American Expat in Italy - Expat Interview With Michelle

Published: 5 Dec at 9 AM
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Filed: Interviews,Italy
Michelle Damiani is a clinical psychologist specializing in children and families. Though her practice and her family and remodeling their 100 year old Victorian home were fulfilling, Michelle always felt like she wanted to have new and challenging experiences to make those barriers in the brain tingle and melt away. She began writing short fiction three years ago as a way to tap into her creativity (and won a contest juried by John Grisham), and has been working towards taking a year to live in another country since before having children. After years of living simply in order to put aside enough income, and months of laborious visa wrangles, Michelle and her family arrived in Italy in July of 2012. Michelle writes about the challenges, the growth, the increasing awareness, and the discoveries of living abroad in her blog, Il Bel Centro (see listing here)

il bel centro

Here's the interview with Michelle...

Where are you originally from?
That's a little tricky. I was born in Panama, went to Kindergarten in Brussels, then moved to the United States (Chicago, San Francisco, Alabama, San Jose). I've lived most of my life in the U.S., the last 13 years in Virginia, so I consider myself American.

In which country and city are you living now?
Italy, in a medieval hill town called Spello.

How long have you lived here and how long are you planning to stay?
I've been here 4 months, and will be here another 8 months.

Why did you move and what do you do?
We moved because I felt like our lives were too narrow, too fixed. I wanted all of us to have the chance to stretch ourselves, learn a language, discover new ways of understanding, and new ways to connect to each other and to ourselves.

il bel centroDid you bring family with you?
Yes - a husband, three children (now aged 14, 10, and 5), and 2 cats.

How did you find the transition to living in a foreign country?
Besides the language and the fear of taking a leap to speaking, it has been pretty easy. But we purposely chose a country where the adjustment wouldn't be too difficult. We've been to Italy many times, and we know that it's not so different from the States as to make the culture shock truly shocking. It's also been made easier by the fact that I'm not working, and my husband has gone from working around the clock before our departure to working part-time. So we have time and space to handle those aggravations that come with settling in a foreign country (getting our residencies, figuring out how to get a car, finding a bank that would give us an account).

Was it easy making friends and meeting people; do you mainly socialise with other expats?
Four months in, I'd say my social circle is pretty limited. It's hard to form friendships with my stumbling Italian, so the people I socialize with speak at least some English. We just hosted Thanksgiving, and we celebrated with friends visiting from home, five Italians (our landlords and their son, an Italian friend I met through expat connections, and my Italian teacher who was so excited to taste his first Thanksgiving), an expat friend and her Italian husband, and three other American expats. It's easier to connect at an emotional level with people who speak English, but I enjoy my even cursory friendships with those who just speak Italian. We were just invited to a snail dinner (after word got out about my making cotiche--pig skin soup), and that will be all Italians. I'm looking forward to seeing how that goes.

il bel centroWhat are the best things to do in the area; anything to recommend to future expats?
The best things to do are getting to know people. Don't be shy, this took me months to get over, and I still feel twinges of it at times. I recently asked a friend if I could come along with her when she went to harvest olives, and in the process met the most wonderful family that ended up inviting my family for lunch, and we enjoyed a fabulous farm meal and met these lovely people. Who have just asked us to come back. So my advice? Dive in. Ask everyone around you what you should do. Ask about the signs and posters you see displayed. Locals will tell you about the waterfall or the nearby villages or the festivals.

What do you enjoy most about living here?
I think every area has something special about it. The trick is to be open to what is available and don't get attached to thinking your area should have what another area does. I was initially disappointed that my town doesn't have great restaurants and I'm having a horrible time finding good cheese. It was enough to make me feel like maybe we should have chosen France after all. But there are so many things that are unique about Spello, once I let go of those expectations, I find myself loving it here more and more. Mostly, I love the people. They are quirky and friendly. There are ladies who live and congregate in the alley across from our house, and they delight in hugging and kissing my youngest son. When our cat got lost, the town turned itself upside down and we could hear her name being called over the rooftops (I didn't have the heart to tell them she is too dumb to know her name), the woman who owns Bar Bonci knows the names of all of my children and what they like to eat and drink. The butcher remembers what I was planning on making on my last visit, and so asks about it on my next. Everybody takes care of the stray cats. People stop to say hello. If I focused on the fact that Umbrian bread is dry and tasteless, I'd miss the fact that it soaks up the Spellani olive oil like a dream to make the world's best bruschetta.

il bel centroHow does the cost of living compare to home?
Mostly it's much lower. I expect if I am asked that in January, I may have a different answer as we haven't had to pay for heat yet. But as of now, it is much lower. Provided that what you buy is made in Italy. We are consistently shocked that salami is half the cost of what we are used to paying, and produce is even less. But scotch tape costs more than a bottle of wine.

What negatives, if any, are there to living here?
I'd be hard pressed to describe these as negatives, as it comes down to what you are used to, but I'd say there are aspects of living here that are hard to get used to. It's hard not to be able to pop out to the little grocery store between 1:00 and 4:00 because it is closed for pausa. It's hard not to have local information on the internet. It's hard to not have people naturally form a line. I wish Italians ate dinner earlier as going out to eat at 7:30 when my children go to sleep by 8:30 is challenging. Can I admit I miss my dryer? Doing laundry here is the pits. Initially, it felt virtuous and meditative, now it is just aggravating.

