Brigolante holiday rentals in Assisi, Umbria

Self-catering apartments in Assisi's town center and nearby countryside.
20 comments

The Skin I’m In: The Expat Dilemma

A few weeks ago, our little hamlet held what comes closest in rural Umbria to a block party, if by block party one includes events that begin with Mass, end with a costumed drum corp, and have tables laden for food for the 150 guests (though only 11 actually live on the block).  We had guests staying at Brigolante on the Sunday of the party, and—as we do every year—we invited them to come join in for food and fun. As one of the party’s organizers, I spent the evening serving food, filling glasses, herding children, hunting down extra chairs, bantering and gesticulating, joining in when the accordian started busting out with Ecco maggio, è venuto! and pretty much leaving our American and English guests to fend for themselves, which they did with aplomb.

Our block party begins with Mass

And ends with a drum corp!

The next morning one said to me, “Wow, you sure have assimilated after all this time living here!” which stopped me short. Have I?

Assimilate
1. to be or become absorbed.

I am coming up on my 40th birthday (Though they say that 40 is the new 30, which is fine by me. While we’re at it, can we throw in grey is the new honey-colored highlights and muffin-top is the new six pack?), and predictably I’ve been reflecting about where I am in my life…a large part of which is the experience of being an expat. In fact, in just a few short years I will have lived more years outside my home country than inside. I would love to say that I have assimilated, that I have become so seamlessly absorbed into the culture and language here in rural Umbria as to be virtually interchangeable with someone who was born and bred here. But I know that’s not the case.

Culturally (let’s not even get into the language issue) I will always be set apart. I may live here another decade or another half century, but there are some fundamental differences in world view that are so part of who I was before I arrived here that no number of years could change. I see this in how I raise my children, who I gently but constantly edge toward the side of the nest to test their wings while Umbrian parents tend to gather their own children as tightly as possible under their own wings. I see this in how I divide the gender related work in our nuclear family, and even in how I identify a nuclear family separately from one which includes second or third generations. I see this in how I instinctively—and surely naively–trust institutions of government and administration instead of viewing every figure of authority with automatic suspicion. I see this in my cravings and comfort foods, which are completely different than the craving and comfort foods of most Umbrians I know. I have yet to meet an Umbrian who has craved a bagel and I will never–never, I say–crave Maccheroni Dolci.

I have not assimilated, and never will. Over time I have come to peace with this…in the big soup pot that is Umbria, I will always be the odd bit of turnip. But I am part of the soup, so perhaps I have integrated.

Integrate
1. to bring together or incorporate (parts) into a whole.

I can’t deny that I participate in public life here. I have never been a shrinking violet, and that didn’t change once I moved. I actively and vocally volunteer in my sons’ schools, I have worked with charitable organizations organizing drives, I have taken salsa dance classes and scrapbooking classes and photography classes and kickboxing classes. I have participated in the comunity theater and the parish. And during all of those activities, I have made many, many acquaintances and also some dear friends. But does that mean I have integrated?

My idea of integration presumes a contribution of ideas or beliefs or customs or recipes or secret handshakes or anything of the like—something of yours that has been adopted and incorporated into the bigger picture. Sure, I have done my civic duty, taken my classes, kicked the piss out of the punching bag, but always within the parameters of what was acceptable and expected in each context. No revolutions happened, no innovation, no newly minted traditions.

I have been a worker bee—an important member of the hive, but one known less for lofty improvements and more for humble adaptation.

Adapt
1. to adjust oneself to different conditions, environment, etc.

If I have honed any skill over the past 17-odd years, it has been that of being a chameleon. I can be the bantering and gesticulating waitress at the block party. I can be the mom fretting about her sweating son getting a fever at the soccer game. I can be the pizza dough recipe swapping housewife in the schoolyard. I can be the graciously nodding and assenting professional’s wife at the business dinner. I can be the sunny and welcoming hostess at work. I can be the polite tongue-biting foreigner at the police station. I can be, and often am, all of these things in the space of a few hours.

A life far from your home culture is one of constant adjustment, like the fine tuning of the dials on a radio to get just the right music to fit every situation. It’s a talent, but it’s also hard work. The bottom line is that I am a guest here in Umbria, and good guests don’t pick fights at the dinner table, aren’t rude to the hosts, and leave the bathroom clean–even if what they really want to do is debate politics, spit out the awful roast, and forget to flush—to avoid being ostracized and even more isolated than what they already are as the odd man out. Or, even worse, projecting that fate on their half-foreign children.

