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LIVING IN ITALY

From bureaucracy to bidets: The most perplexing things about life in Italy

After moving to Italy from the US, everyday life may bring plenty of small surprises. American Mark Hinshaw in the Le Marche region reflects on the most puzzling aspects and tells us how he and his wife are adjusting.

From bureaucracy to bidets: The most perplexing things about life in Italy
Brace yourself. But the paperwork isn't the only thing you'll have to get used to after moving to Italy. Photo by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash

After moving to Italy, we encountered a seemingly endless series of challenges that had to be overcome.

First, there was the language. We made a decent effort to learn the language with its complex variations and conjugations of verb tenses, the proper use of masculine/feminine nouns and pronouns, and plural forms of words. My wife, having younger and more copious brain cells, picked it up much faster; she is now fluent and can even participate in arguments over the phone. I look on in awe, trying to follow the rapid-fire repartee.

READ ALSO: 12 signs you’ve cracked the Italian language

Which brings up the next challenge, Italians speak fast. Very fast. I am often two sentences behind before I fully understand what is being said to me. There is an awkward pause of several seconds while my brain catches up in order to allow me to reply.

We frequently have to ask neighbors and friends to slow down – “Lentamente, per favore” – when they shift into fifth gear and launch into a long exposition. 

Then there is the challenge of the dialect. Oh my. The Duolingo program does not reveal that there are dozens of regional dialects. We discovered that many people in this village speak in the dialect.

As hard as we would listen, we could make out no understandable Italian. Most can certainly speak Italian, but they are used to employing their dialect in everyday situations. We sometimes say that Italian is the common “middle” language we share with locals. 

IN MAPS: A brief introduction to Italy’s many local dialects

Then there is the infamous bureaucracy – the burocrazia. There are four levels of government to deal with: national, regional (comparable to states), provincial (comparable to counties) and cities. Each has their own array of functions, officials, procedures, required documents, internet sites, records, and permits. And different ways of getting appointments and receiving notices of impending due dates.

Some use email, some texts, some regular mail. Some, nothing at all. They are also notorious for not returning emails. We are speculating that no one wants to have a paper trail, lest they mistakenly say something incorrect.

But the bureaucracy is not just in government. Its similarly complex and baffling with utility services, repair services, banks, clinics, pharmacies, and even in the purchase of appliances. We have slowly learned to keep every single scrap of paper we receive in labeled folders, as one never knows when someone will not provide a service unless you can produce a particular document first. 

And don’t even get me started on obtaining a driver’s license. American tales about experiences in a DMV pale by comparison. 

I could continue for many paragraphs with challenges, both old ones we have met and surmounted and ones that are ongoing. Living here takes considerable resolve and tons of patience. Nothing — and I mean nothing — moves quickly. If someone moves here expecting American-style customer service and efficiency, they will have a miserable life ahead.

On the other hand, Italian officials, whether in government or the private sector, are fiercely proud of their jobs and the authority that their job title represents. If they are treated with respect and deference, we have found most will be accommodating and helpful. It’s only when they encounter people displaying a sense of entitlement or arrogance that things can quickly go sideways (I’m looking at you, entitled Americans and Brits). Officials can make your life easier or they can easily make it a living hell. 

READ ALSO: The five most essential pieces of paperwork you’ll need when moving to Italy

But perhaps one of the greatest challenges I’ve personally encountered is not a linguistic or a social one, but rather a physical one. I am referring here to the bidet.

Now I consider myself reasonably well-traveled and worldly. But using a bidet has for some reason always eluded me. During many visits to Europe over the decades, the bathrooms in hotels and rental places always had one. But I would give them the side-eye. The shiny porcelain plumbing fixture would remain unused by me. 

I was, frankly, flummoxed. Weren’t they intended for the other gender? How would I approach one if I wanted to? And what is the…umm…proper protocol? I suppose I was embarrassed to be seen fumbling by using it incorrectly. I still recall my mother suddenly bursting into the bathroom during an inopportune moment as a teenager.  

Of course, its not very likely that one’s time spent in a domestic or hotel bathroom would be intruded upon by a stranger who would give out with a mocking laugh. Still, it was the fear of the unknown that prevented me from making an attempt. So the thing just sat there in the bathroom for years, with me occasionally contemplating, then dismissing, its use.

One of our cats figured out how to use it before I did. She spent considerable time, with her head cocked, watching us both use the toilet. Then one day, she jumped up on the bidet and did her business. I imagine she concluded that the larger bowl was for the bigger animals and the smaller one for the smaller animals. Of course, her occasional use is not exactly a dainty or discreet one. It requires one of the big animals to clean up the aftermath.

A couple of months ago I had enough of being reticent. I read a few tutorials available online, with their sometimes hilariously descriptive details. I followed the instructions and took on the adversary. My first reaction, after the maiden voyage was: “Oh my God, what took me so long?” 

Now, it seems, I could not live without it.

Mark Hinshaw is a retired city planner who moved to Le Marche with his wife two years ago. A former columnist for The Seattle Times, he contributes to journals, books and other publications.

Member comments

  1. This article is amazing as we moved here to Rieti in November 2021 and my wife and I were laughing through the entire article as we have experienced everything Mark mentions and have yet to slay the “bidet” dragon. Now one thing is for sure, everything is slow except for the drivers 🙂
    Thank you for the wonderfully hilarious article.

