Leveling Out

Last week, everything changed.

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In the hills near our home in Sicily, where I found my stability once again.

I walked out of my apartment with confidence, even though the neighbor ladies were watching me through parted curtains, as always. I stopped at an ATM and withdrew Euros that I had earned from an Italian bank account with my name on it and didn’t pay extra transaction fees. I got on the bus to Milano and didn’t need to fumble with a one-way ticket in the machine: I had a combined bus, metro and train pass. On the bus I ran into a friend, and we chatted in Italian for 45 minutes about her daughter, my upcoming wedding in Minnesota and I promised to send her my recipe for red lentil and coconut milk soup. While waiting for the writers I’d be doing a workshop with, I ran into another friend, who just got back from spending a month visiting her family in Mexico. We hugged excitedly and made plans to catch up soon over an aperitivo. After the workshop, I went to work, stopping at a new favorite coffee shop where a bearded hipster from Vancouver made me a huge (by Italian standards) Americano to go. I carried that warm, cardboard cup to work, where I felt a level of confidence and growing competence in wrangling a group of 3 year-olds and getting them to use English words like “Happy” and “Big”. I came home, cooked some meatballs from scratch and kissed my husband goodnight.

I moved through my day with a sense of calm security that I haven’t experienced in years. All these little things have added up to me knowing that I live here.  Not in a halfway, day-by-day way, shouting “I live here!” like it would make it true.

Not only am I in the system, so to speak, but more importantly, in all of these normal, real moments I can see myself here: the real Katy From the Woods, even though she’s carrying a leather purse, riding the Metro and speaking Italian. I am known, greeted with hugs.

It’s finally coming together.

Two years ago – nearly to the day – I realized that I needed to quit my day job. It was as if it had been divined to happen: I was driving from that desk job to the restaurant for a dinner shift in the rain, stuck in traffic, exhausted and sobbing when my mom called and asked if I wanted to come to dinner with her and my uncle. I told her I couldn’t but when I slogged into the restaurant, the manager asked if I wanted to take the night off: with the rain they weren’t expecting much of a dinner rush.

Two hours later, over a glass of wine and a bowl of mac and cheese, my mom did the math for me: if I worked 40 hours a week at the restaurant, I’d make more than I was making now, working 8 hours a day at a desk and stealing two and a half hours of the night shift a few nights a week before going home late. If I was going to move to Italy, on the timeline Gabri and I were planning for, what I needed was money.

“But, my career.” I begged, through the renewed threat of tears. “I already have at least one big hole in my resume. How will I ever find work again?”

My uncle, who has spent his life working in business, shook his head. “Katy,” He told me firmly, “If what you want is to preserve your career, you cannot move to Italy.”

Well, that was simply unacceptable.

That night, I wrote a letter giving my day job two weeks notice. I framed it as freeing, a rebellion against expectations: burning my resume with the same flourish one would burn her bra.

In truth, that night began the most terrifying years of my life.

When I count up the months I’ve spent in Italy, spread out over three years like pocket change – three weeks here, 10 days there, five months in that pile – it adds up to somewhere around 11 months. I can now passably have a conversation in Italian, though I need a lot more practice with reflexive verbs, the conditional tense and all those crazy articles that need to align with gender, quantity and other conditions I don’t quite understand. I can now stand at my window and look out on the street at all the other (much older) women looking down at me without flinching. I am slowly getting used to answering the phone whenever someone calls, even if I don’t know the number, because people simply refuse to leave a voicemail in this country.

The most difficult thing about the last few years was that I never knew. I never knew how much money I’d make in a shift at the restaurant. I never knew if I had the right documents for an appointment before I arrived. I never knew if my visa would ultimately be approved. I never knew how long it would take me to find a job once I legally could start looking. With a bank account slowly dripping away, the edge of the cliff loomed closer and closer every day. It wouldn’t take much to push me right off.

But all I could do was move forward and trust my gut. I was careful but didn’t hold back from things I wanted to do. And in August, after going back to the immigration office three times, I was finally given the piece of paper that says I can live and work in Italy for at least the next five years, just in time to leave the country to celebrate my Grandma’s 90th birthday. With my permesso di sojorno in hand, I have been able to change my residency, get a job, open a bank account, enter the health care system (another set of meetings and waiting rooms and frustrations, but we can talk about that later). I am finally legal, living here, not just passing time, pretending I am a part of the system. I had no idea how much of a difference it would make to have those documents in my hands.

