What mischief can Amy possibly get up to?
Pizza and Polenta – Expat life in Southern Italy
Ahh…small town Southern Italy...you're walking along the street, gazing at crumbling but charming buildings with painted shutters and flowers on the balcony, women sat outside on wooden chairs exchanging words (and many hand gestures) with their neighbours, who also happen to be sat on wooden chairs preparing some kind of tasty vegetable that's in season.
You smell some good, hearty, Italian home cooking and see shops selling incredible looking gelato. So, you decide to go into one of these shops and buy said incredible looking gelato. You choose something that looks like chocolate. The woman smiles at you and asks you what you want. Or at least, you think that's what she asks you. You panic. You don't understand a word. You start pointing, hoping this will communicate your ice cream desire. But then she asks you something else. Why is buying gelato so complicated?!
If only you'd come in with your big group of English speaking friends. But wait!! You haven't got any English speaking friends in this small, southern Italian town! There's a distinct lack of fellow expats in this traditional, Italian community! How on earth am I going to fit in if I can't even buy gelato successfully, you say, whilst coming out with something that looks and tastes remarkably like strawberry...?
Before you start panicking because - maybe soon - you’re going to be in the same situation - don't worry!
As a resident of a small, southern Italian town, I can reassure you that such experiences (involving gelato or otherwise), even if they do occur, don't continue forever. I moved here just over 18 months ago to take a teaching job at a private language school. I knew nothing of Italy or the Italians, only that summers were hot; people ate lots of pizza and - language wise?? Well, 'ciao' was pretty much it. But being thrown in at the deep end, which was definitely what happened to me, is definitely the best way to be thrown in. Yes, you might cough and splutter a bit, and have to put in a fair amount of effort to swim to the top, but once you surface, you'll feel pretty good about yourself.
Moving to another country, and not even to a big city where you may have the chance to find more English speakers or other expats, but to a little town right off the tourist trail, is challenging. I remember many, many occasions in which I nodded and smiled whilst people were talking to me, not understanding a single word. I would go into shops and use an embarrassing amount of hand gestures to try and get what I wanted, and even then coming out with the most expensive/completely wrong thing.
People laughed (albeit kindly) when I got the pronunciation wrong or said entirely the wrong word. But before you think it's simply too difficult, I can assure you that it's not. 18 months later I can now communicate. I can ask for what I need, understand what is being said to me, and say if something's not quite right. I had the good fortune of finding a tutor who, for a long time, spoke at me in Italian (and only Italian) while I sat there not understanding anything. But eventually I started getting it. And eventually I started being able to reply.
With a grasp of the language, it's obviously easier to meet people, and to start forging friendships. Small towns, particularly these southern Italian ones, are home to groups of people who have been friends since their first day of school. They are traditional. Becoming part of one of these circles of friends takes time. You are foreign, you don't understand all of their jokes and to put it plainly, they don't know you.
Talk to people and get involved, even if you feel silly at first. They will be interested in you, if only because you're different. So use it to your advantage! Should they continue to just stare at you (which they tend to do quite a bit here), just smile. Then, even if they do talk about 'that person who's not from round 'ere', at least they can't say you're a grumpy so and so!
But it's not only the language and making friends which can be challenging. Yes, conquering it is a fundamental part of being able to enjoy your experience abroad, but there are other things to think about too. It goes without saying that you will be faced with a whole load of cultural differences in your small town, more so than the bigger cities.
In Milan for example, they've actually heard of Starbucks. The shops don't all shut in the afternoon, and I'm pretty sure they eat non-Italian cuisine and packaged sandwiches. Some cultural differences will be barely noticeable and actually really pleasant. Others won't.
Down in the south of Italy, you come across a lot of people with more traditional views, who aren't so ‘open minded' (as admitted by many southerners themselves). The trick to dealing with differences that you aren't used to, or dealing with people who have very particular ways of thinking is of course, to do just the opposite.
Be open minded!
Small town, off the tourist path locations may be even harder to get used to. I'm not the most patient person. But exercising patience and tolerance will not only make your day much easier, but people will respect you. The distinct lack of queuing abilities here and the absence of friendly service in restaurants still irritate me somewhat.
But it’s pretty much made up for by the incredible food, amazing wine, tolerance of lateness (you always have that 5 minutes) and the 2 hour nap that you are almost required to take in the afternoon. Now, that I don't have a problem with!
It's not all going to come at once. You aren't all of a sudden going to be catapulted into a glorious world of al fresco coffee drinking with friends, sharing jokes in the native language and being able to do your shopping without the fear of accidentally asking for horse meat when you want beef.
But it will happen.
Just get yourself out there and embrace that other culture, that other language and those other interesting people who may not be quite like you, but are certainly interested in getting to know you. Once you've got the hang of small town living, it really is incredibly fulfilling.
And if all else fails, gesticulate. That's what I do!!
About the author
Amy is a British expat and English teacher, living and working in a small town in southern Italy. When she's not teaching, she likes drinking coffee, eating too much gelato and generally enjoying la dolce vita. She regularly blogs about her experiences in Italy from sunshineandtomatoes.blogspot.it and can be found tweeting at @BritInItaly