The Expat Life: Those Lucky Bastards….right?

After spending several years living abroad, often when I return home for a visit I’ll hear comments like “wow, you’re so lucky” or “I wish I could do that” – often tied directly to the listener’s feelings about my adopted country and what they imagine my life must be like, heartily fueled by images from Hollywood.

But the life of an expat is far from romantic, far from perfect, and far from lucky.

It’s uncomfortable, it’s humbling, and it’s a lot of hard work.

Don’t believe me? Then play for me, if you will, a tiny violin which accompanies this explanation of living abroad (in any country) and why it’s not all cappuccinos and pasta. Note: This post is not specific to Italy nor Italians, nor is it US vs. THEM in any way. Rather, it’s a look at being immersed in any culture and language, from the point of view of an expat. 

Are you sure you want to be an expat?

Because here, you’re not smart. Not at the beginning.

Unless you were born speaking the language of your adopted country, you are an infant when you arrive. At first you can’t communicate at all. Then as you get a small vocabulary, you don’t really understand the particulars of each phrase you hear, but only the general sense of it if you’re lucky.  You consider it a victory if you follow a normal conversation without having to interrupt the natural flow to ask someone what a particular word means. Every time conversation stops and heads turn your way, waiting for your answer, you realize you weren’t really understanding at all. You try a smile as the default answer for questions you didn’t know were being asked to you, but it only gets you so far. You feel dumb. And frustrated.

Sometimes you feel paranoid about speaking and that you’ll have to stop in the middle of explaining something or will have to ask for help because the word you lack you know so well in your native language and is continually banging at your frontal lobes to be let out, yet the equivalent in the foreign language eludes you completely.

You hope the smiles on others’ faces are because they are interested in you, and not because your accent, no matter how faint it becomes over the years, is a novelty for them. On bad days you decide spacing out is better than trying to follow a conversation whose content you are following akin to a tennis match: she’s speaking, now he is, now she is. If you can’t space out, you must move your head accordingly and match your facial expressions to the others’ lest they find out you’re not really following.

You’re not funny, either.

Most of the jokes in your new country have years of cultural meaning behind them that you haven’t been able to glean from reading Mickey Mouse and the occasional newspaper article in that language when you first arrive. You horde the free newspapers with a plan to read them from cover-to-cover and improve your vocabulary, but you give up halfway through and rely on the pictures and their sub-captions to appease your study drive which has now rolled to a halt. And what you wouldn’t give for a slang dictionary which would just add another step in your comprehension from slang to proper foreign language to your own language. You pat yourself on the back if you learn one new slang word a week.

You want all conversations to slow down, just for once, and perhaps allow you to participate instead of analyzing them as a concerned spectator. The one time you manage to think of a witty reply with the limited vocabulary you have available, the conversation has since continued on without you and your interjection minutes later will just highlight and reinforce your first suspicion about yourself: here, you’re not smart.

The times when you are funny are usually when you don’t want to be: you make people smile at your pronunciation, you accidentally invert vowels or consonants and turn a polite word into a vulgar or inappropriate one, you refer to yourself in third person or address a question to the dog, or you treat a government worker like a teenage girlfriend because slang and colloquial speak seems to be the strongest and most accessible part of your foreign vocabulary. You find out people always have time to teach the foreigner these types of phrases, yet perhaps not the phrases that help you defeat bureaucracy.

That funny, witty person who is able to charm the pants off friends and strangers at home did not make it through customs with you into this new country.

You don’t know who anyone is.

A native friend nudges you after you pass an important politician on the street. The name means nothing to you, the party name even less. Perhaps you’ve heard of it or seen a poster, but you’ve had difficulty distinguishing which posters are political and which are product advertisements. Most of the political parties have similar names dealing with “democratic” or “liberty” or “people” so you aren’t sure how the natives can tell them apart. You start thinking about how many other famous or semi-famous people you’ve been near and haven’t realized it. It’s probably a very large number.

You’re eager to make new friends, but only if they stick around.

