My Story - Cristina
Who am I you might ask. Well I am an American of Italian descent who has been living in Siena, Italy since 1994. I came over to take a break from my life in the restaurant business. At first I was planning on going to Udine to help a family as a type of au pair but it was really so I could learn how to make my favorite spirit Grappa at their distillery. About 3 weeks before I was supposed to leave, the family sent a fax (this was before the widespread use of email and websites) canceling everything because I didn't speak Italian. This was a huge problem because I already had the ticket, gave notice on my flat, sold most of my stuff, etc. Even though I had only planned on going for about a year, I prepared for more.
So here I was, ticket in hand but no where to go. Well the patriarch of the family suggested I go to language school. She helped by finding the University for Foreigners in Siena and she also spoke with the school about accommodations (and found an apartment to share with 2 other girls). I went to the Italian Consulate in San Francisco and they told me what I needed to get the visa and off I went. I called the school that evening (my time), had them fax me the application form and requirements and found out that they had space in their next class that was starting in 3 weeks. The next day I filled out the application form and found a certified translator for my official documents (my high school diploma and my birth certificate) that I was able to deal with via fax and phone. I received the documents within 3 days. I faxed the documents and the application to the school who sent me a fax the following day saying that I was accepted for the autumn semester. Yippee. Now, back to the consulate, acceptance letter, means of support documents, health insurance docs, passport all in hand with copies as needed. I filled out the request for a student visa and was told that I would need to come back the next day to see if it was approved or not. Well luckily it was as my flight was leaving in 2 weeks time. So I confirmed the apartment, took back my cable decoder, said goodbye to family and friends and off I went.
I arrived in Siena and was met by the landlord and my two apartment mates. I got the "contract" from the landlord (it was just a note on a piece of paper that said I was a tenant and had paid rent), my sheets and that was that.
The next day I explored and learned a very good first lesson, nothing is open on Sundays! The bar (which is what we would call a café in America) below our apartment was open so at least we had a place to have our meals. On Monday we all went to the school to take our entrance exam (just to see what level you are at in the language). We were given a bollettino (the bill for the school fees) to go pay at the post office. This was lesson number 2, you pay your bills at the post office. Once I had my receipt from the post office, I went back to the school. They then said I had to go to the questura with all paperwork and apply for a permesso di soggiorno. They would give me a receipt and I would need to take this receipt back to the school so that they knew all legalities had been taken care of. Don't worry about asking for help as the people who work in schools are used to it.
The Questura is a place that I hate going to because it is the most disorganized place I have ever been. They have improved since I first arrived but not by much. The way it works in Siena is like this, you get there at around 7 in the morning and put your name on a list. The list is numbered so you want to remember your number. They don't open until 8:30 so I would go get a cappuccino but make sure you get back before they open. Okay so you get back and you figure they will call the first couple of numbers. No they call the first 20 or so numbers and all these people with their families go pouring into a 10' x 10' room (try doing this when you are 8 months pregnant and with your first child, a 17 month old toddler, in a stroller). From here they call out the names in order. When you get to the window you give them all your documents and they give you a form to fill out. Once this is done, they take all the paperwork and your photos, sign the bottom of the form, tear it off and give it to you. This is your receipt. You will need to come back in around 30 days for the official document but the receipt is good enough for now. Some offices now work by appointment only. You need to make an appointment within the first 8 days of your arrival but the actual appointment could be 2 months away. Not to worry as long as you have an appointment.
Now that the paperwork part of my adventure had been taken care of, I could spend my time enjoying Siena and learning the language. After about a month I realized that I would need to get a job of some sort as my bedroom in my apartment while nice enough was expensive ($600) for what it was. I also didn't really enjoy the other two girls as they were much younger (I was 30 they were 19) and this was their first trip away from home. So I started checking out the notice board at school. It was always filled with notices for babysitters and tutors. Well I happened on a notice from 2 families (a brother and a sister) who owned a hotel in the city. They were offering room and board in exchange for a tutor for their 5 children. I went to interview and got the "job". The hotel was beautiful and the families were wonderful. They are still some of my best friends (3 of their children were my ring bearer and flower girls). So I lived there at the hotel and then later at one of their houses in an extra apartment for a year. After about 6 months I was starting to wonder if I should stay or go back. Since I wasn't making any money I was getting worried. Well the families offered me a job as a waitress in the hotel restaurant. I wasn't making a lot of money but it was enough since I still had room and board covered. During this time, I met my now husband. The rest, as they say. is history.
So you see, it can be done. I think the most important thing to do is learn all you can about your options. Talk to those who have done it and pay attention not only to the good parts but also the bad as they are just as important.
The old way of coming with the student visa has gotten much more difficult. Some consulates are now requiring enrollment in a home country university program to be eligible.
Cristina Fassio: Founder of Expats in Italy