My Italy student exchange: 4 things I wish I’d known


Two decades ago this month, I was on the plane on my way back to Canada after a year abroad on an Italy student exchange program with AFS. I’ve since spent five of the last 20 years living and working in Italy, and with each experience (as a nanny, a tour guide, a corporate expat), I learned a huge amount. But the learning could have been a little less painful that first year had I been able to give my 18-year old self some advice. Despite the fact that I likely would not have taken it, if I could go back in time, here are four things I would tell my young self before my student exchange to Italy.


1. People live in smaller spaces. You grew up in that big house with the big back yard and a bedroom all to yourself. Well guess what? Land is plentiful in the Canadian prairies, and the Milan apartment you’ll share with your host family costs 4 times that house and is a quarter of the size. You’ll need to be much neater, make do with less personal space, and respect how common areas are used. And you’ll need to get into the habit of using less electricity and less water.


2. Italians get angry and then they’re done. It may seem like your host family is angry with you all the time, but they really, truly are not. When they get angry, it does not represent pent-up anger they’ve been holding on to. And when they’re done, the anger is gone. Two seconds later, they are no longer angry. It’s a different way of expression, and will take some getting used to.   


3. Religion is important. You may think that religion is intellectually interesting, for the stories and the history and the culture, but don’t bring that up. Go to church with your host family and don’t assume their beliefs are flexible. Probably a topic of conversation to avoid for the first few months or unless they ask you directly (and then of course, be honest). 


4. Work on relationships, not your travel checklist. You’re young, and you’ll be back. There is so much to see in Italy, and if you get the opportunity to see some of it during your exchange year, that’s fantastic. But if your host family expects you to stay home and participate in family life, you need to do it. The relationships you build will allow you to come back again and again. In particular, spend time with your host mother in the kitchen. It will be worth every second.


Do any of these resonate with those of you who have lived in Italy or done a student exchange?

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Posted by on Jun 17, 2011 in Italian Culture, My Stories | 4 Comments


  1. Fraintesa
    June 17, 2011

    Yes, they do 🙂
    I’m Italian and this one sounds like a perfect picture of the situation. That’s why I often feel like I’m not the typical Italian: I grew up in a big house in the countryside, I’m spiteful and vindictive, and I’m an atheist. Guess what a hard life I’m having here! 😉
    (Btw, great post!)

  2. Madeline
    June 17, 2011

    Fraintesa (love the name of your blog!) thanks for your comment, it made me laugh. And no you don’t sound like the typical Italian – I could’ve used your perspective when I was an exchange student 🙂

  3. Bluegreen Kirk
    June 21, 2011

    I think what would get me the most is the living in the small corners. I am use to having people express themselves and prefer there way of handling anger. And religion is BIG!

  4. Madeline
    June 22, 2011

    BK – yes living in a small space was tough though I did adapt. I now prefer the Italian way of expression – what you see is what you get, fantastic. I feel like I could write 20 more posts about the religion part, except that I’d probably offend people. Suffice it to say that no matter what I’d read or learned didn’t prepare me for actually living it. Then it sunk in. As you say, it’s BIG, in capitals.


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