At first, you want to meet anyone and everyone, and you’re drawn to those who are in a similar situation as you. You meet friends of friends coming for a short visit, desperate for a slice of your native language and hopefully some smuggled treats or magazines.

Then, later you find that emotionally you do have a limit, and that limit now excludes people passing through for a few months and will probably leave by the time you get to know them. Playing the tourist guide for your neighbor’s husband’s cousin wanes in appeal and you start planning new itineraries which will allow you to drop them off at attractions and come back later.

You see a lot of other expats come and go. At the beginning, it’s easier, because you’re still learning about the country and how to fit in, and haven’t had time to think about the future, leaving, or staying. Each day brings new challenges: bureaucracy, new vocabulary words, new foods you haven’t tried and people you haven’t met.

In time the milestones grow further apart, the newness begins to wane and now the really ugly part starts: some of your friends, including the natives you thought would always live here, will pick up and move. Now it’s they who will start their brand-new lives elsewhere. Soon you start to count the number of those who are remaining and it is far outweighed by those who have left.

You are an oddity and attraction for the natives.

You answer the question “Why did you come here?” so many times that over time, you craft the answer and it morphs into something completely different from the first time you said it. Now you choose the answer based on how much you really want to continue talking about it with the person, and how much they are asking because they want to get to know you or because they just can’t understand you.

Years later, you don’t even remember what that first answer was, and very few people ask you now why you’re here. They’ve accepted the fact you’re here.

Another question you often get asked is “Do you like it here?” At first you permit yourself to express any doubts or concerns about being happy here, as it’s new to you and you’re still adjusting. Years later you realize if you don’t say you’re happy, you’ll have to face the fact you’ve been living here for years, unhappy.

You are your country, you are your countrymen.

Every bad thing that happens in your native country or that your country does will inevitably be brought up in conversations with you. Usually the person’s opinion is clearly expressed well before asking yours, if they ask at all. You may be asked to defend, explain, or criticize a subject or person which you might’ve never talked about had you not moved.

You’ll have to get used to the fact that the people in your current country may know more about your home country and its current news than you do.

You have a new form of kryptonite: bureaucracy.

Not only are you struggling to keep up with conversations, cultural references, slang, and jokes in your new language, but you are faced with understanding the most difficult, legal-speak of all: bureaucracy. Often it’s so difficult even the natives have trouble understanding the documentation and rules which will govern your stay in your new country.
You hope not to mess things up, somehow miss an important detail, or worse yet: never find out about something required until it’s too late. This fear under-rides a lot of your day-to-day dealings and assures you no matter how long you’ve been in the country, you still can’t relax.

But it’s not all growing pains, awkwardness, or feeling out of place.

You can be an example.

You are your country, you are your countrymen, and that means you have a unique opportunity: to enrich people’s perspectives and (hopefully) combat stereotypes by being yourself and adding to their experiences with someone from your country.

You’ll be bi-cultural, and hopefully bi-lingual. 

Do I really need to explain the awesomeness of this? Being able to flow from one culture to the other, from one conversation to another, and from one perspective to another is very powerful.

You’ll be more sensitive to others in difficult situations, too. 

Nothing heightens awareness to others’ plights than being in a difficult situation yourself. How could you not be sensitive to other difficulty, injustice, or cultural clashes when you’ve gone through a similar situation?

You are different. You are changed by your surroundings.

Your new country will change you whether you like it or not. You will never be the same person that you were before you moved. You’ll spend time trying to figure out if it’s just you getting older or if it’s your surroundings that have impacted you the most.

You’ll unfortunately be unable to separate the two but you know, deep down, that the new country was to be the stage where these changes would occur.

You’re an expat.

If you want to keep reading more about finding your own path in life, I suggest fellow expats Diana Baur’s A Certain Simplicity, and Michelle Fabio’s Bleeding Espresso for some thought-provoking posts.

If you’re looking for information specifically about moving to Italy, my series of posts on this are a great place to start.

Comments

  1. says

    This is a truly wonderful post. It is nearly impossible to put the expat experience (eloquently) into words, and more than once I’ve struggled to express these same ideas. I’ve been in France for 6 years now, and only now can I, from time to time, pull off a joke. I also tire of the endless “when do you think you’ll go home?”-type questions. So thanks for writing what I haven’t (thus far) been able to.

