From Abroad with Love
Expats may be motivated by romantic visions of living overseas, but to succeed they’ll also need drive, flexibility and tough-minded pragmatism.
By Claudia Flisi
“America is my country and Paris is my hometown.” Gertrude Stein
The first few weeks after moving to Italy, I walked around shellshocked. Never mind that I’d lived in the country before, spoke the language, had a good job with an international company. Never mind that the average high school graduate there was more knowledgeable than the average college grad in the U.S., or that the quality of food, wine and clothing was superior to the American standard. Daily life was just so vastly and immediately different: Prices were outrageous, my young children were disoriented, my safety net was in shreds. And everything from supermarkets to doctors’ offices stayed open only during business hours, so working mothers like me were doubly penalized.
Recalling those early days, I can easily understand fellow expatriate Patience Allen when she says that her move to Norway in 2004 was one of the hardest things she’s ever done. “It called into question everything I value,” she says.
Nothing worth having in this world comes easy, as the saying goes, which may explain why relatively few American women like Allen pursue the dream that so many of us have of living and working abroad. Our own government is unsure just how many American expatriates there are in the world (as many as 7 million, they think), but one thing is certain: Those of us who’ve made the leap across borders rarely look back. The reasons why are as diverse as the cultures we inhabit, yet, as our stories reveal, they’re also as universal as basic human emotions.
Allen first went overseas with her parents when she was 12. “I fell in love with the ‘otherness’ of it all,” she remembers, and even today it’s those same exotic differences that make her daily life in Oslo a constant adventure. “The fact that it’s another culture and language is something I find quite cool, exasperating, challenging – all of the above,” she says. Allen is executive director and part owner of two companies – one promoting Norwegian arts and crafts around the world, the other a consulting company helping entrepreneurs start their own businesses. And she’s launching a third venture, an arts foundation, this year. “Norway is a place where I feel like I’m constantly learning and being challenged. When I can get excited about how even the light switches are different…”
Like the rest of us, she worked hard to fulfill her passion for new experiences – first taking a job at an international company with the express purpose of being sent overseas (though she wound up working for eight years in the U.S. instead). Undaunted, she pursued her MBA and won an international fellowship that brought her to Oslo for her final semester. Once there, she knew a good thing when she saw it.
“Norwegians take Life/Work balance very seriously,” she says. “They take a full five weeks of vacation, or at least two weeks at a time, and have good, decent vacations where they actually disconnect. It’s something I wouldn’t have been allowed to do in the U.S.” A balanced life, she found, is to be expected in her new culture. “If you don’t take the vacation, they think you’re odd.”
Allen managed to stay in Norway with a series of jobs that eventually led to her success as an entrepreneur, though in hindsight she wishes she’d saved up more money and learned the language before moving. And, alas, she regrets not marrying the handsome Norwegian she dated for her first three years in the country. “It would have been enough time to get my residency status,” she says. “By only wanting to marry ‘when it was right,’ I turned the three-year process into a six-year one.” But she loves being able to walk everywhere while enjoying the advantages of the big city – without the pollution and overcrowding of urban America. “That I find delightful,” she says. “The small-town feel of it all. I have a healthier lifestyle here, and that, well, it just makes me feel good.
Jenise Treuting realized early in her career at a glamorous Hollywood agency that the cutthroat L.A. environment wasn’t for her, so she decided to take off and teach English for a year in a milieu that was completely different: Japan. “I felt the need to see how other societies have come to deal with the problems we’re facing,” she recalls. “At the time, I never imagined it would be permanent.”
After she enrolled in classes at Doshisha University in Kyoto to study Japanese, she met a Japanese man and later married him. But something equally deep made Japan seem like a natural fit, a place where she could construct a new life. “I feel much more a part of the world as a whole living in Japan than I did in the States,” says Treuting, who works in Kyoto as a translator, interpreter and cross-cultural filmmaker. “It may seem somewhat counterintuitive, since Japan tends to be more aware of how it’s different from other cultures, but living here I feel more a part of the international community.” As an American in Japan, Treuting was delighted to discover all she has in common with Europeans, Africans, Middle Easterners, Southeast Asians – well, everyone – in a way she couldn’t have in her old life. “I even have more in common with immigrants in the U.S. now that I’ve lived abroad.” Yet, ironically, it’s the tendency of the Japanese to categorize people and confine them to certain boxes that bothers her the most. “That drives me crazy,” she admits.
