Crybaby: The Expat Tantrum

I never used to cry.  I mean, first I never used to cry in that slightly unhealthy maybe-you-need-a-little-therapy-and-some-getting-in-touch-with-your-feelings way.  Then I never used to cry in that hipster I’m-your-sassy-best-girlfriend way.  Then I never used to cry in that pragmatic it’s-just-how-I-am way.

Now I cry at the drop of a hat.  I have the frustration tolerance of an overtired two year old who had Cocoa Pebbles for both breakfast and lunch and Wants. Them. For. Dinner.  I cry about my dry cleaning getting lost, my telephone bill being exhorbitant, and my dentist running 40 minutes late.  I tear up at PTA meetings, at the car mechanic, and the police station.

Last week I was on the phone with a vendor negotiating some details of a contract and we disagreed about the conditions in one of the clauses.  The conversation was getting heated, though remained—I thought—cordial, until out of the blue the vendor announced he felt under attack, wasn’t used to clients treating him this way, and that I should take my business elsewhere.  At which point I very professionally began to sob.  With him on the phone.  Mortifying, wracking, nose-blowing sobbing.

And I remembered a scene that once when down when my son was a toddler and we were driving home late from a birthday party.  He piped up from the backseat, “Mamma, what’s a thaw?”  And I said, “A what, sweetie?”  “A thaw.”  “A thaw?” “No, a THAW!”  And I kept asking him to repeat himself and telling him I couldn’t understand his question, and he kept repeating the same word and getting increasingly agitated until I finally said, “Hey, mister, no yelling at Mamma, please.  I don’t like getting yelled at.”  At which point he began to sob.  Desperate, pathetic, heart-breaking sobbing.  So awful that I had to pull over, climb into the backseat with him, and figure out what the question was to calm him down.  (“Is it a toy?  Is it something we eat?  Is it an animal?”  “No, Mamma!  It’s the little light that does twinkle, twinkle in the sky!”).

I recently got an email from a fellow expat here in Italy who stumbled upon my blog. She wrote, to summarize,  “You seem so upbeat about expat life.  I am having a really hard time. What’s the matter with me?”  And I felt terribly guilty, because I recall those months after having my first child when I was reading all the books and magazines about how wonderful motherhood was while I spent my days alternately crying and raging and felt like somehow I was doing something wrong was being denied boarding on the Happy Mom Express.  So, I’m going to step away from the sunny schtick for just a second and talk honestly about the dark side of expat life.

And to PL:  There’s nothing the matter with you.  It’s tough sometimes.  Keep the faith, kiddo.

I’m Tired

Remember that adage about Ginger doing everything Fred did, but backwards and in heels?  Well, that’s what my days are like.  All the craziness that being a working mother who is active in the community and full of social commitments entails–but in a second language.  And I’m not bilingual, so expressing myself in Italian still requires concentration, lucidity, and energy.  It’s exhausting, frankly.  There are times when I get to end of the day mentally devastated, which means that any tiny glitch seems like A Big Effing Deal.

I’m Frustrated

Sometimes I just simply don’t have the linguistic and cultural finesse to express myself how I’d like.  I accidently step on toes, I offend, I come off as too aggressive or too indifferent, or I can’t get my message across.  Or, on the flip side, I sense that I am losing in translation a subtle shading that I just can’t manage to put into focus, like a flickering shadow right outside my field of vision.  And the harder I try, the more elusive it seems until I am so discouraged and overwhelmed I go into nuclear meltdown.

I’m Lonely

There is much existential solitude in being an expat, even when I spend my day surrounded by people.  I certainly have dear friends who are Italian, there will always be some cultural gaps that no amount of affection or familiarity can bridge.  I also have dear friends who are fellow foreigners, but the expat diaspora is varied and saying that the mere fact of being two Americans living in Italy is enough foundation to build a friendship is like saying that the mere fact of possessing double X chromosomes means that women world-over are united in loving sisterhood (whereas there are, honestly, many bitches out there I would love to slap.  Coulter, watch your back.) or the mere fact of holding a passport from the same nation should have kept the Serbs and Croats from going at each other’s throats.  When you feel like you are von Trier in a nation of Spielbergs, the tears can sometimes come easily.

