This piece for Enchanted Serendipity’s Expat series was written by Danielle.
I decided to move in Italy in August of 2009.
I had studied abroad in Florence several years before and visited multiple times since then. I always knew that living in Italy was something I wanted to do but it took the worst vacation of my life for me to take action and make my dream come true.
Once I made the decision to move to Italy, I knew there was no going back and that my life was going to change forever.
In August of 2009, I was 25 years old and in a very transitional place in my life. I was working as nanny in Los Angeles, a job that I was not excited about and trying to heal a broken heart. I had been with the same guy for four years and we were on the marriage track when we decided to end it…right before I finished university. I had been out of university for a year and jobs were hard to come by. The United States had started one of the worst economic recessions in American history. I had lost the passion that I had always had in my day-to-day life.
It All Started With A Vacation…
My family and I took a summer vacation to Europe. I left them in the middle of the trip to meet up with some of my Australian friends in Sardegna, a small island off the coast of Italy. My friends and I had planned to spend three full days sunbathing along the Emerald Coast and sipping on wine. However life always has a way of reminding us that we are not in control. Their flight was delayed, luggage lost and after a four hour train away from the Emerald Coast up to meet them in Cagliari, we only wound up spending twenty-four hours together before they had to leave again.
After Sardegna, I was supposed to stay with some friends in Florence. As I was on my way to the airport, I received two emails from two separate friends in Florence informing me that they decided to go out of town last minute, leaving me with nowhere to stay when I arrived in a few hours. I arrived at midnight, after a very heavy rain, hungry and with nowhere to stay. Although I managed to find a hostel that had availability, I would be lying if I didn’t say that I was beyond furious. I had been to Florence several times and specifically was there to visit my friends. Since I had been there so many times before there wasn’t a lot for me to do. I tried to make the most of it but I was so bored and it rained heavily everyday.
At the end of my 60 hours in Florence, I had decided that it was the worst vacation I had ever had. I also realized that just being there was the happiest I had been in the past five years. That was when I decided that I was going to move to Italy. I didn’t know how, when, where or what but my mind was made up…I was going to do it.
Sacrifices Before Getting Your Expat Dream
I discovered that going to Italy on a student visa was the only way I would be able to stay indefinitely. Also, that I would need around $20,000 in order to prove to the consulate that I could support myself while I was there. Considering that the U.S. was in a terrible recession and my odds of finding a better job (and saving that much) was very slim, I knew I had to find a way to make a lot of money and fast. Which led me to the idea of teaching in South Korea.
I pulled together all the resources I had from friends, friends of friends and random people on Facebook who had taught in South Korea to collect some information and asked about their experiences. I didn’t know anything about South Korea and previously, the thought of moving there would’ve never crossed my mind. However as I started to learn more and more about it, it seemed like the most logical thing to do. I broke the news to my family (who weren’t completely thrilled, but they also knew they couldn’t hold me back), collected all my paperwork, found a job, got a visa, sold my car and furniture and was off to the unknown world of Busan, South Korea in January 2010.
Adjusting To Life In South Korea
I had absolutely no idea what to expect when I arrived. After having traveled to over 15 countries already, it was the first time that I had ever experienced culture shock. My first two months were spent trying to figure out where I lived, what everything was at the supermarket, learning the bus and subway system and trying to make friends. By the third month, I had started to learn hangul (the 28 letter Korean alphabet) and once I did, it made things a lot easier. I was enjoying my school and getting to know my students, who were between elementary and middle school age. My co-workers were very sweet and helpful with my adjustment. I had also obtained a close group of friends. I had joined a hiking club, a writing club, became a professional karaoker and I quickly learned that Koreans drink more alcohol than any culture I had ever experienced in my life.
I spent two years in South Korea. The best way to describe life there was that it was like college with a paycheck. I spent my weeks working at my English school, running errands, Skyping with friends back in the U.S. and catching up on some of my favorite TV shows. Weekends were sometimes spent planning our next trip or at the Buddhist temple where they hosted monthly cultural activities like traditional calligraphy, lantern making, or making mandu- traditional Korean dumplings.
Sometimes we would go to a festival. Koreans had festivals for everything such as strawberries, cherry blossoms, and bullfighting. I played volleyball on the beach and traveled throughout Korea to places like a penis park, an art village, a mud festival and at the end of the day, we drank… a lot! There were countless nights that we would walk out of a bar to the sun rising. During my two years, I had four visitors, spent amazing vacations traveling through Bali, Thailand and Japan, and had met an American guy that I even dated for a little bit. It was a great time and I loved it, but I also knew it was time to leave.
I spent a month visiting the U.S. after Korea. It was just enough time to spend with family, friends and to get that Italian visa that I had worked so hard for. I had saved up the $20,000…and that was after traveling. The visa process made me so nervous. I had no idea what I was going to do if I didn’t get it. I didn’t have a backup plan. The moment I received my visa in the mail, I cried. Getting approved was one of the best feelings of self-accomplishment I’ve ever felt in my entire life. I was moving to Italy, a country that I loved so much and I did it completely on my own.
Moving To Italy…Was It Everything I Hoped For?
Living in Italy was completely different than living in South Korea. I moved to Florence since I knew some people there and hoped it would help me find a job. Even though I spoke Italian quite well, I took a few months of classes (which is what I signed up for to get my visa) and eventually found an apartment with two other Italian guys. I had no idea how hard it would be to make friends in Italy. There wasn’t a foreign community like there was in Korea. There were only young American students, Americans who were married to Italians and then the Italians who really couldn’t be bothered to make new friends as they anticipated everyone would leave. Foreigners didn’t actually ‘live’ in Italy.
I had decided to work privately with several different families instead of at a school. I made enough money to survive but I was definitely glad that I had my Korea money to help sustain myself. It took me four months to make close foreigner friends (who were hoping to stick around awhile) and around six months to make a close group of Italian friends.
Sadly to say, living my dream in Italy wasn’t as exciting as I hoped it would be. I ran out of money quickly (I still traveled a lot), my job kept me afloat, but it wasn’t anything I loved anymore. Some of my friends had moved out of the city/country and there were absolutely no dating prospects that I had met. After one year and one very hard decision, I decided to move back to the U.S. All I wanted was any reason to stay in Italy… and I couldn’t come up with one, except that I loved Italy. Love just wasn’t enough anymore.
I wasn’t very happy. I had a moment, a few weeks before I left, where I was having dinner on the roof of my friends apartment with about ten Italian friends. I was the only foreigner there. No one was trying to translate for me, I was part of the conversation and we had an incredible Italian feast in front of us with a lot of delicious wine. I looked at the sky and thought to myself that in that very moment was the reason I moved to Italy. I was still so proud of myself.
Reflecting On My Expat Experiences
I spent three years experiencing more of the world than some people will ever experience in their lifetime. Words are hard to describe how incredible the experience was. I woke up every morning knowing that I was going to learn something new. I had conversations with people from so many different cultural backgrounds and view points. I visited sixteen countries from four different continents. I was able to look at my own country from an outsiders perspective, the good and the bad. I found my passion in life again and I knew that for the rest of my life, I would live to continue to travel.
As I write this, I’ve been back in the U.S. for three years. I have already taken trips back to Korea and Italy (as well as six other countries in between). I currently work for a tourism magazine in Los Angeles. My job gives me the opportunity to give that amazing experience to others who are visiting California. In an ideal world, my job would allow me to work abroad again… someday. Until then, I continue to look at the photos of my life, remember what I’ve done and smile.
There is more to come.
If you enjoyed this, make sure you read Whitney’s piece about living in Paris!