I had been whispering to an empty living room that I wanted to go home, crying on a terribly uncomfortable white leather couch that I imagine Margo and Todd would own (“È design,” the landlords announced proudly with a Vanna White velina swoop).
Cheeks still damp, I checked my phone and saw a Facebook message from someone with whom I hadn’t been in contact for at least a year.
“You look so happy!” she wrote.
Yep, living la dolce vita up in here; let’s not mention the nightcaps of amaro.
When people in the U.S. heard we were moving to Italy, their responses were mostly along the lines of:
- “OMG, Under the Tuscan Sun!”
- “Whoa, Eat Pray Love, girl!”
- “You are so lucky!”
- “Living the dream!”
- “When can I come visit?”
In the first few weeks/months in Milan, I was stunned by the reactions from Italians. It was a constant refrain of:
- “But why would you move to Italy if you didn’t have to?”
- “Isn’t it better in America?”
- “[Laughter] Why would an American come here?!” -Amadou, from Senegal
- “If I had a choice, I would leave Italy tomorrow.”
- “Italy is only good for tourists.”
I expected more outbursts of “Brava! Good decision! Our bella Italia is superb!” But that sentiment seems to lie mostly on glossy brochures, not on the tongues of locals — locals, I’ve come to learn, whose attitudes have been influenced by the economy, government, Hollywood and general life experience. Now that I’ve typed that, these influences seem so obviously universal.
To be fair, my husband tried to temper my expectations of being an Italian resident; now he can relish in all the times I’ve said “You were right” in the past year.
So, back to the “You look so happy!” Insta analysis. Yes, our weekends have been full of astonishing mountains, dangerously cheap wine, sublime lakes and holy-wow architecture, and in the snap of those photos, cheek-to-cheek with my 10/10-would-marry-again dreamboat, I was happy. But, at the end of each selfie-worthy getaway, we headed back to a place where I struggled to find a sense of belonging. I didn’t feel like I was returning home after a day or a week away from Milan. As the months turned into a year, it felt like I was on a trip that would never end despite me having zero clean clothes or energy remaining.
There’s a medieval castle over there greeting the sunset, and a famed bell tower singing its song — but my unsettled state got me like “Hey, j-j-jaded.” I have to consciously adjust the resolution on my lens, whereas pre-residency my appreciation was immediate.
Yet, even in those moments when I manage to recapture my childlike wonder, gazing upon a piazza with Neapolitan pizza on my plate, I know that good food and beautiful things aren’t enough. I never expected them to be, but that’s the postcard people think of when considering the appeal of living in Italy. Let’s gloss over the complicated dynamics of relationships, careers and traditions with a dusting of parmigiano.
When I felt I couldn’t be honest with locals if they asked me how I was settling into their motherland, I’d respond accordingly: My, what gorgeous landscapes you have. My, what long vacations you’re given. My, what artistic masterpieces you possess. My, what delectable ravioli you serve.
But internally, I was often flipping the frittata: My, what gaping cultural divides we are struggling to cross. My, what intensely entrenched ideas we each have about that topic. My, what a lack of growth opportunities on the horizon. My, what lengths I must go to censor myself for the sake of bella figura and buon viso and armonia.
Though I won’t concede that my experience is exceedingly rare, mine is just one story, and surely there are thousands of foreign (and Italian) women living in Milan who are happy in this city. I know a handful of them, and I hope they continue thriving and hustling, especially since we have shared joy and strife over many an aperitivo, lunch, caffè and/or gelato. May we all have squads around the world who assure us, “No, you are not crazy; they/he/she are/is.”
Aside from being homesick on account of my loved ones, I’m also homesick for the person I was/am. Many of the people who only know me in the Italian language don’t fully know me. I’m not particularly clever or insightful in this tongue. My contributions to conversations are mostly a dull refrain of “Bene” and “Bello” and “Buono” and “Ah, si?” As someone who loves words and comedy and spirited debate, this is soul dampening. But it’s also a good reminder that whenever you’re speaking to someone in a language that’s not comfortably their own, you may only be scratching the surface of their character.
It is a rare privilege my partner and I currently possess to decide where, when and how to move to another nation; we have the luxury of choice and resources that most do not. So, choices: Is the United States “better” than Italy? That’s a ridiculous quantification. Is Minnesota the best place for my partner and me at this present moment in our lives given our current wants and needs? Yes, we believe so. Then, onward we go.
My extraordinary husband, bless his tender heart, is destined to miss people, places and nuances of his homeland, but he, too, is ready for the next adventure. By now he’s lived in and said hello/goodbye to several cities and countries, and he might actually be the more adaptable one of the two of us. I won’t attempt to speak for him beyond that — he’ll have to start his own Italisotan blog.
Dear diary, they messed up my caffè macchiato order again.
Dear diary, I spent a half hour scraping ice off my windshield this morning. Uffdah.
Dear diary, these burgers are delicious, and they keep refilling my water glass for free. ‘Merica.
Lessons coming with my luggage: Trust your gut. Observe others’ lives with a grain of salt and your own with a dollop of gratitude. D.O.C.G. Prosecco goes down more smoothly, but they all go down.
“The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”