By Lisa Condie
Moving to a foreign country is a lot like raising children. It’s harder than you think it’s going to be, and better than you can imagine!
I only had three months to prepare for my initial move to Italy in 2012. I poured over blogs, books and sites that promised to give me tips on quickly assimilating into my new culture. Much like the volumes of information for expectant parents, there is no shortage of writing on the subject.
And, similarly, most of the information made the task sound daunting and downright overwhelming.
So how do you know if you are really ready to make the jump? It’s a question I am asked frequently. Here a few of my thoughts on the subject often overlooked in the books and blogs.
Learning the language usually topped the list. Of course it helps to speak the language. Of course you need to learn it. But you will have plenty of opportunity once you have arrived to do so. Trust me, if eating depends on speaking a foreign language, you will learn. The terror of wondering which train stop is yours will also provide good incentive. Learn what you can before you leave, but waiting to become fluent may mean you never go!
Pace yourself. Much like raising children, I found that overload resulted in frustration. If you plan to get your driver’s license, pick up a new cell phone and stop off at the market in one afternoon, it will be a disaster. At least in Italy, it’s just not going to happen.
Alone time. There’s a lot of it. Women, I would advise getting comfortable living on your own before you add a foreign country to the equation. Be sure you have experienced a few holidays and special occasions by yourself before you try them half the world away. Even expat couples talk about the feeling of isolation, especially in the early months.
Inconvenience. There’s a lot of that too. Remember, you are no longer in the United States and nothing is going to run just the way it did there.
In Italy, trains often go on strike, there are no clothes dryers and dinner is around 9:00. Think you might change that? Not likely.
The temperature inside Italian homes, stores and churches is about the same as the temperature outside. Translated, this means freezing cold in Winter, and unbearably hot in Summer.
Buses don’t arrive on schedule, train doors get stuck, and wifi goes out for a week. It is what it is. That being said, some of the best adventures I have had occurred when a wrench was thrown into the plan, and something better happened instead.
Attitudes. They are cultural. Not thinking in terms of right and wrong is helpful. Customer service in Italy is not with a smile. The norm for interaction with strangers isn’t the grinning, have-a-good-day sort that exists in the United States. Not better or worse, just different.
And, as I have mentioned before, forming a line for anything is impossible for Italians.
These are lessons that don’t come in a manual. They require on-the-job-training. Whether it’s being assertive enough to claim space on the sidewalk, or speaking up when it’s your turn at the bakery, Italians expect you to fend for yourself.
I have, however, found that when I ask a question in Italian, or have been in need of any type of assistance, people here are amazingly kind. They, too, have their cultural stereotypes, and Americans are often seen as pushy, loud and demanding.
A sense of humor. This one is mandatory and should be on the Visa checklist. Mostly you will need to be able to laugh at yourself, and not worry about looking foolish.
I have been asked to remove myself from a movie set I wandered into, dismantled a promotion display at the local Hardware store, and made pronunciation errors that would cause a sailor to blush. Suffice it to say, I no longer ask for figs at the market!
Taking yourself too seriously only impedes your progress. There is a lot of trial and error with a new language, new city and new culture. Chalk all experiences up to part of learning. Even if it was a cab driver that gave you the scenic route to the airport, next time, you will know better.
What can you expect in return for packing up possessions into two checked bags and starting a life as an expat? A story that most people wouldn’t believe, and will never live.
Daily life is richer in all ways than I had ever dreamed possible. I walk through world famous structures and go visit The David whenever the mood strikes. I watch the sunset over the Arno, and I meet people from all over the world. As for the food and wine, well, there are no words.
I have had to stretch and grow, often out of my comfort zone, to find my way here. The rewards have more than compensated for the discomfort. Just like having children, I have never regretted my decision.
Do you think you might like to do the same? If you see a window of opportunity, I would encourage you to think about giving the expat life a try. Maybe for just a year? As for me, I will stay another year, or two, maybe forever. I have learned to open my heart, trust and take one day at a time. So far, that has served me well.