Living away from the country where you grew up, the country where everything feels the most familiar, requires fortitude. Being constantly outside of your comfort zone is challenging. Very often it is just plain uncomfortable.
Every day there are things that I marvel at in Italy. Things that they do so well. These are often the elements of the Italian culture and lifestyle that you revel in when you visit as a tourist. Their charisma and expressiveness. The fresh produce and abundance of good food. Their ability to live in the moment, fully immersed in the pleasure of what is happening right now. Their complete and unadulterated love and indulgence of children. The charm of the crumbling architecture, the mountains dotted with quaint villages and the turquoise splendour of the Mediterranean Sea.
All of these are a pleasure to adjust to as they heighten one’s experience of la dolce vita.
In contract however, there are things that make me scratch my head every single day. The thought ‘But why?’ seems to be on a constant loop. Why do they do it that way? Why does it have to be that way? Why can’t they change it to make it easier, simpler, more accessible, cleaner…better?
Of course, in contrast to my homeland, everything in Italy has thousands of years of history leading up to this moment. Subsequently, there are thousands of reasons why bureaucracy is so complicated and convoluted. There are just as many reasons why the economy is broken, why there are no jobs for university graduates, chronic underemployment and a work culture that requires employees to spend hours at work without productivity. Corruption, organised crime, the judicial system, the education system, ineffective police, convoluted social service programs, complicated tax regimes, lack of adequate medical services, disregard for anti-civil behaviour like littering and dumping, poorly maintained roads, bad driving practices. These problems have all developed over centuries and it seems that finding the political and community will, finances and removing the blocks are for the most part unsurmountable.
Some of these problems have minimal impact on our daily lives, but some of them are insidious, frustrating and confronting on a daily basis.
This is the third time we’ve lived in Italy. I still find it difficult to accept that this is just the way it is. As an exchange student in Thailand in the late 1980’s we were coached in the practice of cultural acceptance using the mantra “Not good, not bad, just different”. This phrase comes to mind very often as I go about my day in Italy, but I still struggle to remain open-minded and tolerant in a country that could be one of the world’s leading nations, for both its citizens and visitors.
It is of course the little things that make daily life for an expat uncomfortable.
There is the daily reality of going out into the world and speaking a third language. My Italian hasn’t improved as much as it has on previous trips, mostly because I’m speaking and schooling Sofia in English at home. With a 9-year old’s bedtime dictating many of our evenings we also don’t socialise as much with Italian friends. When someone speaks to me at the shops, on the street or at work I often feel a spark of dread in my gut as part of my brain worries that I’m going to come up against vocabulary or verb conjugations I don’t know or have forgotten. This constant state of discomfort results in me wanting to improve my Italian but finding little motivation to do it when I’m at home in the safety of our apartment.
Discomfort presents itself in different ways. The supermarket is another place where I experience the wonder of shopping in Europe, and the frustration of not being in multicultural Australia. Sure, I can get a thousand varieties of cheese, salamis, affordable pomodorini (tinned tomatoes), the widest variety of pasta and Italian wine. But it’s almost impossible to find cheddar cheese. I have to travel an hour into the chaotic heart of Naples to buy an affordable bottle of soy sauce, curry paste or coconut milk. I can buy a type of sliced bread, but it’s kind of weird, smaller and loaded with preservatives. Avocadoes are ridiculously expensive and generally rotten inside…oh, how we miss avocadoes. You need to wear plastic gloves when you select fruit and vegetables and put it into plastic bags. Both of which go straight into the bin.
It can be said that Italians are not great at forward planning. My weekly teaching schedule is slowly updated in the calendar just a few days before the lessons happen. We receive Whatsapp messages from the parent’s group for Miss S’s class at 10pm informing us about something important the students are doing the next day. We receive diary messages about urgent school supplies she needed for yesterday’s lessons. I still don’t understand why the students aren’t given a list of all school and uniform supplies they need for the year before the academic year commenced. Miss S is now into her third variation of the school uniform – one for every season it appears. European Union funded school projects are advertised in mid-November for a start date of early December. Decisions about Christmas will be made in the week leading up to Christmas. This last-minute process of organizing and informing is in complete contrast to my usual modus operandi, and causes me significant discomfort, but I’m trying to let it ride and accept that sometimes we just won’t know what we don’t know until we know it.
We are both teaching English, but we make significantly less money that we do in Australia. While we cover our expenses, we are not able to save; just like many other Italians. This inability to save and build up an Italian funded safety net makes me uneasy. We live pay cheque to pay cheque like most Italians. Italians generally get paid on a monthly basis. In Australia I was paid fortnightly. Stretching the budget from 2 to 4 weeks seems like a simple enough process, but the reality is more difficult. We find ourselves living as frugally as possible to ensure we have enough as the monthly clock winds down.
We don’t spend money on luxuries or vices. We have only one vehicle. We don’t eat out much. We shop only when we need things. Miss S is constantly being told that we can’t afford to buy her every toy she asks for. We are also working to minimise the amount of stuff we accumulate. She doesn’t actually need anything. She has enough toys and books and entertainment. But her peers at school all have phones and at times she is an outsider when they are face down on their screens.
The other reality of living an expat life is the homesickness. Homesickness is something that never really goes away. More than anything Miss S simply misses Australia. The space, her dog, her trampoline and her friends. Theoretically she understands and accepts that we are here for the experience, to spend time with her Italian relatives and give her the opportunity to go to school and learn the language. But occasionally she rallies up and complains about how hard it is, how homesick she feels sometimes and asks how long are we planning to be away from the place where she really belongs – Australia? These outbursts leave me feeling distressed. I recognise that what we are asking her to do is difficult. She is experiencing immense personal growth, and very often she feels out of place, lost, confused and uncomfortable. We are asking her to do at 9 what I did at age 16 as a student in Thailand. However, she is both Italian and Australian and ultimately, we want her to feel completely at home in both countries. Hopefully, this experience will be the gateway to her future connection with Italy, its culture, language and people.