1. You toughen up.
There will be moments when you will feel the inevitable pangs of homesickness. It might be the most depressing day of the year for an expat (Thanksgiving) or an ordinary day when you’re feeling like no one but you can relate to the desire for salty-sweet snacks, or to eat peanut butter out of the jar with a spoon. When you keep moving forward though, your expat skin gets a little bit thicker.
2. It teaches you compromise.
In my case, most of my compromise has to do with food. When I learned of the general Italian disgust for peanut butter (see #1), I learned to make do with Nutella. And when Thanksgiving rolled around that first year (see #1), I found a rotisserie chicken salesman who “knew a guy” who could get me a turkey. The turkey was triple the size I was expecting and covered in feathers, but I had my feast all the same.
3. You learn to accept yourself.
When I first arrived in Barletta, it was August and about a million degrees. Even still, on Friday nights the women (and the men for that matter) would be dressed to the nines -- full makeup, hair shiny and blown out, snazzy outfits with four-inch heels, jewelry and an overall sparkliness that I had yet to experience in all my 22 years. And I was the americana who stuck out like a sore thumb in flip-flops, a t-shirt and jean cut-offs. It was way too hot for anything else. When I felt self-conscious, I remembered that those girls weren't me, and that I would have been so uncomfortable dressed like that. That thought was freeing, and I began to embrace my non-polished ways.
4. The new culture will teach you a thing or two about life.
With #3 being said, there was plenty about Italians and the “Italian way” that shaped who I am today -- for the better. First, the cultural attitude of taking things slowly helped me immensely when I had bouts of anxiety. No one cares if you’re 10, 15 or even 20 minutes late in Italy. Everything is run with calma, and it’s refreshing. Italians are full of life and will sing or dance at the drop of a hat. I love that. They have no scruples when it comes to having a good time, and they don’t get embarrassed easily.
5. You will get satisfaction from sharing your traditions.
You would not believe how I great I felt when I made cupcakes for a group of Italian girlfriends who had never eaten them before. Pride, joy, satisfaction, wonder. Would I be exaggerating in saying that it was probably akin to giving birth? Maybe not.
6. You see your culture in a new light.
I have never been a flag-toting type of American, but rather a fairly liberal, college-kid type. When I moved to Italy, all that changed. Now I find myself talking about “my country” like a war veteran and defend it to the hilt. Once in a class I had to practically wipe a tear away when explaining about hot dogs at a baseball game. Pathetic and true!
7. The distance will bring you closer to your loved ones.
It seems like it would be the opposite, right? When you have limited Skype time or a few minutes left on a phone card, you cherish that time and make those minutes count. Sunday afternoons have become my Skype time ritual; and when I talk to my family and friends we try to cover every subject possible. If I were living at home, I would take for granted the fact that we could talk anytime.
8. You’ll learn a new language or two.
I already spoke a fair amount of scholastic Italian when I arrived, but I had no idea there was also slang, everyday expressions, proverbs and a whole dialect to learn! I had my work cut out for me, and everyday was a new discovery in terms of the language. I finally felt like I “had it” when I became obsessed with an Italian TV police drama. (Columbo included.)
I’ve been in Italy for five years now and I knew that one day I would inevitably get the call that someone at home had died. It’s morbid, I know, but you have to psych yourself out for things like that. In my case, it happened this winter. All I could do to keep from going crazy was to take action -- buy a plane ticket and get myself there. Those traveling hours weren’t the easiest, but knowing that I was only a day away from being home was comforting.
10. You realize how lucky you are.
When something really tragic happens, like #9, or really great, like marrying my husband, you have two sets of families and friends to share it with. Two sets of people who love you unconditionally. Two sets of people looking out for you. That’s the best thing about being an expat.