If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to live abroad as an expat, a Diplomat, I’m about to spill my secrets. Aside from the Diplomatic passport (best souvenir ever!), there were many perks to being an expat.
I’m the adventurous one, so when my husband had an opportunity to move to Milan, Italy for work with the government, I had us packed up before he could say “no”. My kids were only 7 and 9 at the time and it was going to be the family adventure of a lifetime – being expats in one of our favorite destinations.
We lucked out and landed a pretty amazing apartment in the city center, a 4-bedroom, 3-bathroom penthouse looking out over one of Milan’s great piazze. Many of our friends with kids chose apartments and townhouses outside the city with yards and sidewalks and playgrounds, but I wanted to experience the city life. This proved to be a blessing and a curse.
You might not know but it’s common practice in Italy, and much of Europe, to take your “fixtures” with you when you move. This includes everything from light fixtures to cabinets to your kitchen appliances. Yes, Italians take their entire kitchen with them when they move. Fortunately, we got to pick our own kitchen (Hello Ikea), or own ‘tiny kitchen’ I should say. Despite having a rather spacious apartment, kitchens are not gathering places for Italians as they are in the U.S., so prep areas tend to be quite tiny. But since my husband was technically a diplomat, the agency helping us set up house was overly accommodating. And by accommodating, I mean they were able to get me a garbage disposal and dishwasher – two appliances that are quite rare in Italy. Italians also don’t do washers and dryers. Those iconic photos you see of Italy that feature clothes hanging on a balcony are the real deal. And since homes aren’t designed with a laundry room, we had to put our washer and dryer out on our balcony. Yes, I got a lot of stares from our Italian neighbors. And doing laundry, outside, in the snow, in freezing weather, was something I could soon forget.
The obvious choice was to put our kids in the American school, but I wasn’t impressed on my first visit. Before we left the states, a friend who was raised internationally said, “put them in Italian school,” a remark which I immediately dismissed but later came to honor. I scheduled a visit to an Italian school that taught on the British system. We didn’t get much out of the tour as my overly stressed 7-year-old daughter was busy throwing up in the bathroom. A unisex bathroom. With no stalls. We had a lot to learn.
My daughter adapted well to the school but my son, who was a bit advanced, did not. So mid-year, we moved him to another British school, again, a perk of being a diplomat and having the choice of very high quality schools. Unfortunately, the school bus was unable to accommodate him so the Embassy arranged for a “driver” to take him to and from school each day. It was surreal. Each morning, I walked him downstairs, handed his backpack to a black-suited Italian driver who opened the back door of his black Mercedes, where my son (a bit too) comfortably slid in, and off they went. I felt like I had given birth to Richie Rich.
This process would later give way to the Italian bus system, complete with Formula 1-trained drivers and bus monitors (none of whom spoke English) for unruly children. One day, the bus failed to stop and drop my daughter off, despite me standing on the sidewalk, and I found myself sprinting to the next stop four blocks away. The next day, I bought my 7-year-old a cell phone.
Aside from school, we received some amazing invitations that exposed me, and my kids, to Italian culture and diplomatic life. We found ourselves swimming at the ambassador’s home, taking private tours of La Scala, being shuttled to wine tastings and enjoying privileges at local military bases.
Through the Consulate, we had access to an American doctor, which wasn’t very helpful the first time (yes first) my daughter broke her arm at 10pm one night. But within five minutes of walking into the hospital, we were whisked to a special area and tended to by a very sweet and very attentive doctor. We were in and out in literally an hour – cast and all. It cost us about $18. Exactly 12 months later, we would find ourselves back there again with another broken arm. Same arm. Same doctor. And we’d return two more times for pneumonia. I’m not sure if it’s because we were diplomats or because my daughter was a child, but our ER visits were always quick with excellent care. Emergency rooms at Italian hospitals tend to be filled with motorini accident victims who are triaged in the waiting area, so it’s a good thing we were ushered off to private rooms.
We attended an official event in Torino and as we were walking to the train station, a higher level diplomat stopped and asked if we’d like to ride back in the motorcade. It seemed like a good idea at the time. But Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride has nothing on this experience as we followed the lead car along the A4 weaving in and out of traffic at 140 mph. I thought it was fun. My husband, not so much.
We were invited to Madrid for an event and found ourselves in with 10 police escorts whisking us through the streets of the city with lights and sirens. Again, I live for this stuff. My husband, not so much. But to me, travel is about the experiences and every one of these is a great memory locked in my mind.