Not everybody is cut out for life overseas. Here are a few things for you to consider.
As of this writing, the U.S. dollar has achieved parity with the euro.
This is good news for American tourists whose vacation budget will go a little further this week than last. For the first time in twenty years, one dollar equals one euro. For us expat-y, digital-nomad types whose incomes are dependent on the USD, that’s good news. For the house of cards that is a volatile, war-torn, pandemically roiled global economy that’s about to plunge into a howling abyss, that’s less good news.
But hey, I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth.
Parity + a terrifying political situation at home = more Americans than ever hoping to put the U.S. squarely in their rearview mirror. Who can blame them? The Embassy of Portugal is fielding more than 100 visa applications a day. Hoping to keep up with European countries (like Portugal) that offer digital nomad visas, Italy has also joined the fray, although as someone who has lived here for the better part of a decade now, I have my doubts. I’d be very surprised if the rules, once they are decided upon (rough estimate: 2086), will be evenly applied. Or comprehensible. Or not gauntleted by a thousand flaming hoops.
This is, after all, Italy. She does a thousand things beautifully, but bureaucratic processes?
The truth is, Italy feels as though she’s already taken in more than her fair share of immigrants. Remember that the country is half the size of Texas but with twice the population. She’s bursting at the seams. And now the parliamento italiano is crooking a beckoning finger to people who can provide the economy with tasty residential-tourist euros, but that doesn’t automatically mean the locals who interact with them are going to be happy about it. A few dozen, sure. But when Americans start arriving in hordes, I predict trouble.
Why am I being so annoyingly negative? Look at the way Americans have historically treated Mexican immigrants. I suspect it’s human nature, hardwired into our DNA even, to look upon foreigners with grave suspicion, whether they come from a different country or a neighboring tribe in the forest primeval. Now that Americans are emigrating, won’t it be interesting to see how hard karma can bite?
But it’s more than that. All due credit to author Frances Mayes, who told a wonderful story in Under the Tuscan Sun, but living in Italy isn’t like that, at all, and too many Americans believe that it is. Living abroad requires a specific skillset, which I will detail here. And while I wasn’t able to find any hard numbers, I personally know quite a few Americans who just couldn’t handle it in Italy and went home.
For starters, the language is daunting. Do not expect Italians, especially those living in the smaller villages, to speak English. Nor should they. They are not here for our convenience; we are guests in their country. Let’s behave like it by adapting to their culture instead of demanding they recreate some approximation of ours.
And I’ve seen that attitude. Every time, it sets my teeth on edge. The American who freaks out because he can’t get ice in his drink (Europe isn’t addicted to iced beverages the way we are, so good luck finding any). The American who has a meltdown because the train is late (this isn’t Switzerland, sorry). The American who doesn’t understand why there aren’t more elevators (it is not always possible to retrofit an elevator into a building that’s over a thousand years old). The American who can’t fathom why businesses close for several hours during the afternoon, often the entirety of Thursday, and for Italy’s many holidays (most businesses are family run and need a break in the middle of the day). The American who goes batshit trying to find parking (just so you know, there isn’t any).
If I had to characterize the single most common reason why some Americans can’t hack life here in Italy, it is this: the inability to tolerate inconvenience. Europe is massively inconvenient, at least by American standards. We traded beauty and history for Starbucks and a paved parking lot. Before coming to Italy from Houston, I never had to parallel park. Now, I’m forced to parallel park on inclines in spaces that are exactly half as long as my car. I never assume Italian stores actually keep their posted hours. I know that raccolta rifuti (trash collection) is a bewildering welter of Byzantine bureaucratic horrors that only a fearsome command of Italian (or a smart bilingual friend) will ever help you to understand. And I am well aware of the patent unfairness of traffic citations. One year, you and everyone else parks on the sidewalk. The next year, your car’s towed.
Welcome to Italy.
But a lot of Americans can’t make these adjustments. They come to Italy expecting gelato that never drips. The reality can be a lot grimmer. Imagine getting your gas bill after your first three months of residence. This is normal, by the way. Things like gas bills, water bills, light bills, depending where you live, don’t arrive in your mailbox every month like they do in the United States. Sometimes you get one every two, three, or even six months. When you see the euro amount (assuming you survive the resulting heart attack), going to the post office to pay that bill can bring even the most intrepid non-native speaker to tears.
Correction: going to the post office for any reason can bring a non-native speaker to tears.
Do you spend a lot of time shopping at big box stores and the mall? You won’t find those here—not many, at least. Are you willing to give up this kind of access and convenience? No more 2:00AM tampon runs. No more stuffed crust pizza, thick crust pizza, or pizza with pineapple.
Gotta recalibrate those expectations.
Try hashing out a bill with an Italian call center. When I can’t see a person’s lips forming Italian words—which are invariably spoken at the speed of light, sometimes by non-native Eastern European speakers—I feel like a deer caught on the headlights. You can’t imagine the humiliation and frustration of being rendered speechless in Italian when you are so very very good at conversing in your own language. Try doing that hundreds of times with no one to bail you out, fumbling for your Google Translate app, correcting your butterfingered English so you get something that resembles intelligible Italian, and there are a dozen people in line behind you staring daggers at your back for having the temerity to exist.
Trying to comprehend Italian real estate law is so daunting, I’m flat-out telling you not to do it. Just hire a professional. I’m not sure the American brain can absorb something so nonsensical, illogical, and medieval as an Italian property deed or a rental agreement. We Americans may know nothing about work-life balance, prioritizing family, or enjoying a leisure moment without a television blaring, but we can cobble together a lucid contract.
Don’t expect that here.
So what is the secret to being a happy expat?
Knowing who you are.
Until recently, psychological science conceptualized a good life in fairly binary terms: hedonic happiness (achieved through experiences of pleasure) and eudaimonic happiness (achieved through experiences that have personal meaning or purpose). Most of us rely on an admixture of both. In my case, I’m more eudaimonic than hedonic, but there is a third, often misunderstood, aspect of how psychologists characterize a good life: the need for and pursuit of varied, interesting, and perspective-changing experiences.
In almost every instance, I and others like me will choose a psychologically rich life at the expense of a happy or meaningful one. Studies show that people wishing to lead more psychologically rich lives tend to be more curious, think more holistically, and lean left politically.
Is it any coincidence that the vast majority of expats are registered Democrats?
The very fact of you clicking on a newsletter called Cappuccino says volumes about your personal and political sensibilities. I seriously doubt Enrique Tarrio of the Proud Boys would even dream of doing such a thing.
It is my belief that the ones who adjust to life overseas crave varied, interesting, and perspective-changing experiences. They are able to weather inconvenience, and they have a fine sense of what it means to be an ambassador for their country (e.g., they check their privilege at the door).
As far as truths go, I hold it to be self-evident that life is meant to be lived in all its messy, fascinating, undignified, screwy glory. If you crave adventure, seek it. But you’ve got to be willing to roll with the punches.
And above all else, never regret the things you do for love. Even if they kill you.
Copyright © 2022 Stacey Eskelin