Love Thursday: Expat Girlfriends in Southern Italy

And no. Not “that” kind of girlfriend … more like this kind.

I’m asked at least once by each new group of friendly B&Bers how I made the transition from southeast Texas to southern Italy. My response?

“… tougher than I ever imagined.”

There are endless considerations involved with a decision to relocate to a foreign country and issues vary depending on individual motivations. Are you moving as a couple with your significant other? Are you already married and established in your relationship before the move? Do you head off on your own in hopes of finding yourself?

There is a different dynamic involved with each of these situations and everyone has her own story to tell about that adjustment to expat life.

But me? I moved to be with a boy.

That phrase in itself shook my feminist soul but the happily-ever-after idealist in me somehow won. I’m glad she did.

That being said, the transition was tougher than I ever imagined. I’ve never told anyone this (so the World Wide Web seems a good place to start) but there were times I questioned if I could make it. If I should stay. If I could stay.

Was being in love, enough?

Then one day I got an email from a gal who lives 30 minutes from Catanzaro. After a couple of virtual exchanges I knew we’d be friends. After we met, I knew I could stay.

One of the more surprising things about living in Italy was the realization that southern Italian women don’t “hang out” with their friends. They don’t meet up for coffee. They don’t go out to lunch. They don’t “do” drinks.

Luckily, we do.

What began as three American girls meeting up a few times a year for Mexican food and cheap wine has evolved into a comfortable network of blossoming friendships. In the last six months English-speaking expats have exploded onto the Calabrian scene and we now see each other regularly.

We bring each other American goodies when we go home and their moms share suitcase space for important items, such as Crystal Light or the latest Pilates DVD.

We understand each other in a way our Calabrian counterparts can’t comprehend and in ways our stateside amici can’t quite grasp.

In many ways these expat friends have become an extension of my family. We share frustrations, tears and laughter.

We know we’ll get along with each other before we’ve even officially met. We know we will be friends.

At our last roundup a couple of weeks ago, a “new” expat, who has actually lived in Catanzaro for 25 years, met us for aperitivi. During our conversation we realized there are other expats who don’t want to “be found.” They don’t want expat friends. They don’t want to meet for coffee or go shopping or go out for drinks.

This concept is foreign to me. I can’t imagine my life without girlfriends and I can’t fathom a life here in Italy without these gals.

So help me out. Why do you think someone would move to a new country and reject any connection to their home? Why would someone choose NOT to be friends with people from their home country?

Happy Love Thursday!

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Comments

  1. Goodness, when is that photo of me even from? We must’ve been drinking because I really don’t remember it πŸ˜‰

    I can understand, I suppose, if someone doesn’t want expat friends right away if they’re looking to learn the language, really get immersed in the culture. I guess. I don’t know. For me personally, having just small links to home makes the adjustment easier, and like you, I treasure those connections πŸ™‚
     
    Girl you were high on hunger in that picture. I took it when we had “aperitivi” in Palermo that first night and they gave us a plastic plate of peanuts… remember? Or have you blocked it out? I know the girl(s) mentioned the other day have been here for YEARS and are probably already adjusted. I don’t think it is that.

  2. I have absolutely no ideaa..to me it would a joy to meet up with someone from my home country..who you have connections with. Why don’t Southern Italian women hang out with friends.

    I would love more people to meet, and do things with..in the UK, people are very reserved, and a lot of women when married won’t do a lot of things without their partners, or are so family oriented that they stop doing fun stuff. Such a shame, One thing for sure…I know if I went to live over near you and your friends, I would call on you.

    You don’t have to be “an expat” do you?? Would you join up with other people? I am sure you would!! πŸ™‚
     
    We would meet up with other people and often try to include non-American expats when we can, as well. I think part of the reason southern Italian women don’t “hang out” is like you said above. They get in those traditional roles and don’t really make time for outside interests. I know I asked P’s aunt to go somewhere once and she couldn’t because “the kids” would be and not having anything to eat. Her “kids” are 36 and 31.

