A few weeks ago I was flipping through a stack of papers that’s been piling up in the corner for a year now, sorting out which I can throw away – training schedules and term reports from my teaching job, marked up wedding to-do lists. Toward the bottom, folded neatly and tattered along the edges, was a 2016 calendar, also marked up and highlighted, notes running between the month blocks. Like a wistful poem written for someone I haven’t seen since we were 15, I smiled at it knowingly; let myself soak in the memories for a moment longer, then put it into the save pile.
Today is 365 days since the border control agent in Frankfurt stamped my brand new, fat passport and allowed me to enter the Schengen Zone. He didn’t ask me where I was going or how long I planned to stay (aka passport privilege, folks). Gave me 90 free days within the next 180 to figure it out and waved me past.
The last several years have been a rubik’s cube of counting: when did 180 days start, how many equal 90 (cumulatively, not consecutively)? How long before another 180 days begins? At what point do the hours stack up to an official “day” within another country – if I land at 6am or fly out at 10pm does it matter? I was never great at math, but I’ve studied these proportions and made careful calculations dutifully, noted and ticked off days like a miserly accountant. Even when I received Italian residency, it continued: for US tax law 90 out of 180 became 330 out of 365, or double taxation (at least for the first year). I have pages and pages of tallied months and days, a matrix of “if/than’s” which define my ability to exist legally where I’ve wound up.
In the last few weeks I have been doing a lot of math; a lot of calculating and trying to fill and honor and understand the space between numbers like 1 year, 7 months, four years. I use these benchmarks to understand and account for a life that’s been flapping in the wind a lot lately. I’m trying to tie myself down and gauge where the course. It’s been seven months since I wrote my most recent, very hopeful blog post about magic and work and finally seeing my life springing through the cracks here in Italy. In reality, I was just at the beginning of yet another slog, I lifted my head above water only to dive back into process again. It’s been seven months of days that felt like they would never end, but which added up to weeks and slipped through my fingers like they didn’t exist in the first place. Seven months where I’ve felt blocked up creatively: tied up with to-dos or recovering from too much work. Seven months since I’ve felt like I had much to say, or show, for myself.
What happened in the last seven months? Lots and lots and lots of things, actually. Lots of the same, small thing over and over again. Big things, like my (second) wedding happened, too. The sort of everyday, normal life things that just don’t seem as interesting as falling in love and moving to a new country happened. Mostly, though, I had a problem I never imagined I’d have in my first years in Italy: I had too much (paid!) work to do.
Three months ago, I taught my last English class. In the grand scheme of things, the fact that I only had to teach for 7 months – ie: that I found myself a “real” job so quickly after moving abroad I could quit the part time teaching gig – is a small miracle. It must be said that though teaching may not have been my deepest passion, the school where I taught was as good as it could have been: I was given materials and a curriculum; I just had to smile a lot, memorize songs and be sure to use the correct structures (“How many teeth has Oliver got” NOT “How many teeth does Oliver have?”). Teaching children, even (dare I say especially) little children, turned out to be super fun. I could see them learning, week by week. I was learning classroom management. I was, to my honest surprise, thriving at this thing I originally thought was an act of desperation.
But when I got the chance to start working full time at my other job, the one that aligns increasingly well with my professional history and career goals, I took it very quickly.
As is normal with decision making, I had about two seconds of pure clarity and certainty, but in the moment after I accepted, doubts rushed in to cover my sunny outlook. But I went ahead, based on those moments of clarity.
For seven months, I worked 6 days a week in two different jobs, one of which required 2 hours of transit to get to and from Milano for just two hours of work a day. And, in case you didn’t know, teaching is exhausting. Turns out so is adjusting to working at home, learning how to work on an international team, navigate a new organization. Also, planning your wedding from a different continent. Working crazy hours is nothing new for me. I have taken a certain amount of pride in how much I manage to do in a week, and where that willingness to burn the midnight oil has gotten me.
Those months were really hard, though. When I’m realistic with myself I can recognize that it wasn’t just a lot of work to do two completely different jobs in totally new environments, but I am also living in a new country, existing in a different language, planning two weddings, and it has just been confirmed to me that I had mononucleosis sometime back in February (I did have an abnormally hard time getting out of bed in the mornings for a bit there…), and I just kept going.
So yeah, It was good to quit that job.
Until it kind of wasn’t.
