Today’s post is one that I’ve been wanting to do for awhile. I’ve been living in Italy since late 2014 and while I have had my ups and downs with her, our relationship has always had more of the former but I wanted to talk about how this isn’t the case for everyone who moves here. And I wanted to talk about how that is okay.
Over the years, I’ve said goodbye to a handful of friends who came, saw, and in the end, conquered their own fears and doubts about “renouncing” the dolce vita and are living much happier, fulfilling lives in their native countries or simply in another one that isn’t Italy. Through all this, I’ve noticed a trend which is that it is hard to admit you want and need to leave which might seem as if it’s hard to say “arrivederci” to Italy but what it really comes down to, like so many things that hold us back in life, is that we think too much about the expectations of others. Just as so many Italians ask me “ma che ci fai qui?” (what are you doing here [in Italy]?) which always has the underlining assumption that “life is better in North America”, the same is true for those who utter the words “I’m leaving Italy”. Those of you who have never lived here or lived abroad will likely think that this combination of words is absolute blasphemy or that the person saying it is absolutely crazy. And this, my friends, is a Problem with a capital P because it makes expats who are thinking of leaving their adopted country feel something that they shouldn’t – ashamed. I was so disheartened to see that Canadian vlogger Zoey Arielle, upon deciding to leave Italy, felt as if she needed to do a whole video (below) essentially “explaining” why had chosen to leave. We expats most often never have to “explain” to people why we’re moving to Italy and even if we do, it’s usually something like “uh, the pizza life chose me, duh” and everyone accepts that. So why do we have to explain ourselves when we leave?
Moving to the second reason that causes us to have to leave Italy (or any country we’ve expatriated to), after physiological and safety needs are met, we move to the middle layer which is so, so important and is where we look for, as humans, interpersonal relationships in our community and, this is key – A FEELING OF BELONGINGNESS. This third level is where there is a lot of struggle if the struggle isn’t financial. Say you have found a steady job in Italy, you can pay your rent or mortgage on time, there’s always funds for the extra shopping spree or glass of Barolo if you like, BUT you don’t have anyone to go on that shopping spree or to clink glasses with.
This is actually rarely the case because expats tend to group together and almost always have a friend group, but the interpersonal relationships extend not just in the sense of having friends but having a satisfying relationship with FAMILY and the COMMUNITY. Many expats dating or married to an Italian might be able to tick off family if they have children of their own in Italy and are therefore able to concentrate on their immediate family, however others might struggle if they don’t feel accepted by their partner’s family, especially since this is the only family an expat has physical contact with. This level is where language starts to play a huge part, if it already didn’t in the second level that employment falls under (you can work as an English teacher without speaking Italian, for example). You often need a certain fluency of Italian to be able to establish a relationship with Italian family members, otherwise those relationships will always stay superficial. Again, for some people this isn’t an issue , they might have other relationships that are able to satisfy their needs that aren’t familial and that’s fine too.
And yet even if your family situation is all hunky-dory and you have an amazing relationship with your mother-in-law, there’s the issue of your relationships in the community. Personally, I see a lot of struggle in achieving this, I’d likely say that this is the second biggest deciding factor if someone leaves Italy or not. You can have friends, you can have family, but you also need to FEEL LIKE YOU BELONG TO THE COMMUNITY. This is also the hardest thing to pinpoint but I can probably best describe it by describing my own experiences: I feel part of my community when I’m at the grocery store and the cashier recognizes me and asks me how my day is going or when the Chinese restaurant around the corner asks where my husband went because they know I always order take-out when he’s away on business. I feel like part of the community when I go to a group exercise class or even when I go to church or having a little chat with the post office worker or laughing out loud with a bunch of Italian teenagers in driver’s theory school. Belonging means feeling integrated, something that is often quite a challenge for any foreigner because it involves knowing a language and a culture and not only that, but accepting that language and culture and successfully mixing it with your own. It’s about overcoming that sensation of ME vs. THEM. You can be fluent in Italian and never get over that mentality because to get to an “US” frame of mind, you need that cultural acceptance as well. To see this in action might be when you’re standing line and complaining with the Italian lady behind you about how slow the cashier is, sharing that moment together and your mutual frustration towards something is an example of being part of the “US”. A good friend of mine is from California and moved to Italy to play soccer. He's another example of someone who has a really strong sense of community here because being part of a team sport is an excellent way to integrate.
Once you are over these two steps, the others become slightly easier and you are able to feel happiness and satisfaction with your life. Note that Maslow’s triangle wasn’t made for living abroad specifically, it was simply made to be applicable to living. So these things are true no matter where in the world you are, it’s just that moving to a foreign country brings you right back down to the bottom of the triangle and you’re required to build everything back up from scratch whereas you might have already been near the top in your home country. And as you can now see, the responsibility doesn’t depend on just the one person. Outside factors play a role in whether a person can move up the levels and this, folks, IS WHY THERE IS NO SHAME IN SAYING “ARRIVEDERCI” ITALY, because “success” abroad is multi-factorial and we all need to realize that. If you got to the end of this, thank you so much for reading and I hope this was helpful to anyone thinking of leaving Italy as well as to anyone thinking of moving here! Would also love to hear your thoughts on this issue, dear readers.
If you’re interested in real stories about ex-Italy-expats, make sure to check out my series Ciao For Now or if you’d like to share your own experience, get in contact!
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Past Ciao For Now posts:
Ciao For Now: Estrella of La Casabloga
Ciao For Now: Martha of Martha Miller Writes
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