How to Fit in With Locals While Teaching English in Italy

by Tony White

Leave your cousin Vinny and Mario Kart game cartridges behind as you start your search for ESL jobs in Italy. Amidst brainstorming lesson ideas, getting TEFL certified online, and reviewing key Italian phrases, ESL/EFL teachers oftentimes overlook one eensy-weensy-tiny-little-detail before the big move: preparing your heart and mind for assimilation into a new, foreign (and delightfully pizza-stuffed) culture.

Canal in Italy

Lucky for you, the Olive Garden slogan is “When you’re here, you’re family” for a reason: Italians are extremely welcoming. While you may not find unlimited salad and bread sticks while working in Italy, you will find a warm, friendly, albeit sometimes loud, social order ripe for adoption.

Teaching English in Italy will be a rewarding experience, especially for those who actively integrate into their new community, regardless if it’s Rome, Florence, or a small town even geography nerds can’t pinpoint on a map. Here are some ways to acclimate to your new home, connect with the people, and ensure that your time teaching broad is all you hoped it would be.

1. Eating in Italy: More of an art, really...

Food is a passion in Italy that fringes on obsession. Knowing the intricacies and norms of Italian food culture will be one the best ways for you to integrate into society. Food is a crucial ingredient of Italian life (and who DOESN’T like the excuse of gaining cultural understanding by taking heaping seconds of spaghetti?).

The mantra is “Fresh, fresh, fresh”, because everyone likes their food al fresco (well, besides the Norwegians and the Swedes). Italian cuisines likewise have an emphasis on seasonal, regional produce sold between neighbors at local markets. The grocery store is for everything else, but only buy a few days worth of food at a time (say arrivederci to the days of overstocked refrigerators). In the name of freshness, it is perfectly normal to buy groceries at least two or three times a week.

Now that we have your produce squared away, time to focus on bread. Pick a local bakery you prefer and stick with it. They will remember what you like, throw in the occasional freebie, and maybe even put aside the last one of your favorite items. It’s also a lovely way to make the acquaintance of some locals.

Hardly anything is open on Sunday, except for a few restaurants. Smaller towns may feel deserted during this time, but homes are alive with big family meals and leisure time. If you live with a host family or are close with your students or fellow teachers, this is an ideal chance to experience first-hand the important role of food and family in Italian culture.

Italian Pizza

2. Know thy town.

Teaching abroad in Italy is more than just a long visit. Your life will be transformed for months and your daily routine will become a daily adventure. Research your the city your school is in prior to departure, including taking note of any major holidays, festivities, or events happening during your stay. No harm in prepping travel plans (we mean, uh, ESL lessons) in advance, after all!

Your co-workers, students, and students’ families will be invaluable sources of information about your new home and its happenin’s. The small class sizes common in Italy will allow you to develop close relationship with your fellow teachers and students.

There’s no easier way to turn the foreign to familiar than by traversing the town on foot. Rather than sticking your nose in the guidebook or having a map in your back pocket, consider spending your first few days intentionally wandering. The confidence and familiarity you will develop will help you avoid the “tourist” label, and the more awareness you gain of your new digs, the more and more it will feel like home.

3. Come on in, the culture is fine.

Culture shock isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, if you do have a mind-jarring moment in your new surroundings, than you are probably doing something right.

Teaching abroad is about immersing into a new place, opening up to its possibilities and just seeing what happens. It is one of the most exciting parts of living abroad and something that should be embraced.

The best part about culture shock is that once you’ve powered through its underbelly, you emerge more comfortable than ever. Rather than longing for home or focusing on the parts of your new life that are confusing, strange, or unappealing, you should instead embrace. This new found attitude makes for fertile ground for opening your heart to developing deep, meaningful friendships with the Italians you meet.

Having one local friend will lead to two which will lead to four which will lead to dozens! As you grow your friend group abroad, pay attention to subtle dynamics and cultural nuances that arise between the Italians. The more tuned in you are to the shades of their relationships, the better you will be at cultivating relationships of your own.

4.  Your watch is no good here.

Time moves slow in Italy (which can be a little difficult when trying to get your class to start on time); even so, taking it easy and getting in-step with the rhythm of daily life here will help you feel right at home. Allow yourself time to savor your espresso at the corner cafe, allow yourself time to listen intently to your students’ excuses for being late.

You can rub shoulders with friendly locals anytime you desire at the many Tabacchis around town. Adorned with a simple “T” sign, which stands for tobacco, these street level shops are hot spots for locals to gather, buy an afternoon pick-me-up, mingle for minutes or hours, and then go along their way. It’s a universal theme across the country to congregate at these shops, and there are few places better to immerse yourself in the local culture of the city than here.

5. Take a hike.

A favorite pastime of locals, spend your weekends out of the classroom appreciating the natural beauty of Italy. You can hike through the rolling hills of olive vineyards surrounding the town, rent a car and drive to a nearby sparkling lake, or, better yet, tag along with your new friends on their latest alpine adventure. The rustic villages and organic feel of this region bids you to look closer and connect with its people. Along with posh metropolitan cities intertwined with ancient ruins, the rural patchwork of Italy fills out the portrait of this fascinating country.

Locals’ favorite spots for a good dose of outdoor adventuring include the Vièl del Pan path in the Dolomites, Lake Como, Camogli to Portofino, and the Almafi coast.

6. Let’s get loud!

Truth be told, the rumors of Italians being loud and garrulous are rooted in actuality. Interruptions are a way of conversational life, and actually a signal that all parties are engaged and interested in the discussion at hand. This can be alarming to first time visitors to the Boot, particularly if your home country is built on a more polite conversational style. You don’t need to be as stoic as David, but you don’t need to necessarily be as loud as Luca Brasi, either. 

Acknowledge people. When you go into a shop or bar, say “Buon giorno!” or “Buona sera!” to the (wo)man behind the counter. Italians tend to be reserved in the beginning, but will quickly warm up (to the point of bear hugs and invitations to Capodanno dinner). Respect is an integral element of succeeding in casual relationships in Italy.

Capital Building in Rome, Italy

7. Italian: not just words, but also hand gestures.

You’re an English teacher, so you don’t necessarily need to speak Italian to accomplish your goals for moving to Italy. That being said, having a command of the Italian language will improve your life as an expat exponentially. It will open doors to more adventures, more friendships, and more independence. It will challenge your brain to work in new ways (and afford you more honest empathy toward your students’ struggles as they attempt to master English).

Italians can be expressive when talking. Hand gestures are a language all their own, and you’d be wise to know which ones are appropriate and which ones are frowned upon. Research in advance suitable body language in Italy, we wouldn’t want others to think you’re rude!

With these seven tips in your book bag, you’ll be able to not only succeed in the classroom as an ESL teacher in Italy, but you will also find your life beyond the school grounds happy, fulfilling, and meaningful as well.