This was originally written for Medium.
I admit, I fell victim to the romantic idea of living in a tiny town in the south of Italy. I’d have lazy afternoons with an espresso and a book in a quaint little cafe…I’d hop a train and explore all of Italy…and I’d engage with locals in intellectual salons, my Italian language skills flawless.
[cue record scratch.]
Life in rural Calabria has been anything but that ideal. These days, five months after packing up my life in San Diego, California, and planting myself and two cats in a town by the sea, population 2,780, my life is nearly unrecognizable.
I Will Always Be La Straniera
In Italy, if you move 20 miles down the road, you’re considered a straniera — a stranger — by locals. So you can imagine what they think of a middle-aged, single American who moves to Italy. Alone. Without a man.
I’ve given up the hope of ever fully blending in as a local. I stand out, not only because my Italian is halting and awkward, but also because I dress and act like an American. And that’s okay.
Train Travel? Don’t Make Me Laugh
My dreams of hopping a train were dashed when I realized, though there is a train that stops in my town, it stops only once or twice a day in each direction at inconvenient times. So it pretty much renders it impossible to get anywhere by train.
Despite vowing not to have a car while living here, it’s been a necessity. Though I can walk or bike to several grocery stores, I need a car to meet with friends (who don’t live within walking distance) or go to a commercial center for a fresh breath of consumer culture.
I can drive to a larger train station (and the airport), but it’s 45 minutes away.
By Local Standards, I’m in the 1%
One of the many things I didn’t expect was the vast difference in my earning ability and that of locals. In Calabria, the average take-home pay is $1,300 per month, with living expenses being just below that.
I make much more than that, otherwise, I couldn’t have afforded to live in San Diego for 12 years. Hell, my rent in San Diego was more than the cost of living here! So my perspective about what is affordable is quite contrary to local opinion. I have to be aware that there are all economic levels here, especially with the unemployment rate for people aged 15 to 29 being 37%.
I Miss Culture in Small-Town Italy
One of the things I didn’t consider when I left artsy San Diego was that I might not have the same access to museums and cultural events in small-town Italy.
I have been pleasantly surprised, now that I’ve met a few locals who are passionate about showing me the gems of Calabria, though. I have plans to meet a few local artists with a friend who is a tour guide, and I found an amazing garden that overlooks the sea and hosts music evenings in the summer. The fact that it’s winter hopefully is why things feel so dead right now. Still, when I travel to a bigger city, I try to get my fill of art and culture.
And Ethnic Food Too!
What I miss probably more than museums is access to cuisine from all around the world. In a given month in San Diego, I’d likely have sushi, Mexican, Indian, and Thai. Here, my options are Italian, Italian, and…maybe sushi.
On the bright side, I’m saving a lot by not going out to restaurants so much!
Living in Calabria has provided so many lessons. I’m much less consumer-driven these days. Chalk it up to the fact that my mailman calls me to see if I’m home every time he has a delivery for me, and if I’m not, I have to garble the request for him to leave the package at my gate. It just seems easier to not shop online.
And because everything’s not as easy and instant as it is in the U.S., everything is a deliberate decision. How badly do I want to go to the big grocery store 30 minutes away if it means yet another drive in my manual car, which I have not totally acclimated to?
I’ve learned how to be vulnerable. The kindness of people here is just ridiculously wonderful. When I told a new friend that I was afraid to drive in the hilltop town where he’d set up an appointment for me with an accountant, he offered to meet me and drive me up the hill. Would we do the same back in the States? I’m not sure.
Living in another country is changing me, for the better, a little more every day.