Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Expat Interview: Elizabeth Heath in Umbria

For our fourth expat interview, I chatted with Elizabeth Heath who has lived in Italy since 2009. Elizabeth was born in St. Louis, Missouri and grew up in Florida where she lived most of her life, apart from a 7-year stint in Washington, DC.

After visiting Italy for the first time while on vacation in 2000, she began making regular summer trips in pursuit of her PhD in archaeology. In 2008, she spent the summer in Orvieto trying to decide if she really wanted to move to Italy and how she could make it work. Two weeks before she was due to leave, she met her husband, Paolo. They had a long distance relationship and swapped visits for a year before she moved to Italy full-time in May of 2009. Now Elizabeth and Paolo are married and live with their daughter, Naomi, in a small town in Umbria.

What do you love most about living in Italy?
I love a lot of things about my life in Italy, but what I love the most about Italy itself is the sense of walking on layers and layers of time. Doing archaeological digs here really made me aware of how much has happened on this land, over how many millennia, and how much of it is still buried under our feet.

What was the most difficult thing to get used to about living in Italy, especially living in such a small town?
Hmm, that's a tough question. It's probably the concept of the bella/brutta figura - the idea (partially, at least) that you can't say what you really mean for fear of embarrassing yourself or someone else.
I’m amazed that Italians will get bad meals in restaurants but never complain to their waitperson, or never return a defective item to a store, etc. The concept carries through to interpersonal relationships, which, I think, makes it difficult for people to have real heart to heart conversations, even with their closest family members.

Can you say more about what it's like living in such a small town? I think a lot of expats tend to move to larger cities; was it difficult to make friends or fit in? Pros and cons?
I live in a town of about 400 people, a third of whom are related to my husband in some way. I find there are real pluses and minuses to life in a small town. Biggest among the pluses is the security and love with which my daughter is growing up. I get so much help from my husband's family when it comes to child care, or watching Naomi on short notice. We can go to the bar or restaurant in town and Naomi acts like she's in her own living room - she knows everyone and they all adore and fuss over her. So it's not like living in a larger city where I'd be worried about her wandering off or about who she was with. We have nearly total security with her.

I always say that about living in a small Italian village - everyone knows everyone - for better or worse. People can be gossipy and judgmental, and there's no anonymity which admittedly, might be nice sometimes.

Do you notice many differences in parenting styles between Italy and the US?
I found childbirth to be very regimented here - the hospital even told me what color underwear to bring with me when I went in to give birth! It's also not very mother-focused, in the sense that patients have very little say in their birth experience. I think Italians are more laid back about child-rearing, perhaps, particularly as the children get older. I don't know any Italian parents racing their kids between sports, music and other extracurricular activities. I don't see kids stressed out because they have band, dance and soccer practice on top of piles of homework (though they do get piles of homework!). So there's less of a tendency to try to mold children into super-effective, super-talented whatevers. They just let kids be kids, which I find refreshing. I hope that as Naomi gets older she'll take an interest in extracurricular activities, but she won't feel pressured by her peers or her parents to do so.

Do you speak to her in English or Italian?
I speak only English to her and have done so from Day 1. Everyone else around her speaks Italian, including her father. And he and I converse in Italian. So while she speaks primarily Italian with some English sprinkled in, she understands everything I say to her in English, including complex sentences. It's very gratifying that raising her bilingually is actually working.

 What do you think is the hardest part of living in a different country?

For me, the hardest part is not being able to communicate in my mother tongue. Even though I am fluent in Italian, there is a level of nuance that I don’t know that I’ll ever achieve, either in speaking or understanding Italian. I am a writer, so I’m all about words and turns of phrases. I’m used to expressing myself in ways that I can’t necessarily do here, and I miss it. When friends from the US come to visit, and we can share our inside jokes and witty banter, I realize how much I miss it. 

What have you found to be the biggest difference between Italy and the US?
Two things stand out: the first is the importance that Italians place on family, to a fault, sometimes. I had a baby 3 years ago, and I’ve had help with her that I would never have had in the US, partly because my family is spread out and partly because of our attitudes about these things. Between free child care, someone to go pick up a prescription for me when I can't get away, my mother-in-law doing our ironing (when I let her) – these are all things I try not to take for granted, and I try to remember that they are one of the privileges of living with a tight-knit, traditional Italian family. 

The other big difference I see is the "can-do" attitude that Americans have which Italians don’t possess. Right or wrong, Americans still believe that if you study hard, try hard and work hard, you can do anything. I find Italians to be very pessimistic about their lives and futures, and with very low expectations of what they can do or be. It’s a shame, really.

What do you miss the most from the US?

I always say Mexican food and TJMaxx! Of course I miss my friends and family - that’s a given. But when my husband and I travel to the US, we go with an empty suitcase and a vow never to set foot in an Italian restaurant. We both appreciate the variety of stuff available in the US – particularly ethnic food to shopping. I also miss my beautiful Sarasota, FL beaches, where people are not packed in elbow to elbow like they are here in the summertime.

Have you adopted any Italian habits?
Well, I talk with my hands, and I curse in Italian, even when I’m talking to myself. And we eat our meals late, even when we go to other countries. We were in the UK recently and saw restaurants filled with people at 6 pm – they aren’t even open here at that hour!

What's your favorite Italian meal?
That’s a tough question too. My mother-in-law roasts a chicken like nobody’s business. I also love a thin, crispy pizza margherita. I love antipasti, too. That course, where you get a lot of little tastes, appeals to me much more than a monolithic plate of pasta.  

Is there anything that people back in the US say about your Italian lifestyle that bothers you? 
I get a little tired of people telling me, “You’re living the dream,” and being envious of the life they think I have. Yes, I am very fortunate, more so than most of the rest of the world. But we’re not wealthy, and we don’t spend all our time sipping wine in piazzas and watching the world go by. My husband and I both work and we have everyday stresses just like anywhere else. So while my life can be quite dreamy at times, when my kid is screaming and I’m unloading the dishwasher and the dog is barking to go outside…that seems slightly less dreamy! 

How did you learn to speak Italian so fluently?
Immersion, baby! Paolo and I spoke Italian for a year on Skype, with dictionaries in hand. Then, when I moved here full time, I was in a haze for about the first year. We’d go out to dinner with his friends and I couldn’t keep up with conversations at all. Slowly but surely, I just learned because I had to. I am a good listener, and I think that has really helped me. I listen and mimic, and that’s how I learn.

What's your favorite place to travel to in Italy?
We still have a lot of places to see in Italy. But I love going to Rome, of course. I’ve spent time in Ravenna and love it there. I visited enchanting Capri on my first trip to Italy, and I want to get back there with my husband, who has never been.

Favorite thing to do?
The aforementioned sipping wine in a piazza and watching the world go by! That, and visiting archaeological sites, country drives with my husband, and wandering medieval towns and villages. I’ve also become a pretty decent cook since moving to Italy, so when time and inspiration are on my side, I really enjoy trying out new recipes.

Thank you, Elizabeth! Don't you love what she said about "walking on layers and layers of time?" So dreamy....you can check out her blog here for more stories about small town Italian living.

And PS - our other three expat interviews from Bologna, Venice and Rome.