    (by the way, found your blog while reading for an upcoming little Italy vacation, and so, so happy I did !)

  2. says

    You fully captured the expat experience in a few eloquent paragraphs. Brava! This post was a pleasure to read and really struck a chord with me, as I ran into the “you’re so lucky” comment a time or two myself while living as an expat in Italy. Thanks for sharing your insight!

    • Ms. Adventures in Italy says

      @Sarah – Thanks for saying that. I sat on this post for years actually before publishing it! Not too many things changed for me in that time though :)

  3. Carrie says

    Thank you for stating this so eloquently. Substitute expat for military child and you know my life growing up, both in country and over seas. I feel it made me a stronger more aware person but its true you never really relax when you know you are moving very shortly. I am great at chit chat though – in more than one language :)

    • Ms. Adventures in Italy says

      @Carrie – I definitely don’t envy you being a military child but you probably have some skills that the rest of us will never have :) Thanks for commenting!

  4. rowena says

    I’m going to blame living in the middle of the chestnut forest as the reason why much of the expat experience eludes me. You’ve done a good service in sharing this post with aspiring expats and for those who think living in a foreign country is all that. Thank god I love the food!

  5. says

    Wow. This post is amazing – and totally spot on. Although I’m living in Scotland, not Italy, and probably can’t make the point about bureaucracy to quite the same degree, it’s as if you were in my head! What a great and totally honest ‘see for yourself if it’s worth it’ post for people who romantically long to live abroad but are not sure if they can make themselves do it. The whole truth and nothing but the truth, haha!

  6. says

    Fabulous article and so, so true.

    I get surprise, both from friends, other expats & Omanis) at the fact that after 5 years in the Gulf I do not speak Arabic. However pretty much all Omanis speak some English and want to practise & switch to English even if you start in Arabic. Other times when I try the shop assistants are immigrants from Bangladesh & Pakistan and I need urdu or bangla or… And people wonder why I don’t speak it :)

    • Ms. Adventures in Italy says

      @Sue – I can definitely see that. I taught English at the beginning of living here and it was difficult to learn being surrounded by English!

  7. says

    What a great perspective to share! Having spent 10 years being and expat (and now adjusting to being a re-pat – which is harder? I have yet to decide!) I could totally relate to all that you have said. It is an incredibly humbling experience and I don’t think people who haven’t made that journey with you can possibly understand.

    The question I always got that drove me crazy was, “What do you miss the most about home?”

    Closely followed by, “Where are you from?” To which my answer was, “I’m from here. I’ve lived here for a decade. This is where I’m from now, regardless of my accent, thankyouverymuch!”

    What an adventure!

    • Ms. Adventures in Italy says

      @Rebecca – I haven’t hit 10 years yet (next year!) but I still say I’m from California. Old habits die hard :)

  8. says

    Great post, so well put and really sums up what many of us struggle with after being here for a while living daily life. It’s a blessing and a curse to live in a touristy area because on one hand you get caught up with the excitement and get to constantly see the world through the eyes of a tourist, but the reality of the challenge of daily life and the fact that you aren’t on perpetual vacation, it can be frustrating. I think the key is to have a quality of life, whereever you live. I’ve seen too many people come run away to escape to Italy to live the dream and leave quickly soon after realizing their problems still exist in paradise.

    • Ms. Adventures in Italy says

      @Tania! One of the few who is still here :) Quality of life, wherever you live. I really like that. :)

  9. Mary says

    Great post! You’ve truly captured what it means to be an expat. I think the thing that bothers me most is missing all the cultural references. People make jokes that refer to old TV shows, songs, public figures, etc. and they go right over your head. Everyone’s laughing and you just wish you could figure out why. Oh, and I don’t know how many times I just tuned out conversations because I couldn’t keep up. It was bad enough in Italian, but once they started going in dialect, forget it!