As a city of 1.5 million, Kyoto has its share of congestion that’s unfortunately reminiscent of her old life in Los Angeles (“I sometimes feel the need to get away to more space and fewer people,” Treuting says), but the natural setting and rich history never fail to impress her. “I love the beauty – all the temples and shrines, the rice paddies, the rivers and mountains. I walk almost everywhere in Kyoto.”
Ever the student, Treuting above all relishes the fact that, as a Westerner making her way in the East, she never stops learning – “whether it’s a new expression in Japanese, some new aspect of the culture, or something about myself and my own cultural biases,” she says. And there she underscores the excitement that all of us who live abroad experience in going about our daily lives and examining who we are. “Living in a country and a culture that you came to as an adult means that every day offers some new challenge or [adventure],” she explains, “no matter how long you’ve been there. There’s not a lot of room for complacency.”
Emily Backus knows all about having to stay on her toes as an American in Italy. “I love finally having mastered Italian well enough to be able to make a joke or simply a point,” she says. “For a very long time, I felt as though I’d lost about 40 IQ points because of the language barrier. People would strain to listen to me or just lose their patience.”
Backus was an established television producer in New York when she met an Italian in 1994. They married and continued to live in the city until 2000, when they moved to Milan, in part because she wanted children and knew she could count on a vast support network in her husband’s hometown – support that simply wasn’t available in Manhattan. She also decided to use the move to launch a career as a journalist.
“Moving to Italy gave me the personal flexibility to work on my writing and have kids at the same time,” she explains. “That’s hard to do in a major U.S. city.” What she found was a convenient contrast to the financial pressures, inaccessible healthcare and expensive childcare in New York. “All of these things, plus the social network here, have helped create a safer, more stable environment.” The Italian support system has even helped her take more professional risks, “like trying [her] mettle as a writer.”
Today, three sons later (including 2-year-old twins), Backus has a regular byline in the Financial Times. She especially enjoys Milan’s sense of neighborhood, which she compares to Jane Jacobs’s accounts of New York neighborhoods 50 years ago. “There’s nothing like dropping downstairs to one of the two family-run coffee bars in my building,” she says. “The barista know me so well that if I simply nod, they’ll make me a cappuccino the way I like it, ristretto without cacao.”
And, of course, she revels in the quality of the food. “Many of the cooking ingredients that are considered run-of-the-mill staples here are gourmet fare in the U.S.: fresh mozzarella, fresh pesto, fresh stuffed pastas, freshly baked bread, extra virgin olive oil.” But in a city of world-renowned fashion, Backus sighs about the brand consciousness among Italians and the social pressure to “keep up,” which becomes more intense the higher you rise on the socioeconomic ladder. “If your house isn’t immaculate, or you’re not in sharp clothes with perfectly coiffed hair, people think there’s something wrong with you,” she laments. The pollution and traffic can be nightmarish too. For better and for worse, Backus says, “living in Italy in many ways is like living in a time warp.”
All of us living abroad know that feeling of disorientation. I’ve lived in the U.K., France and Switzerland as well as Italy, and I admit that life in another country sometimes feels like a poorly dubbed movie. You see the actions and hear the words, and you think you know what’s going on. But something is out of sync, and the result can lead to absurd misunderstandings.
That’s why you need a tough core and a strong internal compass to survive, to make life work, because an expat stands apart, no matter where she lives. We may spend years, even decades, in our chosen country, but we know we’ll never truly be “one of them.” Yet when we visit the U.S., we no longer see things the way Americans do. We are in a permanent state of limbo. But it’s not so bad. We get to star in our own feature film every day – poorly dubbed or not.
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