  3. I live where there are many more expats from various places than there apparently are in Calabria. One of the first things I learned was that just because two people did the same bizarre thing it doesn’t mean they will like each other. While I don’t hate anyone or have enemies– as far as I know!– there are many expats I don’t seek out and who have attitudes I don’t respect.

    Sometimes a large part of the problem is that they choose to live only among expats, do not learn Italian and have a dismissive or paternalistic stance towards Italians. They came for the climate, I guess.

    When I started to meet more expats I made friends to speak English with, to swap books with and to do things with. Fortunately, Umbrian woman DO go out with girlfriends, many ARE interested in foreigners, and are fairly easy to get acquainted with. Some even speak English! I care very deeply for my Italian girlfriends and I offer a safety net to the foreign ones, too.

    I could answer some of your why not questions with personal experiences but I’d rather leave the image of you expat girlfriends together, having fun and taking care of each other, because that is much, much nicer.
     
    Judith, you wouldn’t be one of those women who snubs us when we ask you to join us for coffee, would you? πŸ™‚ Of course I am teasing and I can imagine in places where there are more expats that there would be some personality clashes. We are very lucky here in Calabria, so far to really get along well with, and enjoy, each other.

    I know it can be a problem when expats don’t integrate with their new society and they miss out on many experiences, as well.

    It is strange that in a city as “big” as Catanzaro there aren’t more gals who go out together. I’m seeing an ever so slight increase in this with the younger crowd, so that is encouraging.

  4. Cherrye,
    I’ve noticed that a lot of the brits in this area buy places out in the countryside and really don’t want to mingle with other expats. To them I think they want to preserve the idea that only they had the idea to move southern Italy. I’ve kinda given up seeking them out. The UN people in town change all the time so I’ve given up meeting up with them. Still there are a few other expats in town that I hear about but never see. I would welcome another expat to hang out with and it may happen soon…

    Jeff
     
    You know, Jeff if you were just a bit closer … I think you have a good point with them eanting to be “the only one.” Judith mentioned avoiding people with bad attitudes, and I certainly understand that, but to snub your own peeps without giving them a chance is odd to me. Thanks for weiging in on this. I really wanted a guy’s perspective.

  5. Hi Cherrye,
    I told you when we met up it is like that American girl who is about my age, lives in bel ragazzo’s village and WILL NOT speak to me in English. She plainly refuses and worse speaks to me in dialect which I do no understand. She could at least say HELLO in English. I didn’t want to be her best friend! I just asked her how she was doing…. Strange.
    Looks like I’ll be in Calabria for a few months mid November – mid Janurary so would love to have some mexican with you girls πŸ™‚
     
    Yes, Leanne I was actually thinking of that when I wrote this post. I don’t understand that. It may be like Jeff said, that people want to be the only one and therefore avoid other expats? Boh.

    You’ll be here for a few months? Yippee! We will definitely have a few get-togethers in that time, then!

  6. In Rome, my Italian girlfriends spend time with other women. Like my male Italian friends they have known each other forever. It might be harder for expats to break into these close knit circles but once you do, you are friends for life.

    My sense is friendships are taken very seriously here. No one wants to invest that that heavily into a relationship with someone who might leaving in a couple years.

    I know what Judith is talking about. There are over 100,000 American expats in Italy. The expats friends I have here are people I would be friends with back home. I don’t assume because someone is American we would be BFFs. That said, I would never snub a fellow expat I don’t know. I have met expats who only hang out with other expats and expats who do the opposite. Either extreme is not a good thing.

    In Rome there are so many subgroup within the expat community. Women who moved here when they were single tend to hang out with other women who did the same. Women who moved here with or to be with a man, same thing.

    Then there is the African-American expat experience vs. the black Canadian/U.K. expat experience. My friend and I have noticed that the majority of the sisters from the U.S. (in Rome anyway…it could be different in Florence, Milan) aren’t interested in hanging with other black americans. My friend was straight up dissed when a mutual Italian friend tried to introduce her to another African-American woman. Uhm okay. Sorry for the long comment. This is a very interesting post.
     
