Oh Solo Io, Travel

I’ve Started but I won’t Finish: Why I Bailed on my Italian Sabbatical

I’m an all or nothing kinda gal. If I commit to a task, no matter how arduous, I claw my way to the end. Only a handful of times have I not. Like when I started reading “Crime and Punishment” by chapter three I was so confused that I conceded defeat. Then that time I was determined to watch “Reservoir Dogs”, the tiresomely long conversation at the opening drove me to boredom…and the stop button. Petty things aside you get the picture! But alas my one year sabbatical in Florence now joins this list and it certainly wasn’t a minor moment to shrug off. Readers may remember my appraisal two months in to my year out in Florence (60 Days and 60 Nights) and now that I’m back I going to update you on the realities of Italian life, it may well just give you something to think about…

The Faff of Flat Hunting in Florence

 If only the mouthful was where the it ended.  I uphold that finding a place of residence in Florence is the number one turn off; it’s tiresome and tough. But zoning out into the surrounding suburbs brings you better odds. After a 10-week stint living in the chokehold of the centre at a rip-off price, I moved across the Arno to Gavinana, a peaceful, pretty South-Eastern suburb full of shops, boutiques and cafes. It’s well serviced by buses to the centre (about a 20 minute ride, 30 minutes to the station) and also within reach of Campo Di Marte station.

The rent, while still outside of the local rate, was the cheapest I’d paid. For 500€ a month – in cash- I landed a room in a two-bedroom flat shared with the landlord herself. Bills were included and the apartment was sparkling clean, had all the relevant appliances (not all do) and close to a gym and major supermarket/shopping complex in a very safe neighbourhood.  

I previously hammered home the point of having a contract and for avoiding payment in cash. But with time I’ve come to learn that in Italy doing things above board won’t get you far. My landlord wanted to strike an agreement without any paperwork and of course wanting rent in cash you can guess why.  But it is far cheaper than going through an agency- who are known the world over to swindle you senseless- which is the experience I had. So while the arrangement was dodgy, (I wasn’t saddled with shelling out for a deposit), I decided to give it a go and it panned out ok. But do make sure you get a receipt or keep a record of the rent you paid.

I previously hammered home the point of having a contract and for avoiding payment in cash. But with time I’ve come to learn that in Italy doing this above board won’t get you very far.

Bills, Bills, Bills

Energy: Energy in Italy is very expensive so to that end residents are hell bent on curbing the costs of utility bills. Come winter this presents a problem. Most apartment blocks are old where heating isn’t very efficient. Furthermore without adequate carpeting nor insulation the houses become an ice box. So the urge to turn on the heating is strong, and if you feel the cold as acutely as I do, VERY strong. My live-in landlord and I were in a battle of wills; she repeatedly opened the windows, told me not to put the heating on too high nor often which, given I was in the flat more than she was, felt a bit like torture. Whatever way you feel about it, invest in warm knitwear, blankets and a hot water bottle. As mentioned my rent included bills but if they aren’t factored into your rent, then expect between 70-100€ a month on top if not more especially in Winter.

Food: As you can expect restaurants in the centre of Florence can be pricey but in the suburbs you’ll spend less so another advantage of not being in the tourist trap. I tended to make meals at home with weekly groceries amounting to about 40€ a week.

Transport: Invest in a bicycle and you’re all set for moving around Florence. Otherwise a bus/tram pass works just as well. I bought a travel pass for 35 for a month. But make sure to start it from the first of the month because regardless of the day you buy it, your pass will elapse on the last day of that month. I discovered this when buying a monthly travel pass on the 9th of November and the guy said it would expire on the 30th November meaning I paid for 21 days of travel which is certainly not one month! Don’t ask me I still don’t get the logic.

Fitness: Joining a gym is one way to get your heart pumping, but for all the wrong reasons. Firstly the monthly fee is quite expensive, close to 100€ a month. Secondly as of 2017, you are required to obtain a medical certificate clearing you for exercise and most often you need to get an ECG (Electrocardiogram) to prove it. Not all surgeries provide this service but, quite conveniently, the gym I wanted to join, were very eager for me to hit up their in-house medical team for an extra 50€ on top to finally gain admission. Quite frankly this rigamarole felt like a money-making scheme especially for a 36-year old who’s in pretty fit condition. My advice is before departing for Italy, go and see your doctor and get them to certify you as fit and healthy in writing. Try and get the damn ECG while you’re at it, or get your GP to do a full medical and to document the results. Otherwise ensure your budget for gym membership includes this sneaky little add-on.

Want a Current Account in Italy? Don’t Bank on it!

Italy’s ways of working seem to revolve around a system of smoke and mirrors. So my ultimate advice is if you plan on going the distance with your stay, it’s worth getting a permesso di soggiorno and apply for residency. With this one document, you can unlock a lot of stubborn vaults in the beast that is Italy’s bureaucracy and that includes banking. 

In the interim a short-term solution might be one of the following:

1) As mentioned in my previous post the Monzo card is a God send. You can transfer money from your UK account for a small amount and use without incurring any conversion/commission fees. Recently tonnes of banks like Monzo that function this way have emerged such as Revolut and the N26 current account (which I used to pay my rent) which is headquartered in Germany and gives you more freedom within the Eurozone. Once in place, make international transfers via TransferWise and within a day the money reaches your account. Then head to your nearest ATM and withdraw.