Do I look strung out here? I felt it.

In the end, I had the surprise privilege of turning down jobs. In July, I was offered a contract for teaching at 40 hours a week, with benefits like sick time, payment to my Italian pension and the miraculous 13th salary Italian contract holders get around the Christmas holidays. But the job was an hour and a half commute away, and I wouldn’t be leaving until 8 or 9 at night, getting me home after 10 pm. Oh, and my working hours included Saturdays.

It looked so goddamn good, after so many months (years, in fact) of feeling the wind blowing against me while I got ever closer to the edge of that cliff. With a salary, I would be able to plan, to put some space between me and that drop off. But, I didn’t take the job. It was far sooner than we anticipated an offer might come in. The payment, no matter how stable, wasn’t worth the headache (I moved here to see my husband from time to time, not just fall asleep next to him). If I could get that job, one with better conditions would surely come.

It was like fate wanted to show me that though I felt desperate, I wasn’t desperate yet.

Days later, another offer came in, one that I took confidently. I’ve been working 10 hours a week for an after-school program in Milano where I teach English to children from 1 to 6 years old for a month now. They give me a pre-designed curriculum and I do exactly as they say. It’s perfect for a first Teaching English as a Foreign Language job. I have the contract with the benefits. I get out of the house.

But it’s not quite enough money to put solid space between me and that cliff. And I’d like to be working more than 10 hours a week. È un inizio, I kept saying. It’s a start. It’s a start. Piano, piano. Slowly, slowly, as all the Italians are constantly reminding me.

More, small jobs popped up. Will you come to our school once a week and create a conversation class with the students prepping for their English exams? Will you speak with me and my children in English on Thursday nights? Sure, I could string together a list of weekly appointments across the metro of Milan, but my heart wasn’t singing when I thought of these tasks. My heart was actually backing away nervously, a reaction even stronger than when I wrote the letter of resignation two years ago. Even if I’m terrified of what lies on the other side of “no”, I’ve learned better than to move toward something that brings up that kind of reaction in me.

While we were in Sicily this August, I was able to move away from the anxieties that coil around me at night and keep my teeth gnashing. I got off the grid, laughed, wrote by hand, swam in the sea, explored new cities and hiked with my husband as we returned to some of our favorite spots in his ancestral home. I was able to rise about my fears and see the bigger picture. For three weeks, I felt powerful certainty about being on the right path, and every morning, with utter conviction, I told myself, looking out into our garden of citrus trees and jasmine flowers, “My perfect job is coming. My perfect community is forming. Everything is as it is meant to be. I am so grateful.” This mantra was both a conviction and a prayer, and it trusted it.

The first sunset of the trip, in Umbria.

I came back to the grid to a message from a college friend: “Hey, I saw this job and thought of you.” A virtual administrative assistant for the Europe team of a nonprofit started in the US, preferably based in the Mediterranean time zone with fluent English skills. Like a lot of other jobs in the last few months, I wrote up a cover letter, tidied up my resume and sent it off. But this time was different: I heard back. It took a little while and quite a few interviews (I suppose that might be a pitfall of an entirely virtual, international team) but I have signed the contract and will begin this job this week. It’s 60% time, working from home with a comparable salary to that first teaching job. It’s a continuation of that career I was so sure I was walking away from forever that rainy night in St. Paul. It’s my prefect job, aligning with the path I had already begun. I am so grateful it came, and in such a surprising way.

Cue one huge leap away from the approaching cliff.

In retrospect, two years of moving through this deeply unsettling period of not knowing seems like both far longer and much shorter than I might have anticipated as I wrote my resignation letter. I cried when I gave it to my boss, not because I was attached to the job, but because I was terrified. At least, my head was terrified but my heart stood firm: this was the way to go. The last two years have been difficult in ways I did not anticipate, but the feeling of stability I have now as I see my new life fall into place around me – a life better and more rich than I could have possibly imagined when I began this journey – is deeply satisfying.

I belong here. I am known. I am legal. I am contributing. I am loving and growing.

It’s just the beginning.