Every year hundreds of thousands of families emigrate abroad from Britain alone and last year my son and I were one of those families. Our destination; Florence, Italy. Unlike many of these families though our reasons for making the move were different to most. I wasn’t relocating to be with my husband or for love, nor for work or because I had been given a fantastic opportunity for a more comfortable way of life. In fact, by going I was sacrificing many of the comforts I had grown to depend upon as a single mother living in England and I knew that for a while at least, my son and I would probably find life a lot harder. I decided to go for the same reason that most young, unattached, non-parents go travelling and move abroad every year – I wanted a new experience, a challenge, a new culture. Valid reasons that somehow people aren’t always so convinced by when they hear you are a single mother with a child to support.
After years of dreaming of moving abroad and doing what I would undoubtedly have been doing had I not been blessed with my son, I finally decided to go for it. After spending the summer in Italy and returning to England I realised how sick I was of just coasting. I sold the street-food business that I had spent over a year building, my Toyota Prius, or ‘Japanese princess’ was listed on AutoTrader and I spent what felt like months, but in reality was only a couple of weeks, packing up, selling, giving away and storing our possessions. During this process, I realised how little these things really meant to me and I felt liberated, ready to transition into our new life, only the most important things which had no monetary worth packed in my suitcase along with our clothes; our photos and memories.
As my son and I prepared for our move, now at my mum’s house, my head was filled with all the tasks I had to perform – finding a school for my son, a place to live, a job, packing, all the while listening to Italian audiobooks. I barely had the time to appreciate something which I now rarely get the chance to experience – being looked after and having the help and the support of my family.
When the time came to say goodbye to my family and England, it finally hit me. It was really happening. It wasn’t a dream, it was real life. I hadn’t quite realised that the physical part of moving abroad was only half of the journey. The actual sticking it out and making it work was going to be the even harder part.
As the EasyJet plane took off for Pisa I looked down at the country I had spent most of my childhood in, at the green fields and countryside below and the life that had been comfortable but had stifled me for so many years and I felt a strange mix of excitement and fear. Could I really do this? I had enough money to last me a few months, a part-time job doing social media, a business idea and my six-year-old son to support. Yes, I had brought Enzo up by myself for all these years but I had always known I had my family to help me if I needed it. Now I really would be alone; a single mother stepping into the unknown.
I spent the first week in Florence in a state of fight or flight panic, the city seemed so different than when I was there before. Everything seemed busier, I went out in the early evening and the streets were filled with Italians in passegiata, people laughing and jostling past – a stark contrast to the sleepy seaside town I had lived in in England since my son was born. I had the first week to myself to get acquainted with my new job and to find a home before my mother flew out with Enzo, spending a few days with us before returning to England.
I felt exposed and bare without Enzo by my side for the first time in so long like a woman feels without her handbag but magnetised by a thousand. I missed him like a limb. I started to panic and wonder what I had done, why had I come here. Was it for a dream, for the romanticism of living in Italy? I loved this country – it inspired me. It was one of the few places I have ever been that I felt I could call home one day but now here I was, craving to be back in my little house in England, being able to pop round to my mum, being able to communicate with anyone I wanted to without first having to plan what I was going to say. Yes, I had been bored in England, I hadn’t been challenged but maybe the challenge was overrated?
When my mother and Enzo finally arrived the following week, I waited for them at Santa Maria Novella station with baited breath and cried when I saw my son’s face in the coach window. “Mummy,” he shouted, excited and happy as ever and as I held him I realised that I needed my son perhaps even more than he needed me. He was my reason for everything. I had brought him here to start this new life and I had to make it work for his sake, I had no other choice but to do it.
We found Enzo a place at a school just over the road from our new apartment. The teachers were friendly and the children had only started school a month earlier; it was their first year so Enzo wasn’t the only one adjusting. For a week or so he seemed to really enjoy it. I felt so proud of him, in a new school, with a new language. But things changed. He was physically and mentally exhausted, trying to decipher what was being said around him all day. He would get frustrated and angry at home and I began to wonder if I should go back to England. I felt so selfish and guilty taking him away from his comfortable life for my own silly dream. But I decided to stick it out, to give it more time, to keep going. Being in Florence was scary but the idea of continuing with my old life felt scarier still. I couldn’t go back.
I started working on my business while Enzo was at school. The babysitting agency was an idea I’d had when we spent the summer in Italy earlier that year as I’d been unable to find a babysitter for a reasonable price who could speak English. I spent over a month in Florence and never did get to go for out for aperitivo in the end. I hoped my business would help families travelling to find childcare they could rely on but also expat mums like me who didn’t have the support of their family to help with their children.
I designed the company logo. I built a website, all the while settling Enzo in at school and taking Italian lessons and language exchanges and working. We began to make friends and Enzo started to be himself again. One morning he woke up and just started speaking Italian without even realising it. I started to feel that maybe following my instincts and coming here had been the right decision. Even though it was difficult at times, we were becoming stronger, we were starting to develop a life in Florence and I wasn’t just existing anymore in the little bubble I had been in for so long. My son and I were both becoming better people for it.
When I made the decision to quit my social media job and focus on my business it was difficult. Again I had to put all my faith in a positive outcome. I advertised in the local paper and in the language schools for babysitters who could speak different languages. I began to build a team of babysitters, all of whom were intelligent, kind and experienced with children. I marvelled at how talented they were, some with the ability to speak up to four languages fluently, most with degrees, and they were now all looking towards me to find them work. I couldn’t let them down. I had to succeed.
I wrote articles for travel blogs and for the local English paper. I networked at mum’s groups, sent emails to every company I could think of, worked on social media and established relationships with everyone with whom I could collaborate. I visited countless hotels and businesses. There were days that I felt nervous and I forced myself to go in anyway and there were days that I was buzzing, happy and expectant about the business I was creating.
All these efforts are beginning to pay off. Requests for babysitters are starting to come in, increasing every week, and I’m able to fill these requests with the increasing pool of talented women I represent. Every time I get a job for one of my babysitters I feel I have done something worthwhile. I have found someone work and I have helped a mum by finding her someone trustworthy to look after her child so she can go out, or go to work or do whatever it is she needs to do without worrying.
Our adventure is only just beginning but I feel as if I have grown and achieved more in the last few months than I have in the last five years put together. Our apartment is beginning to feel more like home and my son and I are re-establishing our family routines: swimming at the weekends, shopping at Saint Ambrogio market, Sunday mornings watching films, and treat meals at the Mercato Centrale.
I am still working late into the evening most nights; partly because I don’t want to risk leaving my success down to chance, partly because I am so passionate about my business that everything else seems like a pointless waste of energy but mostly because every time I walk past Enzo’s bedroom and see him fast asleep, I am reminded that he has me and only me over here and I can’t let him down. I hope one day when he grows up he will remember how hard I worked to look after him, how brave his mummy was and I hope it will inspire him to pursue whatever dreams he may have.
There are still days when I miss my mum and my family and I think to myself; blimey it would be good to have some crumpets with marmite and cheddar cheese right now and have the sound of English TV on in the background. But then there are so many more days when I feel invigorated and alive when I have met someone new from another part of the world or done something to feel proud of. We have friends and family visiting us to look forward to. And my son and I are even closer than we have ever been before. Just him and I, the two of us taking Florence by storm and consuming our own personal bodyweight in nocciola gelato!