Italy one year in has flown by! Here’s what I’ve learned after a year of living in Italy.
Italy one year in! It feels strange to say that, of course. But after five days driving across the country and three days of flying (and waiting), we arrived in Italy on July 11, 2019.
While I’m trying to avoid giving a Christmas card-style rundown, here are a few of my favorite memories of the year:
Christmas markets: We managed to visit four major cities’ Christmas markets last year in addition to our own little market here in town!
Embracing our town: Even before we arrived, we knew Sacile was our first choice for where to live. It has that classic European historic town feel, a river running through it, and a train station that can get us just about anywhere! From the weekly market to holiday festivals, experiencing the things I’d never see as a tourist have been special.
Embracing la bella vita: There’s a philosophy behind la bella vita that’s so different from most American lifestyle. La bella vita is the idea that things can and should be beautiful, but not from a sense of vanity or showing off. It’s setting the table and lighting a candle for a dinner by yourself. La bella vita is taking five minutes to drink your coffee from a proper cup, not walking to your next activity. Running errands doesn’t make sense in Italian: shopping is a pleasurable activity, even if it’s just for lightbulbs, and should be done in proper clothing instead of athleisure. It applies to all areas of life, and while I’m not planning to
Unpretention: Lest you think that la bella vita implies a sense of haughtiness or superiority, think again: Italian culture is super unpretentious. Yes, Italians have absurd amounts of pride in their country (or more likely their town or region). They’ll argue until they’re blue in the face that their region of Italy is the best, the most Italian, or that their mama makes the best rage or limoncello. But their presentation is unpretentious. Ridiculously good wines come to the table in simple jugs. The best Italian food can be found typically at a restaurant attached to a family farm that’s been cultivating that plot of land for hundreds of years. Expensive “artsy” things (like Venetian glass) are made to be used, not set on a shelf and admired. To me, this is one of the most quintessential things about Italy, and I love it.
Living in Italy, One Year In
After a year of living in Italy, I can confidently say I’d be happy to live here for the rest of my life. Living in another culture is hard at times – both my tenuous grasp of the language and understanding the cultural norms play into this – but it’s worth it.
It seems trite to say that I’ve learned so much. But in the same way that studying abroad, traveling solo, or any other major comfort-zone-leaving experience does, living in a foreign culture means that every single day something is different than the previous 30 years of my life.
That sort of experience will either grow you or make you miserable. I know many military members and spouses who don’t like Italy one year in. And I think the crucial difference is that life is not easy. Life is good – it can be great most days! – but even something as simple as getting groceries starts out complicated.
Before I left for my study abroad program as a college student, I remember a counselor tell a group that it’s okay if at first, all we can do in the first few weeks is make it to class and find something to eat for dinner. I get that it sounds a little silly, but the reality is that being a resident somewhere is a completely different experience than being a visitor.
A resident means you have to know how to pay your bills, how to set up a new cell phone, how to find that random chemical you need to make your hot water heater work (true story). And while those aren’t bad things, they can get exhausting. So I hear those who don’t love living abroad.
But it’s worth it. I love it. It’s hard at times, especially the fatigue that comes with the constant language
second-guessing learning. But it’s also an incredible learning experience of which parts of you are the most you and which parts come from habit or convenience or country of residence. Which of your notions about the world are true universally and which are products of the way you grew up.
I can’t entirely articulate the ways that this time has shaped me, but I love this place even when it’s hard and would stay forever if that was an option.
Italian culture is so different than American culture, even if on it’s face it’s still mostly recognizable. Beyond the language, there are different expectations for how to interact – kisses! formal vs informal greetings! – to what is an appropriate beverage for what time frame (no cappuccino after lunch, no spritz after dinner, wine is pretty much acceptable all the time).
Living in a foreign culture has also given me a tiny sliver of insight into what many many people face when they immigrate to a new country. I have the benefit of moving to an area that some people speak my language. My interactions with the law enforcement and government officials have been mostly positive and either in English or simple enough Italian that I can respond. Thanks to the military, I have built in resources to help me if I get stuck and need assistance paying my water bill or getting my car registered.
Even with these support systems, I’ve had frustrating hours spent doing something that would take minutes in the States or been fussed at by strangers for misunderstanding a rule or unspoken expectation. Many immigrants (to any country) don’t have those assists, and this year has made me very cognizant of these benefits.
Learning Italian and finding I can make my way in a foreign language is empowering, exciting and so flipping hard simultaneously. I realized during my recent travels and interactions that mentally I’ve changed my own expectations of myself. I’ve gone from being pleased at making myself understood in any capacity (how I felt the first six months or so) to being frustrated in many interactions that I’m not fluent. It’s a weird place to be mentally, but I recognize that it’s a good sign that I’m getting better enough to be annoyed at my lack rather than just pleased at my toddler-level communication.
If I’m honest, part of me thought I’d be fluent in Italian after the first year. Or at least significantly further along. While I can blame part on Covid, the reality is that I now mostly need to memorize vocabulary. I’ve learned the building blocks of the language, now I need more words in my brain!
Studying Italian has given me such an awareness of how nuanced any language is, but we implicitly accept it in our native tongue. For example: in English we ride on a bus/bike/train, but we ride in a car.
The nuances show up in Italian as well. There are several words for being happy that express overtones of content or joy or excitement, but no word for the more general “happy.”
One question I hear a lot is how easy or hard it is to live in Italy without speaking Italian. The reality is that if you’re traveling to popular Italian destinations, many people will speak enough English to help you out. And living here as a military spouse means I’m living in an area used to English speakers, even if they don’t speak much of it themselves.
Think about it: if you work on base 12 hours a day (speaking English the entire time), you probably aren’t picking up more than the bare minimum of Italian. So I completely understand how most military members don’t really pick up the language. In our area, it’s doable. But if you travel to random places, it becomes more of an issue. I’ve stayed in Airbnb’s in the Alps where the host spoke no English, and my Italian was more useful than English in certain parts of Romania.
I also think without speaking the local language, you miss some of the soul of a place. I’ve been able to do things like stumble into a small town festival only because I was able to ask for a dinner recommendation when we stop for gas. That night remains one of my favorite memories, and we only heard about it because I could ask.
I’m also the only American in my building that can chat to our Italian neighbors! Through them, I’ve learned about the history of our town, inherited a bunch of old Italian cookbooks, and been able to ask those random questions that always pop up when living within a new culture.
COVID and Italy
Coronavirus was the biggest surprise of our time here. I won’t rehash everything I’ve already shared about our 11 weeks of lockdown, but I will say that even with Italy being the epicenter of Covid-19 hitting the western world, I’m still grateful to be here. The Italian government handled it well enough that we’re already permitted to travel again.
That being said, coming out of this quarantine season so close to our arrival anniversary, it’s put things in perspective. It’s so easy for this time in our lives to be defined by what we can’t have, but instead, I’m using the lockdown to remind me that we can’t take this expat season for granted. Whether it’s to travel the continent or to get un caffe with my Italian friends, this is such a unique time in our lives and I don’t want to let it slip by any faster than it already is.
Stereotypical as it may be, I can’t believe I’ve lived in Italy a year now! I can’t wait to see what the next year holds.
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