A Bittersweet Life in Rome, Italy with Tiffany Parks

Tiffany Parks

Episode Description

In this episode of the Expat Empire Podcast, we will be hearing from Tiffany Parks. Tiffany is an author, travel writer, podcaster, and tour guide. She has called Rome home since 2004, and her debut novel, LA Times bestseller Midnight in the Piazza, is a Middle Grade art mystery set in contemporary Rome, published by HarperCollins in 2018. Tiffany is the co-creator and co-host of The Bittersweet Life, a podcast that explores the rewards and challenges of the expat experience.

In this episode, you will learn:

  • How to go out into the world and achieve your teenage dreams
  • Tips for making friends, relationships, and raising a family in Rome
  • The truth about what it’s really like to live in the dream country of Italy
  • Why right now is the best time to move to Italy (and how you can do it!)

…and much more! You can find Tiffany on:

You can find the Bittersweet Life on:

Eli Hermit produced the music for this episode, please check him out on Bandcamp at elihermit.bandcamp.com/

Please leave us a review at ratethispodcast.com/expatempire.

Learn more about Expat Empire and schedule your free consulting call to plan your move abroad at expatempire.com!

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Episode Transcript


Welcome to the Expat Empire Podcast, the podcast where you can hear from expats around the world and learn how you can join them.

Hi everyone, thanks for joining us today for the 26th episode of the Expat Empire Podcast. 

Before we jump into today’s interview, I want to remind you that we at Expat Empire are offering free 30-minute consulting calls to anyone interested in moving abroad once the pandemic situation has settled. It’s never too soon to start planning for your next big life change! Whether you’re looking to make your first move abroad, transition into life as a digital nomad, or just want someone to talk to about your moving dreams, we’re ready to help you think about the next steps in your journey. Send us a message at expatempire.com and let us know your plans for 2021!

With that said, today we will be hearing from Tiffany Parks. Tiffany is an author, travel writer, podcaster, and tour guide. She has called Rome home since 2004, and her debut novel, LA Times bestseller Midnight in the Piazza, is a Middle Grade art mystery set in contemporary Rome, published by HarperCollins in 2018. Tiffany is the co-creator and co-host of The Bittersweet Life, a podcast that explores the rewards and challenges of the expat experience.

Without further ado, let’s start the conversation.


David McNeill: Hi, Tiffany thanks so much for joining us today for the Expat Empire Podcast.

Tiffany Parks: Oh, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

David McNeill: Awesome. It would be great to hear a bit about where you’re originally from, where around the world you’ve lived, and maybe even traveled so far, and where you’re living right now.

Tiffany Parks: I’m from right outside Seattle, and I lived there for my entire childhood. After that, I moved to Boston for university and then Montreal for graduate school. So, I guess you could consider Montreal being my first expat experience since technically it’s a different country, although pretty close to home. And I eventually moved to Rome in 2004 and I still live in Rome. I’ve been here for 16 years now and it’s pretty much home. I’ve only lived in those places, at least, more than a couple of months or so, but I have traveled pretty extensively.Specifically, I’ve traveled all over Europe, India, and Southeast Asia.

David McNeill: Okay, awesome. Yes, I definitely am very excited to hear more about your story, about being in Italy, but it would be good to get a sense first of where your interest in living abroad originally came from, and obviously you mentioned your first long-term experience was in Montreal for example, but then especially as you’ve spent so many of the last years in Rome, I would love to hear your development of an interest in living in the Italian cultural environment.

Tiffany Parks: Well, it’s kind of funny, but when I was 12 years old, I saw the film ‘A Room with a View’. I know it’s silly, but I can really date my obsession with Italy back to that movie. And I became obsessed with two things when I saw that movie, one was just Italy and wanting to travel to Italy and the other was opera. I already knew that I loved to sing, I had done acting lessons, dance lessons, music lessons, but when I heard — that was really my first real exposure to opera because there’s a couple of opera arias on the soundtrack of that film. And I became obsessed with it as an adolescent. I started studying classical music and I decided as a young kid that I wanted to be an opera singer. And so, I pursued that very doggedly and I went to the conservatory in Boston and in Montreal. I did eventually become sort of disillusioned with that career and I decided not to continue to pursue it, but what lasted and what did stick was the love of Italy, and I think by studying opera, I had an opportunity to also study the Italian language, and Italian culture, history.

And the more I studied it, the more I just fell in love with it. I started traveling to Italy as a teenager, and then eventually doing music programs there as a college student and it was always something that I said, eventually, I’m going to move to Italy. I also have some Italian ancestry, not really the right kind to have gotten Italian citizenship from. I’ve tried, believe me, but it wasn’t going to work for me based on certain dates and facts, but I nevertheless was convinced that I was eventually going to come here. And I finally got to a point in my life where I didn’t really have a career to speak of. I was single and I was not tied down by any homeownership or anything like that,and I didn’t have kids. And so, I said, you know what? This is the moment. If there was ever a moment, this is the moment. And so, I just went.

