When we first found out we were being stationed at Aviano Air Force Base in Italy, I felt both excited and overwhelmed. As many of you know, PCSing to an overseas location brings with it many trials and headaches. There are no-fee passports and visas to obtain, packing shipments that have to be coordinated, medical clearances needed, and a mountain of paperwork for pets.
I knew I would love Italy once we got there, and I was right. I was prepared to love the food, the wine, and the culture.
What I did not expect was the way that living in Italy for four years would fundamentally change me and the way I view the world.
Five Ways Living In Italy Changed How I View the World
How to Handle a Line
I grew up in Texas and was taught Southern manners from an early age. We are a non-confrontational people. I still find myself apologizing to people who have been rude to me. One of the first things I learned in Italy was that if I stood around hesitantly, every grandmother, nun, and child was going to cut me in line. I had to be assertive.
The Italians are not rude; in fact, they are very warm and generous. If you call them out on the cutting or assert your position, they will gladly give you your turn. I learned this applied to all lines: grocery, ticket, bathroom, and especially at the local (espresso) bar when it was time for an afternoon espresso. Thank goodness I had Italy to prepare me for our move to Korea, or I would still be stuck in a sea of humanity trying to get on a train!
Italy brought me out of my shell and taught me to stand up for myself while still being kind. I should also note that while a line is a rough concept in Italy, in almost every instance it does not apply when driving. There are strict, if unofficial, rules of the road. You only get in the left lane for passing and then immediately get back to the right. You can go as fast as you want because speed limits are suggestions, but at the end of the day, you feel pretty safe because everyone is driving in the same crazy but predictable way. This has ruined driving in America for me. Also, I really miss roundabouts. Ain’t nobody got time for all these red lights!
A Changing Worldview
Living in Europe makes travel easy. You can get from country to country via cheap flight, by rail, or by car. We took advantage of the travel opportunities given us, and I am so glad we did. As we went from place to place, we were able to experience new foods, cultures, and ideas.
Travel takes away a fear of the unknown. It makes it much harder to dislike particular people or places once you have gotten to know them.
This attitude was something I was glad to bring back to America, and I think it would be a useful tool for everyone to use when encountering new people and places. The biggest takeaway for me is that we are much more alike than we are different.
A Different Pace of Life
After living in Italy for a little while, I found myself taking on some Italian customs. After a run in the morning, I would have a coffee break and then another one later in the day. I appreciated a refreshing Spritz in the square on a nice afternoon. The Italians (and Europeans in general) have a much better work/life balance than Americans. I remember how horrified my Italian teacher was when I told her my husband often worked longer than twelve-hour days.
And just so you do not think I have red, green, and white colored blinders on, there is plenty to be annoyed about. One example is afternoon breaks that last 3 hours where all shops and gas stations are closed.
However, in the end, I learned to appreciate how the Italians enjoyed the little things. Meals were an event in and of themselves. You have the table as long as you want it. Why not enjoy a leisurely lunch and glass of wine? Work will still be there when you get back. While I may not be able to incorporate all of these ideas into my American life, I try to strive for better balance and to savor the small beauties in each day.
Your Problem Is Not My Problem
When we first moved to Italy, we stayed in a temporary apartment until our house was ready. We were living on the fourth floor with our three dogs. This just so happened to coincide with one of the coldest Decembers they’ve had in Aviano in years. We got a lot of snow and our pipes froze and burst. The owner of the apartments worked hard to get everything fixed, but on the third day of no water, he recommended I call the plumber to see what was going on.
When I got the plumber on the phone the first thing he asked was, “do you have electricity?”
I replied, “well….yes.”
He said, “Well then, it’s not an emergency, I will be out tomorrow.”
This was my first lesson that the customer service I was accustomed to in America was not going to translate in Italy. It was a good lesson to learn, too. Throughout our four years there, we encountered cancelled flights, airport strikes, gas strikes, and even museum strikes! I learned that getting mad was only serving to upset me; it did not faze the Italians.
This attitude is something I have tried to bring back with me (to a degree). When things do not go my way, I try to take a deep breath, say “allora” (oh, well) and know that it will eventually work out. If not, there is always wine!
Breaking Out of My Comfort Zone
There is no faster way to break out of your comfort zone than moving to another country! The first week we lived in our house, I locked myself out. A quirk of many Italian doors is that they require a key to open them because the doorknobs do not turn.
I let our dogs out one morning and forgot to take the key with me. As soon as the door closed, I was filled with a sense of doom. It was cold, I was in my pajamas, I had my teeth whitening strips on, and I was wearing slippers. My cell phone was locked inside the house. I knew my husband would not be home for hours, so I had no choice but to go to our Italian neighbor’s house to ask to borrow the phone. Between my pantomiming, my very limited Italian, her very limited English, and a phone call to her daughter who did speak English, we communicated that I was locked out of my house and needed to call my husband. Thankfully, he answered, came home, and saved the day.
Thus, began the start of how living in Italy changed me most.
I learned to not be afraid to get a little lost on a long run. That was how I discovered some of my favorite places. I learned not to be intimidated at the markets or ordering a café at my favorite bar. I got to know the locals around me at my favorite restaurants, bars, and shops, and developed friendships that I treasure to this day.
There is much about living in Italy that I still miss every day. It is a place that got under my skin and took up a permanent place in my heart. I have talked to many friends who were also stationed there, and they feel the same way. I felt like I grew up as a person there, and I know the lessons I learned have better prepared me for life as a military spouse.
So “cin cin!” (cheers) to living “la dolce vita” (the sweet life), and if things do not go right there is always “domani” (tomorrow).