A Totally Impractical Expat Interview #11: Liv From I Eat My Pigeon

Welcome to the eleventh instalment in my infinite expat interview series. I really hadn’t expected it to last this long (I didn’t think anyone would respond, to be honest) but it seems to have taken on a life of its own, slowly taking over this blog, my email inbox and a significant part of my thought process.

This interview is with the remarkable, eloquent Liv of I Eat My Pigeon. Liv is living in a small town in Italy, where her mother is originally from, where she still has relatives around her and where she can speak the language after a childhood of it spoken in her home.  Yet, even with all of these advantages, it hasn’t been the easiest move.  A lot of what she said in her interview rang true for me- about home, about movement, about friendship, about allowing her roots to dig into the earth.  To be perfectly honest, I think I would love to be where she is right now, doing what she is doing. I think she’s on a good path, even though it hasn’t been easy.

herb garden

A brief pause to enjoy my parents' window herb garden, which I aspire to have

 

I had started this series originally as a slightly pathetic plea for confirmation that I wasn’t the only one with doubts about the choices I had made to live where I have lived. I had been trying to filter through the cacophony of shouty voices out there in the intarwebs which extolled the unquestionable merits of a) quitting your soul-sucking cubicle job, selling all your stuff and travelling the world FOREVER as a digital nomad (or any other kind of nomad except the herding kind), and b) quitting your soul sucking cubicle job and moving to the marvellous general area known as Abroad to reinvent yourself and live happily ever after.

I wore that skirt for a full decade due to living out of a backpack.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I really like to travel. I do. I tend to spend most of my savings on plane tickets and hotels and overpriced cocktails in Foreign Correspondents’ Clubs in places where cocktails aren’t part of the national cuisine.  In the past two years, I’ve spent almost all of my time off running around Indonesia, Burma, Cambodia, China and, as of this summer, Sri Lanka. It’s exhilarating.  When I travel, my skin looks happier, I lose weight, my brain fog lifts and I’m generally a less cranky person than I am when staying in one place, working.

I don’t, however, want to be a nomad. Not even the kind with herds of grazing animals, though, admittedly, life in a yurt with a herd of goats certainly has its appeal. I like having stuff though. I like building up shoe and book collections. I like, as Liv notes, to have salt and pepper shakers. I like to know where I’m waking up. I used to be a lot more flexible in my 20s, waking up on sofas and on floors and in dorm beds and thinking nothing of it.

For three years in my early 20s I lived full-time out of a back pack. I didn’t think of it as a hardship, merely as an aspect of life that could be a little limiting (one pair of Docs for all occasions!).  For most of my 20s, I was constantly moving around.  I liked it. By my late 20s, I wanted nothing more than a flat of my own and a regular job, just as the current crop of restless cubicle dwellers want nothing more than to run away and travel forever.  I get it, but I also know it’s not a miracle solution.

I also really like living abroad, in spite of what you might gather from my blog posts, which is why I’ve been doing it for the past seventeen years. It just works for me on some subconscious level that I have yet to identify.  I like having an excuse for not fitting in. I like being peripheral. I like being able to take a step back and decide for myself how much I want to join in culturally, socially, intellectually, and how much I want to keep to myself.

However, as the lovely Fiona once said, living abroad is not all beer and Skittles. It’s often hard. It can be dreadfully lonely, even if you are living abroad with someone. Not only do you have to deal with the crap that normal life flings at you but you also have to do it in another language, in another culture, in a place where you may or may not really fit in. The friction is there.  The knowledge that you are not really of that place is always lingering under the surface, even on the best days. I’m not Chinese. I never will be. No one will ever mistake me for a local here. Even when I lived in England back in the 1990s my Canadian accent always gave me away and marked me as an other.