David McNeill: That’s amazing. I love that story. And particularly, I have to say it hits home for me on that idea of becoming infatuated with the country at 12 years old because that was Japan for me and I also started studying Japanese when I was 12. So, I can really draw a lot of similarity and connection to your story. That’s fantastic.

Tiffany Parks: I guess it’s a very impressionable age. It’s an age when you still have the wonder and the delight of childhood, but you also are starting to look forward to your future and to what that will bring. So, it’s kind of an amazing time.

David McNeill: Yes, definitely. And then as you said, very impressionable and a great time to get started on some of those passions and deep interests. So, when you decided to make the move then, what was your sort of original plan? And why did you decide on Rome in particular? Was there a rhyme or reason to that?Or just thinking, Hey, this is the city, let’s go there.

Tiffany Parks: It was partially that, the thought that there would be more opportunity in Rome and I do have some distant relatives who live over here in Rome and I had a relationship with them because I had stayed with them at least two or three times before for short periods. And so, they said,“You can stay with us while you look for an apartment” that was a nice sort of landing place to have. And Rome is not just the capital; it’s the center of all of the art and history. I guess you could consider Florence as well to be a hub for art, but I just felt like there was so much more going on in Rome.

David McNeill: And what was your plan when you first moved there? It sounds like that was your opportunity and you took it, but did you think through how you’d be making money, and getting your visa, or if those were concerns to you at the time?

Tiffany Parks:Well, I was certified as a yoga teacher, which is something that I had done shortly after graduating because I found that I wasn’t able to make money as an opera singer, as it happens to most. I didn’t really want to have an office job if I could avoid it. And so, I thought I learned to teach yoga, which I already had been studying yoga for many years and at least I’ll have a day job that I enjoy. And so, I was certified to teach yoga and I thought, well, I could try to teach yoga and if that doesn’t work out — usually in big international cities, you can usually find work if you’re a mother-tongue English speaker as an English teacher, although I was not trained to do that, but I thought that might be a backup plan. I really had very little plan. I did not have legal documents, I thought, okay, I’ll just sort of slip under the radar was my plan if you can call it that. And at that point, I didn’t think I knew yet that I couldn’t get my Italian citizenship.At that time, I thought it was still a viable possibility. And so, eventually, I’ll get my citizenship, somehow, I’ll figure it out. It was very much with a wink and a prayer type of thing. I was quite young and I didn’t have anyone else to support me. I was not averse to living paycheck to paycheck or living in a small place, sharing an apartment. So, I just figured I would make it work somehow.

David McNeill: Right. And did you end up doing the yoga teaching or did you –?

Tiffany Parks: I did. I did find work as a yoga teacher pretty much right from the beginning, although I made very little money because it was very sporadic work. So, I was sort of living off my savings with just a very small income. And about nine months after I moved to Rome, I started working in tourism. And so, that is when I finally was able to make a decent amount of money to live on.

David McNeill: Nice. So, I know that you’ve done a lot of tour guiding and things like that. Is that what you were doing at that time or did that develop later?

Tiffany Parks: Before I became a tour guide, I started working with a tour company as a promoter for tours,and so I was sort of more on the administrative sales side and I enjoyed doing that the first year or so, but I quickly realized that that wasn’t something that I wanted to do long-term and I thought it would be much more rewarding to be a tour guide. And so, I started studying pretty, almost right away, very shortly thereafter I started studying to be able to do tours. And about a year after, I started working in tourism. I started actually doing tours myself.

David McNeill: Okay, great. And were there any particular places that you really like to go and show people with all of your experience in all these years? Maybe not at the beginning, but now, what’s your favorite tour that you like to give?

Tiffany Parks: Oh, now, I love Trastevere. And I lived in Trastevere, which is a neighborhood in Rome on the opposite side of the river from sort of the main attractions and it’s very charming. There’s a lot of medieval architecture; there’s a lot of hidden gems, beautiful churches, a lot of just atmosphere and character. And I love giving tours there, but probably my favorite tour has got to be my Caravaggio tour because I’m obsessed with Caravaggio, and there are six Caravaggio paintings that you can see in Rome for free in churches. There are others in museums, but there are six that you can see anytime you want and have developed a tour that not only visits those six paintings but also goes into where he lived, where he worked, things that happened in his life. So, it sort of follows in his footsteps and that’s definitely the most fun tour to give.

David McNeill: Okay, awesome. And when you just first moved to Rome and of course you had visited before, it sounds like a number of times, but what was that experience like for you to actually be there and to be living there long-term?Was it kind of a cheek pinching, I can’t believe this is happening type moment, or where you sort of quickly got used to the city and things weren’t so impressive to you?

