Adapting to a new culture can be a tumultuous process, even for those who consider themselves world travelers. When it comes to actually settling down to live in a new country, there is a slow transformation that has to take place. Not only do your views and perspectives change, but the ways you react, the ways you think, and the ways you cope with daily life develop as well.
It’s not always a pleasant transformation either. Sometimes it feels like a big hammer hitting you on the head every morning, and sometimes you worry about losing yourself in the midst of these new circumstances.
I can tell you that, for me, the past five years in Italy has been rough at times. Please allow me to supplement that statement with this handy little graph:
Note that the depths of my “expat depression” (as I call it) were during Year 3, when homesickness was high, happiness was low, and pasta weight was in an uncontrollable ascension!
This is the part where, no doubt, someone will go, “oh yeah, you pooooor thing. You have to live in Italy – land of pasta and wine. Let me weep for you.”
Yes, I am aware that there are worse places to live. I am aware that there is an ever-flowing source of food, culture, and history. And I don’t mean to take those things for granted at all, and I don’t mean to say that I have it harder than anyone else. However, I think it’s a mistake not to talk about the difficult parts of living in Italy, for fear of ruining the fairy tale image my friends and family have in their heads.
It seems that Italy enjoys a particular status that few other countries have been able to attain in the eyes of Americans: No matter how much chaos there is, no matter how inefficient things get, no matter how corrupt the government, no matter how great the resistance to change, and no matter how many times Berlusconi makes front page news, the average American response is an excited, “Oooooooh, Italy!!!!”, with a little shrug and head shaking to excuse all previously mentioned behavior.
It’s fascinating, really.
The thing that has always been hardest for me to explain to my American friends back home and my Italian friends here (without offending either one) is the fundamental difference in mentality between a young American and a young Italian. Please remember, this is just my humble opinion about a very general characterization of the difference between two cultures. Don’t get your panties in a wad if you feel that it’s a generalization… because it is! Obviously, there are exceptions to this, but here are my observations on American and Italian national psyches:
For better or for worse, Americans place a lot of emphasis on individuality. If I don’t succeed at something, it’s because I didn’t try hard enough. There’s more I could do. The possibilities are limited only by my ambition. I think this is kind of the classic “frontier mentality” – go West and you shall succeed. Make everything bigger, better, larger, wider, and you will find success measured in land, gold, money. Obviously that has severe disadvantages, as we have seen in recent years.
Italians, however, are subject to a national mentality that has been shaped by centuries of invasions, constantly playing defense, and refusing to change for fear of losing identity. The result is a system in which sometimes you just can’t succeed… the system won’t let you. This manifests itself positively in the creative, entrepreneurial mindset that Italians and Italian immigrants around the world are famous for. The negative side, however, is what feels like a defeatist attitude toward just about everything. A frequent response given by young Italians is, “yes, but you can’t change it! E’ così!”
The phrase “é così” is the bane of my existence here. Yet I use it constantly.
More and more, I find myself using it in the very circumstances that drove me nuts in my first couple of years here. I wrote an article a while ago: “1,2,3, é così: Learning to submit to the system.” While I tried to keep the tone of the post light-hearted, the phases that I described are probably similar to the phases many other expats or immigrants experience: first you’re largely oblivious, then you have delayed culture shock, you try to rebel and fail miserably, and then you slowly start to get over it.
Will you ever feel completely “at home” in your new country? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect not. Is that necessarily a bad thing? I’m not so sure.
Anyway, these are my thoughts as I look back on my five years here in Italy, but they may not be yours… I’d love to hear how experiences have been different or similar, so leave a comment if you’d like!