NEW YEARS PERSPECTIVE – 2018
About this time each year of our Expats-in-Italy adventure, we try and look back to interpret the sum of our impressions of the calendar year recently past. There is that worn cliché – ‘if time is flying, you must be having fun’. As this is now our fifth post-New Year experience as immigrant residents in Ascoli Piceno, Italy, it does seem time has flown. In affirming the aforementioned cliché, on balance we have to agree, our Expat experience continues to go well, very well actually.
But then, with everyone’s life experiences, the more significant events seem to revolve around interactions with others. Inevitably, that involves both experiences of joys as well as those of sorrows. Arlene lost a younger sister this past year and we both have continuing concerns on the health of some close family members. We also grieve over the loss of a wonderful Italian friend who left us much too soon. As unfortunate as having to confront such deeply distressing events seems to be, there is reassurance that we also can relate to each other on a very profound level to be able to share and support each other, not only in joys but also in life’s bitter distresses.
Additionally, a facet in becoming an expatriate requires leaving a physical place where you had lived and established relationships with both family and friends. I sense the expatriate experience inevitably involves finding ways to come to terms with being physically separated from some relationships and places that have been very much part of framing ‘who you feel you are’.
There may be a perspective on contemporary life that offers some broader insight into a sense of separation from elements of the past. It seems contemporary American lifestyles frequently involve inherent disruptions of relationships with family and friends. Commonly, this includes scattering over distances as a consequence of the mobility required in many occupations and in pursuing educational opportunities.
We experienced some of this kind of interpersonal fragmentation while still living within the U.S. Changes in proximity to those you care about was particularly evident as the children grew, established new social patterns of their own and then grandchildren went away to university. For many parents, who then become grandparents, as families mature, the changes in their priorities results in what can be experienced as a diminished involvement in the lives of the extended family.
But that is not necessarily a bad thing. Younger family members need some space to grow into independently functioning adults. And then, those of us who have already done some maturing have the potential to develop new opportunities to expand our horizons once liberated from being the more ‘hands-on participants’. In reality, we have actually come to enjoy observing our children grow into adulthood and having them transition into becoming fully functioning, independent, adult friends. Someone remarked that the goal of parenthood is to work yourself out of a job. That being the case, perhaps this is just another version of a ‘retirement’.
In one of my high school science classes, the proposition was introduced that ‘nature abhors a vacuum’. That seems to also apply to us as social beings. In becoming expatriates, to the extent there was a loss of a more immediate social network, a new one is in a continuous process of being formed and shaped. Over the time we have been here, a pattern of growing concentric circles of new Italian friends and newly arriving fellow expatriates, has added to the depth of our experience here in Italy. Our growing understanding of the new place in which we have inserted ourselves has been increased considerably through the sharing of experiences with our circle of new friends.
Our new friends in Italy haven’t really ‘replaced’ old friends. It is more a matter of ‘supplementing’ past relationships, many of which continue to remain important to us. There has been a sense of reassurance to us that people we have known over the years, including some with who we shared a work experience, still remain in contact. There is a special affirmation and reassurance to know that there are those with whom you feel a bond also share that sense of connection even with the eroding effects of the passage of time and space.
Having family and friends come to visit us here in Ascoli is always a special experience. This past year, Arlene’s step brother, his wife and their son came to Ascoli in time to experience the Ascoli medieval Quintana pageant. We feel a close affinity with these exceptional people as we share much of the same sensibilities and curiosity about the larger world. It is a joy to share Ascoli with people we are close to and to observe their reaction to experiencing a place through the lives of people they know, who actually live there.
We were also delighted with a repeat visit with very dear friend of many years accompanied by a more recent friend from San Diego. Additionally, we have bonded with several new friends who live in the U.S. and return regularly to Ascoli for visits. This includes our wonderful new friends who are senior faculty members at the University of Virginia and return regularly to Ascoli.
And then a wonderful American couple will be returning to Ascoli this April to stay for an extended visit in their process of planning to settle in Ascoli in the future. They have spent much of their lives in world travel as teachers of English as a second language. Plus, we are very much looking forward to a visit in June of Arlene’s longtime friend, Patti.
Very soon we will enjoy a return visit with our new friend who migrates between Montreal, a farm in Vermont, sailing a classic, wooden sailboat in Maine and an apartment in nearby Sarnano. He and I seem to share a somewhat sardonic sense of humor when commenting on contemporary politics. Additionally, our new Italian-American friends with whom we instantly bonded and visited in their apartment overlooking the sea, south of Salerno are actively exploring the possibility of finding an apartment for residence in Ascoli to call home.
