I’m in my second year of living in Italy and I’ve been feeling bummed out due to something I’d like to call the expat plateau.
Often times people talk about experiencing a honeymoon period when they first move to Italy, where the joy and beauty of living in Italy can far outweigh the daily grind of bureaucracy, language mishaps, and loneliness as you get used to life here. However, that period (anything from 6 months to 2 years) passes and the reality of living abroad set in. Some people decide to move back home after this period passes while others stick it out.
When I moved back to Italy, I thought I was immune to the honeymoon period and had a grasp on the negative aspects of living here. The first year was difficult and I dealt with anxiety, fear, and guilt. I eventually got through it and I thought I was over it, but lately I feel like I’ve hit another bump – the expat plateau.
The Expat Plateau
I call this the expat plateau as it occurs when the newness of living in a place fades and you realise that full integration is going to take a long time. It’s like learning a new language. At the beginner level, if you dedicate yourself and work hard, you can see your level of improvement increase at a relatively rapid rate as you’re comparing yourself to when you started at 0. You’re happy to be able to communicate. But when you hit an intermediate level and you start to learn more complex grammar structures, idioms and other language nuances based on different situations, the learning slows down. You’ve plateaued it can be discouraging and tempting to give up during this phase. It’ll seem like you’ll never improve, but there is a lot going on underneath the surface.
The Expat Plateau works in the same way. In the beginning, perhaps in the first year or so, every step feels like you’re on your way to creating your new life in Italy – getting your documents in order that show that you live in Italy (things like the PdS, carta d’identita, codice fiscale, and tessera sanitaria), renting a place, choosing your local bar, getting to know the locals, finding a job, and improving your Italian. You celebrate every new milestone and can’t believe that you’re navigating the Italian bureaucracy and no one has kicked you out.
But then you hit the plateau – this is the moment where you’ve stopped comparing your life before you came to Italy with your new life, when your old life is enough behind you to make you feel like this is it, this is your life now. And you suddenly realise how far you have to go and you feel like an outsider, that everyone looks at you like an outsider. Your Italian isn’t perfect and maybe it’s even getting worse as you become more self-conscious. You realise the difficulty in making deeper friendships, that people’s curiosity in you and your move to Italy only goes so far as they’re more focused on their family and established friends. Your job may not pay you on time or refuse to give you a contract so you have to live with uncertainty or not be able to take sick leave. You realise how much help you need to navigate a byzantine medical system, from making a doctor’s appointment to getting some tests to filling a prescription. And o! as a tax resident in Italy you’ll be taxed on your worldwide income so you need to find a good accountant that can help you because there’s no way you can figure out the rules on your own.
But is this all enough to make you give up?
No. (I don’t want to try to convince you to stay if you’re really unhappy and would rather go back home or start a new life elsewhere. You’ll know when you’ve had enough.) If you know this is where you want to be, where you want to create a life, then you push through.
But what can you do to help make this expat plateau period a bit better?
10 ways to fight the expat plateau
- Change your routine – Go to a new coffee shop, try a different walking route, visit a store that you’ve been wanting to go into for a while. These little changes will break up the plateau and spark something new.
- Read books written by other expats – Expats often write about the troubles they’ve encountered during their quest to make a new life in their adopted country. You’ll find that you’re not alone and that yes, you’ll get through this. I’m currently reading Venice resident Philip Gwynne Jones’ To Venice with Love. It just came out and it’s fabulous!
- Go on holiday to another city in Italy – Sometimes you need to take a break and go somewhere where you can feel like a tourist.
- Take a class in something fun – I’m not talking about taking a class in order to solidify your life here and improve yourself – like signing up for driving school or take Italian classes. Maybe a cooking class, a dance class, painting class or a wine class. Something that that has nothing to do with self-improvement. You’ll get to meet new people who will share some interests with you.
- Do Instagram Stories – Social media may not be your thing, but I’ve been able to get to know people in my town through Instagram stories. It’s kind of like a public spying, but when I ran into them at a public event, I introduced myself and said that I was a fan of their Instagram and they were flattered. It gives you something new to talk about with someone and they’ll like that a stranger, rather than just their friends that they’ve known for a million years, noticed them.
- Be a tourist in your town – This may be counter-intuitive since you want so bad to not be looked at like a tourist passing through, but if you hire a local guide to take you on a walk around town, you’ll not only get a chance to learn more deeply about the local history, but you’ll also get to make contact with someone new and you can recommend the guide (if you like them) to friends that come and visit you.
- Write about it – Keep a journal or a blog and write about your experiences, all the good and the bad. It’ll help you let it out and maybe you’ll be able to look at things in a new way. Later on, you’ll be able to look at this period and realise how strong and resilient you are and how much you’ve learned.
- Make your house pretty – Buy a plant, add a picture to your wall and rearrange the furniture. Remind yourself that this is your home and is a nice comfortable place to be even if life on the outside is difficult.
- Go to an ex-pat meetup – I’ve tried joining expat groups before and felt like they were too isolating, but sometimes you just want to stop feeling foreign and feel something familiar. Of course, you can always watch a film or listen to a podcast or talk to friends or family back home, but for this type of thing, you want to talk to other people that are going through the same thing as you. Maybe you can complain and commiserate about the difficulties of living in Italy and being far away from family and friends and then share the reasons why you love it here.
- Talk to a friendly person about how you feel – You’re probably at a point now that you’ve gotten to know your local barista, have a few friendly neighbours, some people in town that you say hello to as you go on your walk, but you haven’t gotten to a point where you’ve gotten to be friends. This might be the right time to show a bit of vulnerability and let people in. They might not know exactly what you’re going through or understand the difficulties of living abroad (especially if they’ve never left their home town), but I bet someone could empathise and would want to listen. They may like to know what you’re going through and take you out for a coffee or give you some oranges from their garden next time they see you.
I hope some of these things help and if you have other suggestions, let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear!