It seems like a lot of people are thinking about moving to Italy from the U.S. these days. I did it several years ago and it was a magical experience. I’ve had friends ask me what it was like moving to Italy as an American and it certainly requires a lot of patience.
Families may be curious about moving to Italy with children. We moved to Milan when my children were 7 and 9 years old. One of the primary reasons for choosing to live overseas was for my kids to see the world, to experience different cultures. I was 32 years old before I ever traveled to Europe. I fell in the love with the historical aura, the architecture, the languages, and quite simply was mesmerized by the differences in day-to-day life. And I was frustrated by a recurring thought…why didn’t I pay better attention in history and art history class? It would have made my overseas visits much more meaningful and conversely, had I seen these places first, it would have made those school subjects much more meaningful. So I thought perhaps exposing my kids at an earlier age would entice them to be better students and to develop a knowledge and appreciation for the world beyond the U.S. borders.
The kids were 100% opposed to the move but we insisted, “one day you’ll thank us for it”, knowing that it would probably be years and years before those words were spoken. We were not prepared for “one day you’ll hate us for it” which occurred for the first few months. We promised adventurous travel and exotic experiences, and above all, education through exposure.
I thought culture shock was just a cliché but now that I’ve experienced it first-hand, it is truly a phenomenon. I had prepared the kids the shock of living in and adapting to a new culture, but I don’t think I had prepared myself. The shock of our new culture manifested itself in so many ways. The biggest difficulty was not in adjusting to the cultural change, but adjusting to living in a city. Looking out the window of our high-rise apartment building over the city streets, we were reminded “you’re not in Florida anymore“. I often paused and pondered, “What was I thinking?” I gave up my spacious and serene home on a lake in Florida to live in a high-rise apartment building in one of the world’s most polluted cities? My kids left behind their bikes, their friends, their independence – to live in a country where it’s taboo to play outside? Their bikes, skateboards and scooters would remain in their shipping cartons for two full years.
As for being an American in Milan, it was relatively easy. At least for me. Not so much for the kids. My son was not a soccer player (I’m anti-soccermom) so it was difficult for him to gain acceptance by the Italian boys in his class. It was a very slow, very painful, very introspective transition for him. He was quite popular among his class in the U.S. because of his wit, humor and kind heart; the Italian boys judged him not on his personality attributes, but on his soccer skills. Both kids started school in an English speaking Italian school but within a few months, I had moved Carson to a British school with a greater diversity of nationalities. My daughter, Miss Sunshine, remained at the Italian School and adjusted rather well. So for the first year, I sent them off every morning, in two separate elevators, one with a smile, and one with a frown, which is a scene that epitomizes my impression of day-to-day life here.
My most memorable sight of our years in Italy was my son’s trip to school each morning. Because we changed schools mid-year for him, the bus was unavailable. We hired a driver to take him the 50 minutes to school each morning. The driver showed up in a dark suit, took my son’s backpack, and opened the back door of the stretch Mercedes-Benz for my son. Every day, I laughed as they drove off. We called him Richie Rich.