Being an expat teaches you a lot of things.
It’s a delicate balance between the times spent riding your graziella bike through the charming streets of Italy as you flick your long beautiful hair over your shoulders, smiling briefly at the ciao bella!’s that are thrown your way and the time spent throwing your shoes across the room with a mix of Italian-English screaming as frustrated tears paint your face with mascara after dealing with some other very inefficient aspect of the Italian public sector or simply not being able to find your conditioner after an already long day.
Ahem, or I mean, that’s what other expats have told me….
A year goes by so fast and it’s easy to forget all that it takes to change countries. After all I don’t have a world famous book deal detailing my love and loss in the land of beauty and art – hell, I barely even have a job! Despite that, I actually have learned a thing or two – more than just how to say conditioner in Italian.
I’ve learned a lot of practical things about surviving in Italy: How to drive stick shift, how to use the Italian postal service and where to go to get decent high heels – for survival reasons, of course.
I’ve gained valuable skills on navigating Italian bureaucracy (though I’m not sure I actually learned anything so much as lived to tell the tale) and can now hold my own against Italian drivers when riding my bike. I’ve also learned my way around Monza and Brianza and often have to give Marco directions instead of vice versa!
Actually, in the past year and a half I’ve learned a lot about Italy and what it means to be an expat in this insane, wonderful country:
No matter how much of the language you know, there is still more to learn.
I’ve studied Italian for many years. I feel like I can hold my own in long and complicated conversations about nearly anything…sex, politics, even aliens. I even felt prepared, at least lingually, to teach English in an all-Italian elementary school until I realized I didn’t know the Italian word for “ruler” or ” sawdust,” as in, “Somebody call the janitor we need sawdust for this vomit now!” There’s always more to learn.
Homesickness will hit unexpectedly and swiftly.
There’s not much you can do about it but try to recognize it so that you don’t take it out on your significant other. Not like I’ve ever done that or anything.
Becoming familiar with a new city takes time, whether you are in America or across the world.
Give yourself that time.
Nobody in Italy really knows if it’s two kisses or three.
Perhaps most Italians do the standard two cheek kiss, but some throw in a curveball third kiss. The trick is to put both hands on their shoulders to be able to feel if they’re going for a third cheek kiss, if not you’re likely to kiss someone on the mouth. It happens.
Italians start their kisses on the right, I think.
I, and I think many others, am a left-side hugger, Italians start their kisses on the right. Say it with me, Right, left, right.
Food matters, don’t overlook that.
No matter how small or how close a city is to another, don’t lump it in with the nearby city.
Italians are proud of each and every one of their little towns. Case in point: Marco’s street is the dividing line between Sovico and Albiate, as in, his side is Sovico, his across-the-street neighbors live in another city – a lesser than city at that!
You will be used as the voice piece of your nationality – use your power wisely.
No, not all Americans eat McDonalds. Yes, some of us care about art and culture. No, we don’t usually live with our parents until we’re 30. Yes, everything is bigger in America. It’s not my fault what my government decides to do. Getting frustrated won’t help the situation, it’s best to study up on your country and current events and help others understand American culture in a way that makes sense to them, which includes at times listening to all the wrong things American does. Sometimes they’re right. Straight-up diplomat style.
Having house guests is more difficult than it seems.
No matter how “chill” they are, they will need your help while in another country…with everything. Forget about work or free time or getting anything done and just try to enjoy being a tourist again!
Running errands will become the next mission to the moon.
Errands have always sucked, whether you’re in Greensboro, Alabama, San Francisco or Milan, Italy. Only that in Milan you have no idea where you’re going, what exactly it is you should be looking for or how to acquire it, making leaving your apartment to get groceries feel like an Apollo mission.
‘La Bella Figura’ is real, and worth it.
La bella figura is roughly translated as “making a good impression,” but it’s so much more than that. It’s about putting your best self forward, not just to be cool or better, but as a sign of respect for yourself and those around you. It’s not exactly in the Midwest canon, but it’s necessary in Italy and it grows on you. Get dressed up, take care of yourself and put your bella figura out there – do it for yourself more than anyone else.
Being an expat is about being vulnerable.
In a year I’ve almost accepted it, but not quite. You’re vulnerable because you’re dependent, because it’s impossible to be as self-sufficient as you were in your hometown. It sucks, but the only thing to do is work toward more independence and try to accept your vulnerability in the meantime.
Trying something new is 40% a “yes!” attitude, 20% confidence in yourself and 40% acting like you have confidence in yourself.
And that’s fine.
So whether whatever new venture you’re starting or wanting to start – a new project, boyfriend, job or country – go for it!