ever trust an expat. Expats are liars. We lie to ourselves. We lie to our families. We lie to our friends. We lie to our partners. If you’re looking to catch us in the Big Expat Lie, there’s no better time than when we head back home for the holidays.
I spend half the year scheming ways to get home for Christmas. It involves a lot of feigned naiveté, an entirely misogynistic reliance on my youthful looks and the harmless stupidity that all Italians assume their foreign colleagues possess. I’ve married off my sister more times than I can count. If I wasn’t afraid of karma, I’d kill off a few grandparents too.
I fly home to Australia twice a year. Once in August and once in December. It’s expensive and a guaranteed career and relationship killer. Forget about climbing the corporate ladder. I have the workplace attendance record of a stoner, disappearing for weeks at a time with only the flimsiest excuses.
But the lies I tell to abscond are small fry in comparison to the Big Expat Lie. The lie we tell ourselves when we’re awake at night staring at the ceiling. The lie we relive every time we say our airport goodbyes. The lie we carry around like a backpack full of stones.
I don’t feel guilty about leaving my family.
There it is.
My Big Expat Lie.
Love can conquer many things. Actually, scratch that. Most days, I’m convinced love only conquers my need for an electric blanket. Italy gets cold in winter and natural gas prices are insane. My husband Giulio really helps keep me from freezing to death at night.
But love, even in the form of body heat, is not enough for me to accept leaving my widowed mother, elderly grandparents and dysfunctional siblings. I’ve yet to meet an expat who really believes it is.
That’s not to say expat life is inherently unhappy. I like my life in Italy. I get by perfectly well. Yet it’s lonely sometimes. It’s frustrating and foreign. It’s also infuriatingly difficult to communicate in a language that is not your own. But unless you hate the people you left behind, the guilt of abandonment never leaves you.
The most recent Christmas holidays were particularly difficult. For the first time, I noticed that I’m no longer an essential member of my own family. They have learned to survive without me. They are no longer the people I knew when I lived at home. They’re older and changed. That leaves me stuck buying presents based on the things they loved a decade and a half ago.
In a few short years, I will have spent more time in Italy than I spent in Australia. The sense of being out of place in my hometown is distressing, trust me. I went to four supermarkets looking for pork ribs. Confused when I couldn’t find any, I asked at the counter only to be shown a shelf full of them. I realized I had been looking for Italian-style ribs, which are very different from the ones on sale in Australia. It’s a ridiculous example, but upsetting all the same.
My New Year’s resolution is to be done with the Big Expat Lie. I can never escape the guilt, but I can stop pretending everything is perfect. When people find out I live in Tuscany, they swoon and I seethe.
As expats, we feel obligated to act as if our lives are every Hallmark movie rolled into one. See mum? I left you, my career, my birthplace and everyone I’ve ever known and loved, but look at all the picnics and wine tastings I go to. Check out my amazing Trevi Fountain selfie. Isn’t a lifetime of authentic thin-crusted pizza worth all the suffering I put you through?
Guilt keeps us from talking about the bad parts. We have to pretend everything is always sunny, that we are satisfied and accomplished, never sad or lonely because otherwise all the pain we’ve caused to people we’ve left behind just won’t seem worth it.
I can spend the rest of my life justifying my decision to move overseas, weighing up every low point against all the self-fulfillment and happiness I could have had if I’d never left or I can be honest about the good and the bad.
Maybe if more of us expats did that, we wouldn’t feel blinding rage every time a person tells us how jealous they are that we’re living the dream in small-town Tuscany.