Has anyone ever told you the experiences you stumble over can be your greatest learning opportunities? Or that you will surely look back and laugh about some trials and tribulations that seem tough at the time? Throughout the initial adjustment to expatriate life in Rome, Italy, my family has had our share of flubs, mishaps and anecdotes.Expats come across a multitude of newness while settling into a novel environment including language, surroundings, culture, and relationships. Preparation including research on cultural norms, acquiring necessary language skills and connection with people living in the country is helpful, and setting foot in the country will give you a jolt of life experience to learn from. Adaptation and flexibility are key tools to navigate the unknown roadmap. Sharing everyday challenges we face during the journey normalizes the experience and can provide a healthy dose of humor as a necessary coping skill.
Here is a list of 10 laughable moments while adjusting to expatriate life:
10. 2AM Singalong
Relationships with our Italian landlords can feel like business relationships with distant family members. We once called a landlord to fix an issue with the bed, and he graciously offered to swing by with a new bed right away. Dinner generally does not happen until about 8:30/9:00PM here, so we agreed to his suggested time of 8:00PM.
For hours he fussed with the assembly of the new bed in the lofted space directly above us in the studio apartment. We heard every word, curse, and felt each movement. He told us he preferred to work solo when we offered helping hands. Thoughts about tomorrow’s work days swirled in our minds as we waited. My husband repeatedly belted out a song to practice for his live performance scheduled the next day. The landlord was impressed with his vocals and offered words of praise from above throughout the serenade as he continued to work through wee hours of the morning.
One piece of grocery store etiquette in Rome is that you must weigh your produce, print the corresponding ticket, and place the ticket on the bag. You also need to put on a plastic glove per the sign that was kindly pointed out to me about hygiene, before touching anything.
The very first time I went to the supermercato, I waited in the long check-out line with several bags of fresh produce, pleased to get back on track with nutritious eating after the initial jet-lagged binges. I was dumbfounded when the cashier got snippy with me while explaining something I did not fully understand. Nobody was very happy when I had to step away and weigh each my items before returning. I ducked out with a cloth bag of groceries on each arm.
8. Rinse, Wash, Repeat
Each washing machine comes with a new set of rules and quirks. I’ve navigated my way through several by trial and error. What does this button do? What’ll happen if I pull this out? I try to find rapid cycle to save energy and time because the norm is about 90 minutes of feverish twirling. A couple dingy garments and clothing hanging from every possible corner in a studio apartment later, I think I’ve got it.
7. Pet Dominos
On a bright and early morning in a brand new apartment, we tiptoed onto our private dead-end street desperately trying to be keep good terms with the new neighbors. My husband and I spread out on the short via and motivated our dog (Huey) to run between us to earn food.
Things were fine until he stopped to sniff underneath one of the cars that lined the streets. He had become frantic to reach whatever he found. A cat darted out from under the car which triggered another cat to do the same from the other side. Huey started to bark and awoke several other dogs who followed suite along the entire street. An older Italian lady opened her shutters and yelled something at us. So much for peace and quiet; Welcome to the neighborhood.
I decided to check out an Italian lingerie shop to window shop and perhaps pick up a new bra. It was a new experience for me to be greeted my several males who inquired about my size, preferred styles and intended use of the garments.
The dressing room curtains did not fully close. At any given moment, someone startled me genuinely trying to help. Each time I rushed to cover myself, I contemplated the observation of differences in general comfort level with nudity and sexuality in my new country versus country of origin.
It was liberating to downsize from a house with an attic and yard to a few suitcases before moving abroad. The clearer the space of the non-essentials, the more room you make for new positive energy.
The thing is that we were not used to being able to see and hear each other at all times in a studio apartment. Headphones and earplugs helped, but we were literally without walls or doors for separation. There were times each of us wanted to divide the room with tape much like bickering teen siblings.
4. Closed Out
One Sunday morning, we took Huey for a stroll to fulfill a craving my husband had for McDonald’s breakfast. A few hours later after getting a bit turned around, we returned with our luke-warm McMuffins.
It was then we realized neither one of us had a key to get in. To top it off, my phone was locked inside and his was dead with no minutes since he forgot to “re-charge” it up with money the day before. Trying to explain to neighbors with our fairly limited language skills at the time, no locksmith open in sight (there is not much open on Sundays in Italy), and no possible way to reach our landlord coupled with an increasingly antsy dog made for a long day.
3. Off the Grid
When you move to a new country, you are bound to get lost (or at least turned around) sometime, somehow. The not so reliable public transport system here has been interesting. Just when I think I may have figured it out, something changes, a scheduled bus doesn’t show, or the transportation workers go on strike.
There have been moments I have wandered around, defeated, with heavy bags and not so comfortable shoes (guilty as charged) missing my old Ford Focus. The thing is that when I’m lost and not glued to my Good Map, I almost always stumble upon something different to feast my eyes upon. Perhaps Henry David Thoreau had a point when he said, “Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.” Or at least discover a new gelato place.
2. Dog Overboard
We had frequently taken the dog on walks and runs along the Tiber River. After a storm, the water level would rise sometimes up to the same level as the stone we walked upon.
My husband took Huey out on a weekend walk along the water after it rained the night before. He had run up to the edge of the bank after some ducks floating along the water, put a paw forward in attempt to confirm stable land, and fell straight into the river! Thankfully, my husband was close enough to immediately help him out and there was no current.
1. Peace Offering
We had taken Huey into an open space within the apartment complex when a large off-leash dog approached us unexpectedly. They were not fast friends to say the least. Before the owner could grab him, the dog began chasing my husband.
Later our door-bell rang and there was a small package which read, “We are sorry brownies”. Signed from the dog & parents. They sure know how to get to an American’s heart. He gobbled them and all was forgiven. Did I mention brownies are a delicacy here?
These are small moments in time that taught us about ourselves and our new environment. They serve as concrete reminders for how far we have already come in terms of integrating into our new community.
Do you have occasions from your own expatriate adjustment that you look back on now and laugh about? Please share in the comments below.