There are many, many days when I question my own judgement for choosing–and continuing to choose–to live overseas, raising our children as global nomads.
I’m no one’s best friend anymore–I always leave before the relationship can get that good. I used to work for a non-profit before we moved overseas and, while I love being home all day with my kids, I wonder if the untold energy I put towards packing, unpacking, learning new languages and customs and metro routes every few years might be better spent back at some organization stateside working towards solutions to the social and environmental challenges we face there.
I struggle seeing the turmoil my sensitive son goes through adjusting to new places. Some days all he wants is just another kid to speak English to at the playground.
But I say all this knowing that there’s no way anymore to compare staying overseas with having never left in the first place. I’d be nothing were it not for all I’ve learned since we left 5 and a half years ago.
If I’d never left the States I wouldn’t know, deeply, instinctively, that there is more than one right way to do everything-everything from selling groceries to staying healthy to raising a child. I still remember the long drive from the airport into the city on my first trip to India and how I marveled at the way even the painted black and white stripes on the sides of the highway looked foreign to me. In China I laughed at first at the “split pants” babies wear instead of diapers–until I found out they all potty-train, seemingly trauma-free, by 12 months old.
And in Italy I think I’ve actually suffered more culture shock than in either India or China combined.
I don’t have a good answer to whether it’s better to live and learn overseas or whether I’d be a better person if we moved back home tomorrow to try to do some good in the homeland. But the fact that, so often, I still feel like I’m drinking from a firehose makes me think I’ve still have plenty to learn from this crazy nomadic lifestyle. And I have a hunch that when it’s really time to go back for good, it won’t be a question mark in my head so much as an exclamation point in my heart that won’t take no for an answer.
We’ve been in Milan just short of a year now and I’ve been thinking a little bit about what I’ve learned over the course of the last 12 months, not necessarily the big “meaning of life” lessons but the little things, the silly little things. The small details of daily life that don’t mean much in the grand scheme of things, but when they add up, make a big difference in how comfortable I feel here going about my day.
So in that spirit, here’s a short list of the trivial-but-life-changing-nonetheless little lessons I’ve been learning here in Milan,
When it comes to anyone outside my immediate family, I am not a hugger. I am not a kisser. I don’t snuggle with my girlfriends. I like handshakes. A lot.
I panicked a little when I found out we were moving to the land of air-kissing. I actually made my Aussie friends in Delhi give me a tutorial on the topic since they seemed better at the art of coming at a new friend like you want to make out with her ear and then pulling away at the last second without more than a whisper of physical contact at all (because lipstick. Guys, people wear it here all. the. damn. time.)
And then we moved to Milan and the only people I met for the first few months were all European. To this day, it’s possible for me to go weeks without seeing another American who isn’t my husband.
So I’ve learned to kiss. Not well, but adequately enough that I don’t freak out now when I meet someone and they lean in for the baci. Sometimes I’m even the one to initiate, wonders of wonders.
2) I eat pizza with a fork and knife. Because yes, if it’s good pizza, that’s really how it should be done.
3) For the first time in my adult life, I finally know exactly how much pasta to cook for however many people I’m cooking for. Here’s the rule: if the pasta is only a “primi” course to be followed by a heavier dish, every person should get 100 grams of pasta. If pasta IS your main dish, up the portion to approximately 150-175 grams. Voila. Now I know.
4) The Aperol spritz, the Negroni Sbagliato. Aside from a few hazy months in college, I’ve never been a big drinker. Luckily, drunkenness does not carry the same social currency here that it does in the States. People don’t humblebrag about hangovers in Italy. If you’re going to drink, it’s for enjoyment of the drink itself. Which might be why the cocktails are so darn good. I only get out for a drink maybe once every few months here but when I do, I never order my usual gin and tonic anymore. I’ll take a spritz or a negroni sbagliato while I can get it.
5) Looking “put-together” isn’t about the clothes you wear, but the way you…wait for it…put them together.
Let’s pretend for a minute that physical appearances matter everywhere in the world as much as they do here in Milan. For our first 6 months here I could not understand how every woman around me could be wearing the same basic things I was (jeans, knit shirts, tunics, maxi skirts, sneakers) and still look so much…better? More elegant? And yet, still casual?
I haven’t entirely cracked the code to looking fashionable but I think I’m slowly getting better. I’m learning both balance and commitment. Wide-leg pants are fashionable only when you pair them with clean architectural lines on top. The only thing that keeps a drapey maxi-dress from looking like a mumu is an eye-catching pair of shoes or some great accessories. Flowy, feminine skirts often look childish unless there is something unexpected about the look–an edgy shirt or a pair of high-tops. If you’re going to wear jeans and a t-shirt it better be the right jeans with the right t-shirt and you should probably be wearing some really cool sneakers that scream (tomboy chic).
When in doubt, wear a comically baggy white or black top with comically-baggy white or black pair of pants or skirt. Add your your most hipster glasses or lots of eyeliner. People will assume your either an artist or a fashion designer.