If you could pick one piece of advice to anyone moving here, what would it be?
Work on your language. Study Italian before you arrive, take lessons once you arrive, and stay as loose and flexible as you can. Anxiety shuts down the brain, try to relax when communicating. Don't be afraid to ask someone to slow down, but don't be surprised when they don't. It's hard to feel lost, but give yourself permission to not understand, knowing eventually you will.

il bel centroWhat has been the hardest aspect to your expat experience so far?
Sending my children to public school. I confess I was a basket case. They seemed so small and vulnerable, and I really had no idea what to expect. The experience has mostly been excellent. While the schools are more didactic and less experiential than I would have expected in a country that brought us Maria Montessori, I think it's been a good experience for my children to have things be less than perfect. At home, I'd barge into the administrator's office if a teacher wasn't engaging or kind. Here, I tell my children that their job is to keep other people's stuff separate from their stuff. My daughter's teacher gets impatient because my daughter hasn't grasped how Italians do long division, but the teacher's impatience has nothing to do with my daughter's competence or spirit, and my daughter has to learn to let it go. I tell my children, "You have everything you need to solve the problem and come out stronger." Which is a better lesson that the former "Mom will make it all okay". So, I'd say school is sometimes hard to manage, but I think excellent fodder for growth.

When you finally return home, how do you think you'll cope with repatriation?
It's hard to say. There is a lot about our lives here that is similar to home (walkability, friendly neighbors). I think working again will be a challenge, and not having the kind of freedom for family time and adventures will feel like a loss. Also, here we can get to a place that feels really different fairly easily (cheap flights, convenient rail, Naples is 4 hours by car). At home, that's not possible, and I'll miss that. I'm concerned I'll feel stuck or landlocked after a year of easy travel.

il bel centroWhat are your top 5 expat tips for anyone following in your footsteps?
  1. Learn the language, as much a you can before you leave, and find a class or teacher when you arrive. It's a great way to integrate yourself into the community, and locals will be pleased that you are making an effort to learn their language. Whenever my neighbors see me walking to my Italian lesson they beam.
  2. Bring your pet if that's possible. I was resistant, but outvoted, and I'm glad I was. Having our cats here makes it feel like home. Yes, it was a world of trouble to get them here, but I hadn't realized how grateful I'd be on a daily basis to have them with us. Also, I thought it would be hard to find cat-sitters, and it turns out that is not a problem at all. On the contrary, the locals seem to admire us for bringing them.
  3. Take it slow. Every day I hear someone saying, "piano, piano". Slow down, one step at a time. You don't have to understand everything right away. You can make mistakes. It's all okay. It will work out. "Piano, piano" is a way of life here, and I think a good lesson for me, as I trend towards anxiety and wanting to solve every problem right away.
  4. Figure out what you are passionate about and use it to find your niche. My quest to find farm cheese, Asian food, and local recipes have given me irreplaceable experiences. You don't need to be mainstream. The day I realized I was not Italian and didn't have to pretend to be so was exhilarating. Now I can follow my leadings and in the process, discover wonderful things, like the organic market.
  5. Put yourself out there. Take walks so people can get used to your presence, shop where locals shop, say hello. Ask what the neighbor's cat's name is. When the woman who owns the bar changes her hairstyle tell her how lovely she looks. Overlook the fact that the baker is in his underwear to ask what that bread with raisins in it is called. It may well mean stepping out of your comfort zone, but that means growth. And that's good. It also may result in discovering "pane di mosta". And that's good, too.

Tell us a bit about your own expat blog.
I started Il Bel Centro well before our arrival in the boot. It began as a way to process the emotional aspects of making this transition, my concerns about how to choose a place, my anxieties about my children's adjustments, and the pure adrenaline stress of getting out of our house a mere half hour before our new tenants took possession. Since we landed at the end of July, I've been writing almost daily (though the blog didn't launch for another month, which was an education on accessing the internet in Italy). Partly to have a chronicle of our year, and also partly because this year is about more than having an adventure. It's about growth, and removing the day to day tensions and expectations that get in the way of connecting with my inner self. The writing is my therapy, my way of deepening my understanding of myself and my family and my world. Sometimes I feel vulnerable, but ultimately, it's a rewarding process.

How can you be contacted for further advice to future expats coming to your area?
You are welcome to message me through my blog's Facebook page, or under the "About Me" section of my blog.

Michelle blogs at which we recommend a quick visit if you haven't been already. Il bel centro has an listing here with some great comments already - but there's always room for more, so add a review if you like! If you appreciated this interview with Michelle, please let her know by leaving a comment below.
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Comments » There is 1 comment

Jamielly wrote 11 years ago:

I just started reading Michelle's blogs on Il Bel Centro. This article was wonderful in summarizing her adventures thus far. I have my own dreams of living in France for a summer. I remain inspired by her experiences and will take her advice to heart. Lovely interview.

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