By Lauretta Zucchetti
When I left Italy for the United States in my early twenties, I resented nearly everything around me: men pushing from behind me on crowded buses, the money I frequently lost in malfunctioning public phones, the lack of personal space when waiting in line at the post office, the way an extra tip to the waiter would get you the best table at a restaurant, and much more. The US seemed like a dreamland--bright, efficient, and glamorous--with no gender differentiation. It didn't matter if I was a woman, or a man, as long as I could prove my worth.
My life in the States took off in ways that would have been close to impossible for a woman in Italy in the ‘70s, where my figure and smile spoke louder than my resume. I became a top sales executive for Xerox before moving to Apple. I married a kind, intelligent, and accomplished man, had a daughter, and bought a house in the suburbs with a two-car garage and a verdant garden. It was a life that, from the outside looking in, was close to perfect.
Fast forward two and a half decades, and my desire to escape hit me with the speed of a moving train: I needed to feel alive again--the kind of vitality that only messy environments, unpredictability, and unwarranted friendliness offers. Call me crazy, call me irrational, but I suddenly became tired of rules dictating my life, down to the extra inch my car occupied in the red zone (and for which I regularly received violation tickets); of people avoiding my gaze in supermarkets lest we crossed unwanted boundaries; of the forced, identical smiles imprinted on the sales clerks at clothing stores; of the packed freeways, the strip malls, the homogenization of my adopted country. It was all too easy, too perfect. It was deadening my soul.
Friends and family considered my decision to uproot from the San Francisco Bay Area radical. But with my daughter out of college and on her own, my marriage ending, my job dissolved, and my beloved dog deceased, I knew it was time to grow roots somewhere new. The radicalness wasn’t the decision itself—it was selecting where to live.
I tried Bali first. I hadn’t read Elizabeth Gilbert’s wildly popular Eat, Pray, Love (yet), but I had heard numerous tales about Bali’s sultry beauty. The rumors were true: It was intoxicatingly gorgeous, with splendid vistas and lovely people. It was also jam-packed with tourists and 8,500 miles from the place I’d called home for nearly thirty years.
I tried Paris next: Too cold. Madrid? Too striking in its similarities to Milan, where I’d spent most of my formative years. Florence was too small and provincial; Milan too industrial for my taste. As for the Scandinavian countries—I may as well stay in California. Before long, I was starting to feel like Goldilocks. I, too, needed a comfortable bed.
So when my daughter decided to spend three months in Rome, I jumped at the chance to join her.
I fell in love with Rome in the first five minutes. Although I had grown up between Florence and Milan, I hadn’t spent much time in Italy’s fabled city. Rome possessed all of the characteristics I longed for: Vibrant people eager to chat, laugh, and cheer. Myriad cultural sites cradled by Romanesque buildings of stunning artistry. Boulevards lined with Mediterranean pines and constellated with exquisite boutiques and cafés dishing out fabulous food. Most of all, Rome offered enough gregariousness and quirky disorganization to make even the most ordinary day feel unusual.
Two months later, I had officially moved to the Eternal City. My intuition, for once, was spot-on. Now, I wake up every day invigorated, and fall asleep each night with a mix of satisfaction and excitement. I live in the center of the city, in a quaint apartment that was built in the 17th century. Bells from the nearby churches sing out throughout the day. The espresso, the pizza, the gnocchi, the wine—it’s all it’s cracked up to be. On weekends, I head to the country, or to any one of the neighboring cities—Vienna, Munich, Geneva—while my afternoons always conclude at a café in my neighborhood, where I sip cappuccino and watch Romans and visitors stroll down the happily-hectic street.
Rome is a city that thrives on its solid sense of community. On my way around my neighborhood, I’m greeted lovingly by the staples in our corner of the city: Claudio the hairdresser, Andrea the antique-shop owner, Adele the florist, Silvia the proprietor of my favorite restaurant. My yoga studio is five minutes away. I shop for groceries in a plaza filled with stalls of fresh food. I have no car to speak of, and take my Vespa if I have to travel far. My life is no longer defined by tasks and traffic jams, but by a sequence of small pleasures that are made all the richer by the ancient culture and shambolic happenstance around me.
