Today’s tripwolf post is a piggyback post from a recent article by Reannon on tripbase. It resonated with me because lately, I find myself telling people – curious, incredulous people who can’t believe I choose to live in small town, Italy – that the reason I live far away from home, the reason I choose to be in a small town instead of a big one, is that I don’t feel alive unless I’m learning something. That answer seems to satisfy most people; they never ask me exactly what I’m learning living out here. Or what I learned living in Ireland and Japan. So I want to ask myself those questions. And I feel like you – loyal tripwolf readers – are just the people who would understand the answers.
Here are ten things I’ve learned from living abroad:
organ meats are awesome My first week living in Japan, I went to an izakaya with a couple of friends; a Japanese woman and an Irishman. The Japanese girl requested several orders of yakitori – barbecue skewers. When they arrived, I asked her what kind of meat they were. She waved her hand over her stomach. “Inside,” she said. True to my American upbringing, I was initially stunned… until I realized that the pieces of “inside” smelled great and she and the Irishman seemed to be enjoying them immensely. “What’s wrong with you?” asked the Irishman. “It’s food.” Not wanting to be the ugly American, I tried a roasted chicken heart. And loved it.
Had you asked me all those years ago if I would one day ever voluntarily order chicken hearts, I’d have accused you of smoking diet raspberry pomegranate tea. But living in foreign countries, I’ve learned to embrace the protein that we in America consider garbage. Heart is terrific. Gizzards aren’t really my thing, but raw chicken liver and grilled cow tongue are amazing. I curse the years I concentrated solely on muscle meat, when the whole time I could have been eating Roman-style tripe.
My body will never fit in I’m four feet eleven inches tall (150 cm) and weigh about 90 pounds (43 kg). Growing up, I hated my body because in the United States, I am child size. I found this fact humiliating. I imagined that when I moved to Japan, I would finally fit in. It turned out that in Japan, I am of average height but my bottom is GIANT and my face… well, let’s not go there. In Ireland, I’m child size and my size 5 (size 3) feet are simply not part of society. When buying a bra in Malaysia, I was told by the shopkeeper that my 32A bosom is “too big.” In Italy, I’m on the smaller side of average but my refusal to tan is a national offense.
I’m 32 years old. I simply don’t have time anymore for feeling bad about my body because it doesn’t match the norm. Living and traveling abroad has taught me that I’ll never fit in so all I can do is grow up, accept it, and enjoy my good points: I’ve never had to worry about my weight, I can buy cheaper child-size shoes, and when I’m 50, I won’t look like a purse.
how to speak and write English real gooder Teaching English and learning new languages are a part of many expats’ lives. I’m a native speaker of English – and a darn good one, for that matter – but teaching my native language and learning Japanese made me think much harder about the way English works. As for the writing? Being forced to use simple English with my students taught me to write tougher, leaner prose, and stuffing my head with Japanese, Irish, and Italian idioms has greatly enriched my use of imagery. And the inspiration that comes from the places I’ve seen and the things I’ve experienced? Fuggedaboutit. For all of the daily frustrations that come with being a foreigner in a foreign place, I’m a better writer because of my life abroad, which was the whole point in the first place.
I love American food I grew up eating Italian and Guatemalan food at home because my parents are immigrants from those countries; American food was stuff my friends ate, or things I saw on menus at local restaurants. I’d never in a million years have categorized macaroni and cheese as crave-worthy. But as soon as I left American soil, the strangest things sounded delicious to me. Beefaroni. Grilled cheese sandwiches. Stove Top stuffing. Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Brownies, blueberry muffins, s’mores, mashed potatoes. I’d never known how much I loved our national cuisine until it became foreign. Which brings me to….
cooking from scratch is the best thing ever and it isn’t really all that hard I’ve always loved to cook, but it wasn’t until I moved to Japan and set about making American food for myself that I realized just how heavily we Americans rely on brand name prepackaged foods. Imagine my consternation when I hit the supermarket with the intent of making chicken soup only to find that in Japan, canned chicken broth doesn’t exist. I would have to – gasp! – make my own. But making things from scratch really isn’t that hard – it’s just time consuming. And boy, is it worth it. It’s rare that I buy anything packaged now – and not just because I can’t find it.