Italy’s ways of working seems to revolve around a system of smoke and mirrors. So…if you plan on going the distance with your stay, it’s worth getting a permesso di soggiorno…(that will) unlock a lot of stubborn vaults in that beast that is Italy’s bureaucracy… 

2) A carte prepagata: A pre-paid card from the post office offers a less rigid system of banking with no fees and looser limits on transactions. To open one you need to head to the post office and present a valid passport, a codice fiscale (tax number) and an attestato di soggiorno from the Comune di Firenze confirming your right to stay in the country.

BEWARE: Obtaining an attestato di soggiorno is not a clear-cut process.  Upon the advice of the post office, I went to the Comune di Firenze and not one person had a clue what I was talking about. After seeing three different people they drew up a document comprising of two sentences and an official stamp. For 16€. In consternation I pay, return to the post office with all requisite information and present the document with excitement. “Non è valido” she says. Apparently it was not an “attestato di soggiorno” though it said I had the right to stay in Florence. I argued in Italian as best as I could but to no avail. I abandoned this option but by all means if you’re braver it’s worth a try.

Friendships and socialising

The friendliness I encountered on previous trips to Florence made me warm to the idea of living there. But I should have trusted my Lonely Planet travel guide that classed Florentines as a bit standoffish and closed minded. Yes on the surface Florentines are welcoming  but beyond that don’t expect to be their BFFs so easily. They tend to stick to their own friendship circle, which for the most part comprises of people they’ve grown up with. Despite there being a strong international presence in Florence I got the feeling its locals kept themselves separate. But it’s not just from expats. Italians from other parts of the country have remarked on the Florentine frostiness. While I was friends with some of the locals, I ended up hanging out more with Expats and Italians from other regions, who I met at weekly gatherings via Meetup.com- definitely recommend!   

Florentine Summer = Dead City Walking

That beautiful warm weather I was talking about was certainly in full sway. But the heat in summer is brutal as it gets up to 40C and is humid AF! Normally you often take refuge inside from the stifling heat but in August forget about it. Ferragosto is a national holiday on the 15th August. But being Italians they take full advantage of this time to close up shop and retreat to the coast or go on holiday- mainly to escape the swelter. And when they close up it’s not for a couple of days. It can be for up to three weeks solid. Restaurants are barred up, cafes are virtual ghost towns. Even my swimming pool was closed so I couldn’t cool off! I spent some time travelling but my budget only got me so far. So I warn you; have a plan for the Summer.

TRAVEL IDEAS

The beauty of Florence is that it’s close to a lot of regions in Italy. My blog All Roads Lead from Florence has some great ideas. But other places you might want to visit are:

  • Verona (about three hours by train) and close to the magnificent Lake Garda which was one of my highlights.
  •  Naples (three hours by train, option to take the freccia rossa – high speed service) a completely different kind of Italy: fun, chaotic, the best Margherita pizza for dirt cheap prices! Also close to the iconic Amalfi Coast.
  •  Umbria- Assisi (Two hours by train) a delightful town cushioned on a hill with a stunning basilica.

Before I go…

Jobs: A Tourism De Force

Forget a corporate 9-5 desk job in Florence, it’s just not geared that way. For that, look to the bigger cities such as Milan or Rome. But if you want to stick to Tuscany you could make a killing in its tourism industry. The season rarely ends, tourists flock from all corners of the world looking for history, good food and rustic charm. So you could get a job waitressing at its numerous bars and cafes or become a tour guide. Or for us Anglophones we could put our English to work and help out Italians themselves. Italy has one of the lowest levels of English proficiency in the Eurozone. Because American tourists are Florence’s number 1 client, its residents are desperate to improve their English to better serve their visitors. If you have a TEFL qualification send your CV to an language school or use Prontopro an online portal where you can advertise your services as a translator or English- language tutor.

Italy has one of the lowest levels of English proficiency in the Eurozone. Because American tourists are Florence’s number one client, its residents are desperate to sharpen up on their English to better serve their visitors.

But there is one other job where your English could be of use and takes zero effort to find. Thanks to the likes of Airbnb, Bookings.com and the like, there are a swathe of property owners and letting agents looking for helpers to do check-ins for their English-speaking guests. That is what I ended up doing. It doesn’t pay lots but in the high season you might end up earning enough to cover groceries, going out money etc. Join some Facebook groups (Foreigners living in Florence is pretty good) and advertise your services. You just have to be very punctual, patient (guests can arrive late or miss flights) organised and of course ever ready to help out and dish out travel tips. 

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All’s Well that Ends (almost) Well…  

Calling it a day in Florence was not a decision I took lightly; I invested so much- I took a year off my career for heavens’ sake – because I was so sure it was a town that suited me. Like London it was historical worldly and cultural. But unlike London the pace of life was deliciously slow, weather on the whole more pleasant and its limits manageable. But guess what? The Vita Bella has a Brutta side. Finding a home to settle in and making friends were the two deciding factors that made me realise perhaps Florence living wasn’t all that. Indeed upon my return I was exhausted but relieved to be home back in familiar territory and with familiar faces. A lot of people ask what I was searching for out there. The answer is not so tangible for me to express here. But quite succinctly I can say that amid the rat race in London, I just wanted to slow down, enjoy simple pleasures and breathe a little.  I did that for sure.      

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