August marked the one year anniversary of our move from Germany to Italy. The first year was a good year, but it was not a great year. I frequently found myself feeling lost, overwhelmed, and incompetent.
I should really read my own blog more.
It wasn’t until someone left a comment on a post I wrote back in 2014 that I realized I had been in this exact spot once before. In rereading Five Things That Surprised Me about Living in Germany, I realized that my first year in Italy had quite a bit in common with my first year in Germany.
After moving to Italy, I convinced myself that everything had always been easier living in Germany. It wasn’t. That first year in Germany, I experienced many of the same things I experienced here in Italy. I felt at times overwhelmed, incompetent, unable to communicate effectively, and unable to understand what was going on around me. It wasn’t that those first years weren’t filled with excitement, happy times, new friends and amazing experiences, it’s that those first years were also filled with adjustments – and steep learning curves.
After five years in Germany, I wasn’t a cultural expert, nor was I fluent in the language, but I had gained enough familiarity and experience to feel comfortable in my environment. I was confident enough in my cultural and linguistic skills to experience new things and participate fully in the world going on around me. This was the Germany I was leaving. It allowed that other Germany – the one I first experienced, where everything was new and different and strange, to fade to a distant memory.
In Italy, I often found myself comparing life here to life in Germany. Everything was easier, I told myself. It was easier to learn German. It was easier to get things done in Germany. It was easier to understand the culture. It was easier to navigate the lifestyle. That’s not necessarily true. The truth of the matter was that I was comparing the ease to which I could do things in Germany when I left – not when I arrived. Just as I was comparing the relative ease by which I could accomplish things in the States, to the difficulty I had getting things done in Germany.
I was being extra hard on myself because I wasn’t comparing my first year in Germany to my first year in Italy, I was comparing my final year in Germany to my first year in Italy. Needless to say, the comparison caused both me and Italy to come up short.
So here’s what I’ve learned, coming to the end of the first year in my second non-passport country:
Transitioning between cultures and living in a new language is always a challenge. Be patient with yourself, it takes time to feel comfortable. Some days you’ll feel like you’ve got it all under control. Other days, you’ll wonder why you decided to move in the first place.
It takes time to regain feelings of independence, and competence. Each new experience increases your confidence, which leads to your resurging independence. Only time and experience will give you competence. Allow yourself to make mistakes, learn from them, don’t allow them to defeat you.
It can be overwhelming at times. Yes, you have done the grocery shopping a thousand times before, but in another language it is no longer a mundane task. It becomes a test of your skills of deduction, logic and reason – all in another language. It is exhausting to remain alert all the time, but for a while, you need to because you don’t have the background of cultural context to draw from – yet.
Know that you are not going to love everything all of the time. This was extremely difficult for me to come to terms with here, because I had created this idealistic memory of life in Germany where nothing was ever hard, and I always loved everything. But once I allowed myself to view my memories in a more realistic fashion, good and bad were represented. Somethings there were easier, yes. But some things were harder as well.
Avoid excessive comparisons of life in different countries. You’ve heard the expression, comparison is the thief of joy? The more time I spent comparing things in Italy to things in Germany or in the US, the worse I felt. I’ve often said in this past year that I need to look at my time in Rome as an extended vacation rather than as my home for now. One of the reasons for that is the difficulty of avoiding comparisons. But by not fully embracing Rome as my temporary home, I am not experiencing it as fully as I should.
Your discontent is mirrored to a greater or lesser extent by everyone in the household. By giving voice to your frustration, you are coloring their experience as well. Put on a good face, occasionally you need to “fake it until you make it”, especially for the sake of your children.
Sometimes you need to take time for yourself. I have a hard time letting go of all of the things I feel like I should be doing, and my to-do-list grows daily. This year I have learned the importance of having a day that I don’t change out of my pajamas until I pick the kids up from school. Sometimes I need to watch a movie, go for a run, visit a museum, practice yoga, or meditate. Listening to yourself allows you to adjust more quickly.
Do make friends with anyone and everyone. Don’t limit yourself, remember you can’t always trust your first impressions, especially when you are overwhelmed, stressed and frazzled. They may be in the same position you are, and expat friendships – and friendships made with locals, are something to cherish.
Don’t deny feelings of sadness and reach out for help if you need to. I had a harder time than usual this year doing things like planning vacations and getting through my daily chores. Everyone experiences varying levels of stress, sadness or even depression with change. Especially those which are life-altering. For me, taking time to journal and meditate semi-regularly was key.
Finally, try not to lose your sense of humor. Even the most trying of circumstances is easier to handle if you remember how to laugh at yourself every now and again.
While most people celebrate the New Year with the change of a calendar on January first, I prefer to restart my year in the fall. The children are starting a new school year, and I am marking a new anniversary. This is the end of my second first year in a new European country. I have made it through two of the most challenging first years I’ve experienced, and I’ve come out the other side. While I still way to go to before this feels like home, by being cognizant of not only what I’ve done wrong, but what I’ve done right, I’ll get there. This year I plan to take those lessons I’ve learned the hard way and put them into practice. This year will be fabulous. I’m sure of it! (And that right there is half the battle)
What lessons have you learned in the first year following a move?