This was originally published on Medium.
I’ve got to be honest, what I felt was shell-shocked from the first five months of life as an expat. From the outside, it sounds like nothing terribly stressful. I spent a few months scrambling to figure out what documents I needed to live here, open a bank account, buy a car, and get car insurance.
Not really. It’s less the logistical tasks that were overwhelming than it was the mental warfare I felt every time I stepped out of the house and donned my bumbling American hat.
I’m Done Apologizing
Though I speak Italian fairly well, I struggled with understanding what the lady at the registry office said, or the woman who spoke with a strong accent at the post office. So my default phrase (which I can say flawlessly, by the way), is: “Mi dispiace. Sono Americana. Non parlo bene l’italiano.”
I’m sorry. I’m American. I don’t speak Italian well.
I’d either get a kind look and then a lot of hand mimicking (I’m slow, not a child, people) or they’d just give up and walk away, unsure how to speak to this alien (in the extraterrestrial sense. I’m totally legal!).
Since the start of the year, something has shifted. I’m no longer willing to feel like a kid peering into a window, wishing she was inside at the party. I’m ready to really be here.
The other day, I went out to run errands and I didn’t once have to throw out my phrase. Because I understood everything! Again, it seems like something small from the outside, but let me tell you, I celebrated that tiny win all day long.
I am American. I’m not sorry. This country is incredibly lucky to have me here because I will love and cherish it (and spend my American-made money) the way few locals really do. I don’t take the breathtaking view of the Ionian Sea for granted. I know how fortunate I am to be here. And finally, finally, I feel like I can breathe.
Culture Shock: Moving from Frustration to Acceptance
If I look at the four stages of culture shock, I really can’t argue with them. The first couple of months were my Honeymoon phase. I wanted to explore every nook and cranny of Calabria.
Then I hit a wall and entered Frustration with all the bureaucratic tasks and language frustrations. It sucks to be an intelligent adult reduced to a blubbering toddler because of not fully understanding all the nuances of a language and culture.
I’m happy that I’ve arrived at Adjustment. I’m not fully integrated or at the Acceptance stage, but I’m on my way. I’m adjusting to the myriad ways Italy is different than what I’m used to. Mostly, I’m just glad to be over the hump.
Don’t Discount the Difficulty
For the past year, even before I moved, people kept telling me how brave I was to pack up my life and move to Italy. I heard it so much, it just washed over me.
But I really understand what they meant now. I am brave. Because moving to rural Calabria is no Under the Tuscan Sun. Things are hard. Life is hard for locals, and they sure can’t understand why anyone would choose to live here.
Whenever I go to Rome or Milan, I’m like the country girl in the city. I am thrilled at all the options I have for stores and restaurants. How easy everything is. Even how many people speak English.
But I chose this life. I chose to move to what probably is the most challenging region of Italy for expats. Because I never take the easy path. Because I know there is gold here.
And the longer I’m here, the more this world is opening up to me. I’m starting to meet really cool, intellectual people who are bowled over by this American girl who is thirsty to know more about the Roman and Greek history here, the food, the wine, all of it.
For current or future expats reading this, I’d say give yourself time to go through the stages. When you hit the Frustration stage, know it will end. You will feel differently about your life in a matter of months. Just keep reminding yourself why you decided to change everything in your life to live in another country.