Danette St.Onge (Florence)

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.

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ID Card: Danette St.Onge, freelance web designer/translator from California, in Italy for almost two years.
Hobbies: painting, drawing, knitting, writing, cooking
My personal website: www.danettestonge.com

Currently living in: Florence

By way of: I’m from California and have also lived in Massachusetts and Bangkok, Thailand.

How (or why) did you get here from there?
One of my Thai aunts is married to an Italian, and my family visited them in Velletri (near Rome) for the first time when I was about 13. I fell in love at first sight and from that time I’d always dreamed of living here one day.
After studying Italian in San Francisco for nearly two years, I applied for and received a scholarship to study at a language school in Florence. At the end of the month I decided I wanted to stay and so began searching for a job. My experience, the help of a lot of friends, and some good luck helped me land a job redesigning the web site of the Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza.

What role did language skills play in your experience?
A very important role – studying the language was what brought me here in the first place and without an advanced knowledge of Italian I never would have been able to find the job that I did or battle my way through the hellish bureaucratic system alone.
I really think you’d miss out on a great part of the cultural experience by living in a country and never bothering to learn the language, at the very least at a conversational level. I have some friends who have been here just as long as I have but still don’t speak a word. It’s sad.

Your biggest challenge:
Everything has been difficult, I literally dismantled my life and left everything to come here without any security or assurances. But especially being an American in Florence, which is, as a Florentine friend put it “plagued” by American students and tourists, and especially during this time when Italians are very against the U.S.’s political actions, it’s been hard to get taken seriously by a lot of Italians who might see me at first as just another ugly American “passing through”. The fact that I speak Italian and that I don’t get drunk and vomit in the streets helps.

What did you do to feel at home or adapt here?
I made sure in the beginning to live with Italians and interact almost exclusively with Italians, read only in Italian, etc., in order to accelerate my learning through “full immersion”.
I also was willing to be flexible, I had to change a lot of my ideas and opinions and give up a lot of things I’d been really adamant about before. (Example: smoking – in California you can be horrified if someone lights up in a restaurant but here everyone smokes, everywhere, all the time, so secondhand smoke is something you just have to deal with.)

Compare an aspect of your town (or other place you’ve lived) to current town:
Unfortunately the cost of living in Florence is pretty comparable (if not higher than) that in San Francisco, although salaries are much lower.
As for transportation, I love the fact that I can walk everywhere. The traffic in SF was absolute torture and played a large part in my decision to leave. Parking a car in both SF and Florence is impossible but luckily I’ve never had to try it here.
Finding an apt Florence was extremely difficult since so many people here make their living by ripping off foreigners. It took me the better part of a year to finally find my current place, which I love. However the hard part is just finding the apartment. It’s not like in SF, where you need to battle other apartment seekers and then provide credit ratings, interviews, references, bank statements, blood samples, etc., in order to “win” the place.
Finding a job in SF is very hard but finding a legitimate job in Florence is nearly impossible. I am the only one of all of the Americans that I know here who works legally. Even an “al nero” job is tough.

Latest pursuits:
I’ve recently started doing a lot of freelance translation work, which I really enjoy and which pays pretty well.
In my practically non-existent “free time” I really want to try to finish enough paintings to have a show here.

A preconceived notion about Italians/Italy that is not true:
I think in the U.S. we have this old-fashioned notion of Italians having huge families. It is true that Italians, especially the men, are very connected to their families (read: mothers), and that they tend to live with their parents well into their thirties. But few people get married these days and even fewer have children. The Italian population is declining – Italy has the lowest birth rate in Europe and one of the lowest in the world. Oddly enough, however, Italians really do adore children.

A preconceived notion about Italians/Italy that is true:
I’m sorry to say that so far most of my Italian friends haven’t done much to disprove the widespread notion that they (particularly the men) are unfaithful. Cheating in relationships is often not only tolerated, but almost expected. Certainly not everyone is unfaithful, but infidelity seems much more prevalent. Of course this is just based on my own experiences and those of my friends. Maybe it’s just Florence.

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?”
Above all it is important to realize that living in Italy is not at all the same thing as a vacation or study abroad experience here. Italy is a beautiful country, with fabulous food and people who really know how to enjoy life. But unless you are lucky enough to be independently wealthy and have no need to work, you need to keep in mind that living in another country is not at all that different than living where you are – you’ll have to work, a lot, in order to survive. And living in Italy is frankly difficult. Nothing is organized, efficient or convenient, costs are high and salaries are low.

My best advice is to be sure that you’re really committed and don’t have delusions of an extended European vacation, and definitely make an effort to learn the language first.


How would you sum up your Italian experience in a word (and why)?

Growth. Above all my experiences here have really helped me change and grow as a person, and I feel much stronger in spite of all the difficulties.

Italy’s best-kept secret?
Bresaola (sliced of cured beef) – not many people know about this but it’s so much better (and less fatty) than prosciutto.