May 1971…When I was twelve years old, myself and my three older brothers were called to the table for a “family meeting.” The announcement that followed was one of incredulity and disbelief—in just a couple months we would be moving to Rome, Italy for an undetermined amount of time, traveling to London and Paris first, then Sicily to visit my paternal ancestors’ home, then proceed on to Rome where we would find an apartment and live. While it was exciting to be going to Europe to see the sights, to realize we would be living there was incredibly scary for a little girl who was just about to become a teenager. A foreign country . . . With a language I didn’t speak or understand . . . Four months shy of my 13th birthday, I was left to wonder what was going to happen to my life? Little did I know, or even imagine, that that day would change and shape my entire life, turning me into…
A serial expatin’ digital nomad!
Seventeen years and six countries ago, when I decided to reshape my life as a 43-year-old single woman, 24 years after returning to my home country, I was drowning in angst. To make some sense out of the why, where, what, of this serial expat state, I’ll share an excerpt of something I wrote way back then.
Early 2002 —Some may think this was a pretty easy decision to make, a no-brainer. But the decision to give it all up, to leave everything one knows, all that is familiar … to leave all remaining family and friends … to take a flying leap out of the world that has become a safety net. To sell everything, pack three suitcases, and buy a one-way ticket to a place that is loved but is still, in reality and for all intents and purposes, only just a 25-year-old memory … with just a few thousand dollars in your pocket, no job lined up and only a short-term roof over your head …
Am I some kind of idiot?! …the desire is filling up my mind, my heart, my senses, everything that is me. At the same time, my stomach churns when I think about it. This is so scary. Can I do this? Will it work? …it’s okay to think about it, but to actually do it, that’s another matter altogether. … Stop it. Okay. Breathe. I can’t. This sounds like a job for the wine shop group. I need to talk about this. I need to bounce this idea off people. I need to hear pros and cons. At the end of the tasting, most have left except for a few. Good. These are the ones I wanted to talk to.
Oka guys, what should I do? Go. Take the chance. What if it doesn’t work? Then you come back. But if I give everything up, I won’t have anything to come back to. Can you live with not having taken the chance? Can you live with always thinking to yourself, for the rest of your life … if only I had tried it. Just try. Make the attempt. You’ve got the offer of a roof over your head for a few months, you have enough to live on there for six months …
The fear. The awful, overwhelming fear that it may not work out. What if it doesn’t work? The defining conversation that turned me into a serial expat was held with a friend over breakfast and coffee a day later. After I spit out all the uncertainties in my head, his pearl of wisdom consisted of one sentence. “I’ll miss you so much, but if you don’t take this chance, my whole opinion about you, your strength, your determination, your dreams and desires, will have been wrong.” But, what if I am still afraid when I get there, what if I get lonely, what if …What if what? “When you get lonely, you pick up the phone. I will always be just a phone call away.”
I want him to come with me, because I want someone, anyone, with me. To hold my hand and make me feel secure about this. But I know it’s something I need to do on my own. It needs to work only because I made it work, by myself. With only my own strength, only my own determination.
As I look in my friend’s smiling eyes, while thinking also about everything that was said to me at the wine shop, there’s a small part of me that begins to relax a little … just a little. I feel like I’ve been holding my breath, and all I’ve been wanting is to exhale.
So I do.
And the serial expat life began. I had had Italian/EU citizenship since I was a teenager (although the bureaucracy to get the identity card and passport and all other paperwork was nothing short of a comedy of errors), therefore this life was possible with no concerns about visas or the three-month tourist timing. After landing in Piedicolle (by way of flying to Rome, taking a train to…somewhere, then a car to…somewhere, because at this point I truly can’t remember how I got to that hill village…to Deruta where I was picked up by the homeowner and taken to tiny eentsy-weeny Piedicolle!). The next three months were spent simply getting used to being “home” again. Though I’d been fluent in Italian when I left in 1979, I hadn’t spoken a word of the language in 25 years. And there I was, in a town on top of a hill, among 65 people with nary a soul who spoke more than “yes” and “no” in English. With no car and no store in town, thank goodness the older women adopted me as their daughter! Okay, I think they were all “older women,” as within the population of 65, I don’t think anyone was under 65. So my introduction back to the EU was one of trying to pull out that language from deep inside my brain, going from super-stocked supermarkets and 24-hour minimarts to planning my life around the bread truck and vegetable/fruits/staples truck that came once a week. Let’s not forget the “mamas” who freaked out when I sat outside in the sun after washing my hair and it was still wet.
