Dropping a comfortable and stable life for expatriation, whatever one’s reasons, is a brave thing to do. It’s also reckless and more than a little stupid.
My first experience abroad was as an au pair the summer following my freshman year of college. I was picked up at Charles de Gaulle airport—jetlagged and grasping my first ever passport stamp—by an elderly couple who didn’t speak a word of English but had volunteered to pick up their grandkids’ American babysitter. I did my best to say bonjour and politely accept food and smile a lot before drifting off to sleep at their home. The next day, as we drove to meet the family I would sit for, I first saw France’s green hillsides topped with ruined castles—plural, castles!—and I thought this is gorgeous, this is amazing. I tested the words with my tongue and then sat, silent, terrified to get it wrong.
I don’t know if I came off as aloof or stupid, but by the time we arrived at our destination, the Parisian grandparents were ready to let the extended family know how much they disliked the new au pair. Have you ever met Parisian grandparents? The summer did not go well.
Every miscommunication and cultural misstep made my hosts more suspicious of their decision to invite me into their home and concurrently pulled me further into myself, a journal, and a handful of books. I boarded that return flight shaking with let-down and relief, while the mother of the children I’d been watching, dear Dominique, drove away equally disappointed, equally content with my departure.
For a long time before and after this, I considered shyness my greatest personality flaw. I once took an online personality survey that told me what I already knew (which is what online quizzes are for, after all): 95 percent of respondents are more extroverted than I. In Italy, though, that doesn’t stop me from going to the grocery store or saying ciao to other parents at the park. As a nineteen year old au pair, my weakness wasn’t introversion but perfectionism and its evil twin: fear of failure. I failed as an au pair because on day one I was afraid of the mistakes that are an inevitable part of learning.
I studied in Austria a year later and travelled in Europe many times in the decade following, but that first failure abroad more sharply impacted my psyche going into our Italian endeavours than any later successes: I knew that the greatest liability to my success as an expat was always going to be myself.
This time, I hadn’t studied the language before arrival, I didn’t have a deep-rooted love affair with la bella vita (whatever that means), and I’d never particularly wanted to be in Italy. And this time, I am proud of my expatriate experience. I didn’t let fear keep me from living my Italian life. I learned the language to the best of my ability and shrugged off the confusion I caused by speaking nonsense or shifting into French in a panic. In the few instances where a shopkeeper, waitress, or that horrid doctor in Bolzano were rude because they didn’t want to deal with a foreigner, I let myself be angry and moved on. I made friends the expatriate way (oh, you speak English? wanna hang out?) and the old-fashioned way (with neighbors, through our children playing at the park). I’ve even established a part-time business for myself, working as an editor through contacts made locally and online. In eighteen months, I’ve built a life here, which is the fastest move-to-feeling-like-home transition I’ve ever had.
In two and a half weeks, we return to the United States, and we’re going to stay. J was offered an engineering position with a Silicon Valley company and enthusiastically accepted. We crossed almost every hurdle of expatriation, but the Italian university system was a barrier we weren’t prepared for.
The advisers J came to work with—who we both gave up jobs and moved across the world for J to learn from—became adversaries, and we never were able to fathom how or why that happened. When your opponent is playing a different game than you, there’s a short time frame in which to learn the rules or walk away.
Repatriating is the right move for our family and for our careers, but for the last several weeks I’ve been mourning the loss of what we had been building here in northern Italy, the life I had been envisioning. Perhaps because of the moves we’ve hazarded in recent years (Tuscaloosa, Sacramento, Trento), I don’t do change easily, and the idea of starting over yet again at times makes my stomach churn. Readers can expect many posts about this in the months to come – about loss and rebuilding and the fast approaching “reverse culture shock.” Don’t worry, though, because all those life in Italy topics that I’ve been intending to write are still on the menu, too – our road trip to Paris, some confusion about edelweiss, and the oft promised chestnut post to start.