    No problem for the “long” comment. I love it. You have made several points and shared perspective from an expat in a larger area. I can’t believe your friend was treated so poorly. Maybe some of these people who don’t want “to meet” other expats also checked their manners when they entered Italy. That is very interesting that in Rome the expats are in “groups” by why they chose to come here. I do believe your motivations affect your adjustment process, but I never thought people would divide themselves by this. Wow.

  7. I have heard that about Italy. It is a bit disappointing to me. Maybe that is one thing they could take from American- women having girlfriends and spending time with them. I think it is healthy.
     
    Robin, it seems girls in nothern regions are much more open to the idea of hanging out with girls. If you are more northern, you will be ok. If you are in the south, you will have us. πŸ™‚ I agree it is healthy to have female friends, it makes for nice balance.

  8. Well I know I wasn’t there too long, but I definitely thought it was nice to have American girlfriends around as they can relate more. I do have Italian girlfriends too, even ones that I’ve known ‘forever’ but we never went out just ‘us’, it was always as couples, or with a huge group of mixed guys and girls or with families…
    And I think everyone who has commented makes good points as to why some expats don’t (or do) want to meet up with others. And Leanne, I can’t believe that the American girl in bel ragazzo’s village doesn’t speak to you in English, that is just plain strange! Interesting post!
     
    You make a new point, Carla in that the girls here in the south often go out with groups, boyfriends, brothers and hang out with other girls in the process. It is definitely different, though.

  9. I love the open dialogue and comments by everyone. I can only wish I was in Calabria to meet up with you guys for pizza, mexican or whatever and drinks. Keeping the social connections of something familiar is important. Have a drink for me ladies next time you are all together again!!!
     
    Next time you are in Calabria, we’ll have to make it a point to do drinks! You are right, though about maintaining some kind of familiar social network. It aids in the transition and is nice to know they are there.

  10. This is a really interesting post, Cherrye. I’m not (yet) an expat, but I can’t imagine not wanting to hang out with other expats now & then – if only to remember that yes, I *am* in fact witty in my own language! (I can’t imagine ever being considered witty in Italian.) But I also wouldn’t want to be one of those expats who hangs out *only* with other expats. Maybe the folks who avoid other expats are afraid of falling into that trap? Although the American woman who refuses to speak English… I just dunno what the heck is up with her.

    Another (random) theory – perhaps the question of whether one wants to associate with other expats from their home country has more to do with how said expat got along in their own country & why they moved away from it. For instance, I love where I’m from, I just want to experience living somewhere else. So I don’t have a bad knee-jerk reaction to other Americans. But if someone left their home country to *escape* the people there, not even specific people but the kind of people who are from there, I can see how they’d be far less inclined to want to hang out with those kinds of people in their newly adopted country.
     
    Interesting point about the people who “escaped” from America. I could see that being a reason, as well. It can be a very dangerous habit to just hang out with expats. When I lived in Paris I became *very close* friends with some of the other Americans and we went out together 90% of the time. In that other 10% I met my husband, so all was not lost. πŸ™‚

  11. Interesting post. I love meeting up with other expats, mainly as i find it extremely difficult finding like minded sicilian (females). There seems to be a taboo to having male friends here as well, v strange. Isn’t the only day the ladies get to go out that ‘international women’s day’ or whatever it’s called in February? Rest of the time they are too busy working, looking after the family, cleaning the house and preparing the dinner so the males can go out? Kidding but also kinda serious on that one. Sorry if i am sounding stereotypical but that is what I see a lot of here.

    Having been an expat in 2 different countries now I have different views on expat friends. When i moved to the UK i didn’t want to live / associate with my compatriots. I wanted to meet english people and do english things. What is the point of moving away from home only to do the same things with the same people?? However, i found it v hard to actually find a place living with English people, and when i did their silly rules etc annoyed me. Particularly those relating to having guests, relatives to visit and saying things to be polite but then never following up on them. I guess antipodeans are just more laid back and open. SO i ended up living with a bunch of aussies, kiwis and saffas and having a great time. Despite being v sociable and chatty was never invited to an english person’s place for dinner (in 4 YEARS!!). I do understand that their houses are small and most of the socialising is done in pubs but still…. Most of my friends were expats or 2nd generation expats (indian, french, italian) as i didn’t care where people were from/ their language/ religion/ colour etc but am interested in their outlook on life, having shared interests etc. Think i only had 2 english ‘friends’ and the family i boarded with when i first arrived were also great and we are still in contact/ meet up regularly now.

