Dina Vivan is a forty-four year old Italian woman born and raised in Italy who grew up with an international mindset and a love for languages. During her career as an Administrative Assistant she accepted a job at a local NATO base where she met her American husband. They have two children. They returned to live in Ferrara, in the north-east of Italy after nine years of living and working in Belgium.
I became a stay at home Mom after our second baby was born. We relocated to Belgium due to my husband’s job and I managed to raise two small children in a foreign country with two official languages (French and Flemish) besides the two languages spoken at home (English and Italian).
What I remember from that time is the loneliness of being away from friends, family and anything familiar, but also the strength and willingness to make a good life for myself and my family. I began taking Flemish classes, as we lived in Flanders, to find my way around the grocery stores. I would sit down with junk mail, promotional flyers and a dictionary to translate and learn the names of common objects/foods. I had to find a preschool for our daughter and try to make some friends.
When I first heard a native English-speaking mom while dropping off my daughter at preschool I felt like clinging on to her with a big sigh! I then realised how lost I was feeling after a couple of months of Flemish immersion and what a relief it was to hear a familiar language. Doing anything required energy and strength: learning to navigate the roads and how to get to the nearest shopping mall, finding the best supermarkets, where to find some Italian food, doctors, hospitals and parks. Everything we needed had to be discovered; words and phrases had to be learned. We eventually made good friends, and the kids had a very good childhood experience in Belgium.
I eventually took more Flemish classes and then started studying French again after many years (I had taken this language in high school). I volunteered in my kids schools and studied to apply for jobs with the European Commission in Brussels. I passed all three concours and was selected for the Personnel Selection Process, but at that point we were in the middle of relocating to Italy so I stopped pursuing this goal.
I supported my husband in looking for a job abroad and he took a position in Italy because, unlike me, he never learned to love Belgium and didn’t feel like he could successfully integrate and have a happy life there. We knew very well of the challenges that people in Italy were facing, with painfully slow bureaucracy, a stagnant economy and a terrible political situation, but we still decided to do our best to contribute to society and raise our children in a country where they have roots.
Even though I’m Italian, after many years of living abroad I found returning to live in Italy harder than I had expected. Once again many things were different. I felt the only familiar thing was the language. Anything else I struggled to understand or to make sense of. I had to learn to live in my own country.
We have raised our children to be fully bilingual: I always speak to them in Italian and my husband in English, and they reply accordingly. English is our common language at home. While living in Belgium the kids had learned Flemish at preschool and during after-school activities and started to learn some French. They are now immersed in an Italian environment, getting bored in English class at school and inevitably starting to forget Flemish, although we occasionally keep up some words with the Duolingo app and traveling to Belgium one or two times a year to visit friends and keep our connections with them alive.
People in Italy are generally a lot “warmer” than in Belgium. We’ve found a small school that provides a good education for the children and with time we’ve found what we like best in town and made friends. Ferrara is a good sized town for young teenagers as they can have more autonomy than in a bigger town, although activities for families are lacking, especially in the summer.
Belgium is better organised for families in general: schools give the choice to bring a packed lunch from home, have a better calendar, activities are planned ahead of time and information provided is clear. Each school has an after-school programme until 6pm which allows the country to have a higher employment rate for mothers, they aren’t under-funded and offer a free high-quality education starting at two and a half years of age.
The country also has wonderful public parks (domeins) with playgrounds and ponds. As cold, rainy days are more common in North Europe, there are a lot of indoor activities for families, including well maintained and affordable public pools with indoor water slides, play areas, cafes, science and children’s museums. The government offers substantial tax breaks for large families (3+ children).
The weather is definitely better where we live now, although the summers are too hot and humid to stay in town for too long. We are able to see my family and my hometown more often. Italy offers a high standard of cuisine and it is easy to find restaurants offering quality food at a reasonable price. We live in the middle of town and can easily walk and bike to anything we need, which is a good change as where we lived in Belgium (in Flanders in the outskirts of Brussels) we were always in the car and only walked/biked in our free time.
I’ve found good friends in the local international community here and I volunteer in the kids school, help foreign families with their Italian struggles, translate documents and regulations, etc, and give private lessons in Italian and English.
I’m now looking for a paid job that still gives me the flexibility to take care of my family. I don’t know how long we’ll stay in Ferrara, where we’ll live a few years from now or where we’ll retire to; our options and mindsets are open to possibilities!