Turin, Italy

I’m the foreigner in town

Not long ago, I was talking about all the ridiculous burning hoops one has to jump through to get a driving license in Italy.

Yes, I have to start at square one as though I’ve never driven. Me, who has driven since 16 (15, if counting the learner’s permit), when practically every other country’s license can be converted, from Sri Lanka to Argentina and even Great Britain, who drives on the left side. It’s okay. I’ve accepted it. I’ve been studying an hour a day for the theoretical exam, and you better believe there will be a helpful post about this whole process.

I just think that Turin’s DMV should update the info they give me so it’s not ten years out of date—or, if they don’t feel like changing a couple of sentences on an old handout, they should mention it’s out of date (a shout-out to Autoscuola Berruti who is helping me through this and pointing these things out to me!).

And an Italian said, “Don’t forget that you chose to live here.”

I stopped talking. I felt a little bit stung. Had I become one of those expats who complains about every single inconvenience as though it’s the entire country’s fault, forgetting that life everywhere has its inconveniences?

I backtracked a moment. No. I wasn’t one of those. I am very aware that I’ve chosen to live here, and I’m happy about it, whatever cultural difficulties I run into (more like bureaucratic inefficiencies, because cultural differences are good). But her comment reminded me that now that I’m here, I’m not “living in a foreign country.” I am the foreigner in their country.

It looks like a contradiction: on the one hand, Italians remain flabbergasted that I chose to live in Italy when I could be living the “American dream.” It seems like everyone would rather live in another country. On the other, if I speak a word against Italy, I’m the outsider attacking their territory. Forget how many compliments I give them about their food, history, the culture and language I love so much. Forget that yes, in fact, I have chosen to live here. I am not them, so it’s an attack.

It looks like a contradiction, and it is, but I totally get it; and I don’t begrudge that woman’s comment. Because boy, when people who aren’t from West Virginia joke that they thought it was all about incest and the movie Wrong Turn and ignorant hicks, I get more than ticked off. I defend its beautiful wilderness, the most no-strings-attached friendly people I have ever known, and what it was like to grow up there with bare feet and all that outdoors freedom. But once upon a time, I had no trouble talking with my WV friends about how I wanted to get out.

Let’s get this straight: I love living in Italy. Ever since visiting Italy in junior high school, a whirlwind ten-day vacation, I wanted to live here. For some reason, it became an underlying goal that I didn’t even realize was guiding me through the choices I made, ending up with me studying then working and living here.

But like living anywhere in the world, it has its daily inconveniences. When I was talking about said burning hoops to jump through, I was not complaining about Italy as a whole. I was railing on a particular thing that happened to me, as anyone does during the course of the week when they run into obstacles at work, in line at the grocery store, or at the Post Office.

When all is said and done, however: “Remember, you chose to live here.” Being the foreigner in town means I have certain guidelines to follow.

That comment reminded me that living as a foreigner in another country, or simply being the outsider to anything, you revoke your rights to that sort of complaining if you don’t want to come off as spiteful, spoiled, or generally unworthy and ungrateful of someone’s else’s country. And of course, complaining to friends back at home doesn’t get you loads of sympathy. “Yeah, whine all you want while you drink wine and eat awesome food while sitting at a bar in the piazza outside of some medieval castle.” Heh, ok. So maybe they can help put it all back in perspective.

So as a foreigner in another country, share your negative thoughts sparingly (tip: usually other expats are 100% sympathetic!). Actually, that’s a good habit to do in general.

20 thoughts on “I’m the foreigner in town

  1. I’ve found that it’s okay to “whine”, how else are we supposed to vent out those pesky frustrations? 😡 To expect anything to be up-to-date is a coin toss – sometimes they’re one step ahead of you, while other times they may not. Go Team Diana on your driving exam!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Seriously…I need all the cheering and good luck possible.

      I’m not sure I’ve been lucky enough to experience any institution/business one step ahead of me yet, but your comment makes me optimistic that it’s possible.


  2. It’s interesting how Italians get so defensive towards criticisms, when in fact they’re the most critical towards the same topics. My wife, who’s Canadian, noticed that too in some of the replies she received from Italian friends of ours… and she was also very surprised. I don’t want to justify this behavior, which is entirely wrong, but I think it’s coming from the place of frustrated people who envy you just for having _the option_ not to live there. So they take it on you. I apologize on behalf of the Italians!


    1. BTW, I’m sure that most Italians don’t think that they can ever leave Italy. They’re afraid of what they don’t know, of not speaking “the languages”, of leaving their relatives behind. So, they just stay and complain!


      1. Interesting thought–that I have the option to leave whereas they see themselves as not having that option at all. Not that they can’t, of course, but leaving Italy to go somewhere with no bidet? No real mozzarella? Their relatives not in the next town or block over? Whew, the habits of culture can be heavy baggage.

        Makes me wonder where all that “baggage” comes from. Economic instability makes people cling to the stable and sure things in life, maybe?


        1. I think you hit the nail on the head with your “baggage” theory. Where does it come from? It’s deeply rooted in a society centered around the ‘family’, where mothers form a very deep bond with their children (especially male children), where land is considered as the only solid investment (so precious in Italy), where pessimism and superstition go hand in hand (“those who leave the old route for the new, know what they lose, don’t know what they find”). But mostly, I think, it’s that Italians want to be close to their aging parents, and that they are afraid of losing their traditions and therefore their identity.


          1. Very interesting point about traditions tied to identity. And I can see your point about attentive mothering, but I’m left wondering how land can be considered the only solid investment when so few people have the possibility to own it. Thinking aloud here, not necessarily contradicting you.

