Credit of featured image: stex1967 –https://pixabay.com/photos/genoa-liguria-tourism-city-scenic-4389892
Before moving abroad to a new country, one is usually aware of certain aspects of unfamiliar culture and language barriers they’ll have to deal with when they arrive. What I found however, was that the toughest parts of living in a new country for the first time were challenges that I had never been made aware of before. A common perception of a year studying abroad is that it’s a complete fairy tale. You fall in love with this new country or city and by the end you never want to leave. This is true for some, but you don’t often hear of the other side of the coin. The lessons I took away from my year studying abroad are lessons which have profoundly changed me as a person. Funnily enough, I wouldn’t have predicted any of them and none of them have the slightest thing to do with education, language or anything I would’ve heard from a university.
During the summer of 2015, I accepted my third choice CAO offer, Commerce International with Italian in UCC, which meant that, down the line I’d be spending the third year of my degree studying in Italy. It was a strange reality to accept and wasn’t something that I particularly wanted for myself. To tell the truth I only leaned towards a business degree because I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do. I thought business was a safe choice and broad enough that I’d figure it out as I went along, but more importantly I wanted to go to UCC. As far back as I can remember, ever since the prospect of college emerged on my horizon, UCC was the only one I wanted. In my early teens I developed my first attainable dream, to play rugby for UCC. My point is, it wasn’t the end of the world for me that I was accepting my third choice. I didn’t know what I wanted to do so even choice number 1 wasn’t necessarily the right choice. As long as I was going to UCC to do something with “business” or “commerce” in the name I was happy. I started college and had the two greatest years of my life so far. Unfortunately, they were too good, they allowed me to place the looming thought of spending a year in Italy to the back of mind. In hindsight I did my best to ignore it up until the point where it was on my doorstep. I wasn’t ready to accept this reality. I didn’t want to go but I was going.
I always had a fascination with Italy. As early as around ten years of age I remember doing a school project on Leonardo Da Vinci and just like every young boy, Ferraris and Lamborghinis were the stuff of legend. I wasn’t keen on leaving but the fact it was a country I actually thought was pretty cool helped in some way. Before I left, I would’ve thought that I was an extrovert, someone who would back himself in any situation at all. I was cut down to size quite quickly after a couple of weeks when something really began to dawn on me. As independent and strong willed as I would’ve thought I was, I had actually had my hand held a lot of the way so far. Every new step I made in my life, I made with the same people around me. My life had also followed the exact same structure from as soon as I had started school. If I had given this a bit of thought beforehand, It wouldn’t have hit me so hard when it was all taken away. I never realised how much someone’s personality can be moulded by the people and the routine they surround themselves with. I had heard about the concept of culture shock before but I don’t think I ever opened my eyes to the full scope of the idea. I would have thought along the lines of: the Italians eat different foods, they value some things more/less than us, etc. I could anticipate all of this. So even though I didn’t particularly want to go when the time came, I didn’t think I was in for any major cultural surprises. What I failed to see in advance however, was that culture applies not only to the things you do in your life but the way you live and experience life.
I landed in Genova in mid-September. When all the familiarities of my life up to this point were stripped away what remained was a version of myself that I never encountered before. From the first day, I felt as if this invisible rug had been pulled from beneath me. I had no social or family connections here, no memories, it was a strange feeling of being on the outside looking in. Throughout all my time there, I never actually succeeded in pinning down exactly what this feeling was. This became quite frustrating when I tried to explain to family and friends how I was finding it all, life in a new country without any familiar faces around. I couldn’t accurately communicate how I was feeling. Most of the time I just ended saying “it’s grand” because I couldn’t even figure out what I wanted to say myself.
