I recently read, yet again, that it typically takes two years to fully acclimate to life in a new country. Those two years supposedly include four stages of culture shock: Honeymoon, Frustration, Adjustment, and Acceptance. The first time I heard this, I thought two years seemed like a long time, but that was before I moved to Italy.
As I approached the one-year mark in my new country, I decided to take a look at where I was in the four-stage process. Was I halfway there?
My move to Italy in early 2022 was preceded by extensive planning and research. But, even though I felt thoroughly prepared, I knew I would be a fish out of water. Sure, I’d vacationed here several times, but making the move was a whole different ball game. And so began the process.
The Honeymoon Stage
The Honeymoon Stage might also be called the Infatuation Stage. It’s when folks wander around in wide-eyed wonder, taking in all the sights and sounds, devouring the food and wine and allowing themselves to be as goofy and naïve as any tourist anywhere. This stage can last months, but reality soon sets in.
Some say you should allow yourself this indulgence, but personally I think it’s a waste of time.
In my case, there was no honeymoon. I hit the ground running – smack dab into mind-boggling frustration.
The Frustration Stage
Like many expats, my first big challenge was the language. Although I’d studied Italian online for more than a year, I was sorely lacking. I immediately enrolled in intensive language courses at La Scuola Parola in Firenze, and began seeing improvement within several weeks. (But, don’t be fooled–it’s a long process, and my studies continue today.)
I would have been more patient with myself in the language department if not for the fact that the first couple of months demanded navigating through so much red tape, and not being fluent was a tremendous hindrance. There was the required codice fiscal application; then, because my long-term visa had not been granted on the first try, I had to travel back to the States for a second Consulate appointment (which was finally successful). And, upon returning to Italy, I had to immediately apply for a permesso di soggiornio (residence permit).
Bureaucracy is just the nature of the beast in Italy. But, it all could have gone more smoothly had I been fluent in Italian before my arrival. Like me, many expats only have a rudimentary grasp of the language before they move, making the Frustration Stage even more frustrating.
For me, this all turned out to be both a pro and a con. Yes, the bureaucratic process was challenging, but because there were deadlines, I had no choice but to get through this stage pretty quickly. If the expected two-year process meant that each stage would take six months on
average, then I was way ahead of the game.
The Adjustment Stage
Interestingly, this stage was not that different from adjusting to any new environment in the United States. As a privacy-loving introvert, being intentionally social always involves effort for some of us. But, it was necessary in order to get familiar with language, customs, etc.
I found it surprisingly gratifying to engage in conversation at a café or supermarket or business office, and to feel that I was actually accomplishing something.
Another part of adjusting was realizing I hadn’t spent even one moment missing the traditions and practices that I was used to, or comparing the old to the new. Obviously, things will be done differently in a new country, but it’s not helpful to focus on which is better or worse, easier or harder. Embracing the way things are done here in Italia all came easily and comfortably for me.
The Acceptance Stage
The very word acceptance implies coming to terms with something unpleasant or something you would not have chosen. For most expats that I’ve spoken with, this is not an issue. (And those who do find their new surroundings unpleasant will often simply leave.)
The pessimist in some people may also make it hard to believe a new life is actually what they’d hoped it would be – sort of a “what’s the catch” situation. But, one shouldn’t have to work at accepting something they’ve desired and sought! Again, not a problem for me.
After re-reading the four-stages concept, I have to admit I’m patting myself on the back just a little. While I may not have “arrived” yet, I’m less than one year in and those stages are behind me. Of course, it’s all subjective, and circumstances vary. But, in my view, two years is indeed a very long time, and wasted time at that.
Make a beeline to accepting your new country, and move on to the next stage – Satisfaction.
Carla Bastos is a freelance writer and former journalist and newspaper editor. Having lived in
developing countries and covered wars and natural disasters, she has written extensively on a
variety of related topics. Her new book “Getting Out” chronicles her expat experience, offering
suggestions and takeaways that will benefit other aspiring expats
Read more of Carla Bastos’ work here in Dispatches’ archives.