Thursday, January 8, 2015

Expat Interview: Sarah Dowling in Bologna

Today I'm so excited to share a project that I've been working on for the past few months. Living in Italy for the better part of four years has been such an amazing experience for me and I'm always interested to hear other people's stories, experiences and adventures in Italy. Since Cortina is such a small town, I don't know many other expats who have taken a different path than I have, so I rounded up a group of American expats who are living in different parts of Italy and interviewed them to find out what they love about Italy, what they miss most from home and what their favorite Italian meal is.

First up is Sarah Dowling who currently lives in Bologna, where she teaches English and writes two blogs: Italy Project 365 and Bologna With Love.

Sarah was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia and when she was 18, she headed to Providence, Rhode Island to attend Providence College where she studied accounting, Italian and completed her MBA. Now she's been living in Italy since's her story:

When and why did you first come to Italy?
I first came to Italy to study abroad in Florence in the fall of 2009. I had been studying Italian language as a minor at my college and had always been fascinated by Italy. So naturally, I chose a city in Italy to complete my semester abroad and I absolutely loved it! I wanted to move back so badly that after graduating from graduate school in 2012, I decided to come back and live in Italy permanently.

What was the most difficult thing to get used to?
I think we are very spoiled with “convenience” in the U.S., so coming to Italy where going shopping is nowhere near as convenient and easy as shopping in the U.S. was difficult. I remember having to go to five different stores to finish all my weekly shopping. I think now larger supermarkets are becoming more popular in Italy, but they still don’t offer the same variety that we have in the U.S. You have to go to this market to buy cheese, this store to buy batteries, another shop to buy soap, and so on…

What do you love most about living in Italy?
For me, I love the lifestyle here. There is a stronger appreciation for sharing a meal together or even just meeting a friend over a cup of coffee. It’s all about relationships and human interaction. You go to a coffee bar and everyone is chatting – sometimes there isn’t even WiFi so sitting on your computer alone just isn’t an option! I think that’s something we often miss or forget to nourish in the U.S. I also just love the fact that I'm constantly learning something new in a foreign place.

What do you miss the most from home?
OH, definitely the people! I miss my family and friends a lot. I really wish I had the power of teleporting. Then my life would be perfect. 

What do you think is the hardest part about living in a different country?
I think being away from family and friends can be really challenging. Also learning to cope with reverse culture shock is something you have to get used to (in fact I recently wrote a blog post about reverse culture shock and some of my most dreaded questions that I get when I go back home (here). There are a lot of times when I return home and my instinct is to immediately compare everything to Italy - but you can’t do that because you’ll end up either offending someone or boring them to death. 

What have you found to be the biggest difference between Italy and the U.S.?
The people. Americans have a tendency to plan out every moment of their day and we often complain at the slightest inconvenience just because we’re so used to having everything easy and readily available at our fingertips. We also tend to just go along with the rules and abide by the laws without thinking twice about it. Italians are more relaxed. They plan things at the last minute and can improvise. Convenience isn’t so important for Italians as is quality and they’re used to having to wait for things or work harder to make something happen. When there is a rule or law they tend to ask “why?" and then make a decision based on their own reasoning. I’m not saying that Americans are dumb and Italians are criminals, but just that we are used to handling things differently.

Beppe Severnigni wrote a fantastic book called La Bella Figura (on Amazon here) that I think explains this Italian mindset really well.

What Italian habits or mannerisms, if any, have you adopted?
Well apart from drinking lots of espresso every day (I’ve always loved coffee so this wasn’t difficult for me to catch on to), I find that I’m much more aggressive. I don’t mean that I’m a meaner person, but just that I’m much less passive. In Italy if you want to cross the street you can’t just wait at the sidewalk until a car stops for you; you have to tell them that you want to cross by beginning to cross. Another example is that if I’m waiting to be seated at a restaurant and I notice that someone cuts in front of me, I immediately say something because if I don’t, Italians will walk all over me and probably even take advantage of the fact that I’m a foreigner. Before coming to Italy, I probably would have sat back passively and nothing would have ever gotten done. 

What's your favorite Italian meal?
I love everything, but the one thing I never get tired of is pizza. A good pizza margherita with fresh tomato sauce, basil, and bufala mozzarella is like heaven on a plate for me. 

Do friends or family back home ever ask you questions about when you're coming home or what exactly it is that you're doing in Italy, etc? And if so, is there one that bothers you more than others?
Well again, I recently wrote a blog post about my most dreaded questions about Italy, where I explain a lot more about this topic. I think if I had to choose one question, it would be “When are you coming home?” because it’s a question that assumes so much. I know they mean well, but for me it sounds like they can’t imagine me having a life elsewhere. 

How did you learn to speak Italian?
Many, many years of practice. I started learning at University (I minored in Italian) but when I arrived in Italy I could barely speak, even though I knew a lot of the grammar. I learned a lot on the street, meeting Italian friends and having Italian boyfriends, but I would say a good portion of my learning took place when I studied for five months in Bologna at an intensive language school.

Where is your favorite place to travel in Italy?
I love it all, but for different reasons. For the beaches, I love Sicily. In terms of sheer beauty, I think the area near Positano and the Amalfi Coast is amazing – it’s a little piece of paradise down there! For the mountains, the Dolomites and the region of Trentino Alto-Adige is spectacular. 

Favorite thing to do?
Eating and hiking! I recently visited Positano and went hiking through some of the trails there. We would stop and have lunch in the little towns and it was the perfect combination! Whenever I travel to a new city in Italy, I always have to find the best places to eat and usually my travel itinerary is centered around food. I just think the variety is so wonderful and should be explored beyond the standard Italian dishes.

Thank you so much, Sarah!