Looking back, the only thing I can compare it to is Red’s theory of being institutionalised in “The Shawshank Redemption”, where he explains that if a man is locked up for so long, he gets too used to the routine of prison life that he actually can’t function in the real world anymore. Just to be clear, I am in no way comparing my experience to a prison sentence, I’m just comparing stepping out of such a familiar routine and into a completely new environment where that no longer exists. My life had looked the same for in and around twenty years. I had the same close network of friends around me from day one. I had gone to school every day surrounded by these same people. Each night I trained with them for the same sports, at the same time, on the same nights. We spent every weekend with each other. None of this changed as I transitioned from primary to secondary school and even when I went to college in UCC. I was living away from home but I was surrounded by my closest friends every hour of every day. It didn’t take much settling in at all. I even had guys from my old rugby team joining the college team with me. Support in every corner. Then in the blink of an eye that was all gone and I really was on my own, starting with a blank slate. Everything felt so unfamiliar and I don’t just mean this new city I was living in. I was unsure of myself. Mentally, I felt lost.
I was optimistic at the beginning. I took this time away as an opportunity to start learning the guitar again and I wasted no time in getting into exercising down in the port area which I always enjoyed. It’s crazy how quickly my Italian improved just by doing small things like popping into a shop or getting a haircut, much quicker than it ever did in a classroom. Fairly swiftly after I arrived, I fell into a new group of friends. Mainly Irish, some English, some Scottish, they were all great people and we got along very well (and still do through social media). The weather was so good that we were on the beach as late as October. We even took trips away to the likes of Rome and Florence, the latter being one the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen. Two out of the group lived in an apartment of 8, the majority of which were Italian and more importantly great people. We hung out here a lot of the time. As amazing as all of this sounds however, I still didn’t feel like myself. I was struggling to find myself in this new environment, I wasn’t taking as much joy out of social interactions as I normally would, I was anxious meeting new people for the first time in my life. My self-confidence was fading away. As much as I enjoyed the company of these new friends while I was with them, I was experiencing this real sense of isolation when I went home every night. It didn’t make sense to me. I hated being on my own but yet I didn’t want to engage with people.
When the winter began to set in thing’s took a turn. As hopeful as I was at the beginning, college work had become a write-off. Classes were a waste of time. I didn’t understand anything and nobody noticed if I was there or not so I slowly began to give up on attending and decided I’d just try and make some sort of attempt when the exams came along. Now the only time I was leaving my apartment other than for groceries was to see my friends or to exercise but with these exams looming and the weather getting bad we were spending less and less time together. My behaviour changed. I was doing things I had never done before, mindlessly binging through Netflix and spending hours doing nothing. I would do nothing all day so as a result I couldn’t sleep at night. There were still some opportunities to go on night’s out which you’d think would’ve offered the perfect escape. But I’d stay home a lot of nights. As much as I didn’t like it, these feelings of frustration and isolation were starting to become heavier and the thought of putting up with them the next day only with a hangover to go along with them, wasn’t a thought I enjoyed. That may not make sense to some, as company may seem like the logical solution to feelings of loneliness but when you slip into a rut your mind starts to turn a blind-eye to things like that. The negatives always seem to outweigh the positives.
Our apartment had a balcony with a beautiful view of city. There were plenty of times when I couldn’t sleep and in the middle of the night I used to put on a hoodie and a tracksuit and stand out there for a while just staring out over the city. That almost sounds quite deep and philosophical but the reality is that I was just sick of lying in the dark staring at my ceiling for hours on end. It was this unusual mix of emotions where I was admiring how beautiful Genova was but simultaneously wishing myself away from there. I didn’t want to be there anymore and I had moved from being sad about it to being angry about it. Unfortunately, there are one or two occasions where I think I may have even taken it out on my friends, the only people around me that I enjoyed giving my time to. There were nights when I definitely wasn’t myself. They would have seen a colder and more agitated side to me. The two positive things I managed to keep up was teaching myself the guitar and exercising, the guitar because I had discovered how much I truly loved music and exercising because I had been good for that my whole life so there was no way I was letting that go now. I also knew a lot about the positive effects it has on your mind so I was scared of how I’d be if I stopped. Even on the darkest, most miserable day, it wasn’t an option.