I don’t own anything designer, I don’t wear heels, but I think I’m finally finding my own way of feeling comfortable here. Or maybe it’s just because Converses and Birkenstocks are all the rage in my neighborhood right now.
6) Also, apparently it’s true, we should all wear our hair down more often. I still refuse to blow-dry my hair more than once every few months but I’ve realized that wearing my hair in a messy-bun everyday doesn’t make it look better–it just makes everyone else here assume that it’s really, really dirty. (which, yea, it usually is). It’s approximately 98 degrees in Milan here right now and the closest I’ve seen anyone to wearing their hair up is a loosely gathered low ponytail.
7) I know how to order my coffee (and more importantly: pay for it correctly). When Italy did away with tipping a few years back, bars and restaurants started instituting cover charges instead. Which is all well and good in a sit-down restaurant but what about in a coffee bar? What do you do if your toddler runs to sit down at a table after you’ve already paid for a drink at the bar? And if you sit at a table, do you go up to get your own brioche or wait 10 minutes for a waiter to come buy and ask if you’d like to order (always with a slight tone of surprise) Do you wait for a bill or pay at the register and how do they know you’re telling the truth about what you ordered anyway?
I’ve toyed with the idea of making a flow chart to help my fellow non-Italians with this conundrum because, really, it’s a thing. Until I do though, I’ll give you the quick calculus I use when I enter a new coffee bar.
Do you want to sit at a table? Do you see a “self service” or “no cover charge sign?” If not, wait as long as it takes for someone to come ask you if you’d like to order. To try and go to the bar and order will only cause horribly embarrassing confusion (Unless it’s the barista himself who asks you for your order).
When in doubt, stand at the bar to order your coffee and stay there. It’s easier.
Unless someone hands you a bill or asks you to prepay for your coffee, always go up to the bar to pay your bill right before you leave. Tell them where you were sitting so they can charge you the cover charge if necessary but know that most of the time, they will have zero record of your actual order. It’s all the honor system.
Really, the best thing to do is to find your neighborhood spot and just go there for every single coffee. In the United States this would possibly get a little awkward at some point. In Italy it’s what you are supposed to do. And it’s helpful. At our neighborhood place we don’t order our drinks anymore. The baristas always throw in two espresso cups full of steamed milk and caocao powder for the kids, the waiters run into the back to bring us industrial strength paper towel when the kids finish their gelato and no one says a word when I come camp out for a couple of hours to work and write (even though loitering in front of a laptop in an Italian cafe is pretty much the ultimate in cultural inappropriateness). They know it’s weird but they also know they are my only hope for getting any work done while the kids are awake!
8. I know how to have whole conversations that have nothing to do with either R&R, bidding, home leave, American current events or children. I am not a conversational genius but seeing as I know only a few Americans here in Milan, I’ve had to get better. I have a long way to go but I’m more comfortable than I used to be. I even chatted with a famous rugby player a few weeks ago and didn’t feel totally awkward the entire time.
9. I’m more American than I ever knew. My friends are from a lot of different places and we all tend to approach socializing and parenting in slightly different ways that can’t be put down to personality alone. There are things I’ve observed among them that I know I’ve internalized because I think they’re worth internalizing and there are other things for which I am proud to be a little different. I love the looks of horror on the faces of Italian moms at the park when they see my kids splashing in puddles or playing in the mud. I think there is something disarming about the frankness with which many Americans will discuss almost anything, with anyone.
I am in love with the fact that Americans are both born and naturalized. We are a deeply messed up country in many ways, systemically racist, hypocritical, unequal–but I think most Americans, from the right to the left, know that “American” is not any one skin color, any one ethnicity, any one family lineage. I think many–hopefully most–Americans truly believe that American is the great country it is because of our diversity, not in spite of it. I never realized until I moved overseas how unique this belief might be in the world.
10. “Ciao” is not for everyone.Due to timing conflicts, we didn’t receive any language training before we got to Italy. We did some self-study but it wasn’t until I’d been here for about three weeks that I finally, embarrassingly, learned that the word “ciao,” as a greeting, is not tossed around by Italians as casually as I had once thought.
Ciao is for children, family members and friends and acquaintances with whom you are roughly equal to in terms of age and/or social standing. For every other situation (read: nearly every single situation when you are new in town) it’s “Buongiorno,” “Salve,” “Arrivederci” or possibly “Ciao Buongiorno” if it’s a casual business transaction with someone roughly the same age or younger. Basically, for all but the people you either hang out with socially or greet multiple times in a day, anything less than “buongiorno” can be taken as a little rude and possibly insulting.
After a really, really embarrassing first couple of weeks in our neighborhood, I’ve only recently begun to overcome my paranoia of offending people and relax a little. You’ll hear me say “Ciao Buongiorno” to almost everyone on our block now, (except our landlord) but still, to this day, you’ll almost never hear me say “Ciao.”