A Totally Impractical Expat Interview #13: Kate Bailward of Driving Like a Maniac

Welcome to the lucky 13th edition of the Totally Impractical Expat Interview series (hello baker’s dozen!). Today we have Gerald the Bear’s favourite expat, the lovely Kate Bailward of Driving Like a Maniac, a.k.a @katja_dlam.

One of the unexpected by-products of this series has been the constant shock of recognition I’ve felt when reading people’s responses. Our experiences have been vastly different and yet… similar. It’s like there’s some sort of universal expat checklist floating out there in the ether. Even when reading Kate’s story (which is very, very different from my own) I was busy ticking off the boxes in the list.

  • Feeling isolated by not being able to speak the language, aching for the ability to start up an intelligent conversation? Tick!
  • Feeling annoyed by all the crap you can understand when you finally do speak the language? Tick!
  • Fearing you’ve made a huge mistake when embarking on a new journey? Tick!
  • Being hit by wholly unexpected waves of homesickness, even after years of similar situations in which you were unaffected? Tick!
  • Making impulsive moves to possibly dodgy new jobs, with niggling doubt gnawing at the back of your brain? Tick!
  • Moving to conservative places where you’ll never fit in and quite likely have the word ‘whore’ taped to your forehead? Tick!
  • Realizing that being single, female and foreign in certain places will be viewed with suspicion no matter how much you try to behave appropriately and honourably? Tick!
  • Wanting very much to be able to settle down but only if the situation is exactly right (which may or may not ever happen, at least not in the way we imagined it)? Tick!
  • Watching from a distance as friends and family unfold their lives along a much more stable timeline- marriage, babies, homes, jobs- and realizing that you really don’t fit in? Tick!
  • Realizing that you don’t want work (especially teaching) to take up all your time and energy and that, somehow, a balance must be struck? Tick!

Without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to the lovely, brave Kate Bailward.  *Applause*

photo by Emma Fuller

Leaving

I’m not your average expat. Is there even such a thing? I never had dreams of travelling. I was settled in London. I had a flat. I had two cats. My circle of friends had bailed on London and left for the countryside to raise children. I was left behind, but that didn’t matter. I built up a new group of friends. I got myself a reprobate boyfriend, who was shitty to me, then broke up with me. He did me a favour, though, in a way. He made me realise that I was no longer an actor, which was my theoretical career. I hadn’t had an acting job for at least a year before I’d met him. I didn’t get one while I was with him, either, and we were together for 10 months. It took his sneering to make me open my eyes and realise that an actor who doesn’t act is just out of work and fraudulent. Once I’d admitted it to myself I was happier. However, the only other thing I was qualified to do was be a secretary, and I sure as hell didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life.

I puttered for a couple of months, considering. Then I had a conversation with @mikeachim. Maybe you know the kind. I build up drama in my life, he asks me leading questions, I realise that I’m being an idiot and get myself back on some kind of path. In this instance, the subject of him training as an EFL teacher came up. I promptly stole his idea and ran with it. In a timeframe of about 6 weeks from even thinking of the idea to starting the course, I was on my way. I think that was the best thing for me. Planning and thinking give me too much time to get scared and chicken out.

And so it was with my job last year. I hadn’t planned to come to Italy. South America was where I really wanted to be. My mother was having seven shades of heart attack at the thought of me disappearing off to Argentina without a job offer, so she was very relieved when a job in Salento, at the bottom of the toe in Puglia, southern Italy, fell into my lap via a summer school colleague. I didn’t even have an interview. I did, however, have the whole summer to sit back and realise that I was about to leave England. By the time it came around to actually leaving, I was a nervous wreck. I spent most of my time on the flights over crying behind my sunglasses. Had I just made the most monumental mistake? No, as it turns out, but it took me about six months to appreciate that. Like I say, I’m better when I don’t have time to brood.

