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Seeing both sides of the (Italy) story…

I have begun to think that there are categories of expat. There is the neutral expat, the bitter expat, the gushing expat, the evangelical expat, the grumpy expat and the reluctant expat, to mention a few.  I belong to a Facebook group named ‘Grumpy Expat’ and it is an entertaining, enlightening glimpse into the expat lives of others, containing such ‘grumps’ as ‘What is it with the Swiss and their obsessive smoking/shoving/staring..?’ and ‘My child was not allowed to blow out the candles on her birthday cake at daycare, for health & safety reasons!’ (flying spit)

This blog has been, to me, a wonderful outlet for my own array of Italiano grumps, and a place to share all of the glorious finds along the way, too.  Italy’s beauty can be breathtaking, its art and culture magnificent, but overall I don’t tend to rave about it (gushing expat). The expat life is a rich one, full of high-highs and low-lows but you won’t hear me say that your life is any less if you haven’t travelled and tasted a foreign existence (evangelical expat).I can still question if we made the right move coming to Italy, and sometimes can’t help myself from drifting into regret-mode, but I try to keep seeing “life’s rich tapestry” in all this, thereby avoiding bitter expat syndrome (arguably the worse kind). Living – or trying to live – in Italy is definitely one of the biggest challenges of my life,  but I do my best to steer clear of straightforward moaning (grumpy expat) –  though,  I admit there has been the occasional exception…

I admire those expats who blog and tweet and share the funny, the useful, the informative, or original, whilst maintaining their own unique perspective and voice. They are the neutral (read inspiring) expats. Rick Zullo of ‘Rick’s Rome’ is a fine example http://rickzullo.com/

I fall into the reluctant expat category. I embrace, nay, welcome the challenge and changes brought on by a new life in a foreign country, yet feel more attached to my roots with every passing month, demonstrated in no clearer fashion than by my longing for a cooked breakfast, a Cornish pasty, and a large tub of Tesco’s finest coleslaw. In fact – now I am developing a foodie theme – it would seem that the more I get to taste and appreciate Italian food the more I miss the simple foods and simple ways of eating from home. This summer, I have developed a making a packed lunch for myself habit. This consists of a wholly simple ham or cheese sandwich made on shop bought sliced bread, crisps, and an apple from the tree in the garden. Exotic it ain’t. But I’ll tell you what it is: it’s quick, the whole event done and dusted in about 12 minutes, and I’m back at my desk. My desk is now situated at my in-laws house, so while they are feasting downstairs on pasta, meat, salad, fruit and wine, I’m upstairs ‘getting-on’ as my Mother would say.

I’m reminded of one of my all time favourite songs, it’s called Chocolate Girl and is by the Scottish band Deacon Blue. “He calls her the chocolate girl, because he thinks she melts when he touches her, she knows she’s the chocolate girl, ’cause she’s broken up and swallowed, and wrapped in bits of silver.” 

Well, I know I’m a reluctant expat ’cause I can’t help but see both sides of the story (from a comfortable seat on the fence). I can understand why the Italian lunch is considered far superior to the English, but I can also appreciate the simple pleasure of a cheddar cheese sandwich, (not to mention its time-saving benefits). I can understand why the Italians close their shutters to keep out the intense sun, (as mentioned in my post How to do Summer, Italian style) but I can remember the joy at flinging open all the windows of the house on a rare sunny, Saturday morning in Ireland. I adore the clear blue skies and the heat of the Italian sun, but recall fondly curling up in an armchair looking out on the grey Cornish drizzle. (One man who can wax lyrical about the Cornish drizzle (or mizzle) is the Cornish Buddha. Find him on Twitter – https://twitter.com/Cornish_Buddha)

We had friends from Ireland visit us a few weeks back. My wonderful pal Dee and I spent a lot of time chewing the fat and setting the world to rights whilst driving around to beaches and beauty spots along the Pontine coast. She told me, “When I went travelling, I thought that I would learn so much about other people and other cultures but, at the end of the day, I learnt most about my own.” Wonderful AND wise, I miss you, Dee!