Are any of these chameleon colors I wear really who I am, or are they all who I am? Where, in the life of constant accomodation and adaptation do you bend so out of your original shape that you find you can no longer get back to it? Or is what seems like shape-changing really just growth?  With the accumulated wisdom of 40 years, I can honestly say that I have absolutely no idea.

So, I’m a turnip. No, I’m a worker bee. No, I’m a chameleon.

No, I’m just an expat, doing what we do.

20 Comments

  1. Michelle | Bleeding Espresso |

    Thought-provoking as always…I have to say though, I haven’t always been the most polite guest in my years here. There are some things I’m willing to rock the boat for…perhaps I’ll write a post about it 😉

    Reply
  2. Joanna Hamil |

    Maybe being single makes for less assimilation and more rocking the boat and, probably, more gossip or speculation about what the hell I’m doing here. My crew in the village does tend to be from other parts of Italy – interesting mix, all Italians but not native, but for one of them, to the village.
    Great article. Have to think on it more.

    Reply
  3. Mary Thomas Tacconi |

    Insightful, profoundly reflective, thought provoking…and almost painful to read for those of us who have lived through the numerous facets of being the “odd man out”. Michelle, if you write a post about when you were willing to “rock the boat”, I will do the same.

    Rebecca, you ask, “Where, in the life of constant accomodation and adaptation do you bend so out of your original shape that you find you can no longer get back to it?” You then ask, “Or is what seems like shape-changing really just growth? With the accumulated wisdom of 40 years, I can honestly say that I have absolutely no idea. ”

    Let me add that after 43 years here and by now, at a ripely mature age, I have absolutely no idea either!

    THANKS, Rebecca, for your wonderful writings!

    Reply
  4. Andrea Colman |

    Fabulous post Rebecca, really. I often wish I was still living in Italy and I read your post as if another me, in another dimension, had written it. I’ve never regretted any choice in my life, even the horrible mistakes but yesterday I was playing a little game with some friends and I was forced to answer what I’d do differently if I had one choice for a do-over.

    I would have stayed in Italy in 1991 when my daughter, Anna was born rather than be close (literally next door) to my parents. I would probably be the same screwed up pain in the ass that I am now but at least I’d be doing it in Italy sooner rather than later.

    Your posts are providing an excellent segue for me between my American friend’s and my Italian friend’s points of view and I eagerly await them each day, even if I don’t comment.

    Reply
  5. Melissa Muldoon |

    it is interesting how culture and the few short years we live with our parents, shape the heck out of us. I have lived more than 1/2 my life with my husband and yet the first 17 years living with my parents seem to be my touchstone years, that I base all current and future expectations of life on and that I perceive as the years when I became me. Aside from the difficulties of “expat”ness and adapting to living in a foreign culture, aren’t we all constantly trying to assimilate new ways of living and being… adapting from being single to being married, from being a carefree child to a an adult, from being a newlywed to a person in a 20+ marriage. Seems that all the rules change continuously and we have to fit to new patterns, new social circles and mold ourselves to new expectations…hopefully we can do so holding on to our essential cores, and be our best selves and let the word accept the people we are always evolving into.

    Reply
  6. Julie |

    That was a sweet thought provoking article, Rebecca. Well written too. I particularly liked how you ended a thought and then started a new idea with a new definition. It’s all part of the evolution of being, isn’t it? A chameleon? Well, yes, that’s true, but in a way, aren’t we all? Or do we just try to please ourselves?

    The only thing I don’t agree with you is when you write, “I have not assimilated, and never will.” I would say you have done more than assimilated because you have bettered your surroundings, bettered the experience of spreading knowledge by sharing and being hospitable.

    Your contribution is felt among your guests, friends and family. So, I’d have say, besides your Italian being excellent, you are the new thirty.

    Julie

    Reply
    • rebecca |

      Thanks so much, everyone, for your wonderful and thoughtful feedback. I’ve been mulling for a few days to be able to respond with the same care.
      @Katy, Alison, travelingsue, Barb, Andrea…Thank you!
      @Judith…you crack me up. Yes, there were, indeed, numbers 2 and 3 to every definition which I decided not to publish since it seemed like gilding the lily. Unfortunately, my copy editor forgot to show up to work and cancel the 1s. But now I have to leave them, because otherwise your comment won’t make any sense. So they’re there to stay.
      @Joanna, Michelle, Mary… Some rocking the boat has been done, but my way of going about it has changed dramatically over the years. I am now more finesse and less bluster. Having kids has made me much more cautious about being a loudmouth. Michelle, I’d love to hear your stories!
      @Melissa and Julie…this blog post was actually conceived during a phone call with my best friend who lives in Tucson, and her take was very similar to yours: we all live a chameleon life–especially women–and struggle to maintain that constant inner core of truth under the constantly evolving surface. I suppose being an expat just underscores that process more dramatically.