Here is one piece of life truth I’ve learned: Transitions always suck. Even when you know they’re coming. Even when they’re something you’ve looked forward to. Even when the change of routine is ultimately for the best. Even when you buy running shoes and make an effort to get out there and pump some endorphins through your body every few days (something I should have done a LONG time ago in this process). Even when you download mediation apps. Even when you know how to take pretty good care of yourself.
Sometimes we just have to get through some rough days. The sorts of days when we honestly don’t see how we’ll get over to the other side with a clear outlook, so we watch Netflix and go to bed early. Sometimes you just need to dive into those ikky, uncomfortable emotions in order to walk through them.
And it just sucks for a few days. (Luckily for me, its only ever been a few days at a time).
So, from October until April, I was too busy to think. Then for the month of April, I was recovering, physically and emotionally. A lot of things that I’d been avoiding clamored up to me and joined me on the couch while I tried to distract myself with Netflix.
Now that I have broken into the fabled, mystical world of being a “digital nomad” and work from home, I am always at home. This has forced me to take a good long look at home: this small city in northern Italy, where I don’t know that many people. For the first time in my life, I had the space to realize that I no longer lived with (or even nearby) several girlfriends who I could call upon for a night of wine and The Bachelor. And for the first time since I left California, I had the emotional capacity and stability to hold and mourn that. Or at least begin to mourn that.
I had worked so damn hard to get here, I had to become single minded, focus only on the good, the solutions. When I finally got that flimsy paper in my hand and could be here, well, here I was. Free to cultivate everything I’d ever dreamed of. Love is amazing and life changing and there is no more honorable and vulnerable reason to rip up everything and start over, but I’ve always known it can’t be everything. Cannot sustain and challenge and grow everything we are. We need friends, and work, and creativity for that, too. But there is so much space between following love and establishing all the other things. Space that for me has been filled with moments to clumsily learn grace and keep practicing patience, even though I thought the waiting was over.
There are a handful of things I need to cultivate in this little garden plot of my life to feel stable and happy, and as I near the end of my 20’s, I (think) I am learning what these things are. I do feel confident that I can grow and tend to them all here in Italy, given enough time, even though the soil is literally foreign. I believe this because every once in a while, one will sprout randomly, unmanicured and lovely. I rush to it with delight and pull my camera phone out to show everyone on social media: look a new friend who invited me one time to a BBQ at her house! Wow, I spent a whole afternoon at a family birthday party speaking Italian without trying!
But a lesson I need to learn again and again, impatiently and frustratingly, is that not everything wonderful in your life can or will grow at once. There are seasons for everything. Some crops take more focus than others, some need more work in the beginning but will remain solid once they’ve reached a certain height. Some are growing unknown root systems below the surface that are unimaginable until suddenly, great flowers sprout.
What have I been doing for the last seven months? I have been quiet, publicly and privately, buried in very new kinds of work, professionally, yes, but more importantly, personally: figuring out who I am in this new life I’ve chosen.
The last few years of letting go of everything (from my job to my country) have shook me. Literally left me speechless. They’ve humbled and scared me. They’ve robbed me of my confidence in how the world worked. Made me quiet and watchful.
I knew I had to pack light when I embarked upon this adventure, but I truly thought I could carry more with me. I thought I could come through this without needing to let go of everything. I did so many calculations, saved every penny, tallied each day faithfully: I thought I had control over this. I rushed hectically to get to the legal finish line, without any idea what would happen once I made it over.
I keep trying to find more a eloquent way to say that I didn’t have any idea how hard this would be when I made this move, swept up in the love story that has been a guiding light, and enough to get me here.
This last fall, I intuitively realized that in order to make this life work, to adapt to this new culture, this new language, this new way of working, this new life as a married woman in this new family, I had to let go of nearly all the sign posts that I once knew to signal me. I had to dissolve pieces of my personality, put them on hold and move through the world without the hard edges of definition I had come to rely on. Just now in the last month I’ve been able to pick them up again, like an old favorite dress and say “Yes, You. I know you and I like you. I see how you fit into this woman who I am now.”
Blame it on my Saturn Return (or it’s just that I moved to a new country) but I feel as though my whole world has lifted up and shifted around me, like bad graphics on a video game, and now it’s just coming back into focus. Everything and nothing is different, but I have my bearings. I can re-inhabit myself.
It’s not perfect, sometimes I feel like I’m fighting against dark, slithery anxieties and doubts, but I can feel my confidence growing again. I see myself in the wake of an official year. And as usual, I’m sure this is just the beginning.