    • Ms. Adventures in Italy says

      @Mary – it feels good once you start to get them with everybody else, doesn’t it? I’ve also picked up some dialect but the problem with that is you can learn one dialect out of dozens and communicate with a fraction of the people :) But the dialect slang is fun, too.

  10. says

    Every time conversation stops and heads turn your way, waiting for your answer, you realize you weren’t really understanding at all.

    This. Oh. Emm. Gee: THIS. The times it’s happened to me. Or people ask for a translation of a word into English and, although I’ve been following the conversation OK, I can’t just do a translation because it doesn’t WORK like that. And they look at you in that pitying way as if to say, ‘what kind of English teacher are you anyway, that you can’t even TRANSLATE for me?’ Thank you so much for posting this!

    • Ms. Adventures in Italy says

      @Katja – I forgot about being a language expert, of your language :) The on-the-spot translations can be fun. Or frustrating.

  11. says

    So well put. I’ve not really been an expat but I did a summer session at the Sorbonne many many years ago–young enough to be naive about what I was getting into. I loved it but I also wound up cutting off an extra week after classes to go to England where I could travel in a foreign country but speak ENGLISH! I’ve longed to live in France or possibly Italy but I also hesitate over just the things you’re bringing up. But I’d also like to get to that side you describe at the end, where you speak another language and know another culture…. Very nice post!

  12. says

    “On bad days you decide spacing out is better than trying to follow a conversation whose content you are following akin to a tennis match: she’s speaking, now he is, now she is.”

    hehhehehehhehe….. yeah.

  13. says

    I published my comment before finishing, oops :)

    Wanted to add… though I speak the language (and work in it) it’s the group conversations that kind of get me spacing out… I still do best with one-on-one conversations and probably will for a while.

  14. says

    What a refreshingly honest read! I love my new life on the Amalfi Coast, but it is by no means the blissful sitting in the sun drinking lemonade all day long all year that many people assume it is. Just when I feel like I’m starting to fit it, I’ll have a day like today. Let me just say that the hospital experience in another country can make you feel not so smart all over again – just when you thought you might be finding your way. There’s so much to learn every day! I love the challenge, but it can be exhausting. Thanks for the realistic and yet still optimistic look at expat life. Just what I needed today!

    Warm wishes from the Amalfi Coast,
    Laura

    • Ms. Adventures in Italy says

      @Laura – I think most of us expats enjoy challenges in general, thank goodness. We need badges for unlocking “achievements” like smooth hospital visits and 30-minute bureaucracy checks, etc. :)

  15. says

    I laughed all the way through this! How many times during the construction of our home in Sicily was I laughed at for saying “tetta” instead of “tetto”; or at dinner “zuppa di cazzo” instead of “zuppa di cozze”. The list is endless (actually, there IS a list being maintained by my cousins). Zoning out during a dinner conversation is a coward’s way out. My biggest challenge, since they all speak AT THE SAME TIME, is choosing which one or two to try to follow. Great job, Ms. Adventure. You’re right on target!

    • Ms. Adventures in Italy says

      @Mia – Even better is when you’re asked to say some (dialect/slang) and you repeat it without knowing what it is – later on you find out it’s quite vulgar/rude :)

  16. says

    Nice post! It’s funny to read about your perspective since as an Italian often abroad I felt exactly the same way…so many times! I’m glad I found your blog, so now I can look at my experience at reverse!

  17. says

    How true this post is. I’m amazed…It’s been one year and a half since I left Italy for London and it’s been one year and a half of struggling…and working hard!

    But, on a side note, I’ve noticed that the more I am immerse in a foreign culture (and it happened to me before when I was living in India), the more I recognise and appreciate the distinctive traits of mine. Has it ever happened to you too?

    • Ms. Adventures in Italy says

      @Jacopo – of course! Being abroad definitely raised awareness of my own culture and of both the positive and negative traits of it. You can’t help but compare.

  18. mimmo says

    hello americans…. living in italia you are (we are) lucky bastards… if you don’t appreciate how lucky you (we) are, then go back to the states….

    enjoy italia and don’t complain….

    mimmo

    • Ms. Adventures in Italy says

      @Mimmo – I invite you to read the post again since it appears you didn’t understand the meaning behind it. Nothing in the post is directed at Italy or Italians but at being an expat, in any country. There are some common threads no matter where you live.