      Reply
  7. Alexandra |

    Belatedly (via italytutto) I’m reading this article and finding it thought-provoking as well. I think the word “assimilate” is the best many people can come up with to describe how they see us. We look, from outside, to fit in pretty well. We understand what’s going on around us, we use our hands to help express it, and we participate in it.

    I think your situation is augmented in a small town where you are the super active but always foreign import. I noticed the same thing, on a diminished level, this summer when we bought a home in a small town in maremma and spend weekends and holidays there. In town people are very curious because “young people from florence, and SHE appears to be a foreigner, bought a house.” I’m okay with that – my husband is as much an oddity as I in this case. In fact they kinda take him for american; he has an Abercrombie t-shirt, i say that is the cause.

    On the other hand, in Florence I feel very comfortable with being an expat. Maybe it’s because we’re a big, contributing community? We have an english language newspaper, I lead an english networking event each year, but I’m also well known in italian arts/culture circles. I may be saying a platitude but in a big city, assimilation – or integration? – is simply easier.

    Reply
  8. Kerry-ann |

    I cannot yet say I have lived outside my ‘birth’ country longer than my ‘settling’ country. But I have noticed the changed too. I don’t identify with my birth country and it puzzled me when I noticed it happening. I belong, and I don’t belong. I am part of but I am a stranger. In this country and now in myself. I love being an expat!

    Reply
  9. Annie |

    I just found out about your blog, and I can very much identify, as I am a youngish American who has married an Italian man and live in Valle d’Aosta. I’ve only been here a year, and I have wondered what things will change in the next years, and your perspective that you wrote about in this wonderful post gives me an idea.

    Happy to know that I’m not the only turnip in Italia 🙂

    Reply
    • rebecca |

      I am loving the comments on this blogpost…thanks everyone!

      Alexandra, certainly the heterogeneous nature of any big city population makes it easier to fit in or, barring that, find other misfits with whom you can let your hair down.

      Kerry-ann, I’ve often found myself caught in that “place in between” where you are both a a part of and excluded from both your home country’s culture (who, for example, is Justin Bieber?) and your adopted country’s culture (why is there such a fuss about taking crosses down from public school walls?). We are in the no man’s land of multiculturalism, but the weather is fine and the fish are biting. I’ll stick around awhile.

      Hi Annie, this is what I just wrote to your mom: One thing I wish I had had so many years ago was a community of expats (either real or virtual) to help get past those first years of culture shock and solitude. I think your daughter’s experience will be much different than mine was, since it is so easy now to hook up with like-minded people–both foreign and Italian–online. And see, here you are with us like minded folk.

      Reply
  10. diana |

    I’m pissed off. I thought 50 was the new 30.

    That aside…

    I like to think that my chameleon days are behind me. Your post brought back to mind the struggles of my 9 years in Germany when I acquiesced to dying my hair eggplant one time and really, really tried to wash my windows every week (that lasted for a week and a half). Or trying NOT to say hello or smile. Or trying to eat cake every afternoon and not gain weight. Or trying to complain about the Germans with the expats and nod silently when the Germans would talk about the superficial Americans.

    But here in Italy, at least in the last couple of years, my ever-falling hormone levels have brought this theme to a real head with me. Who am I after 18 years abroad? What do I really believe? How can I stand up for that and still meet my still-ridiculously high requirement for peace and harmony? My husband is German, my family American, my friends from such a cross cultural spectrum that invariably there are going to be misunderstandings not only having to do with personalities, but with perspectives. I get tired thinking about it. It’s really a huge issue for expats, one that comes in waves – sometimes soft and gentle, sometimes in tsunami form – and hits us again and again.

    But one thing for sure. I think it can be said universally that even thinking of these issue helps expats to become more empathetic as a group, because we’re constantly trying to understand the positions that others around us have. We try. We stretch.

    In the end, we have to be true to ourselves. If not, we fail the one that matters the most – the girl in the mirror. But with this lifestyle, sometimes it means paying a price – a price that people not in this situation don’t necessarily understand.

    Reply

Leave A Comment