Oddly enough, in England I was usually marked incorrectly as Irish (which I’m not), which opened up a whole ‘nother can of worms in a decade when the IRA was still considered a major threat. When I worked as a cashier at Selfridges in Oxford Street in London in 1997 I went through two days of IRA-specific bomb-scare training. Luckily, I was repeatedly assessed as being from Co. Donegal (or, more specifically, Gweedore, Co. Donegal, as determined by two different old ladies I looked after when I was working for London social services), which was not so active as other parts in presumed terrorist intent.  One Jamaican nurse I worked with repeatedly insisted that we (the Irish and the West Indians) must stand in solidarity as outsiders living in the UK.   I agreed. During my time in London, most of my friends were African and most of my colleagues were West Indian.  I felt like I fit in with them more than I fit in with the general British culture.  Outsiders find outsiders, I suppose.  It hasn’t quite worked this well in China but I’m slowly building up a small, disparate group of outsiders that I feel connected to. It’s a start.

On that note, I’d like to introduce you to the lovely Liv, whose blog I’ve been reading for quite a while now but I don’t think she ever knew.  Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you the Pigeon Eater.

Photo by Liv

Here's looking at you, kid

Leaving

I live in a small town in the Latina province of Italy, along the coast of the Tyrhennian Sea. I was at a crossroads; was living in Dublin for my master’s program and, being through with the program (and the romantic relationship that led me there in the first place), needed a new place to live. I didn’t want to go back home (New York City) and I didn’t feel strong enough to start completely from scratch all over again, so I chose Italy.

My reasons for choosing Italy were financial, creative, and spiritual. Oh, and let’s not forget laziness. Financial: I had just finished my master’s course and, having paid for that myself, was broke. Financial and creative: I wanted to finish my novel and knew I wouldn’t do it if I went back home to New York; back to the 9-5.  Spiritual: my mother is an immigrant from Italy. This town where I live now is where she met my father 40 years ago. Laziness: I knew moving to Italy would be easy. I’m an Italian citizen. I speak Italian. I could live in my grandparents’ apartment. I have family scattered everywhere. Small towns are much less expensive than big ones. After three international moves in three years, I needed something simple.

I had been living in Dublin, Ireland for the previous year – doing my master’s in Creative Writing at Trinity College Dublin. Prior to living in Dublin, I lived in Osaka, Japan for 27 months.

Surprisingly enough, I found my move to Italy much more challenging than my moves to either Japan or Ireland. In Italy, I work from home, which made it difficult to get my foot into a social network. I also live in a small town, where people are often suspicious of newcomers, especially foreigners. In Japan, I’d worked for a large company. In Ireland, I attended university and was living with my Irish then-boyfriend. In Italy, despite speaking the language, being legal, and having family relatively nearby, I felt much more alone.

My difficulties adapting to life in Italy surprised me, as did the ease with which I adapted to Japanese living all those years ago. I remember feeling little to no culture shock when I moved to Japan, even though I’d never been there and knew little about the culture. I found Japanese life utterly fascinating. And while I did enjoy myself in Italy, I couldn’t believe how much difficulty I was having finding a social group. And I don’t care who you are or where you live; without friends, life means nothing.

Staying

Photo by Liv

Fortunately, none of these pigeons were eaten

How long will I stay here?  I hear this question almost every day, from both locals and people back home. It’s interesting, because no one ever asked me that when I lived in Japan or Ireland. Perhaps because now I live in a small town where the idea of moving far away from home is as foreign as my accent? I’ve been living in Italy for 9 months. I have no plans to leave. “Why?” I ask locals. “You trying to get ridda me?”

I originally planned to stay for as long as it took me to finish my novel – I envisioned a year – but even though the novel is going well, I’m really beginning to enjoy myself and I love living in Italy. I also have a belief that staying in one place for a year is nowhere near enough time. You only scratch the surface. You only get a taste.

Am I happy? Very happy.  I love Italy. I love the curiosities and madnesses of this small town. I love the fact that my parents now finally approve of my Italian. I love learning new things every day.

My parents are from Italy and Guatemala so I grew up trilingual. I was already at a high level of Italian ability when I arrived, but each day my vocabulary and fluency grows. While I was growing up, there were no other Italian speakers in my town so I learned Italian solely from listening to my parents. I can’t spell because I never went to Italian school. I used outdated slang because I had no exposure to Italian TV or other Italian children my own age. But now that I live here, my modern slang is-a-poppin’ and I love it! Life here is the opposite of my life growing up; back then, it was Italian in the house and English in the outside world. Now I conduct my life solely in Italian, and use English for work – inside the house. For me, this is thrilling; I can finally share my dad’s corny Italian jokes with other people. Not that they like them, but at least they get them. It’s my current goal to erase my “mild” American accent.

