Like any expat living abroad, I occasionally go through bouts of mild hair-pulling insanity. This normally happens during permesso (visa) renewal season, when I forget something in my apartment (three floors – no elevator) or when I trek across town to file a document only to realize that they close every day but on certain interchangeable mornings decided only by god. It can be quite naturally to wonder, am I so masochistic to change my life so much that I have to not only fight to stay in the country but make less money & smile while doing so?
Luckily, I have called Italy ‘casa bella casa’ for around eight years and I am pretty damn happy, but it wasn’t always the case which why in the spirit of Friday I had to write this fun post about staying sane abroad. Please comment, add your own tips and share the fun :), I might even buy you an espresso!
1. Be Flexible & Smile
Sounds a bit like a yoga move but what I am referring to is the very real ability to relax, take a breath, expect to not ‘get your way’ and just roll with the punches. Example: “Oh this document that I paid 50 euros for someone to translate isn’t the one you needed after all” resulting in you going crazy in the office teaching them a slew of English curse words, instead try this approach: breath like you are about to go into labor, smile and ask what you can do to make their life easier. Don’t go crazy and scream because nothing good will come of it besides the person working having a fun story to tell their friends over drinks later. ‘Red-tape’ masterminds can make your life a living hell (true all over the world), so embrace the fact that you might want to inwardly kill someone but outwardly offer them a coffee. I make a joke out of these situations and learn not to take ‘bad news’ too seriously. One of my top posts on the blog is ’10 Mistakes Expats in Italy Make’ a fun one that I think a lot of people who live abroad can relate to, we’re all guilty of many of those on the list, me included.
2. Look At This Hedgehog
Seriously, having a bad day? This hedgehog will make it all better, and possibly force you to smile.
3. Make Friends With Non-Miserable People
Sounds obvious but is it? We have a tendency to stick with fellow expats when moving abroad which is totally normal, I love my American friends. But choose your friends wisely. The last thing you need is to be around a bunch of whinging people who constantly compare their home country to their adopted one and it’s just not healthy. We all complain but some people actually make it into an art form. Stay far far away. If you’re in Florence, I highly recommend checking out these networks.
4. Build a Support System
This coincindes with #3, as you should stay away from ‘I hate everything about this country and the people’ expats, you should definitely try and create a wonderful support system on your new (or old) adventure abroad. Meet people who have ‘made the move’ but that actually are happy, motivated, self-initiators. People that can get fined for parking the wrong way on a street and live to laugh about it. Remember friendships take time and energy, don’t expect the world from anyone but instead make it fun, light, easy and meaningful. The one thing I hate when people write me to meet up as times is that feeling of ‘what can I do to help them’ which is a very ‘one-way’ system in my opinion. I love making new friends and I am happy to help, advise, comfort but bombarding someone with all of your problems and talking about yourself 27/7 straight away does not make a good friend.
5. Be Realistic
If you plan on staying sane, dreaming ‘too big’ isn’t going to help you do that. Keep your fantasies on under-drive and just remember that living abroad is hard, it takes time to get to that same level as you were in your home country. Have a 100,000 dollar high-flying job in marketing in the USA and looking for something similar in Italy? Not gonna happen, unless you are up close & personal with the term ‘bunga bunga’ 😉 Check out this post about what life in Italy is really like, and I think it’s a good start :).
6. Love Wine
I think this one is slightly self-obvious.
7. Embrace Low-Cost Airlines
I tend to get tired of hearing people complain about the seats and service at Easyjet or Ryanair (low-cost European budget airlines) because what they lack is so small in comparison to what they actually offer. That being affordable travel all over the continent. In the past year, we have been on over 10 flights and mostly because we find deals on these low-budget airlines coupled with apartment stays to keep costs low. Everyone needs a light at the end of the I-work-too-much-tunnel and travel is a really awesome one.
8. Get A Dog
I get it, not everyone likes dogs but seriously they rock. I put off having a pet for so many years in Florence because I thought it would be too much of a hassle when traveling and the expense. Hogwash! Besides the fact that you can adopt many dogs that need homes already spayed etc. so that the costs are lower, they make your life so darn happy it will almost guarantee a more ‘sane’ life abroad. Do a little research beforehand to see what vets, kennels or dog-sitters you could use and ask questions. Our dog-sitter in Florence is awesome and our beagle puppy, Ginger absolutely loves her. Since getting her, we are required to get more exercise because god forbid you don’t when you have a beagle, plus we know more people in the neighborhood. Did I mention she has an instagram account? 😉
9. Get a Hobby
One of the best tips to staying sane while abroad is giving yourself a healthy routine, whether that means joining yoga, joining a book club, volunteer at a charity group, meeting friends for morning coffee, or building a chair out of wine corks. You decide!
