From Expat to Immigrant

By: Kate Bailward - Also see author's expat blog listing & expat interview

I hadn't intended to come to Italy. Argentina was where I wanted to be, where I could ride polo ponies across pampas plains and fall in love with handsome gauchos. That was the plan. Europe wasn't even on my list. It was too close to the UK and not enough like an adventure.

Then a job in southern Italy fell into my lap. There wouldn't be any pampas or gauchos, but a colleague at the summer school where I was teaching had worked there for a few years and said that he trusted the place. The school was in Maglie, in the Salento region of Puglia, and in classic southern-Italian style, I didn't even have to do an interview: my colleague trusted me and his ex-boss trusted him. If I wanted it, the job was mine.

I told everyone that I was moving to Italy, and began to pack my UK life into storage boxes, which I labelled and piled up in the spare room of my London flat ready for when I came back. It never occurred to me that I wouldn't. Come back, that is. I made trip after trip to the charity shop, in an overdue wardrobe-clearing exercise, and sold all of my CDS. Books were more complicated, but I managed to prune about a third of them. The rest - a couple of bookcases' worth - I kept in the flat. Packed away so that my tenant could make use of the shelves, but still there. When I went back after a year and found that the bookcases were empty, I put the books back. I hated seeing my flat empty and unloved. Even after a year I had only moved out in name, rather than spirit.

Tenants came and went, and still my things remained in the flat. I'd forgotten what was in most of the boxes, but I wasn't ready to get rid of them. Not yet. Then, in December 2010, when the latest tenant told me he was moving out, I got in touch with one of my oldest friends, Alex, and asked if she wanted somewhere to live.

That was the turning point. I packed my books away again and this time the shelves were refilled with her things. I moved the storage boxes of my possessions from the flat to my parents' house in Somerset and opened them up to find the remnants of my past life: desiccated make-up in colours that I would never wear again; half-used bottles of toiletries; chewed Bic biros; stubs of pencils. I looked at this detritus from a life that no longer fitted me and wondered why on earth I'd been hanging onto it for so long. I tipped box after box of useless stuff into black rubbish bags and felt my London life slipping further and further away. It felt good.

Meanwhile in Italy, possessions that had once fitted inside a large suitcase and a small piece of hand luggage had grown and spilled out over the edges. Clothes hung in the wardrobe that, even had I had the space to pack them and take them back to the UK, would have looked out of place there. I realised that I had - and still have - two different lives. In Italy I rarely leave the house without make-up, and I have different bags and pairs of shoes for every occasion. In England I live in jeans and sweatshirts that I've had since school days. When I go to the pub, it's full of people that have known me since I was a teenager. They'd be uncomfortable around the Italian version of me, in full make-up and jewellery, high heels and figure-hugging dresses, and I'd be equally awkward, feeling out of place and overdone.

So the English me and the Italian me grow ever further apart.

When I visit my family for Christmas in the UK it takes me time to adjust. Used to thinking and speaking in Italian, I forget English idioms and certain words. False friends appear, linguistically. "Ooh, this soup is too cold" I say, and immediately correct myself. "I mean hot. Caldo." I go to the supermarket and find myself muttering the names of things in Italian. Even eating - the simplest and most basic of human functions - is alien. The Italians, concerned with digestion, separate different food groups into different courses. Not for them the UK custom of putting everything onto one plate. I spend a lot of time battling stomach-ache in England.

Then I return to Italy and start the readjustment process all over again, in reverse. I put make-up on again, with hands that are awkward from lack of practice, and squeeze into clothes that have become too tight after weeks of comfort eating against the cold. Or maybe they were always this clinging and it's just that I'm noticing it more after wearing baggy clothes that - to Italian eyes - look three sizes too big. I have shoes that I only ever wear inside the house and I change clothes three or four times a day, from house dress to outdoor clothes and back again, every time I leave the flat and return. I drink less alcohol but eat more ice cream and sweet stuff, and I cook like a demon for the sheer joy of having market-fresh ingredients and learning new recipes.

There are cultural shocks wherever I am; the difference is that when I'm in Italy I don't miss the UK.

Family and friends' lives go on, played out via Facebook, as mine is to them. I don't envy them what they have - and I mean that in the purest sense - there is no jealousy there, no pang of longing for a life that I've left behind; just an interest and curiosity in what's happening in their lives, because of who they are and because I love them, despite feeling sometimes that I don't know them all that well nowadays.

I started out as an expat. I never dreamed that I would want to settle here in Italy: it was only ever going to be temporary. I had roots in England. That was where I'd end up. Now I'm not so sure. I still have ties to England - family, friends, a flat with resident cat - but they're becoming more and more tenuous the longer I spend here. My flat is only mine because it's my name on the title deeds, not because I feel at home there, and the ties that bind are slowly but surely being cut. I still refer to myself as an expat, but expats someday have to repatriate, so I think I'm more of an immigrant. Or at least somewhere in the hinterland between expat and immigrant, moving closer to the latter every day. And that's fine by me.