Tiffany Parks: Well, I think that I did from time to time have moments of, ‘I can’t believe I’m actually here’, but to be honest, the first year was a big struggle for me. I was very lonely. This is before Facebook, before expat groups, at least in Italy, there was really almost no way to meet other expats. Obviously, I wanted to meet locals too, but at that time, for me personally, at least, being a new expat, I felt the need for other expat friends, other people who were in the same boat, who knew what I was going through.

And I didn’t have that for the first several months. I really didn’t have any friends. I didn’t really know how to meet other expats. And so, I felt very isolated. I knew I wanted to be there and going back was not an option. I thought, well, at least I’m going to stay for a year, I’m not going to give up after two or three months.But I had recently had a breakup with someone I’d been with for many, many years,so there was a little bit of nostalgia for that. I wasn’t missing my family, really,not that I don’t adore my family, but I had already lived many years apart from my family by moving across the country.It was just missing the familiar, I suppose, and just not having a lot of friends and not really knowing one day to the next.I was also, moving from apartment to apartment, trying to find a good fit because this one was in a bad neighborhood and that one was bad roommates.

And so, there were a lot of challenges that first year, first nine months, I would say that I didn’t necessarily expect. I don’t want to say, I thought it was going to be all roses, but it was certainly much more challenging than I could have imagined. And when I eventually started working in tourism, that’s when everything sort of changed for me was because Aya was making enough money that I could actually live and be… more importantly than even that, was I met a whole bunch of people and I just suddenly had a social life and it just totally changed everything.From that moment, I never even considered going back.

David McNeill: Yes, that’s great. That’s a wonderful experience and I’ve been through that myself. There are definitely those early days of questioning. Was this the right choice? Do I really want to be here? Maybe that wasn’t the case in your situation, but definitely, that initial loneliness now thinking, am I going to make some good friends here like I did at home or in my last country? So, I can completely relate to that. And on the friends’ side, so did those friends become your core group? And I guess this was some years ago, but do you still keep up with those folks or how has your friend group evolved over that time?

Tiffany Parks: Well, the thing is, and this is probably true for most expats when you stay in a country for a long time, you’ll see people come and go. I feel like most expats don’t stay forever. That’s the sort of the definition of an expat is that – so almost a temporary thing. Otherwise, you’re an immigrant really. And so, a lot of my friends from back in 2005, 2006, they have moved either back home or moved to a different country, and so a lot of them, I still keep in touch with, but I don’t see regularly.

A few of them I do, though. And I don’t work in tourism anymore at least not regularly. I just don’t see a lot of those people anymore, simply because we don’t work together anymore, but I still have a few of those friends and now I feel like I have a much more diverse set of friends. I have more Italian friends now, obviously. And just friends who would do lots of different types of jobs. Whereas, the first couple of years, I only knew people who I worked with.

David McNeill: Sure. And making those Italian friends. Did you find that to be difficult or were they quite welcoming and including you? Even if it’s mainly an Italian crowd, how did you kind of make those local friends and keep those relationships strong?

Tiffany Parks: I have to tell you that my Italian friends are few and far between, and it was not easy to make Italian friends. I feel like most Italians live in the same town, their whole life. This is most not all. And a lot of them live in the same neighborhood their whole life. And so, they remained friends with their childhood friends their entire life. I have a sister-in-law who’s in her mid-thirties and her three best friends are her three best friends from elementary school. They’re still her three best friends. And that’s wonderful, but I do think sometimes when you have these long close friendships, you maybe don’t feel the need to have other friends. Maybe people, if you work with them, yes, you’ll become friends with them, but you don’t necessarily feel the need to go out and make new friends.

So, I think that could be part of the reason why it’s harder to make friends with the local because they already have their group of friends and they’re not out looking for new friends, but there always are exceptions and then there are always situations in which you might make a friend. I did an archeology course and I met an Italian girl and we are still friends. We’ve been friends for 10 years now. So, it does happen. It just, I would say it’s not necessarily easy.

David McNeill: Right. And to take the other side of that, now that you’ve been living there in Rome for so long, do you still find opportunities to make those new connections? Not necessarily just the locals, but also with maybe other expats as well, because at least in my experience, the longer that you live anywhere and you build those strong connections and friendships that you have, there’s not as much of necessarily a need or a drive to continue to make new friendships, which is a shame for new people coming in, right? I’ve been on the receiving end of that and the giving end as well,so I’m curious how you kind of look at developing those friendships now compared to just strengthening the ones that you already have.

