How to step outside your comfort zone, embrace your new surroundings and make the most of your time living in Rome.
In January 2019 I began my expat journey and made Rome my new home away from home. Being American and an advocate for personal networking, I was fortunate enough to connect with a vast group of fellow Americans and other internationals upon arrival, many of whom have developed into great relationships. Here in Rome, I have friends. I love my friends, but after a few moments, I realized I didn’t really have Italian friends. I was living in Rome, the capital of Italy, the center of the world, one would say. I was surrounded by Italians every single day, in my building, at the park, on the bus, at the bar, and yet I didn’t have friendships with Italians. Nearly a year-and-a-half had gone by, how did this happen? What was I doing wrong?
After coming to terms with the fact that making friends in your 20s, or regardless of age, is not an easy task at hand, let alone living in a foreign country, I knew I couldn’t be the only one feeling this way. I decided to embark on an adventure: go around Rome, find friends, acquaintances, and even strangers to ask them their biggest advice, warnings, and observations they have for us expats longing for these deep, meaningful, and life-long connections.
Here are 4 areas I found to consider on your Italian friendship journey.
RID YOURSELF OF EXPECTATIONS
One of the biggest, and maybe hardest, things to do is rid yourself of expectations. On daily outings throughout the city, we expats observe groups of friends enjoying a delightful al fresco lunch, sipping on spritz to catch up from a busy day, lounging at the beach amid the summer heat, or sharing the morning ritual of a coffee and cornetto.
Undoubtedly, being an expat can be lonely at times, so it’s no surprise that chatter and laughter echoing throughout the streets could make me somewhat envious. It seemed to me like the circle of Italian friends in Rome had been closed off, so how on earth would it be possible to break these circles?
“That’s the thing”, says a 29-year-old Roman born and bred, “You don’t just break the circle, you try to blend with it. Somebody will always be a bit of an outsider in a circle of friends who have known each other for 10 or 15 years.” Leaving that feeling behind is probably best — realizing you won’t be like them and accepting it. In other words, he says, “If you want to make friends with Italians, you’ll make them but you can’t expect the same feeling from two people knowing each other since elementary school. It won’t happen overnight.”
It’s exactly that, friendship doesn’t happen overnight. It’s like learning to ride a bike, at first it may take a few times here and there, but eventually, it’ll come naturally. Therefore, you cannot expect to have a best friend after one outing. Stop comparing yourself to what others already have established and instead look at it as one step headed in the right direction.
Work & Study in Rome
BE OPEN FOR CONVERSATIONS
I had been advised that Italy is very street-oriented, Rome in particular. In day-to-day life, it’s not uncommon to see people stopping to talk to strangers. Italians love to chat and create conversations, after all. When they cross paths, while taking a coffee, waiting for the subway, standing in line, you name it. When there’s a moment of silence, there is something to be said. “There’s not a proper way to approach someone here, you just do it,” warns a 31-year-old Roman photographer & videographer.
“But I have been warned that integrating into a group of close-knit Romans can be extremely daunting, or close to impossible,” I say to him. When I was just a naively new and fresh face in the city, a close friend of mine once said: “making friends with Italians is easy, the real challenge is making friends with Romans.”
“No way!” he shouts with surprise. “Romans are hectic, widely open, and intense people, and it’s extremely easy to make the connection and join a group or a situation without formalities. But real deep friendship, it’s like family for a Roman, so that will take time.”
Eventually learning, maybe even the hard way, that small conversations can go a long way it became more natural to open up. So whether it be in a piazza or at a gelateria, say a simple hello to someone and ask them how their day is. You never know where those hellos will lead you.
Moving to Rome
EXPLORE & GET INVOLVED
I always assumed a bar would be the perfect place to go to meet people but to my surprise, a close friend of mine quickly objected. “People here don’t go to intimate bars to befriend. We go to bars with already friends.” She continues “To meet local people, it’s probably better to go out to some open spaces, like in Trastevere, Piazza Bologna, San Lorenzo, where a lot of people like to hang out and socialize. Italians are very open, you shouldn’t be afraid to spark conversation with others. If you don’t try, you’ll never know.”
However, if you are someone like me who is a bit reserved at first, try finding some local activities you enjoy, painting classes, cooking classes, a group exercise class, or volunteer work. These are good ways, in general, to socialize, also for when you travel outside of Rome.
Aside from exploring, I found becoming a native in your neighborhood is a simple plan of action that can reap many benefits.
“Exactly!” a 32-year-old Italian-American fashion entrepreneur yells in agreement. “I would try to find local spots in your neighborhood or a neighborhood you enjoy being in, and start to appear more than once. Here in Rome, we like to go to the same place a lot because it becomes friendly — going to the same bar for coffee, the same market for groceries, walking on the same streets. Before you know it, you’ll have 3 or 4 people saying hi. It’s all about making connections here in Rome.”
ADAPT TO THE CULTURE & LIFESTYLE
Embracing Italian culture in Rome is more than just taking a cappuccino at the bar every morning, visiting the major attractions, or becoming well versed in Roman history. Instead for me, it’s observing how Italians interact or dress, their mannerisms, family dynamics, facial expressions, verbal and social cues, language, food, history, music, the list goes on.
Of course, embodying the Italian culture and lifestyle will not happen overnight, it could take a lifetime, after all. No matter how many years we expats have lived here, or how much effort we put into conforming, it will never be 100% perfect or 100% authentic, and that’s okay.
However, a 41-year-old Italian mother of three suggests starting here first: “Stop using your American lifestyle, or wherever you come from, here in Italy, so you can begin to adapt to the Italian lifestyle as best as you can. It’s important to open up your mind. Each day is an opportunity to notice something new we Italians do or say you didn’t happen to notice before. It can make your transition a lot smoother.”
Aside from observing, start to learn and speak Italian. Unequivocally, an easier said than done task. A language class is a traditional option to explore, but a 23-year-old Russian expat chose a different route.
“I think one of the best things to do in Rome is to live with a group of Italians when you arrive, which is what I did. In the beginning, it was a huge adjustment for me because I lacked confidence in my elementary-level Italian skills, and I never once lived in Italy. Flash forward one year later, I am surrounded by natives every single day. I now realize this is the best situation to be in. Not only will your language, cultural, and social skills improve, but there is a 90% chance you will find people to befriend, either your new roommates or their friends. It is the best of both worlds.”
Making friends shouldn’t feel so scary. Find inspiration and motivation to step outside your comfort zone, make Rome yours, and welcome each encounter with open arms.