The other day, a young college student majoring in communications interviewed me for a class project while spending the semester abroad here in Rome.
My first thought was: Oh dear God, I’m old enough to be one of those people interviewed for a college class project.
My second thought was: Oh dear God, moving here to Rome sure wasn’t easy, now that I think about it.
Her questions centered mainly around my “career path,” which made me want to chuckle. Anyone who has moved to Rome on their own, without being sponsored by a job or a family situation that required their move, most likely wouldn’t refer to their successful employment as anything resembling a cut-and-dried “career path.”
However, after reflecting on my journey over the past 15 years, I realized that I have managed to build up a defensible C.V. (résumé), despite the unpredictability and challenges of carving out a life over here. For anyone who might be tempted (or utterly determined) to do the same and find a new you overseas, here are five hurdles, along with important questions, to consider before you make the leap. While my experience relates specifically to Italy, the principles can be applied in a general sense to any cross-continent move.
In order to move to Rome when I was 24, I had to save up money for six months. I moved back in with my parents and worked two jobs in order to earn as much money as possible, as quickly as possible. I had a college degree, but one of my two jobs was working as a checker and sometimes bagger at a local supermarket. I mention this only because when you’re truly determined to do something, you will expand your options and viewpoints regarding what will ultimately get you to your goal. This is a skill set that becomes even more important once you’re living abroad.
My idea was to earn enough money to have a “nest egg” that would allow me to survive for six months in Rome without a job, which would ostensibly buy me enough time to try to find a job and see if I even wanted to stay longer than six months. When considering the financial aspects of a potential overseas move, ask yourself:
How long do you anticipate staying without having any income?
How much will it cost to live where you want to go and with the lifestyle you have? Will you have to make quality-of-life/comfort sacrifices and are you prepared to make them?
Are you leaving financial resources behind, and how will you manage them? I didn’t have any assets at that point in my life, so picking up and moving temporarily or permanently was easy.
2. Legal aspects
If you aren’t a citizen or a legal resident of the place you plan to move to, then you must take into account the laws governing your stay. I’m not an Italian or EU citizen, so my stay was governed by the Schengen Area regulations that allow US citizens to stay for up to 90 days without a visa. That, however, is as a tourist and doesn’t allow you to work legally in the country.
The legal aspects of moving abroad can be among the most complicated. My own story of obtaining a stay permit in Italy is unique because the year that I sought a work permit just happened to be the first time in decades that the country was offering a worker asylum program. Under that program, foreigners already working in the country could obtain a work permit during a three-month period of time in which the government would excuse those who had been working in the country illegally, if they enrolled in the system. When considering the legal aspects of a potential move overseas, ask yourself:
How likely is it that I can obtain a legal stay permit or residency? If I am eligible, what are the steps to take?
If you’re in a long-term and serious relationship (ie, eventually planning to marry) with someone from the country, is marriage an acceptable route for you to obtaining a stay permit, or are you adamant that you want to be able to stay legally in the country as something completely separate from your relationship? Personally, I refused to marry as the basis for a stay permit, because I never wanted to question whether my marriage was based on legal necessity or love, but then again, I ended up divorced. This is simply one area to take into consideration as part of discussions with your partner.
How long can I stay in the country legally without having to obtain a visa or stay permit?
What can I do while in the country (tourism only, work)?
If your plan is to move to Italy or another EU country, check out these tips from The Savvy Backpacker.
3. Jobs and work
How marketable are your skills in Italy (or the country where you plan to move)? Oftentimes, the move will force you to reconsider your proverbial “five-year plan.” You may have to spend some time, at least in the beginning, doing jobs you perhaps hadn’t considered, such as teaching English as a second language or offering tours. Translating can be an option if you speak the local language well enough. When considering the jobs and work aspects of a potential move overseas, ask yourself:
How willing am I to change my career goals, as well as my income level? Moving to Italy will most likely include a drop in salary and fighting for positions within a competitive job market, as you will have to compete with many other qualified expatriates for the same limited number of coveted positions.
What job pool will I be competing in (local, expatriate)? It’s important to know what positions you can apply for and find out how competitive the local market is.
Can I get hired before I leave, or must I already live in the country to be considered for the job? In Rome, for example, there’s such a rich local expatriate talent pool that applying from the United States or your home country makes no sense, because most employers will take someone who’s already living here much quicker than someone who hasn’t yet established themselves locally.
4. Culture shock
Depending on your local knowledge and experience in the country, you may go through a more or less intense period of culture shock and adjustment, as well as possible homesickness if you plan to live long-term in your new country. When considering the culture shock aspects of a potential move overseas, ask yourself:
How much do I know about the local culture? How tolerant am I of views that differ vastly from my own?
What experience do I have in adapting to new places and new people?
How will I likely be viewed by the locals? What views does the local culture hold about people of my background? How prepared or comfortable am I in being an “ambassador” for my own background or being seen as the representative for all people of my background generally? It is possible that you are the only person of your background that locals meet, especially if you’re in a culture vastly different from your home culture.
What resources will I rely upon if I have trouble adjusting and how will I know if I am experiencing culture shock? Here’s a brief summary with some tips: Coping with Culture Shock.
5. Knowing yourself and your motivations
It’s important to know, deep down and honestly within yourself, why you are making the move. Is it an insatiable inner drive? Is it to impress someone? Is it for love? Is it for your sense of adventure? Is it a career move? Is it part of a larger travel plan?
If you are absolutely clear and honest about your true motivating factors, you will be better prepared to handle challenges, setbacks, and the road ahead. When considering the motivational aspects of a potential move overseas, ask yourself:
Why am I doing this? What obstacles would cause me to change my mind/my plans?
What’s the worst that I can imagine have happen and how would I handle it?
What do I tell people who ask me why I’m planning to move? What do I tell myself when I ask why I’m planning to move? Are the two answers very different?
Of course, there are many, many other considerations: housing, local friends and networks, transport, travel, day-to-day life, and more. The flip-side to all of these detailed questions and considerations is that at a certain point, you must also come to peace with the fact that an overseas move is a bold step and there are no guarantees (as with life in general). You won’t be able to predict and control everything, and so, at a certain point, you must take the leap and see where you land.
When the college student interviewing me wanted to wrap things up, she asked me one last question: “what advice would you have for someone like me, in my position, at my age, about life in Italy?”
I told her that the most important skill I’ve drawn upon for living in a country that’s not my own is something that I continue to practice on a daily basis: non-judgmental observation. While I often poke fun at Italy, I make an effort to do so from the point of view of someone who respectfully observes a foreign culture, knowing that my own culture and views aren’t necessarily superior, but simply different.
If you approach your adventure of moving overseas with a spirit of learning, openness, and acceptance of what crosses your path without immediately judging it as right or wrong, then you’ll be ready to have an experience that can teach you much more than you ever imagined; not only about yourself and what you’re capable of, but about the human condition in general.