Tiffany Parks: I’m a pretty social person and obviously right now, it’s not very easy because of the pandemic, but as you know, I have a podcast myself. So, I do get people, sometimes podcasts listeners who reach out to me and want to get together. And to be honest, sometimes I just don’t have time, sometimes I do. But usually, if I have time, I’m happy to meet up with new people and some friendships have been born that way and that has been really great. And the other place, honestly, it just comes to my head where I’ve met new friends recently is the parents of the other kids who go to my son’s school because we happen to see each other quite often. And so, that’s just, again, I don’t know if you could call it a friendship of convenience, but just someone that you see regularly, not necessarily someone that you have a true affinity with.Well, I mean, I’m always open to new people. I mean, definitely less, definitely not as much as before when I was new and when I was actively looking for friends and people to hang out with, but I’m still always open to new friends.

David McNeill: Right. And if people were to move to Rome today, or when things open up, of course, how would you recommend that they make friends today? I mean, of course, quite different indeed with the Facebook groups and everything that you talked about than when you moved there. But if you have any recommendations, we’d love to hear them.

Tiffany Parks: Yes. I think those groups are useful. I would have loved to have found an expat meetup group back when I first moved to Rome, because I think, like I said, when you’re new, it can be really comforting to meet someone who’s going through the same thing that you’re going through. But I think classes are a really, really great way to meet people. You think, okay, I should probably take an Italian class. Okay. That’s good. But you won’t meet any locals there, but you could meet other expats there maybe from other countries or you could just take any other type of class. And I think that’s a great way to meet people because you meet people who have the same interests as you and people who might be curious if you’re a curious person, you know that’s nice to meet people who have the same sort of outlook on life as you do.

David McNeill: Yes. And you mentioned language courses, for example. So, it sounds like you had studied some Italian before you moved there, but I’m curious how your Italian’s developed or how good it was, I guess initially, and how you’ve developed it over the years, and how long it took you to really get comfortable in that. I guess now you’re probably quite comfortable in an Italian-speaking environment.

Tiffany Parks: Yes. Even when I moved to Rome, I felt very comfortable with Italian. I didn’t study all that much, to be honest, I took one year in college, it was required for opera majors, but I never really took any other Italian classes, but I traveled to Italy regularly and I had these relatives who lived here. So, I had practice, in short, sort of intensive periods speaking with them. But Italian is a language that has always come easily to me and I never really could explain why, but sometimes I used to say I was an Italian in another life because it just felt natural. Whereas, when I lived in Montreal, speaking French was always something I struggled with and it did not come easily to me. So, if I had to say, I would say my Italian wasn’t as good as I thought it was when I first moved to Italy, and now my Italian is better than I think it is, if that makes sense. To me, I feel like I’m at the same level. I know that can’t possibly be true.

And I said to my husband, I said, sometimes I feel like my Italian is not getting any better. And he’s like, “No, it is getting better. It is getting better”. But I guess it’s incremental over so many years you don’t notice. But I feel that — I would say this when I first moved to Italy, I definitely could express myself and I could understand most things pretty well. Now, I’m at the level where I can speak in a nuanced way. I still make mistakes, of course, but I could speak with much more grammatical accuracy and I can use complex tenses so I can express things in a more nuanced way because of that. And I think I understand almost everything, but I mean, there are moments when I miss things and I have to say, what did you say? But being married to an Italian has definitely helped because we speak Italian almost exclusively together.

David McNeill: Oh, wow. Okay. That’s amazing.With my wife, who’s Japanese,we speak about 50/50. So, it’s great to hear that you’re fully immersed.

Tiffany Parks: Well, I would love to do 50/50. I think that’s actually wonderful. I speak English a lot more now that we have a child because I want him to hear me speaking pretty much only English. So, my husband understands me, but he’ll often just answer in Italian. So, I’m speaking English and he’s answering me in Italian, which I suppose that’s better than nothing.

David McNeill: Yes, I think that’s pretty good. If I could ask, how did you meet or how did that work, especially in a different cultural context? I mean, I’m no stranger to it, but yes, if you have any insights or maybe even advice from your experiences to share with the audience that would be great.

Tiffany Parks: I would say this, as hard as it is for a woman to make female friends, Italian female friends, it is extremely easy to meet Italian men. So, they have the opposite outlook towards foreigners. So yes, I mean most American women, not just American women, clearly, international women are not going to have a hard time being asked out on a date by an Italian. Although, of course, there’s a big difference between going on a date, clearly, and marrying someone. So, when it comes down to the actual relationship, maybe it’s all the same in the end. Although, I do think that in my experience because I dated a lot of different Italian men before I met my husband, I would say, and again, this isn’t a stereotype, but it’s mostly true. It’s not completely true. But I think in general, Italian men, if they meet a foreigner, they’re probably thinking it’s not going to go anywhere.It’s going to be a fling or a short relationship.

