crossings – if they have one at all.

READ ALSO: Rome ranked ‘among worst cities in Europe’ for road safety, traffic and pollution

When you arrive at a crossing, it’s by no means a given that cars will stop for you, so you have two options: stand by the side of the road trying to make eye contact with drivers until one is kind enough to let you cross; or shuffle slowly into the street in a high stakes, very one-sided game of chicken.

Make sure to warn your foreign friends who come to visit so they don’t give you a heart attack by launching themselves into the road without looking, narrowly avoiding being mown down.

Everything that changes in Italy from May 18th
People take their dog for an evening stroll in Rome. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

… But good long-distance train services

I can’t really give Rome credit for this, but as creaky and decrepit as the city’s local public transport services are, Italy’s long-distance train services are fast and reliable.

Although tickets aren’t cheap, a Frecciarossa fast train will get you from Rome to Florence in 90 minutes, or from Rome to Naples in an hour and a quarter. Milan, all the way up north, is just a three hour train ride away – doable as a long weekend trip.

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Even the slower regional train services are reasonably fast, and good value for money: currently you can get a hourly train to Bracciano lake, an hour outside the city, for €3.60 each way.

And if you drive, your options expand even further: you can be in Abruzzo’s rugged mountains to the East within a couple of hours of setting off, or on the Amalfi coast in three and a half. As travel bases go, Rome is a good one.

A distinctive food culture

Food in the Italian capital is cheap and good – so good that Rome was just crowned the best food city in the world in Tripadvisor’s 2022 Traveler’s Choice Awards.

Newcomers might be surprised when they find out what constitutes traditional Roman food, i.e. offal. Tripe, oxtail, liver and tongue are all items you can expect to find on the menu of an old-school Roman restaurant.

These days, however, most diners prefer tamer dishes, which are available in the form of spaghetti carbonara, pasta gricia (similar to carbonara but without egg), or the tomato-based amatriciana – all crowd-pleasing Roman specialties. There’s even an option for vegetarians: cacio e pepe, a kind of gourmet mac and cheese.

While Rome does have a world class food scene, it has nowhere near the variety of international cuisine on offer in a more cosmopolitan city like Milan. In spite of this, there are some good alternatives to the local staples if you know where to go.

Look for establishments (usually found in neighbourhoods outside of the city centre) that mainly serve local diaspora communities who want a taste of home. If there are parts of the menu written in a language you can’t understand, that’s always a good sign. Be respectful: these places will happily serve you, but they probably weren’t made with you in mind.

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MOVING TO ITALY

‘Why I ditched my UK corporate career for an abandoned Italian vineyard’

Many people dream of enjoying a slower pace of life in rural Italy after decades of the 9-5. But some make the leap much earlier. One former UK professional tells Silvia Marchetti how she swapped the London office grind for winemaking and never looked back.

‘Why I ditched my UK corporate career for an abandoned Italian vineyard’

At some point in life living the dream means abandoning one’s job, and this usually happens when people retire and think about what to do next. 

But one UK professional made the opposite choice: in her early 20s, she decided to ditch a promising career in the corporate and consultancy sector to move to deepest rural Italy and recover her ancestors’ long-lost vineyard. 

Scottish-Italian Sofia di Ciacca, with two degrees in law and history of art, worked for four years at KPMG in London and Edinburgh before she took the opportunity to do something different in life.

Her ancestors, who hailed from the tiny village of Picinisco in the province of Frosinone, Lazio, had migrated to Scotland decades ago. Every time she visited Italy as a child during the holidays, Sofia would feel the pull of her roots.

READ ALSO: ‘What we learned from moving to Italy and opening a B&B’

“I found myself presented with an opportunity very young, thanks to my family’s historical connection to the area, and thought: I either take time to build a career, or I can grab this chance,” she says.

“When you’re building a career, you already know what your trajectory will be: that you’ll be in an office here, and another office there. I realised I didn’t want that.”

At 23 she asked herself: why do later in life what I can do now? 

Sofia at work. Photo credit: Sofia Di Ciacca

This awareness took a while to develop, she says.

“As a child when I returned to Italy it was only as a holiday, not my day-to-day life. Imagine a young girl from Scotland, who had to learn about wine. I never thought about it when I was young.”

“Picinisco is so real, out of my comfort zone. That fascinated me”. 

Sofia, now 33, says she decided “to create something of value, that lasts in time and memory”.

Her family had started renovating old buildings in the area, and supported her career leap, but the wine business was something she was going to personally handle and dedicate years of sacrifice, study and hard work to building.

READ ALSO: ‘Do your homework’: An American’s guide to moving to Italy

Sofia had to learn from scratch, in a job that wasn’t quite like sitting in an office in front of a computer, and that required specific physical and social skills. 

She spent around four years studying the secrets of winemaking with Italian wine consultants in other parts of Italy, mainly on vineyards in Tuscany, where she learnt how to clean tanks, press grapes, plant vines, organise and run a canteen, and do the vendemmia (grape harvest). 

“I did traineeships, met experts, other international wine students, and all this helped me to grow,” she explains.

“The wine world is very complicated, you need to learn basic principles and engineering before you can even fathom how to start anything. Only once you learn, study, then you can have your own say, go see how local farmers work, understand how deep they plough the soil”.

Almost 10 years later, her winery now produces premium wines, honey and extra virgin olive oil. The wine is from an ancient grape variety grown in the area, called Maturano, of which production had been forsaken when local families migrated. 

She says it’s all a matter of gaining self-confidence built on hard graft, and it’s best to be honest and humble about things you don’t know, and are willing to be taught. Understanding the “rural respect for farmers” was key for her.

Sofia in the vineyard. Photo credit: Sofia Di Ciacca

One challenge was figuring out how to split her life between two countries: Scotland and Italy, and deciding where to locate the sales site, whether it was best to be in the cantina in Picinisco or marketing her products in Edinburgh. She says the balance is still not perfect.

But the toughest obstacle was tackling Italian bureaucracy. 

“I shed a lot of tears. The regulations hindered the business, like getting grants. You really need to follow the rules, understand the system, get the right people to advise you,” she says.

“But above all, stay honest. People will try to befriend you pretending to help, but it’s not worth it. As foreigners at the beginning you just don’t know how things work in Italy, you need to ask a lot of questions, and don’t be afraid to do that”. 

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Another feat was the practical side of wine-making itself, which requires a lot of physical work, from hand-picking the grapes in the organic vineyard to getting the winery in shape. 

“You need to get physically fit, and the machinery at first was really not for me,” Sofia says. 

“I wasn’t great at understanding how it worked but luckily I had the right people to teach me”. 

The first harvest came after years of tough vineyard revival. The six-hectare vineyard produces some 30,000 bottles a year, which have already won three international prizes. Alongside the premium white 100 percent Maturano wine, it also yields a sweet amber-coloured passito wine. 

Sofia with her children. Photo credit: Sofia Di Ciacca

“I’ve always been fascinated by grapes, passionate about how they turn into wine,” Sofia says. 

“Recovering the indigenous Maturano variety was a success, it grew well with the fertile soil and the climate. The grapes are left to do the talking, no yeasts are used.”

In the meantime, it’s become a family affair: Sofia got married – her husband, also Scottish-Italian, is a wine importer – and their two toddlers have now started taking part in the vendemmia.

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