Last week at church I was speaking with another ex-pat and she expressed how hard it is to convince people who don't live here what it's really like. She said, "I was talking to one of my American friends and she asked me what it was like to be on vacation all the time." WHAT?? Are you kidding me?? Then I thought of some of the conversations I've had with friends back home and realized that there are people that seem to think the same thing about our situation. Hopefully this won't come across as mean but I really want to express what living here is, and what it isn't.
First, what it isn't: It isn't one long, extended vacation. Yes, I'll be the first to admit we live in a really beautiful place and it is much easier for us to go traveling around Europe than it is for the average American. How many people can say they can travel to Switzerland in under an hour or to Germany or France in three or four hours? And yes, we have taken some amazing trips. It's one of the advantages of living where we do but I want to make it clear that we do LIVE here. Mark goes to work every day, I clean the house, do the laundry, cook, run errands, grocery shop...all the responsibilities everyone else has. But we have the added stress of doing this in a country, culture and language that are not our own. Grocery shopping when you know the bare minimum of the language is interesting if nothing else. Trying to decipher food labels, brands you've never heard of, not to mention having to re-learn to cook without familiar things like Campbell's soup and Velveeta cheese, trying to learn all the Italian names for spices, making sure the meat you're buying is actually beef and not horse, having very limited choices on everything except pasta, olive oil and wine. Then there are the domestic duties. Doing laundry in a tiny little washer/dryer combo that does about 1/4 of the load my washer at home does. It only takes twice as long and then doesn't really dry the clothes so then I get to take the clothes out of the "dryer" and hang them up to dry completely which then requires ironing. Cooking in a tiny oven that required purchasing tiny pans to go in it. Being careful not to run the dishwasher, washing machine and air conditioner at the same time because it will cause the breaker to switch off. These are very real things and very stressful things.
Second, it isn't (and I can't stress this enough) the long, romantic movie or television show that everyone seems to think it is. I can't tell you how many people have mentioned the movie, "Under the Tuscan Sun" to me. I understand if that has been your only exposure to Italy how you would think that living here would be like that but trust me, that's not the case. We do not spend our days at little sidewalk cafes chatting with locals and sipping wine. Other than our location, our lives are pretty ordinary. We have dinner and talk about our day, watch t.v., spend time Skyping with family, pretty much doing the things everyone else does.
And for what it is: Well, it is downright frustrating at times. All the roads with the exception of the highway are narrow, twisting, turning, curving, little country roads, surrounded by trees or buildings and it is impossible to get from point A to point B without a GPS and a lot of time. Someone asked me once how long it would take to get to our house from another house that we were visiting and I said about 20 or 25 minutes. It occurred to me later I should have told him it would only take only 5 minutes if he could drive it in a straight line! It took me almost a year to realize why I was exhausted every time we got in the car to go somewhere. With all the twists, curves, roundabouts, one way streets and zones that you cannot drive into, when you finally get to where you're going you realize you've been clinching your teeth and holding your breath for most of the drive! And let's not even mention Italian drivers...
It can also be very confusing. Not just the grocery labels and the roads but trying to talk to people. Not knowing what to do or how to do it. Going shopping and not knowing if it's okay to just go try something on or if you need to ask. Being yelled at in a store for "taking pictures" with your phone when all you're actually doing is using your translator to decipher a label, and then not being able to communicate that you're just trying to translate the language. Not knowing the system for buying produce in the market. Being told one thing by someone and then told just the opposite by someone else. Being clueless when someone is trying to tell you something and you just can't understand what's being said. Trying your best to memorize words or phrases when you need to return something to the store and then praying nothing is said as a reply that you didn't look up. All of these things have happened to us.
It is sometimes lonely. I want to preface this by saying that we have met some really great people here. Not just the company folks but some wonderful people from church and some really nice locals. But they're not family and this isn't home. My sweet husband and I have an amazing relationship and we love being together but sometimes we just long for our family.
I want to make clear that I am not complaining about living here. I am convinced that God put us where we are and we are doing our best to live in His will. I am aware of how blessed I am and that not many people get this kind of opportunity. I just want people to understand that there is a great deal of difference between visiting someplace (or dreaming of visiting) and living in that same place. I also want to say that before we moved here I did my share of dreaming about what it would be like and I was totally wrong and unprepared! I did my best to prepare myself but it's a lot like trying to prepare yourself for marriage when you've never been married or having children when you've never had them. You know logically that problems will arise but you are totally unprepared for what it's really like. That was me.
Now, I know that I haven't communicated everything because that would take way to long and I know that I haven't convinced everybody. That's okay. I write this blog more to get my thoughts and feelings down than anything else. But hopefully I've helped people understand. And the next time someone mentions the words "vacation" or "Under the Tuscan Sun" to me I'll just smile and let them think what they want to think. Then I'll go do a load of laundry...