Expat Advice: Culture Shock in Southern Tuscany, Italy
An expat living in Southern Tuscany recommends first and foremost to learn the language. She says that there will be days that are so hard you'll want to cry. But, try not to let things get you too flustered. Have fun and enjoy the beautiful, old land with old traditions.
What is the name of the city or town that you are reporting on?
Did you receive any cross-cultural training for your move abroad? If yes, was it before or after the move?
No, not really. I'd come here on holiday at age 35, unaware at that stage I was on the verge of separation from my husband, and knew this is where I wanted to be. He wouldn't follow me, so we separated (in Rome, as it happens), we went home, I put in my notice at work, whittled my belongings down to virtually nothing, booked a 3 month stint at a language school and was back here a month later. Beyond the language school, I made the concerted effort not to make plans. The cross-cultural training (read: trial by fire and tears) came later.
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If they speak another language in your new country, do you speak the language? If yes, did you learn the language before you moved or while abroad? If no, are you planning to learn the language?
The last couple of years have been a long road and I was edging into 'fluent' range as I speak only Italian at home. However, my partner and I went back to Australia to visit my parents and we stayed in Aus for 5 weeks. While we continued to speak Italiano, the background language was always English, of course, so I feel on the back foot again. I highly recommend learning the language intensively at a school. To dog paddle through the language for years just makes it harder, and you learn all the bad habits!
Were you worried or concerned about culture shock before you moved abroad?
No, not essentially. I don't tend to see everything through rose-coloured lenses. It's not all picture-perfect light and festas-in-the-streets and 'al sole mio'. I knew that before I came here. Also, I'm a mix of Polish, German, English and Belgian, so growing up having multi cultural parents and grandparents with multi cultural quirks is quite normal. One last thing I want to add here is that I was surprised, when I was here on holiday, how few people speak English. That surprised me as I wasn't aware of it.
How significant was the culture shock you experienced when you moved abroad?
Not a great deal shocks me...though (as someone else wrote here) the overt sex trafficking and escort/mistress culture is hard to take. I think the culture shock has slowly seeped in. I've noticed the original adrenaline high anxiety has collapsed into a depression that's been hard to shake for the last 5 weeks. It's taken almost 2 years for this to happen and, most likely, the trip back to Aus was a catalyst. Also, my expat friend recently lost her Italian husband here and I'm faced with another side of reality.
Expats often talk about going through the "stages of culture shock." Examples include the honeymoon phase, the irritation-to-anger stage, the rejection of the culture stage, and the cultural adjustment phase. Do you feel like you went through these or any other stages as you settled into the new culture?
Ok, I think I've outlined this above, but the honeymoon phase was more for me like bumbling through daily life!! Irritation to anger - yep, there was plenty of that and there still is where the language is concerned. Also, even though I've been driving for 20 years, because my licence is Australian, I can't exchange it for an Italian one. I have to do the exam from scratch. So, little freedoms such as that, which I took for granted can add up to irritation that collapses into a futile anger, and probably rejection of the culture. That, and the fact you've got to get a bloody stamp for everything! As for adjusting and settling into the new culture? I think I need another year here, working without disruption or distraction from the old life (which is why I deleted my Facebook account) in order to let things organically happen. I can't force these things, and I can't change others. I'm learning patience and that I can't microcontrol everything.
What, if any, were some of the changes you noticed in yourself that might have been caused by culture shock? These might include things such as anger, depression, anxiety, increased eating or drinking, frustration, homesickness, etc.
Depression, definitely. Tears at sad songs, tears at a fumbled second language, over-reacting to small nuisances... I think last February was the worst. We were set to have 10 days in Tenerife, in the sun, and had to cancel when my partner's father became gravely ill and was hospitalised in intensive care for 40 days. The drive to and from the hospital is an hour, and we were in the middle of moving house. We stayed at my partner's parents' place for a month... Frustration? Yes. Homesickness? No. Decreased eating and drinking, rather than increased.
What are some things you appreciate most about the new culture?
The warmth of the community I live in, just to be welcomed every day by those familiar faces and their smiles. My partner, who has just been wonderful, gentle and patient; my sister-in-law and in-laws. The antiquity, the church bells, the art, the culture of food and wine, and the living in tune with the seasons.
What are the most challenging aspects of the new culture?
I'd kill for some fresh ginger and a good, hot Indian curry most days! Setting up businesses - the bureaucracy and taxes can be crippling and are changeable. I take my hat off to accountants here.
Did you "commit" any embarrassing or humorous cultural blunders? If you did and you'd like to share them, please do tell!
All the time, probably... I walk around barefoot in my house, without slippers on. I asked if I could "Sweep the Floor" for someone. Oh...that's right...I mixed my spinach contorno (side dish) into my spaghetti. I was audibly gasped at.
Do you have any advice or thoughts about culture shock you would like to share?
Number one: Learn. The. Language. It will make it so much easier for you long term.
Do an online TEFL course, or enroll in class tuition for teaching ESL. It's a great fallback...and surprisingly heaps of fun.
Ask for help, seek out other English-speaking expats and make friends with them but don't rely too heavily on only them.
Listen to your gut. If something doesn't feel right, it probably isn't. It's saved my skin a number of times. Don't get cranky, but learn to say 'no' and mean it (still working on the assertive no!)
Be creative with the skills you have. Every little short course, degree, experience you've had can be cobbled together to help you find work.
Don't let things get you too flustered. There are days that will be so hard you'll want to cry. Even catching a bus from A to B can make you want to squawk.
Most of all, have fun. You're in a wonderful, beautiful, old land with old traditions and a diversity from north to south. Dig your toes in.
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