Moving Abroad and The Magic of Florence
Advice I gave to Emily in Italy.
I was in Italy to attend an annual alumni ball for a university I didn’t go to, but friends of mine who did, insisted that I be there. Annual for them, a major life event for me. It didn’t take a lot of convincing to buy a ball gown and book a flight to Florence. When I arrived, they were busy preparing for the event, and I was left with my camera and thirst for gelato, swanning through the cobbled roads.
Leather jacket draped over my shoulders, and the black high top sneakers that made me feel unstoppable, I was vibing with the rich sartorial fantasy of Italy as I walked through Florence for the first time. The city came to life through the lens of my new camera, peeking into piazzas, and photographing the angles of nearly every building.
On that first night I used the free time to wander and discover, stop for food when it smelled just right, and eat gelato at least twice. I was staying in one of the 7 towers that remain since the Renaissance, right in front of the Uffizi Gallery, in the center of it all. Before long I was standing in front of the Duomo, not far from Michelangelo’s David. I would see it the following day at the Galeria de Academia, having made sure the visit was penciled in for my long weekend.
Otherwise, I had no map or agenda. I made a quick turn into one of the piazzas through an arched stone entryway that was irresistibly charming. My favorite way to meet a new city is by surprise, in the evening, when there is a buzz and anticipation of something you’ve waited for all day. For me that was gelato, but the night surprised me with something more. Just a few feet into the plaza I hear my name called. That’s weird, I thought, Why would someone shout monkey?
An Italian woman once looked me dead in the eyes and told me my name means monkey in Italian. This is not something you forget. I looked it up later and learned scimmia is pronounced shhhhhhhh as in, don’t tell anyone ever that their name means monkey in another language. Anecdotally, Kimya with a hard K means shut up in Swahili, also shhhhhhhh, or rather one could just say, Kimya!. In Persian, where the name originates, it means alchemy. This translation was more in line with the events of the evening.
I looked around to identify the person for context. I heard my name called out two more times in quick succession, unmistakably mine this time. A figure emerged from the crowd of tourists as the voice got closer. It’s me, the voice shouted, Emily! We use to work together!
A former colleague happened to spot me from the terrace of a restaurant where she was dining with her family. It took less than a minute for her to Where’s Waldo me from a mass of people. I was astonished she recognized me from so far with cascading visibility from the moving bodies and my camera often covering most of my face. Moreso that she had the courage to run across a crowded plaza shouting monkey!, with a hard K.
I had been living abroad in Madrid, Spain for a year at the time. Though we were friends on social media, there was no mention of either of us being in Florence. Not that I would share a GPS on my page when I traveled, nor would she be stalking me if I had, but suffice to say it was a major moment of magic, an absolute and beautiful surprise.
We decided to have dinner in the same piazza the next evening to catch up. That was when the universe revealed itself. My friend had been wanting to move abroad to England for years. I was there to catch her drift as an eager expat, as I had just begun the process of renewing for a second year.
Her fears were familiar to me, and they echoed by many other aspiring expats I’ve met. She didn’t feel comfortable leaving her well paid job, risk financial stability, endanger a career she had worked hard to create, live far away from friends and family, nervous of what people would think or say. Anyone she talked to who didn’t share the same dream, planted doubts.
This is what I shared with Emily in Italy.
Define your why and create your own narrative.
You will feel so much more confident when you share your plans if you have actually planned. . .a bit. It doesn’t take too much work for a plan of action to prop you up in difficult to have conversations. People are familiar with the impulse to settle in a new country, but not so fearless when it comes to making the move.
This can make curiosity have a bite to it sometimes, so I was sure to have a clear and simple answer as to why. I’m fulfilling a lifelong dream to live in Europe, learn Spanish, and do something I couldn’t afford when I was younger. The why you’ve established is to help keep you focused, so you’re not knock you off your game if a negative comment shows up. I mentioned this to Emily because she shared with me some of what people had said to her when she shared about wanting to move to the UK. It is not always the supportive comment that is the most memorable.
I could relate. When I was planning to move abroad a coworker gasped and said, I would never want to start over at my age in a new country. That sounds horrible, I’m too old! We were the same age, in our low thirties, ouch! I knew that we viewed age differently and it was definitely tinged with FOMO.
I also learned later that she had lived 6 months in Madrid as a student, and that chapter of her life was written. I couldn’t afford a semester abroad in college, even as a foreign language student. I was firm in my decision because I knew why I wanted to go. Nobody could understand like I did.
To plan makes it less likely for second hand fears to kick up some unnecessary dust in your path. Getting organized around the reason you want to go, regardless of what it is, and referring back to that as a north star makes it your narrative.
Be prepared to recall your why.
You will have hurdles. All great things don’t come easy. Some of these challenges will be really uncomfortable, and in an entirely new language to boot. These are also the experiences that will ultimately make you more empathetic and resilient. The rapid education will make you feel clumsy at times, but that is when you need to recall your why. It will help keep you upright when the tough times bring you down.
I am still asked quite often why I lived in Madrid. People are inspired, curious, and maybe sometimes run out of other things to ask, but I am happy to share what has been the same reason through the five years I lived there. It was still true for me. I was lucky my why didn’t expire. I found it’s helpful to remember and stand by my why no matter what on these days that feel like a test. Do you still love your epic choice to live abroad where it’s been noted everything in life is 30% more difficult? Those times stuck in a long line at the immigration office, frustrated by bureaucracy, or having an embarrassing language fail, I paused to remember why I am there in the first place. It works every time, and so does gelato and a nice glass of wine for under $5.
Do research and reach out to like minded people.
Connect to communities in the cities you’re interested to move to, and foster authentic relationships with those people. It’s easier than it seems! There are so many great social networks. Just pop into a facebook group for expats where you want to move, and after one post you may already have three friends waiting to connect and help in some way when you arrive. People want to help because they’ve been in your shoes before, and it feels good to help someone! Take full advantage of this and enjoy the ride. This is one of the greatest gifts of international travel, the people you will meet. You can start before you even leave.
Make it happen.
As Emily was listing all the reasons she always wanted to live in England, her eyes lit up. She was animated towards something she had clearly given a lot of thought. She would get to live out her dream in real time. There is so much power in that!
To get there it takes one faithful step after another the inevitable struggles with yourself, and the bureaucracy of that country that may at times feeling like it’s sole purpose is to break you. Making the decision and taking those steps are up to you.
Major life decisions are hard to act on, and uprooting yourself to live abroad because you “have always wanted to” may seem like a flimsy reason for most people. I had one former client tell me as his initial reaction to why I moved to Madrid as, “You’re a genius!” so trust me when I say it’s not everyone’s opinion, and not everyone’s opinion matters. Your reasons are valid. Dreams are suppose to scare people. Be proud, it means you picked a good one.
So often we are eager to take a leap and held back by narratives that are not our own. You are the writer of your story, but like every good story, sometimes you need an editor to help cut out the bullshit. Find a mentor, or be like Emily and let the universe deliver one to you over a bowl of pasta in piazza in Florence. It can happen.