On this cool, wintery evening in our apartment in this centuries old Italian palazzo, I have found myself thinking of what it means for me to actually being an ‘immigrant’. In the land of my birth, this has become an increasingly contentious issue. But now, I am finding myself to be an immigrant somewhere else. So, that naturally raises the question of what it means to become ‘integrated’ or ‘assimilated’ into the society into which you have inserted yourself.
Here and now, I am a ‘foreigner’ (stranieri) having legally immigrated into the Republic of Italy for residence purposes. Then what is to be the expectation of me to become ‘integrated’ here? As a minimum, I must be a responsible resident and not cause harm or disruption to others and to not be an economic burden on the citizens of this land. These are clear enough and reasonable expectations. But there must be something more.
But try as I will, it is not likely I will soon be able to communicate in clear, grammatically correct, nuanced Italian, let alone in the local dialect. Nor am I likely anytime soon to have an in depth understanding of what is going on around me anything near to a lifetime of experience in this culture. Here in Italy just now, it seems my function is less as a direct contributor and essentially that of ‘an interested observer’.
Over the past four plus years, I have gradually begun to acquire a sufficient capacity in Italian to get through most days in the accomplishment of necessary, very basic tasks. When dealing with the Ascolani, their perception of me as revealed by my appearance, mannerisms and atrocious pronunciations of Italian, immediately establishes that I am a foreigner.
But on most days, in the early stages of attempted conversation, I get an indication of a faint bemused smile from the person I am speaking with and without too many requests to repeat myself. Nor do I sense any condescension. And by now, most of the shops we go into have seen us before and automatically lower their expectations on the quality of the communication attempts that are to follow. But fortunately, I generally get the impression what I thought I wanted to say was an apparently close enough approximation to accomplish on the first attempt what I intended. In this case, functionality has definite utility over aesthetics. Does that mean I am becoming ‘integrated’?
If so, that is a relatively low threshold for integration, but I will gladly accept it. But what it probably even more significantly means is that ‘integration’ is not a static state. Done correctly, to become better integrated is a process that takes place over time.
For that kind of ‘progressive integration’ to be encouraged, some level of continuing curiosity needs to be in evidence. Being in an environment surrounded by warm and accepting people and simply enjoying what the overall experience seems to offer is a wonderful accelerant to that process. That being the case for us, we just might be a little more ‘integrated’ by this time next year.
Perhaps a little progress has been made in returning something of affirmation to our new expatriate home – the Marche Regional Tourist Promotion Office has recently published a brochure featuring expatriates who have chosen to live here. It was our honor to be able to be included in making a testimonial statement concerning our delight in living in Ascoli. A small payback gesture but one we were happy to make.
This new year has milestones for us. We will celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary in May with a trip, currently in the planning stage, to spend time in Provence in southern France. My 80th birthday is coming up in a few weeks and I am advised my desire to make as little out of this event as possible, is being ignored. On that subject, I am attempting to follow the attitude on aging that my late 95-year-old mother expressed, “Aging is a question of mind over matter – if you don’t mind, it won’t matter”- I’m trying.
Our place on the sand beach on the Adriatic for the summer is all lined up for our return and post Italian Driver’s License acquisition, we have any number of excursions in mind. We have just celebrated the festival of Carnevale, otherwise known as Mardi Gras in other quarters. The decorative chandeliers were up in the Piazza Popolo and we participated in a number of festive events. And then, in mid-July into the first week of August, Ascoli will be alive in the medieval festival of the Quintana. And for this year we are starting to think about possibilities on where to spend Christmas.
As it has worked out, if we meet people from America and they ask us, “So, since you are now in retirement, what do you do with yourself”? We have to respond, “How much time have you got”? Bored, we are not.
I continue to marvel at how different ‘retirement’ has turned out than what I might have speculated about in the distant past. There was probably a time I approached the idea of retirement with apprehension. As it has worked out, if it had been possible to know what I know now, we could have wished to have done it earlier.
We are blessed to continue in a wonderful married life together. Our lives also include the warmest of relations with family and friends and we look back on having had fulfilling and stimulating careers. After several years of retirement in the U.S., we have now been granted the privilege of enjoying the hell out of living in Italy. I guess if we can say all that, on balance, our lives are going very well indeed.