Christmas came at just the right time and I’ve never appreciated it more. It was the perfect opportunity to go home, see everyone and reset. When the time came to go back to Genova, I knew what I was getting myself into. I took some time to really look at how long I had left there and made myself realise that in the bigger scheme of things it was nothing. What’s more is that spring was only around the corner. I had done the hardest part. With a much better understanding of myself I was able to get on with the negatives and take much more from the positives. Slowly but surely, I worked my way into a flow of just taking things one day at a time. I really started to appreciate what an opportunity it is to go and live in such a cool city and meet new friends. The college side of things was still a disaster but this time I anticipated this. I developed my own system of dealing with it. I had six more months to go and I didn’t want college stress getting in the way. I made enough of an effort that I could be proud I wasn’t accepting defeat but I wasn’t going to let stressing over it stop me from enjoying the rest of my time living in Italy, and my time with the friends I had made. I gradually tipped away at it, a tiny bit each day so that there was no day I couldn’t say I had done nothing positive. The period starting from somewhere around the turn of spring in February as far as the beginning of the summer were some thoroughly enjoyable days. Beach days returned and I had the city all figured out. We got to experience some Serie A football for our trouble too, that was an unbelievable experience. I left Italy feeling quite proud of myself. Not just for emerging out the other side but because I knew that I wouldn’t be returning as the same person. I had a much clearer vision of both the strengths and weaknesses of my character and had learned a lot more about the direction I’d actually like to go with my life. With regards to a cultural perspective, Italian culture did in fact have a profound impact on me. There were plenty of aspects of it that I felt would be good to bring home.
Their working culture was a real shock to me. Laid-back would be an understatement, try horizontal. They don’t do anything in a hurry and they take their breaks seriously. The culture here of grabbing something small on the go so you can get back to work ASAP is lost on them. Food is important to Italians. If you try and call an office anywhere in the country between 12 and 2pm you’ll be lucky if there’s anyone there. As crazy at that seems to Irish readers, who spend their lives running around the place, I should mention that Italians live longer than us. Despite the fact that they drink wine like water and smoke like chimneys and also take a beating from the sun, so they’re obviously doing something right. Just something to consider.
When people think about Italian culture here in Ireland the first thing that usually comes to mind is food, which is fair enough. Listening to Italians we hung out with talk about food was absolutely bizarre. It’s so important to them. One night I asked one of the guys in the apartment while he was cooking to tell me how he makes his pasta. I expected a quick answer. Twenty minutes later and I’m standing next to him looking over the pot as he talks me through each and every step, I haven’t been able to escape. The guy just took off. I didn’t mind, it was interesting to see him get so into it and he’s a nice guy. After food you might think clothes and style which would also be accurate. From my experience however, there’s a bigger force at work beneath it all, la famiglia. Family is everything to Italians. I came to see this first hand, and learned that it extends to much more than blood or old friends. The Italians were the most warming, welcoming and accepting people I’ve come across in my life. I was so taken aback to see how willing they were to accept us into everything they did. They altered their conversations to keep us involved, they spoke English around us so we didn’t feel left out and most importantly any time we were there they insisted we joined them for dinner. They wouldn’t have known I was coming and it’s likely they only had enough for themselves but it didn’t matter to them.
They’re a particularly fascinating group of people. For a nation so established and famed for the finest clothes and the most glamorous cars, they’re the least materialistic people I’ve ever come across. Sure, a man may have an expensive jacket and a lady an expensive coat and a classy pair of shoes but a big house? Two holidays a year? A job in one of the big fancy companies? Not on their agenda. In a lot of western countries, we tend to put so much value on luxury items, which don’t get me wrong are lovely to have and I would encourage everyone to chase their dream house or dream car but I think that while we’re chasing them, we shouldn’t forget about what’s right in front of our faces. We need to strike a balance. Our house or our car won’t be there for us in our time of need. The Italians look at it differently, they don’t care what any of their friends do for a living, it doesn’t come up in conversation a lot. If you go out for a meal, it doesn’t matter if you drive or walk, what matters is the food, the drink and the company. Essentially, other than family and friends, if you can’t eat it, drink it, or wear it then they don’t think it’s anything to get worked up about.