I’m Treated Like a Two Year Old

I speak Italian like a third grader, and not the sharpest knife in the drawer third grader.  So, inevitably, I tend to get treated like a third grader, and not the sharpest knife in the drawer third grader.  Which is galling, because I consider myself pretty sharp (in an obtuse sort of way), rather articulate (in a bad speller sort of way), and relatively capable (in a screw-up sort of way).  It puts my teeth on edge to have people—with kind intentions, make no mistake—explain the obvious to me slowly and using simple words.  Because it’s humiliating.  And humiliated people are often not the most even-keeled.  See:  long world history of social uprisings.

I’m Second-Guessing Myself

Sometimes I look at my life and wonder what it is exactly I’ve been doing over the past 17 years while all of my friends back in the States seem to have been busy building fabulous careers in amazing places using the latest electronical gadgets.  My only solace is the knowledge that they look at me and wonder what they’ve been doing over the past 17 years while I’ve been busy building a fabulous career in an amazing place while not slave to the latest electronical gadgets.  Seriously, Italy can be a tough place to have a rewarding career even if you are Italian, fluent, well connected, and big time lucky (even Pier Luigi Celli (the former director of the RAI) advised his son to leave Italy in an open letter citing nepostism and lack of prospects for young professionals.  If Celli Jr. can’t land a decent job here, the rest of us truly are chopped liver.).  It’s hard to feel like you are spending your time spinning your wheels and perhaps Italy isn’t all you dreamed it would be, even if the food is fabulous.

So why am I still here?  The truth is that my experience has been, despite all the whining and crabbing above, ultimately rewarding.  It’s a challenge, but so are most gratifying things in life–from building a lasting relationship to being a good parent to making a difference as a volunteer to having a successful professional or creative life.  There are days when the fatigue and frustration and loneliness wash over me in pounding waves and I find myself coughing and sputtering for air, but those days are rarer.  Most days my glass is half full and I’m able to look back at everything I’ve learned and everything I’ve accomplished since I moved here in 1993 and think, “Damn, girl.”

And then I get a parking ticket.  Sob.


  1. George |

    Ditto, Erica!

    I know I’m not one of the “friends back in the States” that you’re referencing, but, if it helps, not all of us here have fabulous careers and I’m still using my very first cell phone – the one that came free with my first (and only) cell phone contract back in 2001. I often think I should have been settled in some small town in Europe, except for the traveling bug which drives just about every waking moment of my life.

    Also, you never know what would have happened if you’d taken another path. I suspect you’d have ended up just where you are, because it’s where you belong. It’s something I’ve always thought about you, back to the first time I met you, when you seemed so sophisticated and confident and Italian. You may be an expat, but you fit right in.

  2. Lynn |


    Can’t wait to meet you even more now. You are one fabulous crybaby!

    Lynn and Joe

  3. Alexandra |

    You are indeed smart and articulate. And while life sucks here, life, i am convinced, would suck in the states too.
    I’m with ya, babe.

  4. Diana Strinati Baur |

    Rebecca, you just made me effing cry in front of my computer. It came out in little whimps, but now at the risk of a snot avalanche on my mac I am sighing – I mean signing – off. I am with you on all of it. Can we please hold hands and sing a negro spiritual now? You hit all the buttons that make my chest vibrate.

    The only thing I would add would be the fact of how mould and damp- even the slightest smell of them with no visible signs – make me crawl into a corner and sob like a howling dog.

    I need a vacation. From everything. I love you Rebecca, thank you for writing this.

  5. Joanna Hamil |

    Only five and half years, and without partner or children, but even with all the Italian friends in a town where I’m the only expat and no one speaks English (and most of them are from Rome, Naples, Venice, etc.), I am so with you! Language and culture – che casino qualche volta! Ti ringrazio, carissima!

  6. Anne |

    I can’t relate to the expat issues, although you describe them poignantly, but Oh I can so relate to that feeling of having the tolerance of a two year old! I am a total crybaby myself, which tendency seems to get worse as I age. I cry tears of anguish over the big things like my daughters overdosing, and I weep with frustration over little stuff like having my discernment committee meeting cancelled. (And I confess that I still cry Every Single Time I watch the movie Dirty Dancing…and I’ve seen it at least a dozen times!)

    I am grateful that after the tears, and sometimes even in the midst of them, the lightness always returns for me. Fantastic post, Rebecca. There is such power and release in openly bearing one’s soul – you are an inspiration to all!

