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Rachel Gilbert, Lake Como, Italy

Who are you?

I’m Rachel, originally from the UK and now living on Lake Como in Italy. I’m a certified mindset & empowerment coach, specialising in helping expats get the most out of their experience abroad, increase their levels of confidence, and unlock their inner resilience and resourcefulness so they can thrive in their new environment. 

Where, when and why did you move abroad?

Ever since a French school exchange program introduced me to a brand-new culture and language, I wanted to experience living abroad. The perfect opportunity arrived many years later, in 2001, when my project at a major bank in London ended and I was offered a generous severance package. I was ready for a new adventure and felt like the timing was right. I’d been to Milan to visit a friend a couple of times and was impressed by its old-world elegance and energy. I knew this was the place for me and signed up immediately for a one-month Italian language course. Quite quickly I realised I wasn’t ready to leave, enjoying being a foreigner in a vibrant new city. Milan attracts many international businesses and within a couple of weeks I was offered a role in a direct marketing company. After more than 20 years in Milan I relocated to nearby Lake Como in search of cleaner air and to be closer to nature.

What challenges did you face during the move?

Moving abroad, while it sounds glamorous and exciting (which it absolutely can be), presents its fair share of challenges along the way. Speaking only a few words of Italian meant some serious communication challenges. At work, I struggled to join in conversations with colleagues, often forming a response or a question first in my head, but each time I wanted to speak the discussion had invariably moved on. I remember feeling different from everyone else and a little removed, like a spectator watching from the outside, not being truly part of the situation, and this felt quite lonely and isolating at times. 

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Fortunately, I worked in an office with Italian speakers who were very kind and helped me get a handle on a new culture and quickly learn Italian (this was way before smartphones and Google Translate). It was here I learned just how much our cultures differed and that there were new norms and rules to adhere to. I was often teased for committing one faux pas or another – perhaps not addressing someone in the polite form (something I had to get used to), daring to order a cappuccino after lunch (a crime I would be careful not to recommit), or saying something quite inappropriate by mistake, triggering much sniggering. In those early days there was a sensation of somehow losing my personality as I grappled with a new language and a different environment, away from a familiar setting and friends.

Having only been in Italy for a few months, I managed to break my arm. Not only a very painful experience physically, it made my lack of vocabulary patently obvious as I attempted to converse with hospital doctors – especially when it came to my knowledge, or lack, of medical and anatomical terms. Navigating the Italian bureaucracy – painful at the best of times even for Italians themselves – while not having full command of the language was definitely challenging and at times bewildering and frustrating. 

Did you need to obtain a visa, residency permit or work permit? What was the process like?

I was fortunate to have arrived long before Brexit so had the freedom to work and live anywhere in the EU. In those days, you simply needed to apply for a basic permit to stay. I later applied for a residence permit which gave me access to the Italian public healthcare and social security systems.

How does the cost of living compare with your previous country?

In general, I think the cost of living is slightly lower than in the UK. Accommodation can be pricey (both to rent and to buy) here in the north due to demand – especially in Milan where many move for work. However, I’m continually impressed by the quality and low cost of public transport compared with the UK and the excellent quality-to-price ratio for food, which makes eating out on a regular basis very popular.  

Is it easy to open and use an account with a local bank?

I found it relatively easy to open a bank account when I first arrived – although this was before internet banking gained momentum. It involved visiting the branch to pay in my salary and a lot of bureaucracy. Things have really improved over the years and the digital transformation has made everything so much easier. 

How did you find somewhere to live?

I was fortunate to find a beautiful turn-of-the-century apartment in a lively area of Milan through a London contact who knew the owner, and this would be my home for many years.

Are there many other expats in your area?

Both Milan and Como attract a large number of expats from all over the world. Como in particular has a vibrant international feel while still retaining a cosy, more intimate atmosphere. 

What is your relationship like with the locals?

The locals here in Como are rightly very proud of their beautiful lakeside city, their traditions, culture and of course their culinary heritage, and are always happy to share it with newcomers. I believe there is a good level of integration, with each open to learning from the other, making for a richer experience.

What do you dislike about your expat life?

Not having my family close by, something that was highlighted during the pandemic when travel was restricted. When you live for a long time overseas, I think there is a sense that you are floating between two worlds, feeling like a foreigner both when visiting your homeland as well as in your adopted country. 

What is the biggest cultural difference you have experienced between your new country and life back home?

Italians are much more expressive and tactile which feels warmer and more human. Here in Italy people are able to express themselves more freely (unlike the stiff upper lip that we are trained to have in the UK) and it’s not uncommon to witness heated debates in the workplace. Unlike in the UK, these are accepted, and no-one takes it personally, which seems healthier in the long run. Customer service seems to be an oxymoron here – it feels as if the customer is usually wrong and the bureaucracy feels insurmountable and frustrating at times. 

What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?

Build a network as soon as possible (even before you arrive, using social media) as connections are really valuable, not only for finding work and accommodation but as a way to gain important support, both practical and emotional. Join a local professional network or community of like-minded people, ideally attending in-person events when possible. Subscribe to expat pages on social networks where you can exchange useful information as well as share both the joys and challenges of being an expat in your adopted country. Learn at least a few words of the language before you arrive and invest in studying it after the move. Join language exchanges where you can begin to practise your new language in an informal, fun setting. Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, make friends with the locals, not only will you improve your language skills, but you’ll have a wonderful view into an exciting new culture and possibly cultivate some lasting friendships.

What are your plans for the future?

Continuing to build my expat coaching business and in 2024 I’m planning on running some VIP coaching days here on Lake Como for people to come and experience individual coaching while being immersed in a stunning setting and enjoying local culinary delights – the perfect place for a complete reset and to get revitalised and inspired.

You can find more information on Rachel’s expat coaching through her website.