I have a friend who messages me every couple of weeks.
‘How’s the fairytale going?’ she says.
And fair enough, too.
I am an Australian journalist-turned political staffer-turned yoga teacher who recently transferred myself to Tuscany.
Judging from my Instagram posts, I am living the dream…
But because we all know Instagram is the pinnacle of misleading and deceptive #lifegoals #relationshipgoals and general #blessed-ness, it is self-evidence that there’s another side of the coin.
This isn’t to say I am not living the dream. I practically spent summer on the back of a scooter being zoomed up forested mountains to ancient Jasmine-filled villages to drink wine and eat Tuscan cuisine. I hiked up those same mountains and sat looking at the sea eating bread from the bakery next door to my house. I went to school in Lucca, the stunning walled city where the Rolling Stones performed just a couple of months ago. The famous Italian hospitality is famous for a reason: I want for nothing. The owner of the main bar in town has started calling me Megan Gale. You get the picture.
Sometimes risking it all is the only option
You only grow through putting yourself out of your comfort zone. We all know that. But in retrospect I approached this visit without the required degree of humility.
I’d been to Italy many times before. My Italian could get me a glass of wine, a meal, a bed in a hotel and on a train. (It has, alongside some tears, also helped me avoid oversize baggage charges in Milan before, so never underestimate the value of learning a second language at school).
I’d lived overseas before. Heck, I’d lived in Florence for nearly three months before. But all this in my teens and early 20s. What I did underestimate, I realise now, is how much I have changed and been moulded and shifted fundamentally by my career and life experiences in the intervening years. Years which I had spent predominantly in Australia.
So, what have I learned in the past six months since I arrived in a country town in Tuscany, ate a giant croissant and then rode a bike straight into a brick wall?
- To slow down, take it easy, you know, chill out
I’m not going to lie. This has been by far, the hardest part. I’ve never taken it easy on myself. I’ve had stupidly high expectations of myself that have tripped me up from being happy my whole life, and I’ve never learnt to slow down. Not on a Sunday, not on any day. So shifting gears to live in a country town where naps after lunch are de rigeur and sleep is actually high on the priority list has been – as strange as it sounds – hard.
- To balance priorities
As hard as learning to nap in the middle of the day might seem (and yeah I can see the eyeballs rolling), the harder bit has been learning not just how to downshift but also how to shift back up again. To go from slow lazy mornings to deadlines in the afternoon. To try to strike the right balance between working enough, studying enough and being cool, calm, collected and ready to speak Italian at mealtimes and social occasions. To stay fit and healthy and to learn to build friendships while navigating social norms and a new culture that is way more than just the stereotypes (but yes, a lot about pasta. See that point above about staying fit and healthy).
- Nobody cares what you do for a living
Like zero. At all. This place is the anti-Sydney/London/Hong Kong. So, give up trying to impress people with what you did, achieved, studied, or who you did it with. They’ll care if you say hello, make an effort with family members, don’t rush to get away from the dinner table…and if you eat!
- To let go of expectations
This has been an especially tough one. But being so rigid with your own mental agenda only leads to suffering. Let me just repeat that sentence again, maybe a dozen times, for my own benefit. Sometimes letting things just happen is way more magical. Cast adrift, see what happens. I had big plans when I came here: I was going to become fluent in Italian in six months, teach yoga in Italian, get a job straight away…you get the drift. What happened was that I spent summer going to language school, and by the time I got home I was totally knackered, because it was hovering around 36 degrees with 85 per cent humidity (and no aircon anywhere, because as a general rule Italians believe it’s unhealthy) most days. I felt like a child: learning how to buy bus tickets, figuring out how to get around (enter the scooter), and napping most days before a late dinner with family and friends. I spent hours exploring tiny towns, villages, hiking tracks, mountains and waterfalls. I had to let go of my to-do list.
- That moving from the city to the country was actually a bigger change than moving from Australia to Italy
Yeah. This one totally floored me. But it makes sense. I went from 6am Pilates classes to 7.30am almond cappuccinos, days at the office or working from home, runs along the coast, zipping around in my car, getting hummus and carrots from the supermarket for dinner or texting my best friend with ‘meet me at Phi Yen in 15 minutes and if you get there first get two orders of 55A’ to…not doing any of that. The composition of days is radically different.
I do home yoga practice, I make the hummus, I don’t push a button to turn the heater on, no, I get wood and light the fire. I crack nuts fresh from their shells, I spent summer hiking and picking blackberries straight from the plant and learnt to ride a scooter. I walk or bike to the shops. Church bells ring for hours on Sundays. I couldn’t even replicate 55A because I don’t think I have all the ingredients. My friends here don’t work obscene hours – so we walk in the morning, after school drop off.
- Convenience is just not a thing but low-impact living is
We don’t have a kettle (because nobody really drinks tea). Don’t ask for a Thermomix. Or a microwave. But guess what? I am eating more healthily than I have in my life. Want to get somewhere? Walk. Ride. Or get the bus (but walk to the bus first). Want a walnut? Crack the shell. Want water? Bike to the council water fountain, fill up the bottles and bike home again.
Be inventive. Recycle. Make art from seashells. Use up what’s in the fridge. Delete the Uber Eats app. And Uber, for that matter. You might get a taxi but not until you get to the next biggest town. There’s no babysitting industry because kids go everywhere with their parents. Yep, let’s call it what is is: honest living, not an absence of convenience.
- Family comes first; some stereotypes don’t hold
While women do the bulk of the cooking, unpaid caring and domestic, that’s not a typically Italian thing. That happens….in nearly every country in the world.
And last week I realised, not for the first time, that I had not one but two men fussing over me in the kitchen, clearing plates and making coffee and telling me to sit down (and neither was my partner). The one who had just cooked lunch was 90 years old.
I have two observations on this: all the domestic ‘stuff’ that women do everywhere is appreciated and valued more here. Especially raising kids. The social value of motherhood is actually enshrined in law (which opens a whole conversation about the value of dads, I know). I’m not saying things are perfect – they’re not perfect anywhere. But family really does come first and while what mums do is valued, what dads do is too. There is a surprisingly un-Italian pragmatism that goes alongside this, a sort of rhythm of life that means that stuff gets taken care of. Sans drama. We eat what’s in seasons, we hike when the weather’s good and when it’s not we stay inside. People get married, they have kids, cycles of life continue.
- It’s totally f*cking wonderful and terrifying and it’s exactly what I needed
The last corporate job I left was, I knew at the time, the last full-time proper office job that I’d have. Partly because once you step off that train you sort of need to exit the station and find a bike or walk…ok terrible analogy but once you’re out of that loop it’s tricky to jump back in.
Financially, it’s scary. Emotionally, it’s scary. You are vulnerable and I say to my friends who think I’m courageous for doing this that, without your support, I wouldn’t have; couldn’t have. The paradox of having your horizons broadened is that it’s hard, nigh impossible, to go back to the life you had before. The irony is so many people dream of Australia as their ultimate sea change, while I did the opposite.
It’s a good reminder to live every moment in the moment, and if you have the grand possibility, to do all the things you want to. If it disrupts your life, maybe that’s exactly what you needed. I know it’s what I did.
What big, scary life changes have you undertaken? What can you share about living abroad? Head over to the IL squad to share!
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A good life comes in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes it’s only by challenging ourselves to experiment, expand and grow that we learn exactly what it means for us – and sometimes that means travel and a total sea-change to a new continent.
Photos: Nicola Merciadri