This is a story about finding yourself, moving abroad and refinding yourself within different parameters. It’s about the internal battle that comes with change when you find yourself in a new country. How much is acceptable? Where do we draw the line?
Oh, and it’s about shopping of course.
I needed new clothes.
As a 25-year-old woman this isn’t the first time I’ve had that thought. But this time it served a very specific purpose. I needed new “Italian” clothes.
After three years in the country my style has undoubtedly changed for the better. I know longer wear skimpy tank tops with cheap rat-tail thin straps. I know longer slip slap around in rubber flip flops or stroll the streets smacking my gum. These changes came gradually, naturally – thankfully.
Italy fits me. I sought her out since I was a little girl and now we’re finally together. Yet the relationship has been anything but smooth. It’s hard to love all change unconditionally, but when I take the curve away from my house, following the great oaks that line the road, past the soccer fields and gelaterie, I realize that I’m home. Despite how different it is from my original home, despite how difficult it was to get here, this is the most home I’ve ever have. I realize that I want to be here. That I’m ready to make it mine.
Hence the reason I needed new clothes.
Italians dress in a very specific way. Nothing is left to chance and little is left to experimentation. Even the older women with short, spiked hair and pink tips have chosen that style with precision. None of that sloppy New York individualism, theirs is the refined rebelliousness of an art curator.
Italy is a land where everyone takes themselves so seriously, and yet you can find adults roller skating in the park on Saturdays and businessmen in suits on scooters, speeding past the quotidian commuters. Running shoes and junky old jackets don’t cut it, but strange fashion, blue hair and scooters show that a childlike light still burns inside. It’s all about balance.
Here, the concept of bella figura pervades everything. It’s the idea of making a good impression – first and always. The bella figura means being a gracious guest and warm host. It means saying the right thing, asking the right thing and, above all, wearing the right thing.
In America individualism reigns supreme. To hell with what others think of you! The entire country is founded on people escaping the narrow judgments of their home countries, seeking the freedom to be who they are. (See: Italy vs the Midwest)
Perhaps that’s why this new obsession of my look embarrasses me. It takes me back to high school with considerable shame, when I roamed the halls well aware of my defects but completely lost as to how to fix them. I saw the popular kids and couldn’t imagine how to close the gap between us. They’re perfect hair and designer purses wasn’t in the cards for me anytime soon. Eventually I found my tribe and pushed through the tumultuous social years by finding, piece by piece, myself. By the time I made my way to college I felt wholly, unabashedly me. I had found my individualism. How then, did I fall back into this trap of trying to “fit in”?
Moving abroad shakes up all of our previous notions. What we once found beautiful here is deemed ugly. What we once found unacceptable here is grimly accepted. Those who move abroad find themselves transplanted in an entirely new culture – one that they have to largely accept if they hope to find peace in their new home. Assimilation is a strong survival tactic, but where do we draw the line between assimilating to our new culture and not losing the independence we came from?
It turns out, the fight between assimilation and individualism can actually have some surprising benefits:
Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote on the subject:
“It seems that a person who is comfortably settled in the bosom of society has fewer incentives to change the status quo.”
The outsider—someone who faces a personal sense of rejection or being different, or is actually in a place of social isolation—is not only in a position to experience new and novel experiences, but is more likely to spend more time in their own heads working these ideas through and seeing how they can be used.”
Kind of like I’m doing right now, I suppose.
As humans we naturally seek to avoid rejection, and yet many of us move away from our already formed social network that accepted us. We’re like moths drawn to the light of a flame, attracted by the light of novelty but burnt in its heat.
So I went shopping. After months of careful observations I knew just what to buy. The next time I went out I had on my new “Italian” sunglasses, my Italian style jeans, the latest snow-white shoes.
“Complimenti”, my friends told me and I realized I had done it. I had finally succeeded in the bella figura. And as the conversation continued I realized, happily, that underneath all those new clothes, I was still me.
Read more about building a life abroad – the good, the bad and the ugly:
Me, Italy and Our Ever-Changing Relationship
Getting to Know a City, Getting to Know Yourself
Falling in Love With Italy, Imperfections and All
Round Peg, Square Hole – On Fitting in Abroad