So, all in all, what did I take away from my year in Italy? First and foremost, an understanding of mental health. It was during this time where I really became aware of my own mental health. I started to realise that it wasn’t this abstract, scary idea that some people can unfortunately struggle with, but rather it’s something that applies to all of us and it’s very important that we learn to look after ourselves. Secondly, it started me on my journey of discovering what my real passions were in life. What started in room in Genova as playing three chord songs on the guitar and passing hours diving through the depths of Spotify has led to music becoming one my favourite things in my life. I have two guitars that I pick up every day and could happily spend an afternoon talking about the influence of blues artists who came long before my time. It wasn’t just music either. A quick break from the routine my life had followed up to this point allowed me to pay more attention to what excites me, the ideas that fascinate me, the people I enjoy having a conversation with and the topics I enjoy having conversations about. A particular phrase caught my eye on social media only recently, “those which you call your darkest days now, are what you’ll refer to as your rebirth later”. This is definitely the case with my experience. I was tagging along in a business degree hoping for clarity to come along and hit me in the head, but really not knowing what I was doing. Now it’s nearly three years later, I’m currently in the middle of a course in journalism and I feel much more confident in what I’m doing. I’m trying new things all the time.
Finally, a new take on my values and a fresh perspective on life. As I said, the Italians were simply laid-back people who didn’t take themselves too seriously and took great pleasure in each other’s company. I’d like to think that some of their outlook rubbed off on me. When certain occasions come around, such as managing to get the whole lot of your group together for a few around Christmas time, I always make sure that I truly appreciate it. But it doesn’t have to be such a once off, I’ve learned to take more pleasure in all the small victories that can sometimes go unnoticed in a hectic week. I’d be lying if I said that simply residing in Italy allowed me to acquire the culinary ability of Jaime Oliver but it certainly changed my attitude towards cooking. Cooking has gone from being another thing in my day that I had to do, to something I look forward to. It can almost be therapeutic. Whether I’m having a conversation with my housemates or I’m on my own with music or a podcast playing, it’s a really nice way to wind down for the evening.
Sitting here now a couple of years later it’s baffling to think of how sure I was of myself. I thought I had myself figured out. I was proven wrong and I’m glad for it I, even if at times it wasn’t exactly the most enjoyable experience. Covid may have put a stop to it recently, but I look forward to the day I return to Genova to walk around Piazza de Ferrari and sit down for a coffee. I want to sit down at a table in small square in the older part of town and have a meal, then walk down by the Port. I want to swim on the beach in one of the nearby towns like Camogli, Bogliasco or Boccadasse. I definitely owe Portofino another visit too. We must’ve just missed Di Caprio, Margot Robbie and Jonah Hill the last time. If he’s managed to buy a new yacht, they’ll hopefully be around when I stop by next time. The Ligurian coast really is one of most beautiful areas in the world. So, if you’re heading away to a new country in the near future, just know there can be a lot more than meets the eye when it comes to readjusting. If it goes well, great. If it doesn’t, you’re not the only one and it can work out for the best in the end. You may not learn anything new in a classroom or job, you may not improve on a second language, you may not embrace elements of new cultures or meet a ton of new amazing people, but you can guarantee that you will learn a hell of a lot about yourself.
2 thoughts on “My Italian Experience: The highs, lows, and lessons of a first time living abroad.”
Italy is a fantastic country, I had the opportunity to live there for about six years. I hope this pandemic ends and we can start traveling again.
Completely agree, can’t wait to get back there.
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