So, I will put that out as a warning that often Italian men have this sort of preconceived idea that when they want to settle down, they settle down with an Italian woman, but it’s fun to go out with a foreign woman. I will say that I have a lot of foreign friends who are married to Italian men, so it’s not like it’s extremely rare for Italian men to marry foreign women. It does happen quite often, but there are those out there who are just sort of looking for a good time. They think, oh, she’s on vacation,she’s not going to be serious;that kind of thing. But we met at a party actually that was organized by some mutual friends of ours and it was quite memorable because the party was actually at a site that is called the Gladiator School. I know it’s kind of funny, but if you could imagine, like, you know how some people study fencing, not that they’re going to go and stab each other, but they do it as a sport in Rome.

I think there’s really only one place that they do it, but they teach gladiator-style fighting. And so, it’s a sport that a very small number of people do, but they do gladiator fighting and they’re not obviously going to kill each other, but they do the fighting aspect of it as a sport. And this school, I think they also provide extras for films and stuff like this. It’s part of a larger association, like a historic Roman association. When you see any movie that takes place in Rome, extras are all from this place. But anyway, the point is that the guy organizing the party studied there, and so he had rented out the space, which was located on the AppianWay, the oldest, most famous street in ancient Rome. And it’s set up to look like an ancient arena and there’s sand on the ground, and torches, and stuff. It was a costume party, so we were all dressed up as ancient Romans. So, I met my husband, he was dressed as a Roman soldier.

David McNeill: Awesome. This is an amazing origin story of the relationship. That’s really one of the best. Yes, that’s awesome.

Tiffany Parks: Yes and our son is obsessed, not because of this story, but he just is obsessed with ancient Rome and all he draws are pictures of Roman soldiers.

David McNeill: Well, maybe you’ll have to enroll him in the school then.

Tiffany Parks: Yes, maybe.

David McNeill: Just to go full circle. And how has it been then to — I guess now you’ve been living there for so long, but indeed it sounds like in the intervening years, you not only got married but had your son. So, how has it been to raise your son in this foreign environment, even though it’s home to you now?

Tiffany Parks: I think Italy is a great place to raise children. Now, Italians will complain that the government does not help working mothers enough, but honestly, compared to the United States, to me, it seems amazing because the maternity leave is very generous. Even after your child is born or after you go back to work, you have reduced hours until they’re one year old at full pay.Nursery school is free, preschool, daycare, it’s all free.

Obviously, there are private options and you do have to qualify to get the free version, but it is available, pretty much anybody who needs it can get free daycare, which is huge if you’re a working parent. And so, I think it’s a good place to raise children. People love children here because it’s such a family-oriented culture. Children are just very indulged. If you go out to eat, people will not give you dirty looks because you brought your child to a restaurant, it’s very normal to go out to eat and see children eating with their parents, even quite late at night. And also, breastfeeding is not an issue. Nobody would bat an eye at a breastfeeding mother. And I told my husband that Americans have a problem with it. He literally couldn’t understand. He was like, “Wait, what do you mean? What?” He thought he misunderstood because he was like, “How could anyone be offended by that?” Like didn’t register. So, I think it’s a great place to have kids.

David McNeill: Nice. And I’m not sure how old he is, but you intend to have him in the local school system when he’s at that age.

Tiffany Parks: Yes. He’s going into first grade next year, actually. So, he’s going to be doing Italian school. I would like to do international school. The main thing that precludes that is just that it’s ridiculously expensive and that’s pretty much the only reason. I would love to send him to international school simply because I would love for his English – I mean, his English is already perfect, but I don’t know what’s going to happen with him, not getting all of his schooling in English. If he decides he wants to move to the United States and go to college in the United States or Britain, he might not be going in at the same level as someone who was schooled in English. So, I do worry about that and I also worry about the fact that Italian school is incredibly rigorous, too rigorous in my opinion. So, I do worry about that, yes, but we’re going to go for it. We’ll see how it goes.

David McNeill: Nice. And over the 17, I guess almost years that you’ve been in Rome, how have you seen the city and maybe the country overall change? I’m sure it’s a big question, but if there are any takeaways from your experience that you think through over the years, that would be great to hear.

Tiffany Parks:It’s so hard to say now because our world has been so colored by this pandemic and it’s hard to remember what Rome was like one year ago before this all happened. I have seen it, with the exception of the past year, get more and more crowded. As far as tourists, my husband works in the Vatican museums. And when I used to do tours there 12 years ago, when there were 20,000 people, it was record-breaking. We were just complaining about how crowded it was and how we couldn’t move. Now, and I say now, but I really mean until one year ago, there were regularly 40,000 people going through there every day in high season.

