At first you’re thrilled by finding your very own coffee shop. You know that you’ll go every single day. You’ll get your typical brioche and coffee until they know your order by heart; until you’re arriving to friendly faces who deliver a happy ‘buongiorno bella!’ when you walk in.
Considering you have a house with a perfectly good coffeemaker, you probably won’t actually go to that coffee shop all that often.
Then you realize you know the roads better than your Italian friends, or navigationally challenged Italian husband. Ha! You’re practically a local, pedaling through tiny Italian streets, almost getting hit by a car just three to four times per ride. Normal, right?
You begin holding awkward phone conversations in a not very expressive Italian in order to build up your English languages classes. Explaining what you offer, learning the clients’ language level and discussing prices, all without being able to see the expression on their face or read their lips. That must mean that you’re practically fluent! One step closer to assimilation!
You begin to drive more aggressively, learn one successful Italian recipe that is replicated each and every dinner party and have even made Italian friends, never mind that they are all your husbands’ friends from childhood.
Being an expat means challenging everything that you know. Each day offers a million ways to better understand your new home country. Each day offers a million frustrations while you try to mesh 22 years of cultural conditioning into a new culture. Some days you feel close, others it’s like trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. Or in this case, a boot-shaped hole.
Slowly you start to do more and more on your own because you have to. It’s still scary, still awkward when people look up, surprised by your harsh American accent, but you do it anyway. Slowly, you start to realize that the day to day things aren’t so novel anymore. Work, grocery store, library, park. It’s not a ‘Roman Holiday.’ It’s your life.
At first assimilation feels like the above mentioned coffeehouse story, then you realize that you’ve found a doctor, a dentist, a mechanic. Last month, I followed my mother-in-law down random one way streets to an old farmhouse-turned-apartment complex. The concrete walls were dark gray, dirty, the gravel strewn with mud and hay as if the transformation from barn to apartment hadn’t fully happened yet. Narrow balcony walkways led to each house and as we entered, my mother-in-law introduced me to her tailor. They stood in the open doorway, chatting like old friends as I insecurely took off my pants to try the new ones needing to be hemmed. Thanking her profusely on the way out, I was sure to pay attention to the roads from there to home. I had found my new tailor.
It’s been said before but it bares repeating: Moving abroad makes even the most menial tasks difficult. At first you can’t even find conditioner, and it’s not that you can’t find the type you usually get, it’s that you can’t find any. You begin to realize what it means to be an expat abroad, and what you need to survive.
Some days I go to work, stop at the grocery store, manage the mechanic and I realize that I just might have this whole living in another country thing down. Others I ride my bike just so I won’t have to get gas at the confusing automatic stations. I will always carry my culture on my back, but over time it’s grown softer, more flexible, its edges easier to mold. Maybe someday it will fit through this boot-shaped hole that is my new home.