The experience has not been without its own quiet miseries. Do I miss the view of the Golden Gate Bridge? Yes. Do I miss the smell of the Pacific? Certainly—just as I occasionally miss skiing in Lake Tahoe, hiking the redwood forests in Carmel, my group of girlfriends, and those sunny California days that made the Golden State world-famous in the first place. Despite all of that, I am exactly where I want to be.
If you are considering a move overseas, consider the following questions:
- Do you prefer the quiet of country life, or the sounds of the city?
- Are you an introvert or an extrovert?
- Between walking and driving, which do you prefer?
- In your off time, do you tend to crave solo walks on the beach, or an exhilarating cultural outing?
- Are your skills transferable to other fields or industries? To another country?
- Do you envision yourself in a small resident, or a large home?
- What constitutes community for you—church, your neighbors, local clubs?
With all of this in mind, consider these essential tips for living abroad:
Follow your heart, but choose your new home wisely.
Moving is one of the most enlivening and yet difficult events in a person’s life—right alongside a death in the family and divorce. It should go without saying that you’ve visited the place you’ve decided to call home, and have spent enough time in the area to get a sense of its rhythm, its people, and its pros and cons. Beyond that? Research, research, research.
Prior to moving to Rome, I read everything I could get my hands on about the city—cultural guides, historical tomes, TripAdvisor. I also spoke with both natives and visitors to get a better sense of the Eternal City’s nitty-gritty, and joined forums that discussed Rome in refreshing detail. The point is to familiarize yourself with the new location as best as you can to eliminate unpleasant surprises and build enthusiasm.
Learn the language.
Fortunately, Italian is my first language, but after so much time in the States, I had to brush up on my skills before officially moving back to the country in which I was born. However, when I moved to the States in my twenties, I did everything I could to immerse myself in the language of my adopted country. I listened to American radio, watched American television, studied American films, read early-American novels and contemporary memoirs. In short, homework pays off in countless ways.
Anticipate homesickness—and plan accordingly.
When your boxes are unpacked, your phone number changed, and your hours adjusted, the initial excitement you experienced will begin to wear off—and with that, a severe case of the homesick blues. Rest assured that this is a completely normal part of the process. During my second month as a freshly single woman in Italy, I started to long for my friends, my family, and my home in California—big time. Rather than weeping over what I thought I’d lost, I set out to examine what I had gained. I explored restaurants beyond the borders of my neighborhood. I joined a gym that purposely put me in contact with a new batch of friends. I talked to as many neighbors and travelers as I could. I toured the grand museums Rome has to offer with new pals and old. Slowly, I started to create my own niche, and my keenness for my new home resurfaced. Nostalgia for my old life didn’t vanish, but my eagerness for new adventures trumped my heartache.
Keep an open mind.
By the time I left California, I realized that I was saying no to new opportunities far more frequently than I said yes. A Sunday afternoon at the de Young? Been there, done that. Brunch on the Embarcadero? Too much foot traffic. Touring wine country? No, thanks—it’s quite a drive. When I arrived in Italy, I made a commitment to myself to keep an open mind, and to exercise my ability to say si. That simple change led to a wealth of chances to embrace Italy’s diverse and magnificent culture, from marveling at the Sistine Chapel with a friend from my youth to driving down the Amalfi Coast in a convertible alone. The more I ventured out to learn about Rome and its neighboring attractions, the more fulfilled I felt—and the more convinced I became that I’d made the best move of my life.
Bio: Lauretta Zucchetti, a former award-winning executive at Apple and Xerox, has a number of brag-worthy stamps on her passport and a set of drums in her office. Her work has been featured on Scary Mommy, The Shriver Report, Literary Mama, Blog Her, Lifehack, and in NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH SO HELP ME GOD: 73 Women on Life’s Transitions. An author, life coach, and motivational speaker, she splits her time between Italy and San Francisco.