And you can really see it on the streets and in front of major sites, just clogs of people, just you can’t move, apartments have been really taken over by bed and breakfast. So it has become harder and harder to find an apartment in the historic center if you’re a local. So, I complain about tourism while we have no tourism, so I don’t know. I’m sure most people would love to have the tourists back, but that’s one thing I’ve noticed up until last year. I feel like there’s more graffiti in the city than there used to be. I feel like it’s a little bit dirtier, but that could just be that when I first moved to Rome, I had rose-colored glasses on and I just didn’t notice. I’m not sure, but those are two things that pop out to me. I’m sure there are many other things, but that’s what I can think of right now.

David McNeill: Sure. And were there ever any points, it sounds like not from what you were saying before, but were there ever any points where you considered a move to another city or another country or even back home? It sounds like you found your home and you’re happy to stay and just see how it goes there and enjoy everything that it has to offer,but did you ever have any second thoughts after finding that group of friends in your tourism job?

Tiffany Parks:I have. I think that before I met my husband, although I was very happy in Rome, I was less tethered to the city, to the country and I had thoughts of, oh, maybe I’ll move to France. Maybe I’ll move somewhere else. Definitely, I had my moments of being very disillusioned with the city and the country in general, the bureaucracy, the way things are run. Then I met my husband and really felt settled for a long time, but I will admit that I have had many moments and my husband feels the same way of wishing that we lived in a smaller town.Especially when I was commuting every day, driving across the city, not living in a historic center anymore. So, kind of feeling like I have all the negative aspects of the city, the traffic, the pollution, the crowds.There can be a certain amount of rudeness that when you go to smaller towns in Italy, you’re like, oh wow; people aren’t so much nicer here.

I kind of felt like I was taking all of the negative aspects of the city, but I wasn’t getting the positive aspects,meaning, just the sheer beauty that you find when you just walk down the street. But this is what happens when you were in a historic center when you’re out in the outskirts of the city,you’re not going to experience that unless you go into the city. So, when I was working, I mean, I’m still working, but I’m working much fewer hours and I’m working from home right now, so I’m not having to fight traffic. But when I was working in the office and rushing back to pick up my son from preschool and rushing home to make dinner, I felt like I’m really not enjoying this city. I’m not getting out of the city what I love about it, but I do have all of the negative aspects.

And so, we did talk about, should we move to a smaller town? Every time we go to the North of Italy, especially like the countryside, the mountains we think, oh my gosh, I would love to live here. The problem is just finding work is so difficult in the smaller towns. So, that has been what has stopped us. I think that if we both worked remotely, we would very, very highly consider a move to a smaller town in Italy. Even though we love Rome, particularly I adore Rome, I adore the city, it’s an obsession for me, but the lifestyle, it can be a little bit hard, especially having a child,it might be nice to be in a smaller town.

David McNeill: Yes, I can imagine. And not to focus on it too much, but I’d love it if you could just get a bit more into some of the more frustrating, difficult aspects of life there because I would imagine many people including me, have such a nice idea and vision for life in Italy, let’s say in general. And of course, if you take a trip there, so many incredible things to see, but when you live somewhere long-term, then you start to see some of the more challenging, difficult aspects. And if you could just touch on that a bit, I’d really appreciate it.

Tiffany Parks: Sure. Yes, I feel like compared to a lot of my expat friends; I have such a strong love for this city that I’m able to overlook a lot of the negative aspects. I have a lot of, let’s say stamina and tolerance for the negative things, because my love of the city and the country in general, but particularly this city is so strong.So, as I said, I know a lot of people who have left, or just be like, “Okay, that’s enough, I’ve had my Italian experience. I’m done.” For me, there was something much deeper that tied me here,not just my husband.But there are negative things and I think that I started to notice them and pick up on them more when I became a much more permanent resident when I married my husband and I started to see Italy more from the eyes of an Italian. I notice things that aren’t great. I sometimes feel like if you’re an expat, if you’re a foreigner, you almost have more opportunities than if you’re a local, which really isn’t right. You feel like a society should first and foremost think about their citizens and it’s very difficult for young Italians, particularly to find work, to find any kind of suitable work. The wages are almost criminal in many industries. And I think they just think, well, young people live with their parents so we can pay them peanuts and that’s fine.

And it’s really detrimental. I know lots of young couples who feel that they can’t get married; they can’t start a family because they don’t make a living wage. And many of them are highly educated, speak several languages, so opportunity is a real problem, particularly for Italians. And I think it’s very, very difficult to be an entrepreneur here.The bureaucracy is so draconian and so complex,it makes people not even want to try to go into business on their own because it costs tens of thousands of euros just to open a business, just simply to have the business license. The taxes are astronomical, and so people end up evading taxes, so that’s just makes the taxes higher. It’s sort of a vicious cycle and you can see both sides of it. You can see why some people have to evade their taxes because, otherwise, they won’t make enough money to stay in business. So, things like that, it’s kind of a place that — I know this is going to sound horrible and I don’t want to turn people off on Italy, and as I said, I love it and very grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to live here and become a citizen.