  19. says

    I actually don’t envy you at all (though an Italian existence does sound quite romantic) as I know how much work it is–my first dose of living abroad was in Scotland, which was a good transition country, but man, Holland and Denmark were NOT easy, particularly with the er “difficult” (or rather, not-so-pretty) languages they speak there! I often have dreams of moving somewhere like Portugal for a year or so, then I remember how frustrating it was to be an expat and I quickly change my mind.

    Regardless, I love this whole post.

    • Ms. Adventures in Italy says

      @Kristin – you’re almost an expat by the sheer amount of travel you’ve done :) Of course most of these struggles are towards the beginning of the journey and you can get by them. So if you ever want to move to Italy…let me know, I’ll show you around! ;)

  20. Tracy says

    I also think Mimmo missed the point a bit…I don’t feel like a lucky bastard living for in Italy, even with all the great aspects. It’s not like there was a lottery and I won the chance to live here over my friends and family in the US. I CHOSE to live here. I could have just as easily chose to live in Chicago. Things have worked out since being here which have allowed me to stay, and I’m grateful for that, but I would also wish for those great fortunes had I went to Chicago, for example.

  21. says

    Great article! I’ve been in Italy for 13 years now and I remember how frustrating it was (after the novelty of your new environment wears off) when no one could understand me and all the “non ho capito”s were disheartening.

  22. says

    Very entertaining and so true! ‘The grass is always greener’! I get my Italian friends wondering what I’m doing here and why I left Australia. My Aussie friends think my life is a romantic adventure and yes, if I had a euro for every time one of them said, “You’re so lucky! what a great life you have!”………… I do have a great life yes, but living in Italy has definitely had many ‘bang my head on the wall moments and I could relate to so much of what you wrote.
    Great blog!
    Lisa

  23. Tina says

    I can only echo what others have said here, your words are very wise and so true. We have been here nearly 5 years and I have become accustomed to the heads turning every time I open my mouth to speak and even yesterday, I asked a simple question in clear Italian and the shop owner went to get his son because ‘my son speaks English’. Thanks for encapsulating life here so well.

  24. says

    I am an American living in Italy. I have been here a really long time and at one stage or another have experienced most of these situations. I learned the language when I was a kid so that made things easier, but I experience the language barrier through my Italian husband’s experience every time we are in the States, despite his English being pretty darn good. It is hard to talk politics, business or even make smart jokes in a language that is not your mothertongue and you always come across as a little stupid. I just posted about my experience at the immigration office here and can only say two words: a nightmare. But I do agree that experiencing two different cultures, languages, countries makes you a richer, more complete and more empathetic human being.

  25. says

    That was a great this morning with my coffee. You hit the nail on the head. I can relate in so many ways from having lived in France for a total of 8 years. I was with a group of English and Germany expats whose homes were paid for, all their gas, all their food, etc. and my husband was French and money was tight for us. It made it even harder. They were zooming off to Spain, going home to England every other month…eating out as much as they wanted. We couldn’t even afford the toll and gas to go into Paris (4 hours away) No one could relate to my homesickness as an American. They thought the weather was fantastic too…um…no. Being from California there were days I just couldn’t open my shutters and face the gray sky. I am lucky that my husband has had no problem adapting with life here in California.

  26. says

    I forgot to mention… I had no computer while there. 8 years ago they had no unlimited access. I could never even write emails. I think that would have helped.

  27. says

    Great post (as always). Entering into an ex-pat life with realistic expectations can make all the difference in the world between a rewarding, fulfilling experience, and deeply regreting the decision.

  28. Ken Williams says

    I don’t know where you lived in Bella Italia, but your exteriences were quite different from mine. I lived in LaSpezia (Liguria) for five years, enjoyed every minute of it and was sad to leave. Still go back as often as time and money permit. In my book, the Italiani are the most gracious folks I’ve ever met. True if you want to be “King (or Queen) of the roost, I promise you will be shunned. Blend and listen and you will be accepted!

