Judy Witts (Florence/Certaldo)

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: Cooking teacher (www.divinacucina.com) and Italian life coach is what I have put on my business card!
In Florence since 1984, organizing culinary programs, walking tours and wine tastings for one day or one week.
The life coach part started as a joke as so many of my ex-clients have moved here with my help.

Besides teaching and taking people on tours, I have a dining guide for Florence and Chianti. This satisfies my art desires since I do all the photos for the site and the research. I continue to study art here in Florence whenever I can and do marbleized paper, bookbinding and ceramics.

Currently living in:
Florence…when teaching and when off in my home in Certaldo, southwest of Florence, 14 kilometers from San Gimignano.

By way of:
I was born in Memphis Tennessee, but raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. I lived in San Francisco for 7 years before moving here in 1984.

How (or why) did you get here from there?
I had been to Europe several times ( four trips including one alone for 9 months) and had never been to Italy.
One of my roommates in SF had just returned from a year in France and one in Italy and said, “You’ll love Italy and Italy will love you.”
I was ready for a change in my life and decided to try it out. Spent a month in France before heading down into Italy, and planned on returning to France if I wasn’t happy here.
I was a pastry chef in a 5 star hotel and wanted to expand my cooking abilities. I knew French cuisine well, but only Italian American food which didn’t really thrill me.

What role did language skills play in your experience?
I did not speak Italian when I moved here, but took a month of lessons when I arrived and purposely stayed away from English speaking people to get a full immersion into the language and the culture.

Your biggest challenge:
Bureaucracy is probably the most stressful part of being in Italy. Americans have an inbred sense of doing things the “right way” which in Italy doesn’t always make it the right way, and surely not the easiest!
When I was trying to get my permesso di soggiorno and independent work permit it took me three years! Because the business I wanted to open didn’t exist, yet one of the prerequisites is you need to do something that an Italian doesn’t or can’t do: the perfect Catch 22.

What did you do to feel at home or adapt here?
I really tried hard to learn not only the language but to understand how the Florentines lived. Instead of insisting on trying to do things as I had in the States, learning a respect for the people and adapting to how they live makes it a lot easier. Not trying to do things the American way, changing my mind set and learning to take life slower.
Watching TV helped in learning the language, also reading magazines about food for me gave me a vocabulary so I could talk to people about what interested me.
Once I could eavesdrop, I knew I wasn’t alone anymore. Listening to people talk on the bus, gave me more language lessons that were useful in expressing myself like the locals.

What do you still have to get used to/learn?
After 20 years, Florence is home but I would really like to take some time to perfect my Italian. It is so much more important to me to just say what is on my mind, I speak quickly and I still make mistakes, but I don’t worry anymore.
Having lived through a house restoration here, I need to learn how to deal with the government red tape system, I got caught in it and almost didn’t survive.
Never again will I totally restore a house, only decorate!

Latest pursuits:
After teaching cooking for 15 years in Florence, I am moving my classes out to Chianti. I hope to spend more time writing, doing photography and hope to publish a cookbook I have been working on.

A preconceived notion about Italians/Italy that is not true:
When I have traveled in Mediterranean countries I always thought they were so chauvinistic, all you ever saw were the men hanging around the bars all day. Now I know it is because the wives have thrown them out of the house so they can clean and cook in peace!

A preconceived notion about Italians/Italy that is true:
Men love their mothers! Family comes first.
The whole family system here is different, where kids stay at home until they are married and often afterwards too. The parents seem to allow lots of freedom for the children and hence there is no need to move out so they can live as they wish! Whereas in America moving out is part of growing up, being independent, but perhaps also growing away from family.

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 don’t think it is as easy as it was when I came. Bring enough cash to support yourself, learn the language and jump in!
Be creative, perhaps what you to do for a living isn’t what you can do here, it is a great place to start a new life learn a new skill and recreate yourself.
If it is meant to be, it will happen.
I don’t think Italy is for everyone, for most it is a fabulous place to visit and to visit every year. But living here is much different than being on vacation.

How would you sum up your Italian experience in a word (and why)?
EXQUISITE… I have found a country where my passion, food, is one of the
focal points of family life and pleasure.
I studied art in college and then found food as a way to support myself, from waitressing to being a pastry chef to teaching cooking and organizing culinary tours in a country immersed in art and artists. I get it all!

Italy’s best kept secret (music, culture, food, way to get round things)
The untouched villages and towns off the beaten track. This year I went to Puglia, adored it, driving down from Florence was quite an experience.
Puglia was like Italy Greece and Mexico all in one.
Because Italy has only been united for such a short period of time, the difference in the regions in culture and cuisine are still quite incredible and fascinating.