Being An Expat Isn’t Easy
How do you know when it’s time to go?
I’m sure I’m not the only person living abroad who has wrestled with this question and it’s one of the parts about living abroad that very few people really talk about.
Let’s be honest, when we read about people who have chosen to move to another country, we want to read about all the whacky, fun and wonderfully exciting times they are having. And yes, if you keep an open mind, then living abroad is certainly all that and more but, it’s not always as glamorous as you might think.
I’ve lived in Cosenza for just shy of 7 years now – wow, it’s still hard to believe it’s been that long. When I moved here, I didn’t really have any plan. I wasn’t sure what my future would hold, or how long I would be away. I didn’t move to Italy for a job or a relationship. I moved here for me and to reconnect with a part of me I had lost, my dad.
I was so ready to start my new adventure in Italy, until I arrived in Italy and thought, “What am I doing?!?!”. But, deep down I knew it was something I needed to do, whether it worked out or not. I was looking for something (to this day I still can’t really say what exactly) that I felt I couldn’t find in Canada.
When the shock of what I had done finally wore off, I started to allow myself to entertain the idea of actually making things work here.
At first it was quite entertaining. Everyone is always so fascinated by the crazy “americana” (ahem, I’m actually Canadian) who chose to live in Calabria of all places.
But, after a while it starts getting old. That feeling like I have to justify my reasons and then hearing all the reasons that people are sick of living here. Believe me, I’m fully aware of all the problems here and trust me when I say the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.
It’s hard being the foreigner.
I was never concerned with how I would adjust or adapt to my new environment. I’d been to Italy before and I was raised with Italian traditions and culture. Sure, I didn’t speak the language, but I understood a bit and I had a dictionary and it would force me to learn the language. I no longer had my dad around to translate things to my relative in Italy so it was all on me now and I was up to the challenge. In the beginning it was hard, not being able to express myself the way I wanted to and feeling like I couldn’t really connect with people on the level I wanted to, but as days, weeks and months went by my Italian improved and I was feeling more comfortable with speaking the language.
So, even though I grew up with Italian traditions and I could now sort of speak the language, I should feel less like a foreigner, right? Not really. There is always that word that you just can’t pronounce, that person who speaks so quickly or mumbles you just can’t understand them no matter how hard you try, or someone who interrupts your conversation to bring up that you have a “strange” accent and you are quickly snapped back to the reality that you aren’t Italian regardless of how much a part of who you are it seems to be for you. Growing up in Canada, I always had a strong tie to my Italian roots, it was what I related to and felt comfortable with and being in Italy just didn’t give me that same connection.
Struggling to Make Friends as an Adult
Making friends here has proved to be quite a challenge! My experiences are only based on what I’ve found here in Cosenza, but most groups of friends have known each other since childhood and becoming a part of that group is very difficult. With the few friends I have been able to make here, I feel like we can go out and have fun – but it never seems to go past the surface. I’ve tried to create bonds with people here but it just doesn’t seem to stick, something that I’ve never experienced back in Toronto. Maybe it’s because the friendships I had made back in Canada were cultivated at a younger age and grew as we did.
And so, it can get lonely sometimes. Being away from your family and close friends, who, at times, know you better than yourself, can be a real struggle. So, when I’m feeling frustrated, lonely, or even excited about something, I don’t feel like I have those people here that I am able to share these things with.
Hey there! Oh, Your Leaving…
In major Italian cities like Rome, Milan and Florence, meeting other English speaking expats is easier than if you were in, let’s say, Cosenza! I’ve met very few expats and most of them leave within a year, mainly because they didn’t find what they were looking for here so they decided to move onto a new destination or return home. The ones that are here for the long haul are usually older, married with children and that’s what keeps them here. Meeting people who can relate to you as an expat is so refreshing and it’s heartbreaking to have to say goodbye. Sure, social media helps you to keep in contact with them when they leave, but it’s certainly not the same as meeting up with them for a coffee or an apperitivo to vent or unwind with someone who can relate to the twisted and absurd things you deal with in Italy on an almost daily basis.
Meanwhile, Back at Home.
One of the positive things about living in Cosenza is the low cost of living. It has allowed me the possibility to go home regularly over the years. We can’t pretend that everything just stops once you move abroad, life keeps moving forward for everyone you’ve left behind. Since moving to Italy, my sister has given birth to two beautiful children who are the loves of my life and it’s so hard being away from them. I have gone back often and for long periods of time to be with them and see them grow. I was fortunate to be there for the birth of my niece, but had to wait three months before being able to see and hold my nephew. Although, me staying up until the wee hours of the morning Facebook messaging my brother-in-law as he waited to go in for the birth of his child (the gender was a surprise) will be a funny story to tell my nephew when he gets older. These precious moments with family have always been so important to me, even more so since the passing of my dad.
Unfortunately, just as there are the beautiful life moments you miss out on, there are also the sad moments that you miss too. Receiving news of someone’s passing when you are on the other side of the ocean is heartbreaking. In those moments, you really feel the distance that separates you. Sadly, I’ve lost close relatives and close friends have lost their parents and I would give everything in my power to be there to bid a final farewell or to offer a comforting shoulder to cry on. And returning home after losing someone is surreal. It’s almost as though being away it’s not completely true, until you are back and then it becomes very real.
Building a Future
I’m definitely not the same person I was when I first moved here. Moving abroad has taught me a lot about myself, but what’s next for me?
I knew that it wouldn’t be all beaches and gelato. Sure, there are those random moments that make you fall over laughing because they are “so Italian”. But living here isn’t like living in Canada. There aren’t the same opportunities or growth here. Most of the people I’ve talked to who have a job, have had only one job. It’s like you have a job and that’s it for the rest of your life. No raises, no promotions, you’ve peaked the moment you signed the contract, which in and of itself is a big deal here!
I’ve always wanted to do something that involves writing, and I’m trying to build on that as a career while also working a steady paying job, which isn’t always easy to do. I’m always giving it another year. Maybe things will be different. Perhaps now I’ll have time to pursue other projects. And days, weeks, and months go by. I begin to feel more anxious, stressed and financially insecure, because I don’t have that foundation to build on.
Living abroad has so many positive aspects but it’s also very difficult. I’ve been here 7 years, that’s a long time and when I look back on my time here, I see all the incredible things I’ve done that I could never have done back in Canada.
But, how do you know when it’s time to leave or how do you know that you’ve found your “place”? I guess in this day and age, there really isn’t an answer, the world offers so many paths and life choices and we have the freedom to choose what we want.
I’m not sure what my future holds or where it will take me, only time will tell!
Are you an expat? Have you lived abroad? I’d love to hear your experiences and thoughts on life abroad. Share in the comments below!