    • Ms. Adventures in Italy says

      @Ken, this post wasn’t really about Italy or Italians, as I mentioned above, and it’s definitely not an US vs. THEM article. Rather it’s about the expat’s experiences, and a look at the growing pains any expat will go through when being immersed in a new language and culture.

      I also still live here in Italy, and I like living here :)

  29. says

    I have been an ‘expat-wife’ for the past 8 years & I can totally relate to your post! But, I’m so happy we took the chance and lived 2 years in France and 6 years in Brazil… still doubting what my real home country is… :)
    Recently moved ‘back home’ and must admit that ‘re-patting’ is even harder and at times even more challenging…
    Take care!

  30. says

    Were I to become an expat… hmm, the language barrier is what I would find the hardest, and if people asked me if I liked it there I would probably reply, “yes and no.”

  31. says

    This about summed up my life when I moved to Paris…I felt like a 4 year old at all dinner parties I went to. French person asks “So, what do you think of American foreign politics?”. My reply in my rudimentary French at that time “Me no like”. :(

  32. bgomez says

    Great post! I will be forwarding this to my husband. I am living in Mexico City after having lived in Italy and can totally relate. Thanks!

  33. says

    As an expat (USA–>UK) I have been exactly where you are. Life in the suburbs of Washington DC are far different to towns and cities in Scotland. What amuses me in addition to what you posted above is that everyone assumes if you moved over for love, that you now have a fairytale ending. All I can say is, marriage is marriage no matter where you live! It isnt all castles and quaint little country cottages that everyone thinks when you go back for visits.

    There are other challenges as well like shopping, even when the language is still the same. I cant imagine how much harder it was for you! I dated my husband for 8 years before I finally settled across the pond, and in November I will have been settled here for five years. And everyday, I stumble across something new and unfamiliar. Sometimes, the adventure is great, other times you just wish for something comforting.

    Great article.

  34. says

    Hi there! What an amazing post…I could read myself in the words you used…I just returned to Italy after 5 years spent in Sydney, Australia. I totally agree with what you wrote…it can be very hard to be an expat ( to not mention being a migrant) . There are countries where it is easier to integrate than others, however it is always a tough experience , but that does reward you at the end! Keep it up :-)

  35. Eric says

    Well said! The following article should be required reading for anyone thinking about moving abroad and the expat life. I’m currently in China and everything you’ve written is just as true if not more true here. Here it is especially hard because the “never fitting in” is even more difficult due to the fact that me (a tall, white, blond guy) will never ever fit in with the locals even if you speak, act, and do everything else exactly the same as the locals. Bureaucracy, man, don’t even get me started. The bigger problem is that even after 4+ years and big adjustments here you are always deemed a 老外 literally an “outsider” no matter what.

  36. says

    9 years ago I move from South Africa to London, and it still amazes me how much gets ‘lost in translation’. I still love it here though. Wonderful post, so many can relate.

  37. says

    Carrie, you’re a different breed of expat, you are a TCK :-) (I am one too) if you don’t know about it yet, check it out, it will bring a lot of perspective about your identity!

  38. says

    A wonderful post that captures the expat experience. It is maddening to be so limited in self expression, clueless about the social and political scene and then there’s the bureaucracy … But in spite of all the hassles, I love being an expat. It is a gift to be living abroad, especially these days when you can keep in touch with email and Skype. Thanks for telling our story so eloquently!

  39. says

    Brava!!

    Well said.

    I know exactly what you mean.

    I’m still struggling with the language because I work in English and there are so many English speakers in Rome. Hopefully, with my new endeavors things will change.

    I’m also trying to find the balance between being friendly and saying, no.

  40. says

    Well written and totally relatable! I am a British expat in Athens, Greece – but I have to say, I love life here more than my own country.
    Yes, there are frustrating things here – but once I embrace this, learn to shrug my shoulders and know I cannot be the sole person to change it and must accept and embrace cultural differences – I kind of like it.

