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Carla Bastos in Italy: Creating my normal expat life

I was recently reminded once again that many people see the expat life as a never-ending vacation. Even after living in Italy for well over a year, I still get requests from back home for my newest photos or a rundown of my latest adventures. It’s hard for some to grasp that most expats are just living – whether in work, school or recreation, we’re simply living our lives, albeit in a completely different environment.

Life is a great adventure no matter where you live, and we should strive to discover new things in each day. But, I would hope that aspiring expats will think about recreating the lives they’re comfortable with in their new home. There will be plenty of time for the adventures and new discoveries (and they’re more enjoyable anyway when they’re not just a box on a tourism checklist).

Where did that come from? (All photos by Carla Bastos)

There are never-ending adventures and “Oh wow, I never knew that” moments here in Italia, to be sure. Just the other day, I walked out of a government office in the busy center of Florence, turned a corner, and looked up to see a massive lake and serene park – an oasis in the middle of the madness. Turns out it was the lake in front of the 16h century Fortezza da Basso.

While I’d passed the famous structure many times, I just hadn’t walked the route on that side of it before. I couldn’t believe I’d never seen this beauty.

Such surprise discoveries are our rewards for the headaches that come with creating that normal life.

A library like any in the U.S. – well, except for the 500-year-old books and the Sistine Chapel-like ceiling

My new normal

Beyond navigating my way around errands, shopping, public transportation, bill-paying, etc., my new normal included finding an outlet for the activities and ways that I’ve always spent my time in the United States:

• finding a humanitarian organization where I could offer volunteer services;

• finding a library where I could enjoy my typical weekly visits;

• finding a weekly Argentine tango milonga;

• and, finding a Protestant church to attend (no easy feat in Italy).

Biblioteca Ernesto Ragionieri

Chicco di Grano is a small food pantry in my town, supplied by national and international organizations as well as local markets and individual donors. My job, for a few hours every other week, is simply to pack food boxes for the clients who come by appointment to pick them up.

Working from a list based on family size, number of children, etc., I need only to be able to read the list, mark the box when it’s completed, then wheel it out to the lobby.

Not rocket science, but oh, so very gratifying!

My local library, Biblioteca Ernesto Ragionieri, is not unlike libraries all over the U.S. Except, of course, that it was originally built as a porcelain factory in 1737, and it contains volumes that are over five hundred years old – so there’s that. (Not to mention the conference room equipped with wifi and video under a medieval, Sistine Chapel-like ceiling.)

But, the normal comes in when you see groups of high school students studying; local writers meeting over coffee on the front patio; and educational programs for younger children. Just a typical library environment.

Tango and an international church

I wasn’t surprised to find a number of tango milongas throughout Tuscany. Argentine tango is a universal language, and weekly dances (milongas), practice sessions (practicas) and classes are prolific in major metropolitan areas worldwide. While I haven’t attended regularly as I used to in the States, it’s comforting to know this piece of my “normal” is always there.

Mosaico Church is, as the name suggests, an international church. Located in the center of Florence, its attendees are from all over the world – locals, expats, students, and vacationing visitors. Services are conducted in English and Italian, so it serves as a language lesson as well as a dose of the familiar and one of the comforts of home. Although, it just happens that my Sunday morning walk from the train station takes me past the majestic Santa Maria del Fiore and Il Duomo each week – definitely not normal.

I love knowing where all the hot spots and popular venues are around Tuscany, and having easy access to them. When friends and family visit from the States, that’s what they want to see, and it’s fun to be able to show them the ropes.

But that’s not an everyday occurrence.

The expat life can be the best of both worlds – bringing the “good stuff” from our old lives with us, but saying goodbye to the stresses, socio-political anxieties, etc., that came with the package back home. And then, we get to add the wonders and majesty of our new lives.

The point is, wherever you are, the adventures will come. But, if you’re settling in a new land for an extended period, there’s no rush. The first order of business is to find your new normal – and the rest will be all the more special.

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Read more about expat life in Italy here in Dispatches’ archives.

Read more from Carla here.

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Carla Bastos is an expat writer living in Italy.

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