I think it’s important to touch on the challenges of lifting your life from one corner of the world to another. I’ve done it from England to Italy, and it’s the hardest most exhilarating thing I’ve done.
Leaving everything behind is more than saying ‘I’ll be seeing you’ to friends and family and the joy of not booking a return flight. A brand new start in a brand new environment means singlehandedly dissolving your comfort zone in favour of a new one. I did it for love – cue fluttering harp melody* – but ensured I moved over with a real job for a real grown up, so it didn’t feel too painful breaking the news to my boss at Glamour.
Once the logistical malarky was over and I’d packed away eight years of life into the boot of my ever-understanding parents’ car and organised sufficiently emotional leaving drinks with all the people in London, there was nothing to do but andare avanti.
Even though I moved countries to be with my boyfriend, we did not actually live together immediately. Some friends (rightly so) questioned are you going to be ok? What’s the point? Long distance but…on a smaller scale? All correct. However, instead of a six hour journey involving the charms of early morning Ryanair flights and the delights of groaning Terravision coaches along damp motorways, the new distance was now a mere hour away in the car.
So, I’d set myself up with a job, an apartment, knew how to acceptably speak Italian and lived in a familiar country having studied in Bologna and Rome before – what could go wrong?
Well now. Let’s go back a step.
My decision to move out to Italy was pure intuition – a gut feeling that felt right, as it does now. Intuir means ‘knowledge from within,’ developed in the cerebral cortex, where creative thought, art, music and emotion are governed. According to experts, it’s a difficult concept to explain rationally. We are programmed to trust our intuition and ignoring it can be fatal.
But intuition cannot be held responsible for the consequences of our actions. Last time I checked, intuition doesn’t hang about when you’re feeling low, it can’t give you a mummy-cuddle, rinse your favourite mug and knowingly pop the kettle on now, can it?
That bit you have to do on your own, my friend.
To be honest, as an optimistic person, feelings of sadness and isolation came as a surprise. Like falling off a horse you trusted and having the air completely knocked out of you.
Good morning Ups and Downs! May I introduce you to Edie, she’s new in town – anyone else imagine a Sheriff’s voice?
A few months after my international move from tiny shoe-box Kilburn room to characteristic-terraced appartamento, someone started to intrude on my personal space. I later realised it was Signore Utterly-Low. He used to trail after me after work, follow me into my apartment and stand there as I cooked dinner, prepared for a run or routed around for my M&S pyjamas. Naturally, he was nowhere to be seen if I was with friends, family or my boyfriend. Equally, if I did yoga, writing or spoke to loved ones on Skype, he’d be off out doing errands or playing pool in some dingy bar.
But Signore Utterly-Low got into the habit of sticking his head around the corner during a quiet evening. Noticing I was alone, he’d transform my evening into an impromptu party between him and all his friends, Signore Missing-Everyone and Signorina Feeling-Insecure. Even if I managed to lock him and his rowdy gathering outside on the little terrace with the drying Ikea potted plants, they would peep through the window and bang on the door for more Doritos.
These evenings often spiralled. But what with the place so full, if word of the party reached Signora Mega-Motivation and Signorina Your-Life-Is-Great, even if they brought the best Pignoletto and home-made taralli – there would be no room for them to dance. Bedtime would roll by and I’d leave them to their party.
Then morning would breath through the house. The place would be quiet, birds experimenting with a new score and everything is bright and fine again.
I was curious to see how this was going to pan out and discovered that expert anthologists* had pinned down four phases of Cultural Adjustment, here they are:
Stage 1: The Honeymoon — Initial Euphoria & Excitement
1) Excitement with new sounds, sights and smells.
2) Intrigue with both similarities and differences between the new culture and your home culture.
3) Lots of interest in learning, motivated and cooperative – you feel as if you will be able to handle anything—“I’m not going to have any problems adjusting!”
Stage 2: Culture Shock—Irritation & Hostility
1) The novelty of the new culture has worn off, and you now focus primarily on the differences between the new culture and your home culture.
2) Small differences feel like major catastrophes. You become overly concerned with and stressed out by problems and feel helpless and frustrated.
3) Stereotypes and prejudices surface: you feel as if the host nationals are cold, unhelpful, snobbish.
Stage 3: Gradual Adjustment, Humour & Perspective
1) You become more familiar with the new culture and its “logic” and values. Cultural cues become easier to read.
2) You feel more comfortable and less isolated, and you even begin to prefer some aspects of the new culture to your home culture.
3) You feel like “As long as I am here, I should make the most of it.”
4) You experience periodic personal highs and lows, as adjustment gradually takes place.
5) Your sense of humour returns. You are able to laugh at certain ways of doing things that previously just annoyed you and even to laugh at yourself from time to time.
6) Since you are past the initial, emotional stages of cultural adjustment, you can now enter a stage of “deeper learning.” You begin to see a multitude of approaches to your life abroad and to question some of your assumptions about the world. This can be both exciting and unnerving.
Stage 4: ‘Feeling at Home’—Adaptation & Biculturalism
1) The “new” culture is no longer new; instead, the “foreign” country you live in now feels like another home.
2) The aspects of the culture that are different from the UK no longer affect you in a negative way.
3) You are able to live and work to your full potential.
*Originally conceptualized by anthropologist Kalervo Oberg
After a year into my move, I’ve only now discovered these various steps, which a) alerted me to the fact that there’s a genuine process to adjusting and b) proves I’m not going mad and people are most probably going through a similar process.