After getting my language somewhat into a sense of “oh yeah I remember now!” I realized I was restless already after only three months. That should have given me a clue as to what the rest of my life was going to be like. I took off for Firenze, where an Italian friend from Phoenix had an apartment for rent. A month after hitting Firenze, the war started (March 2003) and tourism stopped dead. Money started getting tight and something needed to happen. That amazingly beautiful city and I just couldn’t come to terms with each other financially. Another online expat friend told me he “knew a guy who knew a guy who had a vacation apartments company who needed a front office manager who speaks perfect English” in Motta Sant’Anastasia, Sicily! Though small, it was at least larger than Piedicolle. It was a hard life there for those three years, but it allowed me the chance to visit my ancestral village up in the mountains. The last year was spent holed up in my apartment living on those two years of savings (it was cheap), and attempting to make another dream come true. Many had told me to write it all down, all my travels and decisions made, to make a book out of it, and especially telling the reality of what it’s truly like being an expat trying to make it alone. So I did…well, the manuscript is done and got put aside. Long story!
I was done with Sicily and, truthfully, Italy itself and knew I needed to leave to keep up my serial expatting—or perhaps my sanity! I think I just couldn’t reconcile the memories of those years of “la dolce vita” and what it had become. A teenager’s view versus as an adult. So this time I decided to keep with the “international” cities and took off for London, where I put my hotel management and European hospitality management degrees to good use. It was a fantastic time, but also a very hard and scary time due to extreme stress, as it led to me getting a tumor, a rare and fatal-if-untreated disease. I didn’t even know I had it until nearly dying eight years later as the tumor grew and grew.
During the next eight years, I returned to America for a year and a half to take care of my best friend’s home and animals while she was deployed. That was an eye-opening experience! Needless to say, I was too European and sometimes you just can never really go “home” again. As soon as she came back, I went straight back to Europe, beginning in London, where I gained a TEFL certification, specializing in business English. After London came Rome again, then I started heading north, first to Reggio nell’Emilia, Italy. Home of the world’s greatest Parmigiano Reggiano, and where life was not as chaotic. As the itch and desire to see it all has never left me, my next stop was Lecco, situated on a gorgeous lake and in a bowl surrounded by mountains, on the northern border of the country. I think I was “making a run for the border” subconsciously! All this time, I’d been making money to live on by teaching business English in companies through language centers. I began doing more editing and copyediting work, specializing in proofreading, and that helped financially.
As none of these were ever really very financially lucrative, and by this time my body was giving out and so I left for Eastern Europe, where it was very cheap and they had a fantastic hospital attached to a medical university. The move saved my life, as the tumor was found three weeks after moving there and, I’m happy to say, a year and a half later I am 80% recovered.
That has never stopped me, though, even during recovery! As I had started writing a website about wine and olive oil (Hungary has amazing wines!), I decided Spain would be next for me so that I could discover all that is here. I first moved to Tortosa, where I spent six months, and then chose the Cadiz area (Rota, to be exact) for five months, and at the time of writing this I am in Cordoba in transition to my “final” Spanish city of — well, okay, it’s a tiny village with about two streets. BUT it’s smack-dab in the middle of a gazillion olive groves and lots of vineyards. I’ve made a great dent in tasting what’s here and expanding the Spain portion of my website.
All these years, coupled with my insatiable appetite for seeing new things, discovering olive oils and wines and gastronomy (always little guys, though, those little guys doing big things!), has sealed the digital nomad deal. I found that “have internet, will work” was definitely doable and in the cards for me. I speak two languages fluently, a smattering of Spanish, French, German and at last count 25 words of Hungarian.