    Follow my adventures on http://www.leavingcairo.blogspot.com and thanks for such an inspiring read.
    :0)

  41. ZheCk says

    The article is true, but the many things are of course tailored to the italian experience… where the communication relies a lot on gestures and implicit background.
    Different cultures (the american one for instance) have a straight communication style, that, for instance, might sound a bit redundant and pedagogic for an italian audience.
    Nontheless, all of the points covered are shared (with more or less intensity) among those who tried a real experience abroad.

  42. says

    What a beautiful post! I am Italian, but currently live in Scotland (after a year in the USA). 10 years ago I loved being an expat and seeing so many “new things”, but now I truly miss my family and my homecountry… maybe I am getting old ;)

  43. LizS says

    What a thoughtful post and very good for me to read. My daughter is living in Bracciano with her Italian boyfriend (soon-to-be husband). She has shared a lot of the same feelings. She struggles with the language and is working hard to fit in. Everyone in the US says it’s so romantic, and sounds so fun … and it is. But it’s also a little lonely for her.

  44. Gonca says

    I read the whole post with a smile on face :) I had no idea there were others like me! I mean I do have other expats around me but they don’t seem to be experiencing much of these as they choose to socialize only with their countrymen.
    One thing I would add to the difficulties is, when you are an expat in a country that doesn’t really “like” your native country is adding a lot of weight on the expat’s shoulders. In this case, you have to come to point zero first, and then work your way up.
    I am currently living and working in a country which is not really used to the idea of foreigners and on top of it, our countries were in war less than 100 years ago… But strangely, I am happy here :)
    Thank you for a good article, I could definitely find myself in it.

  45. Kerry says

    What a fantastic post – you’ve really brought to light many of the things that ex-pats deal with on a day-to-day basis. I always get the ‘you’re so lucky’ comment as well, as though these experiences just fall into my lap. A lot of hard work goes into living in a different country – thank you for expressing that aspect.
    I’m American and have been living in England for 3.5 years and the interesting thing is that even though the language is the same, many of the experiences you named still apply – especially the fact that you frequently have the feeling of being out of the loop culturally. Thanks again!

  46. says

    You nailed it! I will be sharing this with my ex-pat friends here in Spain. I think another difficult factor in the ex-pat equation is the time in your life when you decide to do it. Yes, there are exceptions, or others that move to where their great-grandparents had residency, or that end up in a foreign country with a work contract of their own or a spouse’s. But generally I find the ex-pat phenomenon takes place in your mid-late twenties, when you’ve tried the real world and haven’t been satisfied, or maybe a bad break-up assisted you in high-tailing from your home country and starting a new life. So in this scenario, aside from all the things you mentioned Sara, you have the additional stress of being in this crucial “age” when you are really just a confused and emotional person trying to discover passions and answers, and love your life. I hope we all find the happiness we searched out for when we made that move!

  47. says

    Thanks you Sara. It’s the post I wish I could have written. I’m an Englishwoman living in France, and your observations about cultural references, language, humour…the lot, are spot on. And instead of getting easier, it gets harder. Language skills (in my case) improve at an ever slower rate, the learning curve flattens out. And yet…. slowly, friendships are forged on the basis of things in common, rather than from sheer gratitude that someone’s prepared to make the effort with you. On balance, it’s worth it. But I’m not sure I can do this forever.

  48. Benedetta says

    Wow, everything you wrote is so true! I am Italian and moved to Australia 4 years ago and I went through every little thing you write. Amazing how this experience changed me. The problem now is I don’t know anymore where i belong. I am no longer the typical Italian girl who comes from a little town on Lake Maggiore, but I’m not yet an Aussie. I believe life will show me the directions to take. For the moment I’m enjoying Australian barbecues and beautiful beaches. Good luck to you with your Vacanze Italiane!

  49. Yan says

    Having done it twice in my life, I completely agree with your description. It’s fun being different in a place where most people are the same. Ironically one of things I value most about the place I live now is that I no longer stand out.
    Anecdotally, I’ve observed 7 years was the time most people made a decision about staying or leaving a place they temporarily made home.
    After the birth of my first child I stopped thinking of myself as an expat. Now I simply think of this place as my home. I’m still not a citizen, even though I earned the right many years ago. I know when I give up that last connection, I will have finally gone native.

