Another foreign resident here in Italy recently related to me a tale of woe from one of her friends who was taken advantage of by a local contractor. She felt she was significantly overcharged for work done and wondered if others had similar experiences. Facebook expat groups are filled with stories of visitors and residents being ripped off, with the reader possibly inferring that this must be a common occurrence.
Obviously, it’s hazardous to make generalizations. Regions differ. Cities and towns differ. People differ. In any country or culture, one is going to encounter people who are scammers, petty thieves, or just plain dishonest.
For many hundreds of years, the Italian peninsula has been inundated by waves of tourists and newcomers from countries that are seen as wealthy. Indeed, it was a prime destination for men and women from aristocratic families on a continental Grand Tour. For the past six decades, young people from wealthier countries have been doing their own low-budget version of this rite of passage, with roving backpackers in shorts and hiking boots seen in every city, large and small.
Whenever newcomers are seen displaying money – paying for a coffee with a credit card, buying expensive watches or shoes, and eating in overpriced, tourist-oriented restaurants – someone is going to view them as easy pickings.
There is certainly no shortage of scams at all scales. There are the minor annoyances like the guys in Rome dressed as gladiators who are eager to take pictures with you, only to then insist upon ten euros for the privilege. There are also the listings online of houses that don’t reveal the extent of earthquake damage and want a top-drawer price. Warning: “Caveat emptor.”
Tourists are the easiest of marks. Thieves and scammers know they are likely to get away before being discovered. Or the victim won’t know how to find the police and report it. Or worse, the police will respond but with shrugged shoulders.
One episode in the Netflix series, Master of None, captured such an interchange beautifully: the carabinieri were more interested in a fragrant dish made by the thief’s mamma than in solving the crime.
But when someone chooses to live in an Italian town, the dynamic is different. Many Italians are used to foreigners coming during certain seasons to escape undesirable weather in their own country, then disappearing for months.
In our region locals even have a specific, mildly derisive word for such people: pendoli, like pendulums that swing back and forth. It took us a full year for our neighbors to be convinced that we were staying put.
One obvious problem that generates ill will and a suspicion of being cheated is being unfamiliar with different practices.
For example, it is not common for a contractor to clean up a work site once a project is completed, as part of the primary contract. This is common practice in the US, but in Italy, that is handled through another separate contract sometimes with another company. So if a foreigner is expecting the service and it doesn’t happen, he can feel that he was tricked into paying more.
Another problem, as I see it, is that many English speakers choose to only develop relationships with other English-speaking expats. Worse, some exhibit a sense of entitlement or even superiority toward service workers, bureaucrats, and shopkeepers. The word gets out fast, especially in small towns.
There’s also the fact that – almost unavoidably – foreigners are wealthier than locals. Having a second home in Italy is a sign of wealth. Certainly, a big holiday home with a large pool and gated entry is a dead give-away. Again, the word gets out fast, sometimes to criminals. We have a friend who went on vacation only to return to find his house in the country had been stripped of everything, including the heating system. The thieves pulled up with a big truck and went to town unimpeded.
It’s vitally important for newcomers to establish relationships with locals. Of course, that means learning the language. Not necessarily all the conjugations of verbs but enough to make social connections. On our little lane with a dozen houses, everyone looks after each other. It would be very difficult for a stranger to pull something off.
In our five years of living in this village of 1400 people, we have never felt that we were taken advantage of.
We know that we are perceived as the ‘wealthy Americans’ in town. We cannot avoid it. We live in a house that used to hold two big families. We have a panoramic view that everyone remarks on. We receive many packages, with delivery people asking shopkeepers and passersby where we live. They all know.
According to ISTAT, the medium income for Italian households is barely more than 30,000 euros per year. And that is very often with more than one person working. Accordingly, by Italian standards, we ARE wealthy, even though we do not consider ourselves to be. (In the US, our income would be considered close to poverty level in some places.) So, relatively wealthy Americans cannot help but stand out.
Although we have never been victimized (knock on wood), I have no doubt that foreign residents in other towns have been.
It may be more common in parts of Italy with seasonal hordes of tourists. Foreigners can be seen as easy marks, as they don’t understand the language and sometimes are careless when it comes to showing signs of wealth.
Some people seem to fall for scams. I once watched, from an upper-story window, tourists being repeatedly robbed of their money by a shell game.
It was like a bizarre theatrical performance, with shills planted in the audience who would ‘win’ their game. Within minutes, with lightning-fast shuffles, hundreds of euros were taken from unsuspecting players.
Unfortunately, as an expat, one can be both welcomed by some people and taken advantage of by others. But that’s happened to me in New York, San Francisco, and Chicago – places I know well in my own country. One cannot always be vigilant. Or paranoid.
Mark Hinshaw is a retired city planner living in Le Marche with his wife. A former columnist for The Seattle Times, he contributes to journals, books and other publications.