    Coming to Italy(sicily) it is so rare to meet english speakers that it’s always great to meet up and to talk about normal things here we find funny that our friends/ families at home cannot understand. It is also good to be able to speak english fast and using slang and cultural references and (generally!) being understood. It is also great to talk about things like books, films, ideas, jokes etc that i find sicilians have next to no interest in.

    However, these are the reasons i can see that expats do NOT want to meet up (none applying to me personally!).
    – left their country to come here and for the lifestyle/ their own reasons but don’t want to see others from their country. ie think they are escaping but in fact they are surrounded by compatriots ha ha ha.
    – Maybe have invented a new persona for themselves and associating with other expats people see them as who they really are.
    – as someone else said – to think they are exclusive and unique in being here.
    – to be put in the position of forming a friendship with someone just because of a common language (i would say this applies particularly to british people – sorry to offend anyone!)
    – have their own life, have already adapted and don’t really care what struggles/ experiences others have.
    – seen as ‘sticking with their own’ by italians. I remember my neighbour upon meeting my fried who had lived in Dubai for 3 years and couldn’t speak arabic as all the locals speak English commented how ‘anglosaxon’ it was not to learn the language/ local life.

    The only things i don’t like doing with expats is speaking italian in front of (not to!) them. Makes me feel like they could be judging my ability for some weird reason. Please let me know when your next GTG is and maybe i can even come and join you.
     
    When I first moved here in ’06 I *never* saw girls out along, without a group of boys. Often, even when we were with “the boys” many of the Italian women wouldn’t drink wine or beer, but just have water. I was like the American “lush.” The first time I saw a group of girls together having panini and drinking beer was about a year ago. It jumped out to me. I am thinking the “going out with your girlfriends rule” is changing here in the south, but it will be a process.

    It is funny you say you don’t like to speak Italian in front of other expats. I understand that and am the same, actually, but you did a great job, I thought. We will definitely let you know about the next get together!

  12. In general I don’t care where a person is from as long as we connect. My best friend down here is Canadian for example. But she’s an immigrant, and won’t call herself expat. It’s different for her.

    On one hand, I think it is so important to always be open to meeting others from your home country, because we all really do need that connection to home, and sometimes it’s nice to just speak freely in your mother tongue when you need to confide in someone.

    Some of my dearest friends here are from the United States, and we have such wonderful times together like in your pictures above. And if they were from outer space I’d still be having the same good time with them.

    I connect with people based on how we perceive the place we are in, for sure. People who live here and really reach out and connect with the local culture and life, I tend to connect with better. Some American expats are great to be around because we both look around us with the same wonderment and sometimes the same frustration.

    On the other hand, I basically refuse to meet the majority of expats in Buenos Aires because I cannot relate to a lot of them. This is just in Buenos Aires that I’m talking about. They come here with their savings because they can “live like kings” for what they think is “cheap” (thus taking advantage of the economic plight of the Argentinians) and they don’t understand why people like me can’t go out to all their steak restaurants, nor do they understand me when I say that I have to work, or when I argue with them that no, it is not cheap here.

    Then there are the Tango expats (and I refuse to be grouped with them) who come here on a one-year vacation and do nothing productive other than dance Tango every night. I only dance once or twice a week because, as said above, I have to work and can’t afford to go out like that. So we do not really connect on any level. To them I’m no fun, and to me they’re expensive to hang out with.
     
    One thing “we’ve” talked about here is how it is a good thing we are all more or less “in the same boat” regarding how much we spend when we do go out. Even in your home country it is hard to hang out consistently with people who spend much more or travel more extravagantly than you do. The time factor is another big issue that affects who can hang out and when. We all know being an expat, or immigrant like your friend says, is different than being on vacation.

  13. P.S. I’m treating my Canadian best friend to cake and champagne at a fancy cafe for her birthday on Saturday! Something the local girls don’t do too much of is go out to drink.
    They DO go out for coffee all the time (oh the cafes here are really wonderful) but nobody here really takes an aperitivo.
    My friend and I do, and we do it happily. πŸ™‚ And the waiters love us.
     