  50. Frances says

    I loved your article. The urge to move from London has been brewing for a while. And i hope by the end of the year i will – i’ve started researching more seriously and discovered your blog… even though it fill me with trepidation, it is just so honest and clear, it actually give me confidence as well!!
    In your opinion, what city is more upbeat… Florence or Milan?
    Thank you.

  51. says

    So true!! From an expat who once lived in Florence and now lives in French I have had the opportunity to not understand not only Italian jokes but French ones too. SOOOOO HUMBLING.. I hear you loud and clear. Carla

  52. Nicky Meo says

    Have just read your article ….and can relate to everything you have commented on……we are a family from New Zealand living in Crema….a provincial town near Milan…..

  53. Ms. Adventures in Italy says

    Thank you for everyone adding their own experiences to the comments – humbling to find out it’s resonating with so many of you.

  54. Anya Adores says

    Loved reading your experiences ! I moved away from my native country and language – to London as a very young (and unexperienced) woman, and I nodded several times whilst reading your post. I totally agree – the day you are funny in the new language not as in being the joke;) is when you nailed it. Takes a loooong time – but it’s worth it. Thanks for sharing this – made me remember x

  55. luke says

    Hi Sara,

    Nice article. I pop in now and then to see where you are :) Happily in Italy I’m glad to see. I experienced nearly all of this when I lived in France. I was only there for half a year though. Still, it gives a person a unique understanding of the world which I still hold to this day.

    Hope you and S are doing great!

    <3 luke

  56. says

    Hi, Sara,

    I’ve been saving this post in my e-mail box for a while. Maybe I’ve held off reading it because I knew it would confirm my fears on what it would be like to live as an expat. It did but that’s good. It’s the reality of the situation. The reality that makes me say, “Brava!” to you and anyone who has pushed themselves out of their comfort zone to start a life in a foreign land. My pipe dream is to live abroad but I know it will be experienced by a large dose of humility. But I believe the some of the best adventures are those come that from being awkward and uncomfortable. BTW, I’m a small town California girl, like you but from the Sacramento valley. Thanks for the great post.

  57. says

    I have travel in a country wherein i could not really understand the language, even the basic words of it. But giving ourselves a break and start to learn few words will help! And finally yu get out of our comfort zones and we can say ” I learned”

  58. says

    Hi Sara,
    My eyes were glued to the screen when I read this post- you express so well exactly what I have also gone through! Especially the parts about following a conversation like a tennis match, trying to study the newspaper, and not knowing who anyone is! I look forward to reading more of your blog.
    Michelle

  59. Katie says

    Thanks so much for this post. I’ve lived in Russia now for two years and relate so much to this. I laughed so hard when you wrote your answer to “why did you come here” is different now than it first was. Sometimes I actually forget why I came here in the first place or change my answer depending on how much or how little I want to talk about why I came here. And I thought it was just me who did that…

  60. says

    Sara, Expats are different. I am proud of myself for forging ahead, I sort of like being different and the challenged (especially at my age). The fact that it took me all day to deposit money in a bank account was so valuable because I learned so much about the process. If it isn’t easy, it pushes you to be extraordinary. I get tired sometimes…my head hearts from having to translate everything into English then back into Italian, but I am sure it will get easier. I am dumb and embrace it. :) thanks for a great post. Toni

  61. says

    Thanks for this! After being an expat for the past 10 years and in 5 different countries, I am so glad to see the true expat experience explained here. Incredibly challenging, humbling, but ultimately fantastic!

  62. Marco says

    Thank you! I am italian and now live and have family in OZ. You touched fantastic and so true cords. Fact is that after a while, if you love you new life and your new coun try you should absorb it and make it your OWN country.

  63. says

    What you wrote is so true! I live between two countries at the moment, so technically I’m not an expat, but your words count even for me. The only difference is the question: to me everyone asks where I’ll end living…and I never know the answer anyway ;)
    Have a good day!
    Mae

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