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LIVING IN ITALY

13 essential apps to make your life in Italy easier

From commuting to grocery shopping, mobile apps have made many of our daily tasks simpler. Here are some of the best apps to have on your phone if you live in Italy.

13 essential apps to make your life in Italy easier

Though some might not always fulfil their purpose, apps are essentially designed to make daily life easier and for those living in a foreign country any type of help, however big or small, is worth its weight in gold.

READ ALSO: Calendar: The transport strikes to expect in Italy this February

So, in no particular order, here are 13 apps that might prove essential for life in Italy. 

Moovit

Moovit is by far the best urban mobility app available in Italy.

From public transport to taxis and e-bikes, Moovit will give you travel options to get to your destination in the quickest possible time. 

The times where you’d need multiple apps to figure out the quickest way to get from A to B are long gone.

Enjoy

Public transport options aren’t always great in Italy, and you might find yourself looking for a car to hire on more than one occasion. 

If you live in Milan, Rome, Turin, Bologna or Florence, you’ll be able to do so via Enjoy.

Once you’ve uploaded your driving licence to the app, you’ll only need to locate the nearest car in your area and book it with a simple click. Parking at the end of your journey will be free of charge. 

Lime

If you’re not a fan of cars (or simply can’t stand traffic during peak hours), you’ll also have the option to hop on a bike and cycle your way through the city.

There are countless bike-sharing services across the country, but Lime is definitely one of the most reliable ones.

Prices vary depending on where you live, but they’re generally very affordable.

Free Now

Regular Uber services are not available in Italy, so you’ll have to turn to local taxis for a ride. 

Free Now will spare you a lot of traipsing around (and a lot of roadside waving) by allowing you to summon a taxi to your exact location and pay for your ride via the app.

Other apps, like appTaxi and itTaxi, are also available and some are more widely used in certain cities than others.

A taxi on an empty road in Rome, Italy

Free Now allows residents to quickly hail a taxi and pay for the ride via the app. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

Il Meteo

While it might not have the most creative of names – it literally means ‘the weather’ – Il Meteo is the best mobile app if you’re looking to keep up to date with weather conditions in your corner of the boot.

Aside from giving you ten-day forecasts, the app gives you updates on pollen levels, road traffic and earthquakes as well as live satellite images.

Satispay

Satispay is one hell of a time-saver when it comes to making small purchases at your local grocery store, especially if you don’t have Apple Pay or Google Pay set up on your phone.

The app is essentially an online wallet which allows you to pay by simply scanning a QR code at the relevant check-out machine. 

Other than that, it allows you to send money to your phone contacts and make a series of in-app payments, including phone top-ups and car tax payments.

The Fork

Booking a spot at a local restaurant can be a bit of a hassle at times, especially if your Italian is still così così

That’s where The Fork comes in. A couple of effortless taps on your screen and you’re booked. 

The Fork also gives you access to a number of generous discounts (as much as 50 percent in some cases) on your restaurant bill.

Glovo

If you’re craving a restaurant meal but don’t quite want to leave the comfort of your home, Glovo is one of the best options available in Italy.

Glovo services more than 450 towns and cities across Italy and their deliveries are usually bang on time. 

Aside from delivering food orders, the service will also bring anything from groceries to medicine to flowers right to your doorstep.

Giallo Zafferano

One of the best ways to tap into the bel paese’s unparalleled culinary tradition is by downloading the Giallo Zafferano (Saffron Yellow) app.

Giallo Zafferano stores over 4,000 recipes, many of which are accompanied by video tutorials, nutrition facts and historical notes.

Pizza-making in Naples, Italy

The Giallo Zafferano app allows users to tap into Italy’s world-famous culinary tradition. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP

The app will also allow you to share tips and photos of your creations with other users.

Subito

Subito is an online marketplace where you can buy or sell anything from cars to real estate to home furniture.

The app has over six million ads, but searching for items is surprisingly easy thanks to the filters and categories provided. 

Also, Subito allows you to post ads for free and chat with potential buyers (or sellers) directly within the app. 

Prezzi Benzina

Though they might not be as high as they were some months ago, fuel prices are still far from the norm and even small savings can make a big difference.

You can use Prezzi Benzina (Fuel Prices) to quickly locate the cheapest petrol station in your area and get the best available deal. 

READ ALSO: Where to find the cheapest fuel in Italy

All you have to do is select the type of fuel your vehicle runs on and enter your location. The app will do the rest. 

IO

Italian bureaucracy is notoriously tricky to navigate, but setting up the IO app on your phone will make things easier for you. 

IO allows you to message and exchange documents with any Italian public body, and gives you the option to pay for a number of public administration services from within the app.

Remember: you’ll need SPID (Public Digital Identity System) credentials or an Italian Electronic Identity Card (CIE) to access the service. 

MedInAction

MedInAction allows you to book an appointment with a qualified English-speaking doctor within 24 hours.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to make a doctor’s appointment in Italy 

However, the service isn’t cheap – prices for house calls start at 120 euros, whereas online consultations with a GP are available for 50 euros – and only the biggest Italian cities are covered.

Also, the app is only available on iOS devices.

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