Cindy Hayes, (Catania, Sicily)

First Person: real life in Italy

Each month we introduce you to someone who has made the dream of picking up and moving to the Bel Paese a reality.
In their own words they share the good parts, the bad parts and the just plain absurd moments of day-to-day life in Italy.

ID Card:
My name is Cindy Hayes; I am an American living in Italy. I am 48 years old, single and having a blast here!

I teach advanced levels of English to professionals and upper university students, which includes the American culture as well as the language.

I have a daughter that is in the US Navy, married and has just given me a beautiful new granddaughter. I have spent time exploring much of the world, including living in China for more than a year.

So I have a pretty good basis for my opinion of Italy! If any of you are planning to come to Italy, in particular Sicily, feel free to email me at:

Currently living in: I am living in Catania, Sicily. It is the largest city on the island and during normal business hours, there are upwards of a million people. It is not the capital but it is the center of commerce. We sit at the foot of Mount Etna, the volcano. The eruptions have stopped again as have the earthquakes, but even at their most active none of the activity was much of a threat to the city. There are small hamlets that were affected on the sides of the volcano, but the people take it all in stride. After all, what is the excitement of living on a volcano if not for a few tremors and lava flows in your back yard?

By way of:
I am from Nebraska, primarily the Lincoln area. I lived for several years in the western part of the state near the Wyoming border and worked for the Nebraska Department of Social Services for almost 20 years. I left Nebraska permanently in 1998 to travel and find myself. I have lived in Italy, Slovenia, China and Australia since that time with extended visits also in Guam where my daughter was stationed in the US Navy. My favorite places in Italy: Rome, Assisi, Venice, Sorrento and Ortigia, the tiny island part of Siracusa.

How (or why) did you get here from there?
I had always had this dream of living in Italy. Everyone told me I was crazy or they just laughed off my dream as something eccentric. For years I would watch my Italian movies and read of their history secretly. I have no Italian heritage, so really am not sure what the fascination is. I only know, that for as long as I can remember?.Italy has owned my dreams.

What role did language skills play in your experience?
None! I arrived in Rome several years ago speaking not a word of Italian!!! It is not difficult to get by in a foreign country if you are warm, sincere and willing to accept the fact that you are ignorant. Spoken language is such a small part of what any of us have to learn. The Italians are incredibly well educated, they speak several languages and most of them speak English at some level or other. But even in the spots of the interior where English is not so common, I was able to buy food, make accommodation arrangements, shop and visit any site I wished. Language is much more than words.

Your biggest challenge:
Without a doubt: bureaucracy! And not just the Italian; the American bureaucracy is just as inhibiting. Getting accurate information as to immigration and visas is almost impossible. The laws are evolving daily due to the European Union?s influence so it is often difficult to find someone that actually has current information AND knows how to implement it. The American Embassy in Rome is very nice, but the availability of information is generic at best. And the consulate office in Palermo is nonexistent?.they don?t even answer their phones!

What did you do to feel at home or adapt here?
I opened myself up to the possibility that perhaps my life up to the point I had entered Italy was only one form of reality. The values I had as an American living in the fast lane were not applicable in an ancient and culturally rich country. I learned to relax, set priorities based on smiling rather than dollars and most of all I listened and watched the people around me. Do I agree with everything they believe? No?..of course not. But I learned that there are many ways to perceive a thing, and that each of those perceptions can be a

(e.g. tricks for learning the language, getting along at work, securing a
supply of stain remover from home, joining an association.

I love this question?.it shows your heart! Tricks for learning the language?..hmm?.I guess the most important thing is just not take it too seriously. Be polite, sincere and warm. The difference in dialects can be intimidating, but if you listen to the rhythm and music of the language, somehow it just sort of grows inside you. The streets are the best place to learn to speak, every shop and street vendor is willing to give lessons in pronunciation and vocabulary. And if you need a translator, ask a child!