10. Learn The Language
I have said it before and I will say it again. Learn the language and your life will 100% be better, guaranteed like ‘snap, crackly and pop”! Even routine tasks can take so long when you are not comfortable speaking in public. Yes it is painful (especially for us English speakers) but force yourself to get personal with grammar and verbs than start the fun stuff, like actual conversation once you’ve got a solid base. Watch movies, listen to music, live with an Italian nonna. Yes it is totally possible that you may say the word penis instead of pasta, just roll with it (and read this) and join the club.
I think the worst thing possible personally is not having something constructive to do with my day. I know that work depends on what type of visa you have, but if you can, try and get at least some sort of job. Working means you have to actually get up & changed at a decent hour, you have to talk to people & you get something called currency at the end of it. Winning! I did all sorts of part time work when I first came to Italy, baby-sitting, English-teacher, general slave – but eventually once you learn the language and make it through the red-tape, you might just end up with the job you love.
12. Be A Self-Starter
Goes with #11 but something I personally deserves its own point. When you leave everything behind for a new life abroad, you need to become your own cheerleader. The happiest, most-successful people I know are those who decided one day to do everything for themselves and never looked back. Passive they were not, getting turned away from jobs was just part of the journey. Being independent from your partner and spouse is a must! Learn how to fail, don’t get too worked up again and start again, and again, and again. Love to write? Than start a blog or e-book! Scared that people might not like what you have to say or pick through your grammar like an angry high-school English teacher? Who cares, because honestly everyone has their own voice, their own perspective and that’s the beauty of it. In countries like Italy, hiding behind your computer and sending emails isn’t really going to work, you need to be out there in the community, meeting people and starting your own future.
13. Don’t Become an UnOfficial Ambassador for Your Home Country
After seeing something about expats on buzzfeed, I couldn’t resist adding this to my list of ‘staying sane’. It’s fun at first feeling sort of ‘special’ answering questions about the USA or blushing over compliments over my Italian but that can get old. I don’t know about you guys but doesn’t it get tiring having to ‘represent’ all Americans abroad (especially those who pee in fountains or try to steal ancient artifacts) and in my case, Texans? I don’t mind the questions but I think that many of our countries are so dynamic and different, we can’t possibly know every thought that goes through the minds of our countrymen. Personally I would rather be known as Georgette Jupe, digital marketing media badass & lover of all things food & wine than “Georgette “la Americana”.
14. Learn How to Drive Manual (stick-shift)
Seriously this will make your life a lot easier abroad if you just learn how to use a manual stick-shift while driving a car. Most cars around the world are not automatic which is why you need to learn if you plan to drive abroad. When I was studying abroad, a group of girlfriends and I rented a car in Spain and I was the only one who knew how to drive a manual car. Not too fun, so my advice is take a week or two and gain this skill so you can go on fun vintage fiat tours like this one in Tuscany.
15. Treat Yourself
So you’ve enrolled in intensive language-courses, drank the “I adore red-tape” punch and are ok if not thrilled with your boyfriend wearing an elegant man-bag in public. You deserve a little love yourself. Go for a fancy tea at the Four Seasons, get a massage, buy too many books on Amazon, go on a little mini-shopping spree or skype your family. Everyone needs a little “me” time and if that involves drinking a bottle of prosecco with your closest expat girlfriends and dancing till 3am, so be it!
16. Pay It Forward
I’m not sure who first coined the term ‘pay it forward’ but whoever did, I love them. The concept of repaying good deeds to others instead of to the original benefactor who helped you is sort of mind-blowingly awesome. Perhaps you had someone who helped you when you first moved abroad, introduced you to friends, got you an internship or took you to renew your visa. They didn’t have to do that, but they did. There are so many good people out there and you should never forget this when finally getting to that ‘happy’ place abroad. Leave any competitiveness out of the window and embrace the idea of community and helping people while expecting nothing in return. It’s the right thing to do and the result is, you will 100% be happier.
17. Just. Smile
Sounds cheesy but smiling always manages to break even the toughest exterior (especially at the Italian post office). I went through a phase where I stopped smiling, especially at men on the streets (not a bad idea, just depends…) but after Italy truly felt like home again. The smiles returned. Today the best compliment that anyone can tell me is that I’m ‘solare’ or in general ‘a happy person’ which in the end was a choice I made, to wake up, smell the coffee, smile a little more and just embrace what life had in store for me. Heck, even the blobfish below makes me smile.