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 exorbitant, 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.
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.
Sometimes I just simply don’t have the linguistic and cultural finesse to express myself how I’d like. I accidentally 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.
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 electronic 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 electronic 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 nepotism 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.