  7. Laurie |

    and here I thought I was a total loser because in spite of speaking fluent italian and living here for 8 years I still have many moments of completely hating the city I live in (Torino), largely disapproving of Italy in general, completely resenting the “under the Tuscan Sun/Eat, Love, Pray” stuff, and feeling not nearly as connected as I might have liked – but know I just won’t ever be – with the local expats, who might just not be people I’d really connect with ANYWHERE I lived….(so true, Rebecca, what you say about that!). Thanks for your beautiful writing about this, and yes, I’m crying now…..

  8. Jeffery |

    All I know is how eagerly I await your postings here in North Carolina. I’ve only visited Umbria twice (Italy six times) but find your tales, your information … priceless. There’s not a person anywhere that doesn’t have doubts and frustrations – it’s easy to forget that. I forget it all the time! It’s good to be reminded and you’ve done it in a honest and meaningful way.

  9. Priscilla |

    Love a good expat rant!
    Well written and expresses what all of us feel from time to time – lived overseas and now live in the states.

  10. Laurie |

    Re: not connecting I DON’T mean wonderful Diana….though I wish we lived much closer!

  11. Barbara |

    Thanks for making me feel better about my time in Italy and the constant state of confusion I was in! Yes, I was one of those people who thought that you were the perfectly assimilated expats and I was just a big loser/baby. I guess misery really DOES love company, so I suggest we meet at Eurochocolate and drown our sorrows in as much chocolate as it takes!

  12. Melissa Muldoon |

    It’s your party and you can cry if you want to!!!! But, for what it’s worth… I think you are one very sharp cookie, your intelligence and wit shine through every day in your blog and FB, AND I have it on good authority that you speak Italian very well (a little bird that lives above Assisi told me so)! Hurrah for the internet that connects you to a bigger world beyond Italy making it just a little easier to have your cake and it it too… along with that glass that is half full or half empty, depending on the day!

  13. Donna from The Maremma Guide |


    I am going to reply properly when I have stopped crying. On this Friday night after a week in which I did have tears – they just came and I was in company! – thank you for making this woman feel that she isn’t so alone and hasn’t completely lost the thread.


  14. Walter Sanders |

    Great post! I lived, studied, worked in Florence from 1971-1975 (and eventually married there in 1978)and remember some of the frustrations. Although seldom moved to tears, I do recall moments of anger over being treated unfairly.

  15. Rebecca |

    The ex-pat blogs that I read consistently…yours, Diana’s, Megan’s, Cherrye’s, Bleeding Espresso’s…I do because I want to hear stuff like that. Italy is real life, although I’d LOVE to always have the romaticized version that we’re spoon fed. We always toy with the idea of leaving….maybe just for a bit. But, my family would prefer I stay in California so they could leave Calabria and come here:) Your honest feelings connect you to others. Your frustrating BS over there makes me feel like I can handle my frustrating BS over here….and that’s a good thing.

  16. Kim |

    I have been here 7 years and have just started to write my blog. Remembering back at how hard it was and I was pregnant with my second at the time. Expat life is hard and it is good that you post positive and have also mentioned the struggle too. Honest feelings. Keep it up.

  17. Michelle | Bleeding Espresso |

    Love this! I prefer to stay positive in my public writing, so I’ve been asked similar questions. I have to remind the asker that I didn’t just move here, though, so I’m past a lot of the “beginning” frustrations — which isn’t to say I didn’t have any in the first few years (I wasn’t blogging then so they aren’t recorded) and that I don’t have any frustrations now (I do, they’re just different, and are usually more “universal” in nature rather than rooted in where I live).

    A huge plus for me was that my partner doesn’t speak any English, so I didn’t have a choice but to kick up the Italian but fast — and that is one thing that makes a *huge* difference in an expat’s life IMHO. Another thing I learned here more than anywhere else is that misery breeds misery…so I try my best to deal with difficulties, move on, and not look back (which is one big reason there are only handful of rant-like posts on my blog).

    Again, excellent post <3

  18. Julie |

    I’m throwing in the towel. 😉 That was an awesome post Rebecca, well written, well stated and full of emotion. Thank you. Meeting you in person was such an honor and I just have to state for the record your Italian is *FANTASTIC*. While listening to you speak it truly was as if you were another person, Italian. My husband noticed too that you inflect excellently.

    What I think you described however was more of the sense we have of being an outsider. It’s a feeling. But remember, we have control over our feelings, for the most part. I think it stems from the frustration you get from trying to do simple things and seeing that simple things here in Italy just don’t exist.

    I think that the entire challenge of trying to figure out how this country works is the charm of it. But you really struck a nerve about Celli’s son looking for work outside of Italy. I have a teacher friend whose son just enrolled in Medicine at 30 years old. She’s DESPERATE because he’s still living at home and his last degree didn’t land him a job.