            Because when I look at my only other point of reference, Americans have the chance to own land. In a country with more space and lower prices, owning a house is a lifetime benchmark. Friends younger than me are posting pics on facebook of the keys to their first houses. Maybe the relative ease of picking up and settling somewhere else, land, house, and all, is what makes the difference.

            And why so much pessimism, do you think? Because on the other hand, Italians know so well how to enjoy the little things, relax, and appreciate beauty, family, and the finer things in life.

            You Italians are so contradictory 🙂


            1. You’re right, land is expensive in Italy, but it’s also bound to go up – which makes it a good investment. And since young generations can’t easily afford it, they generally accept to be helped by their parents (who in turn were helped by theirs) to buy an apartment *in the neighboring town*. I’ve even seen cases where the parents do expensive renovations to expand their houses (e.g. add a floor), for their kid to move in along with their spouse.

              I am not sure where the pessimism of the Italians comes from, but it may have something to do with their catholic roots (“we’re born to suffer”, and “we should be grateful for what we have”) and the consequent fatalism (“God sees, God provides”). This still leaves room for enjoying the pleasures in life, *while you can*.

              The theme of Italian contradictions is incredibly interesting, BTW – Have you thought of writing a post on the subject? I would love your take on it! 🙂


              1. The whole pessimism theory leaves something to think about. Because even though the number of practicing Catholics in Italy is way down, I think you could be right. It’s fascinating how the roots of someone’s culture and country could have such an impact on a single person’s personality. Sociology!

                I have thought of a contradictions post for a long time! The thing is, examples come to me in ah-ha moments, so I just keep collecting them, and I don’t feel like I’m done yet. I need to read “The Italians” by John Hooper (as you’ve suggested before!).


  3. Having moved to America from Britain I have found it to be a very positive experience. Most Americans seem to love the Scots. I lived in England for a while, and the contrast was stark, I was often told to go back to Scotland. So I know how it feels to be the foreigner in town.


    1. Speaking as an American….now that you mention it, I do have an overall friendly impression of Scots! I’ve never met one before so you Scottish must be generally well-portrayed 😉

      Interesting about England. I definitely have a positive experience here too, which is why that comment about “choosing to live here” stung.


  4. Girlllll!! So many times I’ve felt the way you did in this post… and then I realized that I wasted so much time barking up the wrong trees! I complained to Italian friends all the time about the little stuff, and they could never empathize (which drove me nuts and frustrated me further) because for them it was normal.
    I think the “You chose to live here” is coming from someone who has “Never chosen to live somewhere else.” Am I right? It’s like they’re really telling you “Your frustrations are not justified because you came to my country.”
    We all need to complain to someone, reflect on what we’ve said, learn from it and then move on! So good for you that you’ve used the blog here to bark up the right trees (just like I have with my blog!)
    It’s great to find other expats who share your frustrations (and who love beer…just sayin’) that you can discuss these things with
    I went throug the driver’s ed hoops, myself! I was also thinking of writing a post. I’ll have to get started. When is your test date?


    1. Ha thank you for the support! We gotta get it out somewhere, right?? Even though that makes it sound like I’m all pent up inside and no, I’m not..!

      Please, please write a post on getting your driver’s license! I’m still at the studying stage, which has taken for-ev-er. I will be going back to the DMV to set up my exam appointment in a little over a week. Eek! (I have to go to the DMV 3 times, at least in Turin: 1 to “sign myself up,” 2 to make the exam appointment, and 3 to take the exam…now tell me that is not unnecessarily complicated and drawn out…).

      I really would love to compare experiences, you have to write that post.


  5. I have been here nearly nine years, it was my decision and I dragged Mrs Sensible, my Italian wife against her better judgement kicking and screaming to Italy

    Do I complain about the red tape ? Loudly Do I complain about the crazy driving? No but my Italian wife does.

    Should I be allowed to complain? I think so, just as my Italian friends in the UK complain about the weather….


      1. My friend is going through the process of getting his licence, he needed to know the parts of the engine… Mrs Sensible must have studied the parts of the engine to pass her test, but I doubt I will ever see her lift the bonnet of the car and saw, well it looks like the alternator is bust.


        1. I didn’t study at an auto school, where they teach you that stuff, and I ignored the engines part in my book. I took a lot of practice tests and the only parts that ever came up had to do with a motociclo, which I never got right (thankfully, wasn’t on the final exam).

          It’s probably useful (???) to know engine parts, but I’m glad I didn’t spend time learning them. Too many other things to memorize and new Italian driving words to learn. I’m smiling as I write this because I’m so glad I’m done with all that!


  6. “You chose to live here” = “That’s life in the bush”! Urgh! I lived “where God left His shoes” for 14 yrs. out in the Alaskan wilderness. Whenever there was a problem (that could have been easily solved) the typical response was a shrug of the shoulders and the afore said phrase. For a gal who grew up 10 min. from Manhattan it was totally a red flag in front of a bull. As I have aged I admit to mellowing, and since beginning our annual visits to Italy, AND running the gamut of acquiring Italian citizenship, I feel I have experienced a little bit of the maze that is Italian bureaucracy. All I can say is that when we are in Italia we have much more patience and much lower expectations when it comes to customer service or “getting something done”. I seriously doubt though that we will ever buy an apartment, although we would absolutely love to, as dealing with all of the intricacies of things like just getting wi-fi hooked up, would probably send me over the edge! Auguri!!! It’s good to be young and determined. Enjoy the fruit of your efforts!!


  7. HI, yep it’s quite strange you can’t still convert your driving license from the U.S. But simply our countries never reached mutual agrements about this matter. Italy did this with Japan, for instance, and Japanese licenses can be converted, and this, to me, seems quite astonishing….


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