David McNeill: Oh, congrats!

Tiffany Parks: Thank you. But it is really a place that can crush you, especially young people, especially people who have dreams of starting businesses or having careers, the kind of place where if you don’t know people, you can’t get ahead. There is no meritocracy here and maybe has gotten a little bit better, I’d like to hope that it’s gotten a little bit better, but it’s not at all easy, and lots of different professions make it almost impossible to break into. For example, if you want to be a pharmacist, it’s almost impossible to become a pharmacist if one of your parents is not a pharmacist, it’s almost impossible. And to become a journalist, you have to take an exam,you have to study for years.In order to get the license to become a journalist, you have to publish a certain number of articles, but how are you supposed to publish articles if you don’t have the license?It’s like, they do things on purpose to keep people down and I don’t want to believe that, but that’s what it seems like sometimes.

David McNeill: Right. So, I’m really appreciative of the honest view of it because I think it’s good to get a bit of a reality check, especially if the place that’s just so wonderful and surface like Italy and there are challenges, pros and cons to moving anywhere. So, I really appreciate that. I’m curious for the folks out there that are listening that still have that deep drive and desire to get to Italy, at least for some period of time. Do you have any particular advice that you can give them to maybe motivate them or help them sort of mentally prepare or find the right opportunity, frankly, to be able to make that happen?

Tiffany Parks: Yes. Well, actually I think that this is the best possible moment to move abroad. Now, obviously, maybe not this moment, but maybe six months from now or 12 months from now, because so many jobs have now become possible to do remotely. It was never possible to do remotely before. And so, my biggest piece of advice, if you want to move to Italy, is find yourself a job in your home country that you can do remotely and then move to Italy because a) you won’t have to look for work,you won’t have to worry about speaking the language. I do think you should learn the language if you’re going to live there, but you don’t need to worry about it before you even move, like, how can I get a job if I don’t already speak the language?But also, probably the biggest bonus of all is that you’d be making a salary. If you’re from the US, you’re making a US standard salary, but you’re making it in Italy, the money will go farther. So, I think anyone who can work remotely, especially if they’re able to work in a different time zone because some people, of course, they have to do meetings all day and they can’t be in a different time zone. But if you can do that, I think that is just like the golden ticket to expat life anywhere really, anywhere where you can legally live. So, that’s my advice.

David McNeill:I think its great advice and definitely I’m getting a lot of interest in people asking how they can do that and make it happen. And indeed, this is the perfect time maybe. Yes, indeed a couple of months from now to be able to make that move with that job in hand. So, thank you for your feedback on that. I’d love just to hear a bit about your experience building, creating, and developing The Bitter Sweet Life podcast, because that’s something really gained a lot of steam and you’ve been at, it seems, for quite some time now. So, could you just tell us a little bit about how it got started and how it’s developed over the last six years?

Tiffany Parks: Yes. Well, when I had been living in Rome for about, sorry, I have to do some math here about nine years, I guess, one of my oldest and closest friends from childhood had the opportunity to move to Rome. And this was extremely exciting for me because she was someone who I never imagined, would ever move out of the United States. She just wasn’t the type. I was always the type. I was always wanting to go as far away from home as possible. She was much more the stick close to home type, but her husband got a fellowship at one of the Pontifical Universities and they debated, and debated, and debated, and finally decided that they were going to move to Rome for one year, which they both quit their jobs to do this. And it was incredible to me also, just the idea of having a childhood friend that I got to see regularly as an expat, it’s something that never happens.So, it was huge for me.

So, she moved to Rome, she actually found an apartment, she and her husband, on the same street I lived on, we were living in Trastevere at that time. And we spent a lot of time together every weekend, pretty much, we were hanging out and she also happened to be a radio producer, she had worked for NPR for over a decade producing a daily show. And she said, “Hey, Tiffany, do you want to do a podcast?”So, this was back in 2013, podcasts were definitely not as big of a thing back then, people did them, but it was much less common. And she said, “Let’s do a podcast about being a long-term expat and being a short-term expat” since that’s what we were. And so, I said, sure.I didn’t have a child back then, so I had a bit more free time.And she said she’d do all of the editing because she knew how to do it, and so we started the podcast.And we really assumed that it was going to be – and by the way, it’s called The Bitter Sweet Life, just so everyone can hear that.