I am 60 years old and having the time of my life! I chose an area to live in Spain where I can “finish” Spain’s oils and some more wines, and where there are some woman I meet online through the Costa Women’s network! I am absolutely looking forward to some get-togethers. Yes, a small village means no transportation, but choosing wisely gave me the opportunity to have access to a ride each week into nearby cities, and also someone I meet through the online Costa Women’s network lives nearby and arranges some get-togethers!
There are many things I’ve learned, and I think the biggest is that it’s never too late. Single? Who cares! Go alone! Of “older age”? Meh, who cares! If I can survive a usually fatal disease and still go traipsing around Spain, so can you! The only thing holding me back at any point is my own fear–usually fear I’ve dreamed up. I’ve said it before, I’m not rich, retired, nor have anything to fall back on (except for a best friend, the yin to my yang). I have no car and no household furnishings. I’ve gotten my belongings down to one and three-quarters suitcases (and that includes a lot of good wines and oils I usually end up lugging around!). Well, now I have a really good backpack and have learned to send my suitcases ahead to wherever I’m going because it’s cheap.
I don’t know what or where the future holds. Perhaps back to Italy on the eastern coast where I can get a ferry over to Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Greece–all with gorgeous wine and oils!
That’s my story and now I want to share with you a few tips and ideas on the business/digital nomad side of things. I’m sure some may be saying, “Oh yeah, okay, right, fine if you’re retired or with a pension or a huge savings portfolio or a trust fund.” I have many alumni friends who retired back to Italy after our school days (and later) and they are in that category. Or you’re saying, “Oh yeah, okay, right, fine if you’re single with no kids”…read on, especially to tip three! I didn’t become a serial expat just because one day I said “okay, right, I’m outta here.”
My top digital nomad tips!
1. Use what you have and know—and expand on that
As I talked about, in order to “finance” this little globe-trotting that I love to do, I got my TEFL certification, put as much experience as possible under my proverbial belt so that I could put something away to “move” on (deposits, etc.), and figuring out what else I could do. Because I had fluency in a second language and a seriously good handle on language and imagery, I began translating into my native language (only! I am adamant about a translator only being able to fully translate anything into one’s native language.). I joined translating and teaching groups on Facebook and a couple other places online, made contacts where possible, and mostly I learned from them. Yes, I can spot a “google translation” a mile away. Through a second language center with which I now work (and have for the past few years), they also throw some translations my way and even a proofreading job or two.
Because of my background as a legal assistant where I’d honed proofreading skills, through contacts I was able to snag a contract for a couple years with a magazine out of the US, for which I was the editorial assistant, copy editor and proofreader—through that, I made contacts with a few of the article authors, and developed relationships. I was then able to fully edit a magazine one of them was doing, and I’m now his go-to editor each time he does an issue. Keep good relationships with your colleagues, whether they are doing whatever your work is or even if they’re in any other position. You never know who will need someone who does your work.
2. Be loud! Word-of-mouth & contacting everyone you’ve ever met in your life
Join specialized groups of other digital nomads. Get a website, invest in that “.com” or “.xyz” – which is the “new dot com” and costs one-tenth per year to register. Invest in someone to help you if you aren’t well-versed – a fellow freelancer, perhaps, or do a quid pro quo with someone. But invest in it – SEO and internet presence is SO important. Promote your website on social media platforms.
Social media is a thing all its own, and is something I took the time to learn a bit about from an expert. That quid pro quo? That secondary magazine I spoke about doing full-on editing for is owned by a social media expert—we had a few Skype conferences and I took a few hours off my invoice. To be honest, I don’t do as much promotion as I should, but that should be changing!
Digital nomads, distance workers, remote workers…times are changing and more companies are hiring this way for nearly all aspects of “work.” Chances are that what you do, can be done remotely. Or if you’re ready for a change, take some time to learn something new that you can do—social media, websites, SEO expert…you can even be a remote virtual assistant!Love animals? Become a house/pet-sitter! Join a reputable group, though.
