The DINK* to SITCOM** transition living abroad
On the odd occasion that I get to see our old friend Roberta in Milan the following invariably tends to happen. At around the second bottle of red, she looks at me with an impish grin and asks: “Barcelona, London, Milan….Moniga del Garda…..Ma come mai, Em!?” It is a question I have asked myself a few times. MumAbroad asked me a while back to write a “My Story” blog but I really struggled to pull a piece together. I think that was because over the last few years what has been “My Story?” It has been intrinsically entwined with raising our young family, being the main caregiver at home, adapting to life in rural Italy and supporting my husband’s career. That is the story of our family and we have a beautiful one. Don’t get me wrong, I do feel very blessed. But it meant that there was a massive swing in the balance of our roles as a couple. We didn’t start like that obviously and by default “My own Story” became very blurred, less distinctly me and more about the four of us. I am sure that I am not unique in that regard. But the loss of my own identity has been at times a tough pill to swallow if I am completely honest. My story starts being born and raised in West Cornwall. I followed a love of languages and travel that post-University prompted me at 21 to take the plunge and seek out my first proper job in Barcelona. When you finally have to work at least do it in a great location, right?
I think that if you can fall in love with cities in the same way that you can fall in love with people, then without a doubt Barcelona is my greatest love affair with a metropolis. La Ciutat Condal was a heady and pretty exhilarating place to live aged 21. It became my beloved stomping ground and home for the next 10 years. I met my Italian husband there and also made many friends for life. This was a boom economy for Barcelona and Spain at the time. Recipient of EU funds coupled with investment from international companies that found it an attractive economic alternative over other major European cities at the time. Our group of friends were an international mix of like-minded good timers in their 20s and 30s looking to achieve and enjoy life. We worked for multinationals that had set-up branch offices in Bcn and over the years we built our own “village”. Those years in Bcn were both an invaluable lesson in life and from a career perspective.
Weekends were ski-ing in Andorra in the winter and swimming the coves of the Costa Brava in the summer. We learnt what calçots were, how to eat them and even like them! Sunday lunch often began at 4pm with paella on the beach in Sant Pol. We learnt the words to the FC Barça hymn. We drove mopeds to work. We would sing, dance and stumble along the cobbled streets of Las Fiestas de Gràcia in August. We banged our saucepans on our balconies when it was time to protest and we walked in peace marches. We would throw last minute Bbqs for 15+ people on our terrace on “school nights” in the summer. The fun-loving, spontaneous DINK years! The party was never-ending and it seemed like the sun was always shining. In fact, metaphor aside, in Barcelona it nearly always was. Madly and deeply in love with my Barcelona I thought it was the best place in the world to live at the time. A part of me will always miss her.
As we hit our 30s though the employment opportunities did seem to plateau out and we realised that to move on career-wise we had to change our base. A lot of friends were already doing the same, call it an awakening of maturity or just restlessness, but anyway all of a sudden our next party was our “leaving do.”
Our next stop was the obvious choice for career opportunities: London. We rented a classic Victorian two-up, two-down close to Clapham Junction and a convenient 2 minute stroll from Asda. We were on both the Gatwick and Heathrow flights paths, as is most of South-West London, and the trains rattling into the Junction became the background soundtrack to our new life in London. The capital city was quite a culture shock after our Barcelona village. We commuted out to the technology corridor outside of London. The frenetic pace of the rush hour, remembering to keep to the right, eyes down, it all initially seemed very fast and impersonal. The cost of living seemed astronomical too. On the upside the diversity of the human melting pot that is London was fascinating to us. Everyone mixed and flowed together and it totally worked! I do wonder though if that is still the same today in a post-Brexit scenario. The amount of work opportunities at the time was extraordinary too. I did a heap of interviews upon arriving in London and found my job pretty much straight-away. Again, I wonder if this is the same today there?
We realised though that the southern European way of life and warmer climes were really our thing. When an opportunity came up for my husband to work in Italy, we grabbed it. We were moving again after two years in London. Next destination: Milan. This time there was a new factor to consider; I was pregnant.
Upon arriving in Italy we had a few days before our belongings arrived and we could access our new apartment. I ironically commented to my husband that I was now homeless, jobless and pregnant. “At least you are married.” he replied with equal irony. Our daughter arrived in the world on a sunny Sunday afternoon in late September in 2008. Slowly we began to fall into the new rhythm of our lives in Milan with our beautiful bombshell of a little girl. I was lucky enough to discover Mums & Tots in Milan for foreign Mums in the city. This was an absolute sanity saver for me and I met some truly fabulous women who are still friends today.
My husband was getting to grips with his new job and it involved a lot of travel around Northern Italy. Milan was also very expensive to rent an apartment and on one salary and given his travel, we decided that moving to a rural location would be the logical next step for our new family life. This signalled the beginning of our transition from DINK towards SITCOM status. We took an exploratory trip to Lake Garda one day in early January. We were immediately struck by what an incredibly beautiful place it was and on paper it also made geographical sense for my husband’s travel. So once more the removal van was pitched up outside our door and we were off again!
We moved into an apartment in the old part of Moniga del Garda known locally as “il pozzo” (the well). Moniga situated on the south side of Lake Garda is a small, quiet residential village in the winter that swells with tourists in the summer season. There are three family surnames that dominate in the village. This meant that we were immediately an enigma upon arrival, in fact I am sure the local grapevine was positively buzzing within hours of us pitching up.
Our son joined our family in 2011 and our SITCOM status was definitively sealed when we bought our family home not long after. Lake Garda is a truly stunning place to live and as outdoorsy people we were immediately loving the nature around us and the many opportunities for walking, cycling, swimming and ski-ing. With two lovely children, a lovely home in a lovely location we had ticked all the boxes, right? Not quite. Not mine. But what was my box now anyway? The past few years had passed in a blink of an eye with the beautiful bedlam of raising small children. But I was itching to get back to work and the loss of identity outside of the home was beginning to nag away at me inside.
There were a few challenges to face though. I was a marketeer in a rural location in a foreign country. The main problem that I faced was that in my profession, marketing, the tools of your trade are rooted in your language. My first language is English and although my Italian was ok-ish at this point, it is difficult to present yourself for a marketing job speaking a second or third language. No matter how good you become, you are always on the back foot slightly and there is a question mark over your credibility or ability to perform. The second problem was my location. There were no multinationals or corporates nearby, like my previous companies, upon whose doors I could go knocking. And finally I had no real network of contacts in Italy, which is notorious for nepotism and “who you know.” It was definitely a frustrating time and there wasn’t really a clear path for me to pursue. I wish I could say that I suddenly became an overnight success, but that really didn’t happen. Everything has taken time, patience and a lot of perseverance. Another factor that came into play was that my industry had metamorphosed during that time. The digital age of marketing. I felt very much out of the game on all levels. It was time to go back to the drawing board, time to rethink and reinvent. So, I went back to school, did an online Masters In Digital Marketing in Italian to get up to speed with my sector. I revisited and worked my network of contacts from my previous work lives and at the same time gradually began to create a new network in Italy. I did some projects for free or at a reduced fee to get my foot in the door. Most have them led to further work. Slowly but surely the work began to trickle in and I began to secure some retainers and projects. I read recently that on average it takes 4 years to establish a new business abroad, versus 2 years in your native country. La Piccola Agency is up and running which was a big milestone in itself. The next will be to grow and build and always keep learning.
*DINK = Dual Income, No Kids
**SITCOM – Single Income, Two Kids, Oppressive Mortgage