    Best to you my friend.

    Corraggio! Su!


  19. rebecca |

    Hello everyone…I am so touched by all of these wonderful notes and comments. I was very ambivalent about this post for the very reasons that Michelle cites…I tend towards positivity in writing and in life, as wet blanket-ness seems to breed wet blanket-ness.

    That said, I see that sometimes fessing up to a little suffering is palliative…for myself, and for others.

    Thanks to you all for taking the time to jot down your feedback. I suspect I will be coming back to read it over from time to time when I am having a glass-half-empty day.

    Un bacione,

  20. Celia |

    Dear Rebecca, I have just discovered your delightful blog and empathise with many of your sentiments. When my frustrations overwhelm my normal good humor I often complain to my Italian husband that nobody would live in this country if it wasn’t so beautiful and the food and wine so good and guess what, he always agrees!
    coraggio a tutti e Viva L’Italia !

  21. Francesca Maggi |

    …And so often, it’s hard to articulate when, for the 1 zillionth time, and Italian asks, “What could EVER have driven you to leave the USA and stay here all these years???”

    And, as you run down every list of pros&cons you ever thought of…it’s still hard to put a finger on all the benefits (which are uncountable) amidst all the frustration…

    Nonetheless, when you get desperate, check in on my blog — (I’m about to post a link on your great post on Perugia Eurochocolate)

    — At least you’ll find some cathartic humor to go along with that whine & wine!

    Francesca Maggi
    Burnt by the Tuscan Sun

    • rebecca |

      Hello Celia and Francesca! Thanks for stopping by and introducing me to two wonderful expat blogs…it’s wonderful to have a network of blogging expats out there for a little solidarity on the glass half empty days!

  22. Laura |

    I can completely and totally relate to everything you have said here…and that others have added. I, too, at times can feel very tired, frustrated, lonely (I never knew how much), and second guess my every move. I write about it a bit, I think you need to to be able to deal with it, but it is very difficult to explain to an outsider. It is hard to relax when you are thinking and translating to plot your every move. I have found that it does not matter how many friends you have, how well you speak the language, how successful you are, every expat is touched by these feelings at some point. I, like you, just try to concentrate as much as I can on the fact that I am surviving (and thriving) in a culture that is not my own…it takes a rare breed…brava. Thank you for your honesty and putting your post out into the world for us!

    • rebecca |

      Hello Laura, thanks for stopping by and for your comment. I just took a quick trip to you website…complimenti! I absolutely love your designs… Best, Rebecca

  23. Madeline | Italy Beyond the Obvious |

    Rebecca, love this post! My favorite part is your paragraph on frustration, with the imagery of the elusive flickering shadow right outside your field of vision…. perfectly described!

    As a Canadian living in the US I don’t currently feel like an expat, but in 5 years in Italy and 2 years in Sweden I had many days/weeks/months like you describe and feel like I can definitely relate to it all. Looking forward to reading more of your blog!

    • rebecca |

      Thanks so much, Madeline and Marcia, for stopping by and commenting! The feedback from this post has been wonderful…

  24. Marcia |

    My heart is with you, and it at times, it is like that here in the States. I remember once crying at the detergent ads in a Better Homes & Gardens magazine, lol. (It was that time of the month and the magazine came always, at that time of the month.)
    It helps to vent, don’t you think? I appreciate your honesty. :-)

  25. Martha |

    I’ve been in Italy for almost 6 years. Living in a little village in Eastern Tuscany. I was relieved to read your expat rant. The loneliness and isolation that I feel is often overwhelming and I often wonder if it’s worth the spectacular view from my bedroom window.
    I had a blog for about 6 months and I enjoyed writing about life in a little village. I didn’t dwell on anything negative and if i did I turned it into something to laugh about. But then I had such a series of disappointments that there was no way I could put forward la bella figura one more time.
    Considering that the area where I live is so achingly beautiful I try to take strength from my surroundings.

    • rebecca |

      Thanks, Martha, for coming by and for your thoughtful comment. My life here was very cyclical the first years…periods of euphoria and periods of despair. Things have settled quite a bit over the past few years and the highs are lower and the lows higher. Being an optimist by nature is surely a help (in life in general, and certainly as an expat!)