3. Do not give up. Remember: if you don’t like somewhere, move—you’re not a tree!
I spent my teen years surrounded by a couple hundred other expat families with children of all ages, who were no strangers to this moving-country-and-culture thing. We made friends easily and quickly with those who understood us. We learned smatterings of many other languages. And today, as adults in our…well, “upper” shall we say!…years, we talk occasionally in a Facebook group about how well-adjusted we seem to have become, and we wonder what it would have been like had we never had those opportunities to move around. Some of them remark how amazed they are that their own children have picked this acceptance up from their parents as well.
So if you’re wondering whether to be a serial expat or become a digital nomad, or even to move to a country such as Spain, my advice is this: try it. Life is far too short, trust me on this. Should you up and move without ever even visiting a city first, like I do?
No, I wouldn’t suggest it. I’m single with no encumbrances, so I can do that. And throughout all these expat years, including getting back in touch on social media with my former schoolmates from Rome, I’ve made friends and acquaintances all over the world.
4. Ask for opinions from expat groups, and make sure to get many opinions from people on the ground, those living in a certain place.
If a 44-year-old woman can sell everything, pack a few suitcases, and take off with only $5,000 – and become, 16 years later (okay, 15 and a half!), someone who has lived in six countries, 10 or so cities, speaks two languages fluently and can hold a baby conversation in about four others, survived a rare disease that’s fatal when untreated, moved three times since then using only buses and trains (and the occasional ship), and has done it all by letting go of things that, in the end, don’t matter (Remember those six or seven suitcases I started off with? I’m down to one and a half. And that’s only because I have a couple favorite blankets!) – and I’ve done it also by maintaining contact with people, having an open and willing mind, and doing internet research that puts me in contact with some great online groups.
5. My top tip is…do it. Try it.
You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. If you have children, they will be the better for it. They will take that fearless attitude into their adulthood, take that multicultural learning with them for the rest of their lives.Always remember to learn a little bit of the language of wherever you’re going (I’ll admit it, Hungarian is really hard…after one year, I left knowing about 20 words.). Speaking Italian has helped me tremendously here in Spain (plus all that Spanish/Mexican I heard when I was a child growing up in southern Arizona). Always have an open mind, and be willing to adapt. Eat the new foods, adopt the local culture – try flamenco! You may think “oh who in the world wants to see some old lady stamping around throwing up her arms and snapping her fingers and stuff?” I do! C’mon, let’s do it!
DO IT. TRY IT. YOU HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE AND EVERYTHING TO GAIN. IF YOU HAVE CHILDREN, THEY WILL BE THE BETTER FOR IT. THEY WILL TAKE THAT FEARLESS ATTITUDE INTO THEIR ADULTHOOD, TAKE THAT MULTICULTURAL LEARNING WITH THEM FOR THE REST OF THEIR LIVES.ALWAYS REMEMBER TO LEARN A LITTLE BIT OF THE LANGUAGE OF WHEREVER YOU’RE GOING
(2002)…As I sit in the main park here in Piedicolle, looking out over the incredible beauty of the Umbrian hills, I reflect on the last year that has culminated in these past couple weeks. It has been a road of a myriad of emotions, excitement, joy, happiness, doubt, frustration, fear, so much fear, but through it all an underlying constant peace. All around me are the sounds of my present new home, with few cars up here on the hill and people speaking in the language that used to be mine but which is inherently different. This hill town, while physically close to Rome, is linguistically a long way from the Roman dialect I spoke so long ago.
When I return to the house after this first exploration, the window is open to catch the slight breeze and the air is already slightly cool. The quiet here is intoxicating as it fills my ears and soothes my mind. I can feel my spirit beginning to calm.
It was the right decision.
Maria Vano is from New Jersey and has also lived in Italy, Hungary, Spain and Greece.
Find out more. Pouring the World is a blog about wines, oils, chef interviews, little gastronomic jewels. Pancake Soup is all about editing and the desperate need in the literary world for it! For the love of Melanzane is an older blog started back in 2012 with travels, interviews and guests post.
This article was first published in Spain and Me – Stories from woman who have made Spain home. An ebook put out by Costa Women.