5 Ways to Live Like a Local Abroad
Willa Griffin, Director of F1S Canada, who spent four months living in Italy with her husband, shares her insight and experience—from where they lived to where they traveled to why immersing yourself in the local culture is the best idea of all.
People often dream about living in another country for a period of time: An island in the Caribbean, a city in Southeast Asia, a villa in Spain. Earlier this year, Willa Griffin, Director of F1S Canada, and her husband, Mike, turned that dream into a reality when they spent a four-month stint living in Florence, Italy.
“I’ve always loved Italy and we chose Florence partly because of its size—it’s not too big and it’s not too small,” explains Willa, who typically calls Toronto home. “Plus, it is the birthplace of the Renaissance. To live in and amongst such history was also a huge draw. Florentines are proud of their city and I can see why.”
Here, Willa shares, in her own words, advice on living abroad, the things she learned along the way, and the intentional decisions they made that truly enhanced their experience.
Choose a great neighbor hood
Thanks to the recommendation of a friend who lives in Florence, we chose to rent a 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom apartment with a private terrace in the Oltrarno neighborhood of Florence, which is across the river from the Duomo, where many locals live. We also opted not to get a car and instead bought two bicycles. We would bike or walk wherever we could and for trips outside the city, we’d either take the train or rent a car. This was a great decision: We quickly learned that when you see a place by foot or bike you really find special spots that you might have otherwise missed. We knew we wanted to truly integrate ourselves into Italian life, and this neighborhood definitely helped us do just that—we created a routine for ourselves, cooked meals, and visited the local shops and markets, all of which made it feel like home.
Find social outlets
One of the best things we did in Florence was join a local tennis club, since we’re both avid tennis players. About a 10-minute bike ride or 30-minute walk from our apartment, the grounds were gorgeous, with courts surrounded by olive trees, as well as a fabulous restaurant and bar. Italians are very social and we met some of the most interesting people. Through this shared activity, we were able to develop relationships that didn’t focus on the “what do you do for a living”—I don’t think anyone asked me that in all my time there—but were based on true human connection, which was such a breath of fresh air. Not only were we able to do an activity we love, but we were again, able to immerse ourselves more deeply into life there. For others, it might not be tennis—maybe it’s something to do with art, or music, or other activity—but finding a social outlet is a great way to set some roots.
Visit local spots—again and again
Speaking of immersion, we, of course, visited the many amazing museums and sites. But we also made it a point to find spots we loved—and then return again and again. By going to our favorite restaurants on a regular basis, it allowed us to get to know the owners, so each time we went we were greeted by name. This gave us a sense of comfort and that we were part of the fabric of the community. It was the same with the tennis club. Or how we would spend evenings or weekend afternoons in the square in our neighborhood, Piazza Santo Spirito, where locals would gather for an Aperol Spritz. (Plus, right in the middle of the piazza is the last basilica designed by Brunelleschi and inside, a crucifix carved by Michelangelo when he was 18.) These relationships and experiences were so important to our overall experience—so much so that when it was time to leave Italy, we went and said our farewells to all of our favorite restaurant owners, too.
Get into a work groove
If you’re planning on working remotely while abroad, my best advice is to set up a regular routine. For us, that meant going by North American hours, where we’d start working around 2 or 3 pm and finish up around 11 pm or so. This gave us uninterrupted time on weekday mornings to go out—to the local butcher, for a bike ride, to a museum—have a nice lunch, and catch up on email, which made me feel prepared and ready for the day ahead. We definitely worked, but I also felt that this routine allowed me to work more efficiently, while also making the most of our days. Also, for me personally, being in Florence gave me the chance to spend a lot of time visiting some of the best hotels in the city and developing great relationships and friendships with the sales reps and managers there.
Be intentional about travel
When we first arrived in Florence, Mike and I made a pact that we’d only travel within Italy, and other than a quick business trip to Paris, we stuck to that plan. And I’m so glad we did because while it can be tempting to visit so much while in Europe—it all feels so close, after all—this gave us the chance to see all corners of the country on a deeper level. We spent weekends in the Tuscan winelands, doing Brunello tastings, riding e-bikes through the hillsides, and exploring the Tuscan coast. We went to Lake Como, where we visited Passalacqua Hotel, a magical property right on the lake, and stayed at a favorite, the Grand Hotel Tremezzo. We also spent a week in Puglia, biking through the olive groves, visiting local cheese and olive oil farms, and taking in all of the amazing Baroque architecture of Lecce. We had the chance to stay at Palazzo Maresgallo, which is like a living museum right in the heart of Lecce. In Sicily, we visited many incredible places, hiking and wine tasting in and around Mt. Etna, discovering the beauty of Noto, and then ending our trip at the new fabulous Rocco Forte property, Villa Igiea in Palermo. We also visited Milan a number of times while we were away. It is just a short train ride from Florence and we felt it has gone through such a transformation. It is so chic with amazing food and has some amazing new hotels, like the Park Hyatt Milan. There was so much to see and do in Italy itself, that it felt well worth it to “staycation” as a local would and take in everything the beautiful country has to offer.
Overall, I’d say that if your work and life circumstances allow, make the jump, make the move. You won’t regret it. I was truly blown away by our experience—and Mike and I have already booked the same apartment for two months in 2023!
If you’re thinking of a long-term stay abroad, F1S can help set everything up for you—from deciding where to go to handling all the logistics to offering tips and advice on how to immerse yourself in your new home and truly live like a local. Contact us at email@example.com to get started.