In Ireland, I went through a major break up. I didn’t have any friends in Dublin. It was terrible.  In Japan, it was shockingly simple – I bonded with my neighbours (including the man who became my boyfriend) almost immediately. I did, however, find it difficult to make female friends. In Ireland I found building a support network difficult – I realize now that it was because I couldn’t balance a failing relationship, graduate school, and new friends. And in Italy, it was also difficult due to the aforementioned working-from-home/foreigner thing. But in recent months, a lovely group of locals has adopted me and night is day, dark is light. Life is nothing without friends.

I’m feeling pretty good these days! Female friends, male buddies, and, of course, my loved ones back home are always just a gchat session away.

Photo by liv

I'm looking over your shoulder

I have no partner now, but in Japan and Ireland I was involved with an Irishman. When we relocated to Ireland, having his family nearby and him around to explain cultural things to me certainly helped. Last fall, I dated someone here in Italy for a short period of time; a local. The brief weeks of sightseeing and fun also helped me adapt to life in this small town.

When I first arrived, I was annoyed by the town’s size. I grew up in a small town, but have lived all of my adult life in metropolitan settings. I knew that living in a small (read: inexpensive) place was essential to rebuilding my savings account and finishing my novel, but small town life was a bit difficult to get used to. Stores that close at 8 p.m. Poor selection. That whole Everyone-knows-everyone thing, balanced by We-don’t-like-no-foreigners. In self-defense, I deemed the locals “rednecks” for a time. But I’ve begun to embrace the quiet of this place, and now that I’ve made friends with a good number of locals, I’m learning to love this town more and more each day. Also… farm fresh eggs! Wild asparagus in the hills! Beach! Rosemary-perfumed hikes! Town events! I’m making roots and they’re digging into the earth.

Maintaining stability

I think it differs for everyone. For me, four international moves in four years has taken its emotional toll. I’m tired of living out of suitcases. I’m tired of never buying anything because I’ll have to move later on. I want a DVD player. I want salt and pepper shakers. I want to know where I am when I wake up in the morning. I think it depends on the individual. Four times might be enough for me. Or then again, I might just need a time-out.

It has been exhilirating, thrilling, panic-inducing. I’ve never looked at it as “starting fresh,” but more as “getting to learn new things.” But right now, I’m thrilled to get to stay in one place for a while. I’m rebuilding my shoe and book collection little by little and I love it!

What have I gained? What have I lost? Endless spiritual riches! Life perspective! Language skillz  up the yin yang; in Japan I studied Japanese and got to Early Intermediate Level and bit by bit, Hiberno-English syntax has crept into my native speech. I’ve seen stunning places, eaten incredible foods, and learned that there is no such thing as paradise; that honeymoons end; that only emotional relationships can keep a person truly happy; that while living in a new place can make you feel braver or change the way you eat, you remain you, and even “paradise” becomes real life after a time. Also, I might be money-poor right now, but most of my loved ones back home envy my lifestyle.

As for what I’ve lost… it can be difficult watching children grow up via Facebook postings, having to miss important events, and give up having an (in theory) limitless supply of job opportunities because of legal or language issues. When I went home to New York a few weeks ago, it was the first time – after 4 years of living abroad – that I felt as though I didn’t fit in.

Happy. No regrets, although sometimes I do wonder if – should I ever return to the United States and want to get back into the 9-5 – if it’ll be a possibility. Not getting any younger….

I’m finally beginning to feel at home, and it’s due in part to becoming familiar with the area and in part to finding friends.

The Future

Finish my novel.  Move  up in my travel writing career. Find a way to make some steady income either teaching English or achieving wild literary success. Grow herbs without killing them. A trip to a cheese factory. Will I stay in the small town? For the forseeable future, yes, even if I can’t imagine myself living the rest of my life in a place like this. For now, I’m happy. And I love living in Italy. Perhaps the next move will be to a bigger city – Rome, Milan – but for the moment, I’m feeling pretty darn good.

Photo by Liv

Ombra

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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog's title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.