  26. Annie |

    I can definitely understand… I’ve only been living in Italy about a year so far, but have already had similar experiences. People back in the US seem to think I live some sort of magical, blessed life because I live here, and don’t really take me seriously when I say I have a problem… instead it is ‘Don’t complain, you live in Italy!’ For some reason, I didn’t expect it to be this hard. It’s also wonderful, but it ain’t easy.

    Yesterday I was trying to find a specialized kitchen tool that I didn’t know the name of in Italian, and after trying to explain its use for a half an hour to a shopkeeper, I had to start drawing pictures, only to discover that such a thing doesn’t exist in Italy. I guess it is all part of the adventure, huh?

  27. Gubbi |

    Love this, and completely relate! I actually landed here quite unexpectedly, when I Googled “expat tantrum” on a whim after throwing a spectacular ET of my own this afternoon at the doctor’s office, of all places (that poor GP didn’t know what hit him). After 3.5 years as an American living in Dubai, I feel like I should be over that phase by now and on to a more “zen” part of my expat existence… but it’s reassuring to hear that even after 17 years, sometimes the tears and the frustration still get the best of other people too. :) To the experience!

    • rebecca |

      Gubbi, I’ve been amazed at the response to this post…there is definitely a bit of universiality to the expat experience which speaks to everyone who has ever uprooted and tried to flourish in new soil. To the experience, indeed!

  28. Shell |

    I’ve been an ex-pat for 10 years (Canadian in Italy-lnd) and only today thought to look up ex-pat blogs on the net. I suppose I hesitated because I didn’t think I could STAND a super-wonderful-soppy blog about drinking homemade wine with friends under a Tuscun sun while the children ran around the olive grove type thing. Reading Rebecca’s blog and all of these comments full of sharing and openness is so much more than I expected. What a great, warm and real bunch of people. Thank you all for sharing.

  29. Judith of Umbria |

    There, there, lil mom. We all think you’re terrific. As for the traffic ticket, you want us to call Guido?

    I despise people who write books romanticizing even the most voluntary life as an expat here. Lies, all lies, but I too feel the rewards (generally) outweigh my pains.

  30. judy |

    well, even after 30 years, i still have my cry-baby moments. I try to keep my blog just food and some travel, but every once-in-a-while I feel the need to SCREAM– I AM NOT FRANCES MAYES.

    Life here is tough, but we have chosen it. But I do miss cocktails with the girls to blow off steam.

    My crazy neighbors are crazy—- and often I feel so alone. thank god for internet!
    I remember though once barely mentioning a family problem– and one of my REAL friends telling me that it was “unprofessional” to even mention it.


    I broke into tears when the cop stopped me for driving with my california drivers licence— and he threatened to tear it up!

    Will have a Negroni this afternoon— with you virtually!!!

    takes the edge off!

  31. David |

    Shame I came across this later rather than sooner – but glad our paths finally x’d. Good blog ! Hope that in the interim 3-odd years the tears have ebbed a tad…

  32. Gloria |

    Are the dates right?! If so, do you realize you have had women cry over your drama for three years, you expat would-be bitch slapper?! Lol Rebecca, sweetheart, Italy is difficult for Italians too and expressing your witty personality in a foreign language is never easy (look at me here!). Plus Alexandra is right (well, if the dates are right she was already this smart 3 years ago… And I thought we had enlightened her…): life is hard anywhere. I am sure things have changed a lot for you since you wrote this post, gadgets included. If not my solutions would be a) gigantic jar of Nutella b) gigantic bucket of ice-cream c) some smart-ass making fun of the locals as a little politically incorrect revenge against us Italians. If nothing else works and you need help for some of that slapping, I am always happy to help. Much love bella!

  33. Tina |

    I LOVE reading your posts, and you do, indeed have a way with words and an awesome sense of humor. I’ve lived in a number of foreign countries, some of whose languages I speak fluently, some not. I don’t mean to be a jerk, but how can you live somewhere for 17 years and not speak the local language fluently — NOT Wall Street Journal fluently — but at least high school graduate fluently? I agree that there will ALWAYS be cultural, social, and “lost in translation” gaps (part of the charm), but what about sharpening your Italian so you won’t feel humiliated? (P.S., I totally agree with Gloria! :-)

  34. Jovanna Barbarani |

    very real,indeed, but—it helps a great deal to sit down and work work with the language until you get it right!! Then, knowing just how visual the people are—I am wondering just what you put on each morning because, weirdly enough, the Italian eye will look at what you are wearing, pick you to pieces, and treat you accordingly!!


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