Moved here from Britain in 2011 with her husband and two children- Emily who’s 5 and a half, and Edward who is almost 3. They live at Piazza Massimo d’Azeglio, near the synagogue in the city centre.
Why did you move to Florence?
We moved here because my husband was offered a position with GE (General Electric), whose oil and gas division is based here in Florence.
What is your background?
I always worked in brand management, working for food companies- usually products that aren’t actually good for you. When I left university I got my 1st job with McVities, a large biscuit company, in the UK. I brand managed Penguin chocolate bar.
I also worked for Pizza Hut, and my final job was with Ferrero (the chocolate company), so I had a lot of contact with Italians in the office and the Head of Ferrero UK was Italian. I had an introduction to the cultural differences and managing things Italian style! My Marketing Director used to say- “we’re having a meeting at 3 o’clock- that’s 3 o’clock British time, not Italian time”!!
Do you miss work, or do you enjoy being a full-time Mum?
I don’t miss it at all at the moment, because I’m so busy. Even though the children are at school all day, there are still a lot of things to do. I have my Italian lessons, I do a History of Art course, and then there’s a book-club. I know I’m incredibly lucky to have this opportunity and I am really enjoying my life, and feel very happy.
How do the children spend their weeks?
Emily is at school and Edward is at nursery- they both go to the Italian “Kindergarten”, which is on the same site (via San Gallo.)
What are your thoughts about the school?
We are really happy with it, because we thought being so young, it would be beneficial for them to learn another language straight away and that has been a success. It was a bit hard for Emily initially, because she was “Little Miss Chatterbox” at home, but when she arrived, no one else understood her. But with help from a teacher she and her brother both speak Italian pretty fluently.
Emily does tennis lessons after school and has other options that she could choose (eg dancing, German, football) It is helpful to know there are alternatives to the International School and the French trilingual School.
The lessons are in Italian, but they are trying to push English- so they are teaching far more than the public schools- at least an hour a day.
How difficult was the move? And what helped you settle in?
I haven’t been in this position before, and I hadn’t realised how isolating it could be as an ex-pat.
The Firenze Moms 4 Moms Network (FMs4FMs Network) site was such a help. SUCH a help! It was a resource for information, and I love the way you can ask any question and you get lots of answers. You might not agree with the answers, but it’s a start to find out where things are. For example, where do I find a dentist? Or (at the start) an English-speaking optician, ballet classes and so on.
The ex-pat community are really open and welcoming. I met one friend, just after we’d moved here. It was quite by chance – we were at the swimming pool, when it was really hot. We both heard we weren’t speaking Italian to our kids- so we got talking and now we’re friends. I like the way people are genuinely friendly.
When you think back to what you were expecting life to be like here, before moving, how have your expectations been met?
I had never been here before, but I knew it was a beautiful city. I’ve been happily surprised by how well we have settled in, and we are very happy here. I’ve found some green spaces, which I thought would be difficult, but if you look hard they are there!
Having children is a fantastic way to meet people. Before starting nursery, Edward was with me for a year, so we went to playgroups, and organised playdates, and met lots of people like that.
If you sit at home you’re not going to meet new people or make friends, so you just HAVE to find something you’re interested in or that the kids are interested in.
How have you found Florence as a city?
I still don’t have many Italian friends, apart from the Italian families whose children attend the same school. But ‘piano piano’ as the Italians might say!
How is your Italian?
I understand quite a lot, but my main problem is speaking, which is partly due to a lack of confidence, and partly a lack of practice, because most of time I am speaking English- when I socialise and with the children at home, and my husband’s English. I want to get better, but I’ve learnt not to worry. You can’t do everything at once.
I was fortunate to have private lessons through my husband’s company for the first year. I now go to a language school, which is quite fun because I have classes with a Mexican, a Korean, an Australian, an American, so I get to meet people I’d never have met before.
What is it about life in Italy, you like so much?
I love the fact I can walk or take the bus to get anywhere. I love the fact we can swim outside so much in the Summer. We go swimming every weekend, even in Winter- at Bellariva- where they do lessons.
I do think it’s amazing just to be surrounded by so much history and it’s so easy to get into places and seeing things up close. It’s not like being in a museum, just seeing things behind glass.
Here we can travel around to the hilltop villages outside Florence (like Volterra), or do a wine trip. We love exploring and climbing things to get great views. You can do that in Florence (eg the Duomo or Campanile) or go further afield to visit castles.
What is the single best aspect of your life here?
The health service is fantastic. I have Multiple Sclerosis and I have to see a neurologist sometimes. We recently changed my medicine, so I have to go for a type of transfusion once a month. I’ve found the neurologists very well informed, very professional, and I completely trust them. It can be harder not speaking Italian, and dealing with the nurses.
Overall you have to get to know the system. Once you understand how to make an appointment etc, it tends to be ok. You sometimes do need to ask for help though.
What about healthcare for the kids?
In UK they don’t give Hepatitis B jab, which they do here so we were informed that the children should have this. The paediatrician is good, very thorough. We’ve thankfully had no emergencies, and although both our children were born in London we are getting similar treatment.
You have said you might not be here in the long-term. Does that change the way you feel about living here?
Yes it does. I think it would be unusual if it didn’t. Then again, we don’t have a definite time when we will leave. My husband isn’t on a fixed contract – for 2 years for example. If he were we might do a few things differently.
At the moment we’re trying to explore around Italy quite a lot. We’ll certainly be here 3-4 years I think.
And the kid’s favourite aspect of Italian life?
It would be the gelato!
What do you recommend to do with kids?
The play area in Borgo Allegri, near Santa Croce is great. It shuts for lunch but is shady for the summer. I also like the Giardino Ortocoltura, north of piazza Liberta. Then there’s Santa Rosa park.
What would you advise any mother moving here?
Learn Italian. It makes life easier, and people appreciate it. Join the Facebook forum or the discussion forum for the FMFM.
What, if anything, do you miss most about UK?
I miss the fact, if there’s a problem, things get sorted out quite quickly. You don’t have to wait around. Customer service also tends to be better in UK.
We don’t have a good Indian really close to us, so we have to cook it ourselves. I like Baked Beans, Marmite, and ingredients for Thai cooking but you can find that all at Vivi Market.
What is your Facebook profile photo? When was it taken and why?
It was taken last Summer in the park, where I take our children, Piazza Massimo d’azeglio.
About the writer:
Kirsten Hills has been living and working in Florence since 2011, where she is a journalist and teacher. She has two children.