It’s quite common that feelings of alienation make expats question whether it’s worth it to continue living abroad.
Sometimes the struggle of trying to settle in becomes too much and people give up. Some perhaps too soon.
Others are able to keep their focus on the reasons why they appreciate their at times challenging but mostly inspiring life in a new country.
This is the case for Bella, a first-time American expat in Italy. Despite feeling like a foreigner, although less and less so over time, and missing her familiar life in the US, she has managed to maintain her focus on all the reasons why life in Italy is just right, at least for now.
Please introduce yourself to the readers – who are you and where has your journey taken you so far?
Hi, my name is Isabella, but my whole life everyone has known me as “Bella”. That is until I moved to Italy where introducing myself as Bella translates directly to: “Hi, I’m beautiful. Nice to meet you!” A bit awkward, right? So, I’m Bella, but my Italian alter ego is Isabella.
I am an American, originally from California, but I have been living in Italy for the last two years. In January 2018, I set off for a semester abroad in Florence, Italy. What I thought would be a 4 month adventure abroad has turned into a long term (dare I say permanent?) move to Italy.
My “becoming an expat” story began in those first 4 months in Florence, during which I fell in love with travel, with Italy, and with, you guessed it, an Italian.
When it was time for me to move home, I made a promise to myself: “I will be back…soon!” I only had 6 more months of undergrad before I would be completely free to choose what came next.
Unsurprisingly, I chose to go right back to Italy. I told myself that it would not be a permanent move, but rather a one year expat trial run. I bought a one way plane ticket, and I was off.
When I first arrived in Italy, I lived in Florence. I was working for a travel company selling tours around Italy and Europe to study abroad students. It was the perfect company to work for considering I had traveled with this company myself less than a year prior.
Currently I live in Milan and I work as an English teacher online. With my job, I can work from anywhere, but I ended up in Milan when my boyfriend’s job transferred him here.
While I have been in Milan for a little over a year now, most of that time has sadly been spent at home in quarantine. It was definitely challenging to adapt not only to a new city but to a new world in 2020.
Fingers crossed for the year ahead!
When has the “Should I stay or go?” questions come up for you?
I think anyone who has ever lived abroad has asked themselves this once or twice, or 300 times.
Honestly, I almost always have this question somewhere in the back of my mind.
Moving home may feel like a failure, but I don’t see it that way. I see moving home simply as a big, life changing decision similar to the one an expat makes when choosing to move abroad in the first place.
With that said, there are some moments when the “Should I go?” question moves from the back of my mind to the forefront.
For example, it has now been over a year since I have seen anyone in my family due to coronavirus travel restrictions.
“I have asked myself time and time again: “Do I really want to live my life so far from my family?” Of course I don’t, but that doesn’t mean I am ready to book a one way ticket home.”
The reality is that there are both beautiful and ugly aspects of living abroad. There have been times since I moved to Italy when I felt incredibly isolated and misunderstood, especially at the beginning when I didn’t speak any Italian.
I have asked myself many times: “Do I really want this?” Even when I was struggling, my answer has always been yes.
I personally think that I will always have some doubts on whether or not I want to spend the rest of my life in Italy. I miss many things about my life in the USA.
In particular I miss my friends, family, and the ease of living somewhere where things aren’t foreign, where I am not foreign.
However, the longer I stay in Italy, the more Italy becomes “home” as well. For now, I am happy here. In the future… who knows?
So for you the question has rather been “Do I want to keep feeling like a foreigner or do I want familiarity?”
You are definitely on to something here. It is a lot harder than people may realize to live in an environment where you constantly have to second guess the way you speak and act.
Of course this gets easier over time, but after two years in Italy I still often have the fear that I will do or say something that comes across the wrong way.
For example, not long ago I was shopping for a new pair of jeans when a worker approached me to ask if I wanted help. I kindly answered, “No, grazie”, an answer that translates perfectly into English: “No, thank you!”
My boyfriend later told me that I came across as rude because in Italian one “No” is considered harsh while “No no, grazie” is much more polite.
“While this is obviously not a big deal, over time the little slip ups that I make can make me question: “Will anyone ever fully understand me? Will I always make silly mistakes without even realizing it?”“
My life would arguably be easier if I moved back home to my comfort zone, and it is hard not to be tempted by the easier route. But then again, this may be an effect of the “grass is always greener” phenomenon.
I’m curious about those times that have made you feel like a foreigner.
There are many moments when I am hit with the feeling of being a foreigner. In my early days abroad, I felt like my only identity was “that American girl”.
When I lived two months in the south of Italy, my nickname was literally “l’americana”. Anytime I was at the dinner table surrounded by Italians I would think “Wow, I don’t belong here.”
“It was surprisingly emotionally painful to be surrounded by people yet feel completely isolated. I would often zone out during meals and fake laugh when the rest of the table was laughing.”
I am usually a very talkative person, so I felt like a piece of my identity was being ripped away.
Now that I am beginning to feel more comfortable speaking Italian, my life here is changing.
One specific time I can remember truly wanting to leave Italy was actually when I was first applying for a long term visa, “permesso di soggiorno.”
People are not lying when they say Italian bureaucracy is a nightmare! I remember going to the Questura to officially apply for my visa and waiting an entire day in the lobby filled with other immigrants also trying to sort out their paperwork.
The workers were so dismissive and disrespectful in a genuinely dehumanizing way. I knew that immigrants around the world can be treated this way, but knowing something and feeling it are two different things. I thought to myself: “People don’t want me here. Why do I want to be here?”
However, I must say that my interactions with most Italians have been very positive, and I have almost always felt welcome in Italy.
What is it that you particularly appreciate about your life in Italy that has encouraged you to stay?
There are so many things that I love about my life in Italy!
First, I have a real appreciation for Italian culture: the language, the food, the emphasis on family and enjoying a slower pace of life.
The beauty of Italy never gets old for me. I can see the same piazza over and over again yet notice something new each time. Italy has some of the best architecture along with the best natural landscapes from mountains to the sea.
Each region in Italy offers something different, and it is easy to experience it all with a quick train ride.
Despite Italy’s flaws, it is one of a kind. I love the idea of “la dolce vita” even when it is not always reality because sometimes it is.
Furthermore, I love Europe in general! One of my greatest passions is travel, and Europe is much more easy to travel than the United States.
In the US, I could take a 6 hour plane ride and still be in the same country. From Milan, I can drive one hour and be in Switzerland. I love how easy it is to navigate around Europe and experience different cultures at relatively low costs.
Lastly, while it has its challenges, I enjoy being an expat. I like the excitement of building the life that I want for myself beyond the expectations I had for my life before I moved abroad.
“I feel proud of the fact that I am doing something hard, even though I want to give up at times. I don’t know if I will always choose to stay, but for now the hardships are simply worth the rewards.”
Katherine is a retired world traveller and former serial expat of 15 years. Based on her professional and personal experience as well as PhD research, she now helps expats, travellers and location independents decide whether to stay or go, whether to move back home or where to settle down.