Each Rome expat has a unique history regarding how they got here. There’s the banal: “My company sent me,” and the lushly dramatic: “It was the 1970s and I was in Rome on vacation. I met him at a cafe’ and we got married that summer…” But the decision to stay usually runs deeper than the allure of long coffee breaks and the decidedly slower pace of life. For many, it has at least something to do with the thrill of starting from scratch, of transformation.
I noticed this early into my own stay. As a 20-year-old study abroad student, my uprooting was delicious relief. After all, no one in Italy knew that I’d turned purple when told to give a final presentation in front of a philosophy class, or that I’d never kissed a boy, or that I mostly spent Saturday nights at my dorm watching “Gilmore Girls” on YouTube, not because I didn’t want to socialize but because I had no idea where all the elusive college parties took place.
Empowered by my newfound “newness,” I boldly struck up conversations with strangers, had my first few glasses of wine, and returned to the States calmer and more curious than I’d ever been before. When I think of that year, I remember my childhood pet, a bright blue beta fish, being transferred from a tiny plastic pet store cup into the spacious glass orb of his new tank. Suddenly his fins spread out, and his whole body expanded, strangely majestic.
The expat’s “rebirth” often extends from the emotional into the professional, partly because of the limited number of native English-speakers in Rome legally eligible for hiring. Jobs and opportunities typically reserved for those with advanced degrees in the U.S. aren’t off limits here. There’s room to become something, or someone, you might not otherwise have been. In my relatively short foreign life I’ve taught English (of course) — it’s the expat’s rite-of-passage, equivalent to Greek life’s hazing. My only qualification was speaking English, a skill I’d never studied or worked to acquire. I’d never tutored or shadowed a first-grade class as a volunteer. I’d never drawn up a lesson plan. I didn’t know the ins and outs of English grammar, or even what the past simple referred to. Yet there I was, an English teacher with a full schedule and a list of students, along with their needs and requests. They all saw me as a long-lost remedy to their language woes. “Teacher, what is the difference between the verbs ‘to say’ and ‘to tell’?” one student — Marco or Luca — asked me earnestly. I remember I was wearing an Ann Taylor blazer, bought in Boston with my teacher’s discount. My answer was a fake coughing fit.
My next role was as a culinary expert and historian — this for a young woman who spent most of her salary on eating out (I viewed the euro in food terms: €10 = a margherita pizza and supplì; €20 = all-you-can-eat sushi buffet). I had no interest in cooking and no gastronomical background. But I still had the job.
There’s an element of pretend in expat work — of exaggeration, of confidence, a fake it ’til you make it mentality. Despite my sunny disposition and “people person” skills, I sheepishly know I would never have landed either of my post-grad jobs back home. But I’m not the only one. I’ve met expats who have left their administration jobs in Michigan or Ohio to become yoga gurus and painting instructors (taking groups of tourists into the mountains to capture Rome’s countryside in watercolors). Opera singers are transformed into travel writers. One-time elementary school teachers get jobs at local United Nations agencies. Liberal arts majors turn into ancient history experts overnight, leading pricey guided tours. I know a stay-at-home mom who’s now a cookbook author and a graduate of Chinese medicine studies who works as a manager.
While all this has an iffy side — would people pay hefty sums on their kids’ private English lessons if they knew their teacher was unqualified? Should someone without a history degree really be charging €200 per tour? — I’ve come to admire the plucky courage and bold confidence of Rome’s expats. The art of starting over, I’ve learned, is not that easy to master.