About the author:

Kate Bailward is a cat-loving, trifle-hating, maniac driver who arrived in Italy in 2009 for a 9-month teaching contract. Three years later she has given up teaching but has no plans to give up Italy. Her work has been published at and she blogs at Driving Like a Maniac. She can be found on Social Media at Facebook, Twitter, and Google+
Blog address: Twitter: @katja_dlam
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Contest Comments » There are 19 comments

Kate Bailward wrote 11 years ago:

Thank you everyone who's commented so far: Benjamin, John, Leila, Daniel, Pops, CB, MrB, Georgette, Little Kate, Linda, Krista and Canedolia - even if I don't win the contest I really appreciate you taking the time to comment and support the attempt. Group hug (and maybe a few tears) all round! PS @John: Benjamin's just down the road from us. Another one for the Catania writers' coven ...

Ulysses S. Rant wrote 11 years ago:

I saw this article through a friend's Facebook page; I was intrigued enough to keep on reading. And it was a fun one to read, Kate! You know you've found a good spot when you don't miss the last spot nearly as much. I like to travel a lot as well...but I have to admit, it feels good to put down some roots once in a while. Perhaps you've found a good place to do so for a while. In any case, I hope you enjoy your time in Italy...and good luck with the contest!

Kate Bailward wrote 11 years ago:

Thanks Ulysses! I'm glad you enjoyed reading - feel free to tell your friends hehehe. ;)

Kate Bailward wrote 11 years ago:

Thanks so much for commenting, McMucca. The brief for this was to write something that would be helpful for other expats, but you're right: ultimately everyone's experiences are different, so I went with what I knew, hoping that at the very least it would make an interesting read. If it's helpful to anyone out there then so much the better. :)

Kate Bailward wrote 11 years ago:

Chot!! Great to hear from you! I'm glad you enjoyed the article; thank you so much for commenting. Now put the little ones in compost and get them to grow faster so you can follow your Italian dream hehehe. ;) xx

Benjamin Spencer wrote 11 years ago:

... great article ... I just relocated to Sicily from California ... I'm a winemaker/writer and trying to get my bearings ... this puts a lot of my expectations into a future focus ... like turning the binoculars around and looking at the beginning from the end ... I anticipate a lot of these same sensations as I move forward into the expected-unknown ... Thanks Kate!

John P Brady wrote 11 years ago:

A very personal account of your move. It was moving! Enjoyed it. Thanks for the insight into the expat experience. And for Benjamin above, what part of Sicily have you moved to?

Leila Bailward wrote 11 years ago:

What a lovely piece of writing, very honest, brought a tear to my eye! Your heavily pregnant sister-in-law will be wearing baggies and sweatshirts this Christmas (purely to ease you back in, you understand!).

Daniel Kenyon wrote 11 years ago:

A warm and down to earth, unpretencious piece of writing that sums up what a lot us expats/immigrants feel. Great.

Pops wrote 11 years ago:

Beautifully elucidated but tinged with a touch of sadness from those you have left behind: however the world is a small electronic place and the fact that we can read your sentiments on the day that you publish them proves the point. We are much looking forward to your Christmas visit and your baggy clothes are in the cupboard where you left them.

Caroline Davies wrote 11 years ago:

Perfectly articulated. We miss you, but love reading about all your adventures. I can identify with the UK you as I sit here in my hoody and jeans, but aspire to be the Italian you... One day!

Ian Barker wrote 11 years ago:

It is a true thing to say that I never ate a bad meal once in Italy. I also heard my heated exchanges that appeared to at any moment likely to break out into a full-on knife fight - over the tiniest of things. The Italian men bristled and glowered, the Italian women shone or bustled. You paint these images back once again for me every time you write, as you do so beautifully. America is so very different, yet I too very definitely emigrated here and after three years get the chance to gaze at English TV news footage that seems to depict a country I read about once in some kind of fanciful best-selling novelette. I'll always be British but, maybe now, I'm American British.

Georgette Jupe wrote 11 years ago:

great post as usual Kate, very moving (literally) , I too don't miss the USA while in Italy..i miss people, customer service and certain snack food but not the lifestyle..

Kate wrote 11 years ago:

Hey Kate, Fab article and very moving!! I'm glad we met here in Catania!! You are a very dear friend and always will be!!! You made the right choice by coming to Italy!! I can tell you love it here!!

Linda wrote 11 years ago:

great stories and mouth-watering food pictures. wish i could live out my dream of being in italy.

Krista wrote 11 years ago:

Beautiful and moving article, Kate. I connected with so much of what you've felt and experienced building a new life in a new country. :-)

Canedolia wrote 11 years ago:

Great post, Kate! As you know, this is a subject dear to my heart as I try to figure out just how French I've actually become, and I'll be posting soon about the trip I've just spent getting in' touch with the Italian me, who I still really miss as well. Full marks to you for embracing the life you've chosen and living it to the max!

McMucca wrote 11 years ago:

A process of personal evolution, guess it's different for everyone, you write yours so vividly.

Chot Browning wrote 11 years ago:

Hi Kate - you look amazing! Your article was really interesting - very envious of your living in Italy, it is my dream to one day do so myself; one day, when the kiddies have all left home.....!!!! Glad life is treating you well. xx

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