Letting it pass and Impermanence
Before I get into this I want to reiterate that unhappy feelings may come in whatever situation you are dealing with, at whatever age, in whatever country and whatever time of day. You’ve moved country but your emotional make-up is still the same. People say to me:
“But what’s wrong? You’re so lucky! In such a unique situation! You are in ITALY and you can speak the language, you have it all going on, girl! WHY AREN’T YOU JUST HAPPY ALL THE TIME!”
But often you cannot pinpoint why you are not happy all the time. And that’s the worst. Not having a tangible reason to work with in order to find the solution. However, life is obviously not that easy and throw in the fact that the human brain is made up of one hundred billion neurons interconnected by trillions of other cells, ‘feeling better’ tends not to be a quick fix.
The trick is letting the lulls pass and remembering that life is in a perpetual state of movement, and that you probably won’t feel this way for long.
Imagine you are on grassy Hampstead Heath, on that bench at the top of Parliament Hill overlooking London. You’ve got a Starbucks Mocha in your hand, maybe a blueberry muffin – no judgement. Snuggled in a spring scarf from Zara, you look up at the string of clouds – we’re in England after all.
They appear. They float by. They’ve gone. They appear. They float by – hover for a minute, but miraculously disappear again. What happens if you apply that swift movement to worries and anxieties? Don’t give them the time of day. Certainly don’t analyse them critically. Acknowledge their presence, but remember they are not permanent fixtures and will not linger. Remember that impermanence is a principle of harmony and an element of life.
Now that the four phases have been recognised and that impermanence is a thing and that’s ok – it still doesn’t pull you out of the puddle of gloom and unfamiliar wave of depression that might prevent you from getting out of bed. Therefore, my questions are:
- What can you emotionally do to feel stronger and more in control of the situation?
- What can you look to others to do to feel more stable?
- What things can you apply physically to your routine to make you feel fab?
Here are a few tips that might help:
What can you emotionally do to feel stronger and more in control of the situation?
1) Understand the stages of cultural adjustment, knowing that the emotional instability has been recognised and is widely diffused will remind you that you aren’t alone.
2) Be conscious of your situations and mindful of your reactions; be flexible; tolerate ambiguity; expect things to be different.
3) Patience is a silent but important one. Train yourself to be patient! Don’t try to understand everything immediately and as with the clouds on Hampstead Heath let uncomfortable feelings pass, don’t tug at them and demand meaning.
4) Channel your unique ways of thinking positively; foster your sense of humour; don’t take things too seriously.
5) Don’t be too hard on yourself. If a friend were in your situation, would you put pressure on her, roll your eyes at his/her weaknesses or inability to make everything right, right now? No, you aren’t that mean. Give yourself a break and permission to fail.
6) Give yourself a minute to revel in the bravery that you’ve chosen to change absolutely everything you knew. Not everyone has the opportunity or courage to do that.
What can you look to others to do to feel more stable?
1) Be open and honest with people, don’t sugarcoat your doubts or anxieties because then people won’t understand that you aren’t feeling tip-top. People aren’t mind readers – unless you’re best pals are Darren Brown or Uri Geller but I have a feeling they’re not. Loved ones often won’t know what’s going on behind the scenes of a situation, unless you sit them down with a large cafetière of Colombian roast and willingly open up your soul. Don’t be afraid to allow the focus to fall on you. It’s an oldie but a goodie: a problem shared is a problem halved.
2) Be kind and patient with yourself and apply the same level of kindness and patience to others. Often I’ve fallen into the trap of using my boyfriend as a punching bag – hangs head in shame* – pouring instability and insecurities onto him. This is a big no-no as absolutely magnifies the problem rather than trimming it down into bitesize, less daunting pieces.
What processes can you apply physically to your routine?
I don’t want to go all Gwyneth Paltrow on you but again being kind to yourself and avoiding adding unnecessary pressure onto yourself is so important. Again – what gentle loving advice would you apply to a sibling or friend?
1) Yoga, meditation or Pilates – when we’re upset or stressed our breathing becomes quick and shallow. Breathing deeply and slowly is an instant calmer, both mentally and physically. Breathing cleanses the toxins in the body and mind, making it a powerful catalyst for regenerating the mind, and a cheap, accessible way to chill out and revel in the moment.
2) Podcasts – this is a recent activity I’ve found that is so obvious and amazing but I’m late to the party! If you find yourself at a lose end, whack on a podcast – loud, and listen to your favourite people having intelligent conversations about your passions. I listen to them in English so can thoroughly get lost in a world of humour effortlessly, learn something new and be inspired.
3) Writing – for me writing has always been a release and gives me a sense of productivity. It’s often a lonely activity, as you literally don’t need anyone around in order to write, apart from your own stimulus, a good cup of coffee and dedication. But it is fantastic for practising mindfulness as to get anything done you can’t be distracted.
4) Eat healthily and don’t drink too much alcohol – but at the same time don’t restrict yourself. There is nothing worse than imposing mean boundaries on your life when you already find yourself without familiar comforts. Don’t exaggerate, but don’t be too strict. We all need that gelato di nocciola and glass or two of Spritz.
5) Get plenty of rest – I used to hate it when people said this to me. But it’s an underrated way clever people solve problems. To feel calmer and clearer and encourage things not to twist into an irresolvable dilemma the size of an elephant.
6) Have your ‘life necessities’ around you – favourite books, magazines, tea, chocolate, that N7 face cream and essential Paracetamol from Boots just in case. They may seem like banal comforts at home, but out of context, they can make a moment feel that bit more bearable and that you’re winning at life.
Lastly, I’m a firm believer in things quietly happening for a reason. Trust that you are exactly where you need to be right now, and don’t waste your lovely life questioning or wanting to change what’s in front of you!