I’ve officially been in Italy for five years!
In the past five years I’ve graduated college, found and changed and negotiated jobs, lived in an apartment and moved into our home, married, traveled and passed nearly a year with our beautiful baby girl.
It’s been a whirlwind.
Looking back, I can still understand the small surprises and bigger transitions I wrote about after just a year and a half abroad. In those first 18 months I was doing my best to navigate a new country, a new culture. I had to shift my perceptions, make room for new ones, give time for reckoning. I had to grow into myself and grow into Italy. In doing so, I certainly learned a thing or two.
What I’ve Learned After Five Years Abroad:
How to have a healthy relationship with food
In America it was all about indulging and abstaining. Giving yourself “treats” because you “deserve it”, counting calories and avoiding mental punishments. In Italy, it’s just about eating. Here you eat because it’s good and good for you. You eat because it’s homemade, filling and fulfilling. You watch what you’re eating when you need to to have a body functioning at it’s maximum, to digest, to help your liver, your kidneys or that incoming cold. You buy fresh, eat seasonally. I can happily say that when I came to Italy I somehow, finally, shed the far-too-American mentality of food as “good” and food as “bad” and I’m better off for it!
How to not define myself by my work
For months I didn’t have a job. Then, I only had a part time job. One job fell through, another was not as advertised, my final left me unemployed and unpaid every summer. It was a transition going from two part time jobs and a full course load to being a complete and total loafer. After the first week of feeling free, I was left simply feeling lost. But you know, rarely will an Italian ask you “what do you do?” as a first question. They don’t consider themselves defined by their work, so why should I? Over the years I learned how to appreciate the time off and most importantly, how to not define my self worth by my title, hours of work and free time.
How to appreciate beauty for beauty’s sake
Perhaps no other place knows how to rejoice in beauty than the Bel Paese. At first Italians enthusiasm for bellezza seemed quaint. Now, it seems like the most incredible way to marvel at life. To stay young, happy, grateful. Enjoy the view not because you hiked up a mountain and deserve it, but simply because it’s there. Wonder at the incredible acoustics of the theater and sheer talent of the opera singers. Visit the museum, the exhibition, the gallery because it’s there and damnit if it’s not for you as well. Because it’s simply beautiful.
How to be vulnerable and the strength found in being alone
Moving to another country means embracing vulnerability. You’re a foreigner, you’re alone, you’re unsure, you’re scared. It’s terrifying and exhilarating and the only way to survive it is to embrace it. If you do, and you truly work through the psychological mayhem it brings to the surface, you’ll find yourself stronger than ever before.
How to care just enough, but not too much
In other words, don’t sweat the small stuff. For me success was being perfect. It was not slipping, not being late, not being wrong. With my burgeoning language, late trains and a world of unknowns, Italy made that impossible. It was a harsh transition, but I’m learning how to try my hardest, care enough to do my best, then let the rest slide off my back. People describe Italy as a controlled chaos. Nobody knows better than Italians how to care about what they can control and leave the rest up to fate.
How to find and create a home, and accept where I don’t belong
Anyone can create a home anywhere, but some of us desperately try to create it in the wrong place for us. I’m thinking of the laid back southern trying desperately to make a go in a hostile New York City, the zipped-up Brit trying to be “cool with” the wild wild west atmosphere of Sicily. I adore Florence, love exploring Milan, but the truth is, I’m not a city person. So while our cool Milanese friends tease us for being out in the sticks (we’re not), I’m enjoying the wide open spaces of my garden and the small town charm of my neighbors.
The language of connotation, emotion and humor go far beyond vocabulary
You can study a language for years, but you’re going to have to live it if you want to be able to slip into its humor or learn the true connotation behind every word. For me, it’s an ongoing, and I suspect never-ending, process.
The importance of a country’s past to understand a country’s present
You may think you know a country, but you have no idea. Like the above point, a country is formed by all of its history, by its pop culture references present and past. To know Italy you need to learn, to live, its cultural and historical past, its politics, its major players, its economic booms and busts, the mindsets across generations. Al of these things influence who we are and why. They’re the true looking glass.
That you can always change the path of your life.
When you change course so totally, so indefinitely, you realize that nothing in life is truly indefinite. Moving abroad shows you how ephemeral our decisions are, how capable we are of change. In these past five years I’ve learned the power of creating your own life. Of taking the blows and fighting back. This isn’t about “being in control of our own destiny” or something like that, but about consciously reacting to our own life, and moving it in the direction that we truly desire.
Of course beyond that are thousands of smaller, every day things. The practicalities of life abroad: How to drive stick shift. How to cook a decent pasta. How to navigate Italian bureaucracy (more or less). How to plan for intercontinental trips. How to choose the best fruit in the market. How to pair wine with dinner. How to hike.
It’s been FUN!
But the truth is, I couldn’t do another post like a “year and a half abroad”, because actually, life in Italy isn’t my expat life, it’s just my life. In the five years since I’ve come to Italy I grew from a college student into an adult. I navigated health care and taxes in another country (I don’t even know how they work in my own country!) I took and quit jobs, I found a position for me, I got married three times (same person, different ceremonies), made a home, built a community. I have an incredible baby girl.
This isn’t about “Italy is this” and “the Italians are that.” This is about how I can no longer separate Italy from me or me from Italy. Who knows what caused what?
Italy has taught me dozens of things, just as growing up teaches us dozens of things. In becoming an adult, a wife, a mom I learned how to take care of myself, how to find my healthy balance and how to take care of others.
In the words of the 90’s diva JLO, I’m just trying to live my life!