    I have no doubt the waiters love you, Tina. Cake and champagne sound fun. Have a blast!

  14. Wow Cherrye, I will let Sarina read this. She has said the exact same thing. Italian girls do not want to go out for lunch, shopping etc. She is so use to being with her girlfriends, girl cousins, etc. that she questions it herself. She has been here in the USA for 3 months and is now going back. She sort of has a dread in her. She said she tries to invite people for dinner, lunch, picnics and no one shows up, or they complain the whole time. I told her the same thing, about getting in contact with girls in Florence. I wish she lived near you guys!!!!!!!
     
    I’m so sorry Sarina has invited people and they don’t show up or are ungrateful for her hospitality. I think maybe she is reaching out to the wrong kind of people. That is just rude. She should definitely give us a call next time she passes through Calabria en route to Sicily.

  15. Perhaps it’s just a matter of style. Personally, I don’t have a history or experience with the idea of “hanging out with the girls” – not for drinks, not for each other’s homes, nada. Most of my friends are men, actually.

    I go out for beer from time to time with my friends, occasionally host or attend dinners or brunches but not so much the “girls night” type of thing. If that happens, it is usually just with one friend.

    Another issue you might be facing is a more traditional culture focused on marriage and family – if a single woman is hanging out with girlfriends, she’s not establishing a relationship with her future husband/baby-daddy.

    If she’s married, she may have many other things to do at home and little incentive to hang out with non-married friends who don’t understand her responsibilities or particular problems (that happens a lot everywhere – married people *vanish* from single friends’ lives).

    Regarding the unfriendly American who won’t speak English – maybe you’re mistaken about her, or she’s mistaken about you. Either way, stop being friendly to her. Ignore her. She’s not interested and it’s not about you.

    When I travel, I am open to sharing a beer with other travellers – but do not want to get hooked up with a “newbie” who wants a travel guide or language expert. And I’m not always interested in expending the energy for the “getting to know you” chitchat and small talk and hate it when people engage me in a “Oh, you’re from XX, do you know XX?” games. Ugh.
     
    I lol at your baby-daddy comment. Everything was so serious up until then. Again, another great perspective on different personalities and whatnot. Thanks for the comment.

  16. I wonder about the American who won’t speak English — is she possibly trying to avoid speaking English to be polite? I’m not an expat but my fiance and I usually go visit his family in Calabria for about one month per year and we make an effort to never speak English in the presence of anyone else so it doesn’t seem rude. Even when we’re in a restaurant, just the two of us, we stick with Italian. The only time we speak English is alone in our bedroom. So maybe she’s just trying very hard to make everyone feel included by speaking the language of the location?
     
    Could be, Anon. I’m not sure about the situation there, whether they were alone or with others who don’t speak English. Leanne’s bel ragazzo is fluent in English, but there might have been others there, as well. Good point. I think that is a great “rule” you guys have for English and very considerate of others around you.

  17. Re: baby -daddy – it’s true, isn’t it? Despite the fact that Italy has a declining birth rate, there’s still a real focus on having a kid. Even if it is just one kid — and breeders do spend an inordinate amount of time focusing on building the relationships they think are going to result in the breeding pair. As a non-breeder, I do look for a longer lasting romantic attachment but don’t neglect all my personal relationships in favor of spending time with the newest “the one” as you typically see with women focused on marriage/pairbonding/family futures.
     
    I think in both Italy and America some women (and men, too I guess) get a boyfriend and spend all of their free time with that new person. Like you said earlier, that definitely has something to do with the want/need for friendships. I’ve never been the kind of girl who consumes her boyfriends, so I still want friends to hang out with, as well.

