uring my first six months in Italy — even through the first year — I never hesitated telling people how long I’d been living here. In a short time, I’d learned to speak Italian fairly well. Brava, people told me.
But the allure of a new language wore off as the grind of daily life set in. While I’ve now been living in Naples a little more than 18 months, I don’t think my language skills have improved much in the past year. Work obligations, a quest to earn a new degree, and plain tiredness have intervened.
I didn’t realize how bad it had gotten until I got a haircut at a salon that I hadn’t visited lately. In three sentences, I managed to convince a trio of hairstylists that I was a deaf mute. The roar of hairdryers and running water made it impossible for me to understand a thing they asked me (in rather specific Italian hair terms). A year ago the situation would have bothered me. Not any more.
I just read my magazine and let them work on my hair in silence. When one of them asked me how long I’d been in Italy, I lied and said six months.
I once found it surprising that some of my expatriate friends hadn’t bothered to learn Italian despite plans to live in the country for years. Slowly, though, I’ve come to understand their logic. Moving overseas is hard, even more so if you try to immerse yourself in a foreign culture. For nearly a year, I read Italian newspapers daily and spoke solely Italian as much as possible. But I still don’t always understand basic jokes (or insults). Add in background noise, and I’m slow on the uptake. It’s frustrating.
No matter how much you enjoy a foreign culture, home will always exert a specific tug. For me, it is finding pants with appropriate-length inseams. Even though I’m only 5-7 I have unusually long legs. In southern Italy, where the average woman seems to be about six inches shorter than me, hunting down pants is a challenge. Still, I regularly try squeezing into Italian pants designed for women whose legs end where my thigh begins. I’m stubborn that way.
Then come more significant issues, including future and career. At home, it’s easy to believe you’re willing to give up your life’s work to eternally gallivant around a foreign country. But make the jump and the belief can slowly fall by the wayside. Sure, it’s great to sip espresso every day and buy fresh fruits and vegetables from your neighborhood fruttivendolo. So is living amid 2,000-year-old ruins. But those things alone don’t give you a sense of purpose.
In my case, purpose is tied to something I can only do in America: my job. All I love about Italy can’t fill the void of not being a reporter. Even though I edit a weekly English-language publication, it’s not the same. And, given Italian labor laws and my rudimentary language skills, my field affords no opportunities here.
I know Italy is a dream that at some point must end. When people ask me why I don’t stay here forever (a question faced by many expats), I tell them that even though my life is now in Italy, my future lies in America. I’ll miss aspects of Naples — the food, the people, even the driving — but there’s a part of me that looks forward to returning home and getting back to my regular life. I’m glad to be here, yes, but I’ll also be happy to leave.