I am absolutely and fitfully jealous of city expats.
They live charmed lives full of English cinemas, multiethnic restaurants and pretty good job opportunities. It mightn’t sound like much, but spend a couple of years living in Italy’s small country towns and even an undubbed screening of Twilight starts to look enticing.
I haven’t seen a movie at the cinemas in years, but that’s not what makes me green with envy. I wish we had half the sense of community and resources that city expats have. And I’m tired of turning down invitations to expat events in Florence three and a half hours away.
Admittedly, we’re not a hugely represented group. Maremman and country Tuscan expats are few and far between. There are three of us in my little town. I’m that strange Australian girl who wears funny tie-dyed pants. Then there’s the old English chap who no one likes because he keeps making snide remarks about just how much better things are in London. And then there’s the Scottish lady who I avoid like the plague because she keeps trying to convince me to become a Jehovah’s Witness.
And all I wanted was someone to have True Blood marathons with.
I get a lot of emails from expats asking about local communities and groups. It’s 101 in the expat handbook. Local friends are great, but sometimes you want to mix with your compatriots and, in my case, eat Vegemite without anyone pulling any faces.
I alone do not an expat community make, so I created a Facebook group in an effort to connect those of us living in the Maremma and country Tuscany. We’re scattered all over the region, but hopefully in enough time, we won’t feel so isolated… and maybe we’ll even organise a catch up or two over wine and cheese, just like those city expats are always seem to do!
You can check out the group at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/expatsinmaremma
Feel free to share stories, questions, advice and fascinating tidbits about life outside the big cities.
In the meantime, here a few of my tips for country expats and intrepid travellers looking to get a taste of local life alike.
GET OUT OF THE HOUSE
You definitely won’t make friends sitting at home. During my first couple of months in the Maremma, I interacted with exactly three people – my husband, my mother-in-law and my father-in-law. It’s enough to make anyone go stir crazy.
When expat friends are hard to come by, you have to rely on the locals. If you’re Italian is shaky, don’t worry, their English isn’t much better. What’s important is that you make the effort to been seen at the pubs and bars, have an aperitivo and get your face out there.
The Maremma is made up of small towns and villages. Assimilating is so much more important here than it is in the big cities. Even if you’re a seasoned expat, you’ll find it hard to make friends because these people have literally known each other for generations and they don’t take kindly to strangers.
If you want the locals to stop thinking of you as the crazy foreigner, you need to participate in small town life. That means buying a cornetto and coffee from the local bar once a week, shopping at the local clothing store and eating out at the same pizzeria. People need to know you exist before they can become your friends!
JOIN A CLUB OR THREE
One of the fastest ways to make friends is to join the local gym, sports club, art class, church group, choir or pro loco. Think of it as sneaking in through the back door.
That might sound like a terrible analogy, but it works. You can’t make friends with an entire town at once, but you can worm you way into a small group.
After all, all you need is one local friend to introduce you to their friends and suddenly you have a whole bunch of people to invite to your dinner parties and, in my case, a whole bunch of new Vegemite converts.
START AN ENGLISH LANGUAGE CLUB
We expats have one very valuable skill – English. Whether you want to teach it or share it freely is up to you, but it’s a commodity that no Italian town can do without.
When I first started teaching English, one of my students told me they didn’t even know I lived in Manciano. I was a bit crestfallen to hear that since I’d been living in the town for 5 years and was married to a local politician. I couldn’t have led a more public life!
Since then I’ve made plenty of new friends, across a whole range of age groups. If you’re confident in your skills, head to your nearest typography and print out a few flyers. Then paste them all around town and you’re sure to get some clients.
Otherwise team up with a local sports club or gym. Most have a space they’ll rent out to you for a few euros a week and they’ll give your fledging English business some much needed credibility, not to mention the small town connections you need to get it off the ground.
DON’T GIVE UP
My last tip is a little holistic, but important all the same. You won’t make friends in a week, month or sometimes even six months, but that’s no reason to give up.
Reach out to other expats you know and ask them for advice. It takes a lot of courage to make friends, especially if you don’t have kids – they are a sure fire way to mothers’ clubs and play dates.
Be persistent. It might feel stupid, but play on what makes you different. Some of the first local friends I made were people I invited over for a home cooked dinner of green curry and pavlova. A shared love of international food is a great stepping stone to friendship.
I’m always keen to share tips and help out local expats, so drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.