So, it was really supposed to be just a one-year thing, just for the year she was there, but we decided to keep it going because when she moved back to the States, she realized that becoming an expat is part of the journey. Another huge part of the journey is repatriating and she found that that was more challenging than moving abroad. She really struggled having moved back from Rome for a good year,at least, she found herself very out of place. And so, we continued sort of the exploration of that and then we just continued, we just kept it going. We just had so much more to talk about and not just about expat life, but just about life in general, about living a life that’s maybe not the script that you learn when you’re a kid.You’re supposed to do this, do that, go to college, get married, have a kid, get a steady job; for people who want to do things a little bit differently. So, we explored those themes and we still do talk about expat life, but it’s much broader than that now.

David McNeill: Yes, that’s great. It’s awesome to hear about the development over that time. Another area that I know that you’ve also worked in is writing. So, as an author, it’d be great to hear about what you’ve done in terms of your publishing, what your plans are next, and yes, just give us a big overview and update on your writing career.

Tiffany Parks: Well, I always have loved to write and I have been working for over a decade as a magazine writer, but I really wanted to try my hand at fiction. This is several years ago now, at least a decade ago. And I can remember the moment very, very clearly, I was standing in a bookshop, in an English language bookshop, and I was looking at the section of memoirs about Italy, novels about people who had moved to Italy. And I thought that was what I knew. That was what I thought I would write about, moving to Italy. But I thought this has been done,everybody has done this. There’s no way I’m going to sell a book about being an expat in Italy. And then, I thought, what if I write it from the point-of-view of a child, an adolescent, and thinking back about the fact that, that as I told you when I was 12 years old, that’s when I really had my first great passion for Italy.

And so, I said, what if I write about a 12-year-old girl who moves to Rome with her father from the States? And I thought, okay, I’m just going to start writing this and see what happens. I had no idea what the story would be about. I love to write and I feel that I have had and have a talent for writing, but I hadn’t necessarily studied the art of plotting and things like that. So, I had no idea where the plot was going. And so, I just started writing, I started writing; I started writing, and I had a few other nuggets of inspiration. I was very inspired by a legend that I had heard about, one of the most beautiful fountains in the city –The Turtle Fountain. I had heard about a legend behind it, how it was built in one night. And I had a very young friend, a girl that I taught yoga to who was actually that age,she was about 12 when I met her. And she lived in a building that overlooked this fountain. And she was a young expat who had moved to Rome with her parents from the States.

And so, I kind of put all these things together, and I sort of started writing and the book turned into a mystery. I didn’t know that was where it was going to go, but it turned into a mystery, an art mystery and after many, many years and many revisions, and lots of wonderful friends who read the book and gave me their advice, and helped me make it better,it was finally published in 2018 by Harper Collins. The name of the book is Midnight in the Piazza. It’s a middle-grade novel, so it’s for kids from about eight to 13.

David McNeill: Wonderful. That’s amazing. I love that you were inspired by so many things, of course, including your own story. And yes, I brought this out. I know it’s very difficult to put a book out there and to make it all happen. So, congrats on that and I look forward to your next writings. And with that in mind, I’m curious how our listeners can keep track of what you’re up to. Of course, follow you on the podcast, your writings as well, and everything that you’re doing in and around Rome.

Tiffany Parks: Sure. There are so many places to find me. So, you won’t have a problem. The main way is the podcast, probably The Bittersweet Life, thebittersweetlife.net is the website, but you can just go onto whatever your podcast app is that you prefer and just search for The Bittersweet Life and you will find us. And we put out two episodes a week, a full episode on Monday, that’s usually the two of us and then a mini-episode on Thursdays, that’s one or the other of us. And like I said, we talk about all sorts of different issues, not just issues facing expats but, travel, life questions, I talk a little about Rome in the mini-episodes, and art; and we get into everything. So, you can jump around or you can just start from the beginning because it really is a journey. 

You can also find me on social media, on Instagram, I’m @TiffanyParksRome.That’s probably where I post the most and I post equally, I would say about Rome and about my writing life. And I’m working on another book right now, Saving Caravaggio, which is a young adult book about, it’s not just about Caravaggio, but he’s a main character and it takes place during his lifetime. But I’m also on Twitter @TiffanyParks_ and you can also find my podcast on both Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, just search for The Bittersweet Life and my website. Sorry, I forgot about that. Tiffany-parks.com if you want my official author website.

David McNeill: Okay, wonderful. Well, I’ll definitely be sure to put links to all of those cool spots, the podcasts, the books, the website, everything else in the show notes so people can definitely keep track and follow along and see what you’re up to. So, thank you so much for speaking with us today Tiffany, it’s been an absolute pleasure, and look forward to seeing how your life in Rome develops over the coming years.

Tiffany Parks: Thank you so much, David.


Thanks to Tiffany for sharing her story with us. You can find the full transcript for this episode at expatempire.com.

Music on this episode was produced by Eli Hermit, please check him out on Bandcamp and Spotify.

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