An American Expat’s Tuscan Story

Lots of people dream of moving to Italy for its lush scenery, wonderful food and delicious wine. We got in touch with Rachel Vermiglio Smith to get insider tips on what it’s like to move to Tuscany from America, and how you can prepare for a cross-country relocation.

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Rachel graduated in 2006 from University of Rhode Island with a degree in Italian Language and Literature. A study abroad semester in Florence ignited an intense passion for more than la bella lingua and she has since devoted her time to Italian life, art and culture. After a second degree in Art History from Marist College’s branch campus in Florence, Lorenzo de’Medici, she went on to graduate with an M.A. in Art History from Arizona State University. She’s lived full time in Italy ever since and enjoys helping other expats decode and enjoy their new life in il bel paese.

How did you end up in Tuscany?

As an Italian American, I had heard a lot about Italy growing up. Thanks to having an Italian grandfather and a big family proud of our heritage, I think it was sort of engrained in me from an early age to be fond of all things Italian. Italian was the first class I ever walked into as a college student, and my life changed forever. I couldn’t tell you exactly how or what it was about that class that changed the course of my life, but it did. I declared my major as Italian language and literature and spent the next four years absorbing Italian culture, food, wine, art and stories from my grandfather.

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Why did you choose the region?

Florence was where I studied abroad at 19 years old. I still remember the first time I saw the Duomo. It was the first time architecture, something man-made, had moved me to tears. I stared up at it until I was dizzy and it still never ceases to amaze me, even 11 years after I first saw it. I came here to Florence because part of my Italian degree required me to study in Italy and I was mulling over an art history minor at the time, but to be totally honest, at 19 I really didn’t have any idea what I was getting into. I later ended up getting my MA in art history, and Florence has always been my favourite city in Italy and muse for my studies and writing.

What was the biggest culture shock for you?

I think the biggest culture shock for me in Italy was just not knowing how to do anything. How do I sign up for Italian healthcare? How do I go to the doctor, or fill a prescription, or pay my gas bill? It was made harder by a language barrier but also that when I asked my Italian friends, they didn’t know how to explain it. For them, it had just been done for them, by their parents or grandparents and they really didn’t know the details of the processes. They also assumed everything was common knowledge, like, “what do you mean how do you pay the gas bill? You go to the tabacchi of course!” Oh, of course, the tabacchi! Eventually, I just had to piece it together myself but the anxiety leading up to figuring it out was definitely hard.

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How did you find meeting new people for the first year?

I am lucky because I really devoted my life to Italian, so I had a good handle on the language before I came. Of course, learning in the US is different than living in Italy and using it every day, but I was able to carry on basic conversations. For me, this made making friends easier.

How did you prepare for the language barrier?

I studied a lot, both in majoring in Italian and then continuing my studies by myself. I am still learning and studying now. I think I almost always will be, because just like English there are always new words, expressions and things to learn. It’s part of what makes living here fun!

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What would be the most important bit of advice that you could give someone moving from the US to Tuscany?

I would say learn the language as much as you can. It is very hard for expats who come here and can’t speak at all. I also think it’s harder to make friends and really enjoy the culture. If you come to a big city, like Florence, you don’t NEED Italian, but it will make your life richer. I know some people who have been here years and still barely speak the language, but when I talk to them, I realise their experiences are different to mine. I think speaking Italian is the only way you can really get into the heart and soul of the Tuscan people. I can’t recommend this step highly enough! Second would be to check the laws, get a visa or the required documentation. Don’t try to come here illegally, because Italy and Europe are really cracking down. The rules are strict and confusing, but it needs to be done in order to qualify for health care and get a job. If you need help, there are professional lawyers and immigration experts to hire, but definitely don’t just assume it will be fine once you’re here. It’s worth it to know and do everything ahead of time.

To follow Rachel’s Italian adventures, visit her on Instagram or Twitter @theitalianista or check out her new website: 

Readers can also take a look at the villas in and around Florence by visiting the Villas near Florence page.