But, could my status of reluctant expat simply be down to the amount of time required to integrate? How long does it take? Another inspirational friend – Anelia, who moved from South Africa to London, told me that it takes five years. Yikes! Five years for what? To feel a part of the community around you, I guess, to understand its culture, and to have a  good grasp of the language – such that you can talk freely with other people (in a way that after almost two years I still can’t).

The problem is, as an outsider, you really do see both sides of the story.  In my case, the grand story that is Italy – a story that contains cypress trees, vineyards, azure seas, incredible food, beautiful people and tanned skin. This is the story that I mostly read about in all that I see about Italy online – through blogs, tweets, Facebook updates etc. But is it a true story? I understand that there is a lot of money to be made from “brand Italy”, and a very beautiful brand it is, but I have always had a nose for the authentic and as I scroll through my Italy-centered twitter feed, I often feel I’m being presented with a sham. Why? Because I live here. As in –  I maintain a home, have bills to pay, a car to run…all the usual boring but costly responsibilities of adult life. So, when I hear about another person not getting their salary this month, or a professional individual working a menial shop job because there is no other opportunity, or the highly qualified 30-something working for a multinational corporation and earning in a month what would be a week’s salary in the UK…(and then recall to mind that I, myself, am still waiting for the second half of my pay-cheque from work that I completed last December, and it is the State who owe me…), Il Bel Paese looks decidedly shabby and uninviting. Add to that, the battle that is handling the bureaucracy of public services in this country (I will save the story of my driving licence application for my next post, or, perhaps, as it is truly so ‘entertaining,’  I’ll save that one up for the book!), and the corruption that can trickle into so many aspects of life here, and by now, “brand Italy” is in bits.

But then, you holiday here…

you taste this…

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you visit this…

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you harvest this…

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And you think, “This is surely heaven on earth!”

Your thoughts welcome. Are you, too, a reluctant expat? – or a grumpy/gushing/evangelical/bitter/neutral one? What is your ‘story’ of Italy?

Please share this post if you enjoyed it! Til next time 😉

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9 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    I would add some other expat mode – “half expat”..
    We consider this mode as we live in Israel, only 3 hours flight from Rome, appreciate the beauty of Italy, and still cannot live a full life abroad, so several months each year in Italy is what we plan. Will it considered an expat at all?
    I enjoy your writing very much, thanks!

    Gonen,Israel

  2. I guess I come under the Mad Expat for staying here or maybe the In Denial Expat for not believing the latest enormous utility bill, or why I am sat in a cold house wearing sweaters scarfs and hugging the wood burning stuffa waiting for summer to come. We do have gas central heating but at 500 a month to run it we prefer to stay warm with hats thick socks and shivering

    • Mannaggia!!
      Winter is, at least, short in Italy, and a beautiful spring awaits that I think is pretty much non existent in England. Think warm thoughts!

      • This is true, I can tolerate cold winters as long as I get a proper spring and hot summer. At least we have thick Italian drinking chocolate here

  3. Thanks for this, it’s always more interesting to hear whats really there when we scratch the surface, I’m thinking how where i live in New Zealand we market our clean green image (completely fabricated, we have highly polluted dead rivers from dairy farming and fracking type activity polluting underground aquifers in one part of NZ, I could go on…), using pictures of Queenstown where most NZs have never been because it’s expensive. Most of us live in Auckland in outrageously overpriced poorly built houses with no insulation, commuting on crowded dysfunctional motorways. The magic is still there but you have to go and look for it…

  4. Hi Helen,
    Enjoyable read, and interesting perspective on expat existence in Italy. I feel your pain regarding being paid by the state… I’ve been there several times, waiting for payment for teaching contracts. Regarding the type of expat… I think I might be a ‘gushing’ one as I love the life we have created here, and I don’t mind raving on about it too! Much to the disgust of my UK friends/acquaintances! But don’t you think the grass is always greener for us Brits, and that we are an envious nation?

    • well I’m delighted to hear you’re a gusher, Carl! You say it all there – ‘the life we have created’ – it seems the only way people both survive and occasionally do brilliantly here, is by carving out their own path. 3 out of the 4 guys in a group of friends out to dinner last night worked for themselves, or within a family business, thereby creating their own success. I just question if they actually get paid, I guess that would depend on which industry you’re in, but it’s a problem.
      I think those grey skies account for the British envy, don’t you? I remember staring skyward and longing for Italia….

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