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What's It Really Like Living in Italy?

Five things you need to know.

Italy cities to visit according to Stacey Eskelin at Cappuccino
San Gemini, Umbria. WELL worth the trouble to see.

At some point during my seven years in Italy, I realized that I could never go home again.

I don’t mean that literally. Of course, I could go home and stay home, if I chose to. What I mean is I’ve been away long enough to not be wholly American anymore.

It’s an unsettling feeling. In a way, you become a person without a country. I’ll never be Italian, and I’m no longer 100% American. Where do I belong?

Cinque Terre described by Stacey Eskelin at Cappuccino
Cinque Terre. The blue of the Adriatic brought tears to my eyes.

But an interesting thing happened, one I never anticipated. Home began to exist inside me. Every sign I couldn’t read, every bus schedule I couldn’t parse, every faux pas I committed, every time I clutched the phone in bewildered panic as the person on the other end of the line jabbered at me in rapid fire Italian … all these things drove me deeper inside myself. By the time I got there, I had no choice but to stay, stretch my legs, and order a cappuccino. I didn’t mind the company.

  1. If you want to discover yourself, travel.

You’re never comfortable in a foreign country, especially for an American. The U.S. has perfected comfort—indeed, we have sacrificed our own architectural history to make way for it. How many Art Deco movie houses have we bulldozed in order to build a parking lot?

Before moving to Europe, I’d never even had to parallel park a car. My native land of Houston is little more than a long expanse of heat-shimmery asphalt followed by a ten-lane freeway followed by a suburb followed by a strip mall. If you needed aspirin at two in the morning, you drove two blocks to a CVS, which is always open. Hungry? There are ten Whataburgers per square mile, and you won’t even have to get out of your car.

But I have found that comfort and ease are soft chains. These are not conducive to growth. In the same way that the true character of a man is revealed when his back is against the wall or he’s been given power, so too is your character revealed when the closest you can park your car is half a mile away, no stores are open, you can’t get the lights turned on because your Italian isn’t up to it, there are no elevators, the stairs get steeper every year, nothing makes sense, it’s four in the morning, and your neighbors are screaming at each other.

  1. Living in Italy is like living in a fairytale, only sometimes you feel trapped there.

Hawaiians call is “island fever”—a sense that non-native transplants can sometimes have that they’ve been completely marooned. Sure, the weather is balmy and the water is blue, but is there any way off this island?

There comes a point where you really do miss your own culture. The idea of walking down a city street and everything being written in English, English spoken all around you … these are no small things. You yearn to hear American music, eat American food (which is, ironically, the food of a thousand different cultures housed under one rubric: America). Being able to park in front of a store and walk into all that lovely air-conditioning fills you with yearning. Yet, two weeks in your own country, and all you’ll want to do is claw your way back to Europe again using only your thumbs, if necessary. I still haven’t figured out why, but it’s true.

  1. Self-employed people can’t get legal here. You either have a hefty retirement pension and/or a trust fund, or you’re going to have to get very creative in how you overstay your visa.

Unless you have a work contract with, say, an American company that has a branch in Italy, there is very little likelihood you will find a job here. First, you’re not legally permitted to work unless you can fulfill a function that no other Italian can. If you aren’t legal, you can’t buy a car and will be forced to rent one. High-season rental fees could choke a horse. Opening up a bank account means paying the “foreigner rate” (more money), and right now we’re getting hosed on the exchange rate (1.21 USD to one euro, plus transaction fees = you’re a lot poorer than you thought.)

Italian cities to visit according to Stacey Eskelin at Cappuccino
Amelia Cathedral will take your breath away.

Even if you do get a job here, there’s a good chance you’re going to hate it. Most businesses are family run, which means cousin Matteo is always going to be given more work hours than you are. The pay is abysmal. 1,200 euros is the average salary in Rome—shocking when you realize that’s also the average cost of an apartment. During lunch breaks, everyone speaks Italian, even at English-forward companies, so let’s hope you know what’s going on. The joke could be on you, and you might not know it.

  1. The beauty of Italy will gut you like a sea bass.

Not even France can rival Italy’s bucolic splendor, in this girl’s opinion. Italy has mountains, valleys, oceans, alps, ancient cities, Renaissance churches, unrivaled artwork, and food, food, food. It’s an embarrassment of riches here, ones your average Italian takes very much for granted. They pine for the shiny skyscrapers of New York City, the exciting, the modern, the new. Most Americans are sick of that. We want the slower pace, the rooster crowing, the roses tumbling over an ancient stone wall. Once Italy gets into your bloodstream, you never fully recover. It’s like dengue fever. Expect relapses.

  1. You need a high degree of self-sufficiency and introversion to be happy in a foreign country. Also high-speed Wi-Fi.

If I had been truly gregarious instead of the outgoing loner that I am, it’s unlikely I would have made it this long. Like a shellfish, I can exist for long periods of time on my own moisture. But if I required tons of outside stimuli, malls, and Whataburgers, again, things would have been a lot more difficult. If you’re considering making the jump, know that having a métier (i.e., writing, art, cooking) is important. You’re going to be entertaining yourself a lot, especially during Europe’s cold wet winters. Your high-speed Internet connection will help you stay in touch with friends and family, but also your own culture (we watch a lot of Rachel Maddow and Netflix in this house.)

You have to let go and let life if you’re going to make it overseas, otherwise you will experience a lot of unnecessary pain. So much of our pain is some form of non-acceptance, some form of unconscious resistance to what is. There’s a whole lot of “what is” here.

Italy loves nothing more than to laugh at your silly plans and petty agendas. Take it all in stride. Then find an outdoor café and have yourself a Campari.

That is what Italy offers you. She offers you yourself.

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