  18. Hey Cherrye, The photos are great and yes, we had has much fun as the pics indicate.:-)I like Michelle’s pic.:-) I personally love speaking in my native language because I don’t have to actually ponder and think about what I’m about to say or the sentence formation. I also have been known to occasionally stalk and follow some people with my mouth opened in awe if I hear them speaking in English(or actual correct Italian instead of the local dialect).,-) Hahahaha I’m just kidding- well, I do only follow them for a minute.:-) Cherrye, Do you remember when we talked about how there were many expats who refused to speak in English or meet other expats? I can’t fathom the idea, but I do think it depends where an expat is living and their character/ personality. When I first moved to Italy, there weren’t any expats here, and I remember that I would have given anything to have someone who understood me, my culture, and my rants & raves. Now, I do and you ladies are the best. Italy is beautiful and sometimes can be downright comical when the cultures begin to clash, and there is nothing better than to have friends to enjoy the ride and the laughs.
    πŸ™‚ Have a great week!!! Hugs
     
    I agree. It is much better to have someone from “home” to share it with.

  19. Believe it or not this kind of thing happens right here in the good ol’ US of A too. A few years back I had moved from NYC to a small midwestern town and I felt like I had moved to another country. Luckily, a nice couple moved in right across the street around the same time from Atlanta. We immediately bonded, being big city girls. Eventually the locals warmed up to us, but we were like this little support group for each other. And eventually we met other couples that were from other big cities and we made this little community. We were never invited to gatherings by the locals.
    Personally, if I moved to a foreign country, I would need to have that time with other expats because I feel like if anybody could understand me, it would be them. It is like having family there for you.
    Before Ale came here to Portland for the first time, I sought out the Italian community here for him so that he would feel a connection to home. He was so thankful for that and has made some great friends as a result.
    OK the ironic thing is, and this maybe a topic for another post, is that when Ale and I travel together and we come across Italian travelers, he avoids them at all costs and says that a lot of his friends are that way too. He says it’s because he would rather meet other foreigners when he travels and be literally on vacation from other Italians. Does that make sense??? I personally don’t understand this concept because when I travel and run into other Americans, it’s like this big love fest.
    I think that when you are in a relationship with someone, it is so important to have girlfriends/guy friends outside the relationship, otherwise you get too attached/dependent on the other and God forbid, but if something were to happen to that other half, one would be completely lost. Don’t you think??
    sorry this got longer than i intended!!
     
    I’m glad things worked out for you there in small-town, USA. I hadn’t thought of that, but I can definitely see how that could happen. I’ll have to ask my husband his thoughts on seeing other Italians. I’m like you, I usually like to see other Americans, too.

  20. Found you through my bud, Miss Expatria. I wish I lived closer to her or you all. My husband and I are out in the country (Monte San Savino), our nearest neighbors a 5 minute drive and busy with their families. I never moved as a child so have no experience being the new kid and having to make friends. My friends have always been neighbors, class mates or co-workers. Having to do everything with my husband and not really having friends here has been the hardest part. We knew expats before we moved here and do a few things with them but they have lives and are busy too.
    We were recently judged by expats(silently, but I could tell) because we shop at an American style grocery instead of small local shops. Prices are one reason and the distance we are from town another. I rarely make Italian food because that is all we get when we go out. The ‘judges’ don’t live here full time so when they are in the US they can have Thai or Mexican any time they want.
    I think like all things, there should be balance. My non Italian meals balance all the sagras and festas we have gone to and enjoyed. My few expat friends are gradually introducing me to other expats and Italians. When we move, we know now, how important it is to live in walking distance of town. It is up to me to work on my Italian and probably up to me to make the first move towards making friends.
    An older example of not being with other expats is my grandparents. When they moved to the US my grandfather would not allow my grandmother to speak Italian anymore. She had to learn English and all the children grew up speaking only English. That is why I am an Italian citizen who does not speak very good Italian. Anyone in the Monte San savino are who wants to hang out, give me a call.
     
    Welcome, Martha. I wish you lived closer, too. These are some of the things having expats pals are good for. I think it is great you blend your culture and your husband’s culture (is he Italian??). We do, too. I live in Italy and I *really* enjoy it and am glad I am here, but I am American and I want to eat American food, celebrate American holidays and still enjoy my Americanism. My hubby is great about playing along, as well. We want our children to love, cherish and respect both of our cultures and I think the best way to do that is to ensure they experience both of them.

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