What do you still have to get used to/learn?
Siciliano! It is different from the Italian language and is so soft and sensual. I live in a neighborhood that used to be one of the most dangerous in Catania, but is now just ?quaint.? However, they all speak Sicilian rather than Italian. It is like living in what I imagine 1920?s Chicago would have been like. The culture is a bit different, but in no way is it inferior. It is rich in the very culture that has made Sicily such a survivor. They have been invaded by just about everyone in the world, and still maintained their cultural basis. It is exquisite

Compare an aspect (or aspects) of your home town (or other place you’ve
lived) to current town.
I can?t really compare living in Catania to living in Nebraska. It would be like comparing oranges and ladybugs! Food is much cheaper here. Housing is expensive in the city when compared to other places in Sicily, but not to the US. However, there is no way to prepare anyone for the traffic! It is terrible! And I have driven in China, Japan, London, Malta, Australia and even Los Angeles. Catania has streets that are several hundred years old. There is no plan or grid, because the city grew up around the foot of the volcano and shaped its streets to run around the hills and valleys reaching the sea. Someone along the way tried to organize things by setting up a system of one-way streets. However there seems to be no logic in the design that I can find. And you have to remember, they are only one-way if you are not a taxi or bus. For those elite vehicles, there are no really set rules. And then there are the scooters, and yes I have one too. There are rules for them, but no one really knows what they are!

Latest pursuits:
My latest pursuits include watching the geography of a land change before my very eyes due to lava flows, learning the intricate rules of dating in Catania versus the rules in the rest of Italy, finding the best discos and dancing places, trying to prioritize my favorite wines in my life, learning about Italian cheeses and the most important of all?.sitting on my terrace and looking at either the volcano?s plumes or the sailing boats on the sea. And I have lately discovered off roading Italian style. It is so civilized.

A preconceived notion about Italians/Italy that is not true:
That the men are aggressive testosteron-filled brutes! Yes, they appreciate women and love to look at us. But they are gentlemen and if you are not interested, they politely nod and offer other kinds of assistance. They do not mean offense by their frank looks, it is just one of the cultural norms here and should be accepted as such. I find the men here charming and sweet and have often had strangers ask me if I need assistance if they see me walking in the dark. Many a time, someone in the neighborhood has walked me to my door without saying a word. Just a smile and nod of their head when we part. I work until after nine most nights and so in the winter I often walk home, which is about two miles. When I enter the area near my home, I will hear voices in the darkness asking me if everything is OK. I never experienced that kind of protection circle anywhere else.

A preconceived notion about Italians/Italy that is true:
Customer service is a nonexistent concept in most places. They do not do anything in a hurry and rarely will you find a truly happy clerk. I get greeted by name and receive smiles and greetings now in many places, but it took time. The tourist places are of course more genial, but if you stray into the normal world here, you will often find shop clerks that act as if they are not pleased to make a sale! It is not true of course. It is just another facet of a culture that is different from ours. You have to be patient and remember that there is a huge difference in Italian time and American time. For example, if they say it takes ten minutes to walk some place, expect it to take at least 30. It is the same with service.

Your response to the following question: “I really want to live here, but I don’t speak Italian or have a job. What do you think?”
I would say to talk to some of us that have been here more than once and for an extended time. It depends on the intent, expectations, and preconceived ideas of the person wanting to come over here. If you are willing to admit that you will have to learn everything in a new way, then you will love it. But if you try to live here with your American values and attitudes, you will find yourself running into innumerable walls. Tolerance is not just a concept, it is a way of life.

How would you sum up your Italian experience in a word (and why)?
Love. I learned to love myself here, I learned to love my country (the USA) in a completely different way here in Italy, I learned to love those things about the world that were only concepts before coming here, and most of all I learned that it is possible to love a place completely.

Italy’s best kept secret (music, culture, food, way to get round things)
Intelligence! I am not sure how, but somehow much of the world looks at Italy as a nice quaint historical place from the movies and Roman epic poetry. The Italians are so broad minded in so many areas it is uncanny. They speak several languages, which is not only logical but necessary considering their location and level of commerce. They still learn ancient Greek, Latin and philosophy in their grade schools. The number of premium mathematicians, engineers, physicists and other scientists in this city alone is staggering. They debate political situations with extreme grace and passion and with a level of knowledge that I have never encountered anywhere else.