there is no such thing as escape I’m part of a minority of expats that left home because they were running towards as opposed to running away from something. Nonetheless, I, too, learned that you can escape your landlord but you can’t escape paying the rent. To all of the jabroneys on Facebook who whine about moving to Canada because they don’t like the way things are going in the United States: wake up, dork. Canada has problems, too. Maybe I don’t have to deal with Time Warner and the MTA anymore, but good grief, do I have to deal with the RAI and freaking Trenitalia.
there is no such thing as paradise When I announced plans to live in Japan, the general reaction was “awesome.” When I announced plans to move to Ireland, the general reaction was “I’m jealous” and “shut the f**** up!” But it wasn’t until I announced plans to move to Italy that the crap really started to fly. “I hate you. I’m so jealous. I want your life!” Followed, a few months later, by, “Shut up. You have no right to complain about anything. You live in paradise.”
Want to know what my Italian friends tell me?
“What the he** is wrong with you? You come from America – the land of endless opportunity – and you choose to live here in this toilet. If I were you, I’d run far, far away and never come back. Seriously. What’s wrong with you?”
Many countries are wonderful places to visit, but once life becomes… well, regular life with bills, responsibilities, heartache and disappointment, the vacation is over. And my friends who think Italy is paradise have obviously never had to deal with the Italian bureaucratic system.
the internet is the best invention of all time Forget the wheel, forget sliced bread. While human beings might have been traveling as soon as our brains got big enough to plan ahead, the internet has made living far away from home a zillion times easier. I plan trips home with the click of a mouse. I work remotely for American magazines while living in small town Italy. I see my friends and family whenever I want – for free – on Skype. I can even order my favorite Clean & Clear blotting sheets from Amazon and have them delivered straight to my door…. whether or not they arrive is a different story (gotta love the Italian mail service). I remember my parents writing letters to their far-away parents by hand; waiting weeks or months for a response. Expensive, crackly overseas phone calls twice a year. Living abroad can be frustrating enough; the internet makes it so much sweeter.
stupid jerks are everywhere… they just speak different languages It’s common for people to assume that citizens of different countries are somehow more advanced. Better. More sophisticated. Greener, just because they’re on the other side. My Italian friends will sometimes tell me, You’re so ahead in America. We’re behind here. I’ve had friends back home tell me they were surprised to hear that there’s racism in Japan (“but they’re so technologically advanced!”) and I once got into an argument with a friend back home because she absolutely refused - refused – to believe that there are small-minded people in Italy. Surprise! Stupidity and jerkiness are human traits, passed down through generations and carefully cultivated by fellow creeps. You might move to a new country and find people who think the way you do, or people who are more open to certain things, or people who are nicer to stray animals, but no matter where you go, you just can’t escape stupid.
you’re never really alone When people learn that I’ve lived in four countries, one of the first things they say is: Wow. I’d like to do that, but I could never leave my friends and family. One of the second things is: Don’t you feel alone? I hear the latter question a lot in Italy, where the family unit is everything. A person without a family is an outsider, a freak, someone to be pitied. It is useless trying to explain to them that one can be happy living near their family, but also happy living far away. It is also useless trying to explain to them that even though I’m far away from home, I don’t feel alone. Yes, there are times when it’s difficult reading the Facebook status updates about my brother’s engagement party, which I couldn’t attend. It gets harder to make friends as you get older, and sudden changes in relationships can definitely leave you feeling lost. In the winter of 2010, my life in Ireland went sour when my relationship of 3 years ended. At the time of the move to Dublin, I had been too distracted by what was by then a failing relationship to put any effort into making close friends. He moved out; my world went dark. I went through the motions of going to my classes and preparing dinners for one. I felt utterly and completely alone. But then one night, I got an email from a classmate:
Hi, Eva. I’m sorry if this is too invasive, but I couldn’t help but notice on your facebook profile that you don’t have your relationship listed anymore. Has something changed between you and Sean? If so, I hope you know that you have friends here to hang out with and talk to whenever you need.
The sweetness of that email still makes me tear up. I realized then that even when we’re alone, we’re never really alone. There’s always someone watching. There will always be someone kindhearted who cares. And now, in Italy, I have half a dozen honorary big brothers and four honorary uncles who vow that they will kick the stuffing out of anyone who bothers me. My friends’ mothers invite me to dinner and send me eggs from their chickens. My friends and family constantly ask me when I’m coming back to visit and cheer when I tell them, “soon.” I might be far from home, but I’ve never stopped feeling loved.
What have you learned from living abroad?