photo by Kate Bailward

Staying

My year in Salento was lovely once I’d got over my crippling homesickness. That hit me for six. I’d been to boarding school from the ages of 8-18, for god’s sake. However, here I was, aged 33, bursting into tears every five minutes because I was *homesick*. The turning point was going to a market and having a conversation with a Senegalese trader in French. Being able to chat with someone made me almost cry with happiness, and it made me realise just how important language is. If I were to move to a different country now, the first thing I’d do would be a crash course in the language. Being in a place where you can neither understand nor speak to people is the most isolating thing in the world. I’d moved to new cities in England plenty of times. The difference was that, there, I could walk into a cafe and strike up a conversation with someone if I so wished. I could banter with shop assistants. I could go to a pub. I could understand what was going on around me. In Italy, I just couldn’t at that point. I’d like to say that I knuckled down and really started learning Italian after that realisation, but it wouldn’t be true. I did, however, put my navel-gazing to one side and start to concentrate on living my life. With that came a lessening of the panic that I was feeling, and I found that I understood far more than I’d realised, thanks to a childhood of learning Latin. It may have killed the Romans, but its ghost lives on and has helped me enormously with learning its descendant, Italian.

My main reason for leaving Salento was that I had an ill-advised romantic entanglement with a fellow teacher. Although by the end of the year I was just beginning to settle in, I knew that if I stayed, then he would too, and that wouldn’t have done either of us any good. So I handed in my notice and reapplied to a school that I’d been interviewed for before, but to which I had just missed out on being offered a job, due to lack of experience. This time, they accepted me. I started planning my life in the toe, rather than the heel. Email exchanges with a teacher at the new school, set up by the boss, in which I asked specific questions which were ignored in favour of a gushing eulogy about how wonderful it was living here, planted doubts in my mind about whether I was doing the right thing. However, I needed a job and so I persuaded myself that I was just being silly. I packed up my life in Salento, returned to England for the summer, and then repacked myself to come to Calabria.

photo by Kate Bailward

Maintaining Stability

The culture shock wasn’t as big this time, but it was still there. I’d thought Salentini attitudes backward compared to England, but Calabria beats Salento into a cocked hat. We’re strangers here and will always be so. This year has been the one in which The Black Dog has sat firmly at my heels, sometimes quieter than others, but always present. It’s strange that it should be so, because I’ve got much more of a handle on the language now, and my social life is a million times better than last year. However, I’m also aware of the sniping that goes on behind our backs. When you know none of the language, you don’t know what people say about you and can sail on in blissful ignorance. When you understand, you know that people who smile to your face and kiss you on both cheeks then turn round and, in the same breath, call you ‘whore’ for doing so. This is not a good place to be single, female and foreign.

That’s not to say that everything has been bad here. Far from it. Having broken away from the school to some extent has helped. I’ve joined a choir, and love it. Last year I wouldn’t have had the courage. I’ve beaten the crippling homesickness that plagued me in Salento. I can hold a conversation in Italian. There are frequent pauses while I search for the words, and I still can’t express myself anything like eloquently, but I can understand and be understood. My students frequently make me both laugh and cry, and I love them for that. In many ways I don’t want to leave. I know that the time I’ve spent here hasn’t been long enough to really settle in. Socially, I’m only just getting started. Work-wise, however, I’m finished. My job options here would either be to work for a rival school or to set up as a freelancer, and this is too small a place to stay and be in competition with a previous employer.

photo by Kate Bailward

The Future

So, where do I go now? When my boss interviewed me for this job she asked if I wanted to settle down. My answer then is the same as my answer now: yes, I do. But I only want to settle if it’s the right place, and for that I’m still searching. I’ve made plans to cycle from Calabria to England this summer. If that doesn’t kill me, then I’d like to return to Italy. I’m stubborn enough that I want to keep giving it a go. I may, however, try from a slightly different angle. If nothing else, I’ve learnt this year that I don’t want to be married to my job any more. Or not if that job is teaching, anyway. I’ve learnt that people are important to me and that I *can* make friends here, something which I thought would be impossible last year. I’ve learnt that Calabria is not for me, although Sicily might be. I’ve learnt that, although it’s hard seeing my friends and family settle down, have babies, and get on with their lives back in England, Skype is wonderful and flights are not that expensive in the grand scheme of things. I don’t belong there any more, not truly. Maybe I am an expat, after all.

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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.