3 Things I’ve learned from Living Abroad

It’s been two years since my family and I returned from our extended-but-not-nearly-long-enough stay in Florence. When I think back, and really concentrate, I can imagine our little house in the rural suburbs so well that I can still feel the cold terra-cotta tiles of the floor on my feet, the sticky surface of the old wooden kitchen table under my elbows, hear the squeak of the closet door in my room and smell the fig tree outside. When I reminisce with the kids, it thrills me to see the same slightly painful longing in their eyes. They get it. It wasn’t just me there.

There were so many things about that experience that made it special, and I’ve written extensively in this blog about our daily adventures. There was much material for me to draw from. I’ve never written so prolifically in my life, before or since then, even if much of it was minutiae only interesting to me.

With the passage of time, I am now able to see the big picture more clearly. I can sit back and ponder the ways in which that experience changed me. Yesterday during a yoga class, when I was supposed to be clearing my mind, I thought of three key lessons, more like gifts, that I took away from our time in Florence.

1. You Can Do Less

During our normal, non-Florentine existence, our family lives in the Silicon Valley. We love our little town, the weather, our wonderful neighbors and friends. But life can get a little frenetic. Being a parent in this area, where expectations are as high as the cost of living and competition is fierce, comes with the challenge of helping kids be happy and balanced. I know this is a huge topic best covered by experts (which I am not).

But I can tell you that something about spending a school semester outside of our usual bubble did bring to us a little bit of perspective. Instead of worrying about which competitive soccer team the kids made or which musical instrument they should learn, I picked them up from school every day and headed straight to the nearest gelato shop. Then we would go to the park and they’d play on the climbing structure. One day a week, they played after-school soccer. No games, no uniforms, just playing. On weekends, we would pack a small bag and go on a day or overnight trip to a Tuscan hilltop town and walk around. Period. That was our existence. It was easy and glorious. We enjoyed the gift of time.

When we left Florence to return home, we tried to hold onto this gift. It began with strict rules about only doing one sport at a time. To be honest, as time went on and we re-acclimated to our surroundings, we got busier. However, there was definitely a shift of perspective that has stayed with me. When I think about what’s really important, it’s not finding all the right activities with a college-bound resume in mind. I ask myself what makes the kids feel happy, balanced, their best selves. What makes me happy and balanced? I sometimes get it wrong and get caught up in something that doesn’t fit this way of thinking. And, oh yes, we are busy again. But I strive to let go of the competitive thinking that can hinder true happiness and growth.

2. You Can Live Small

This lesson is the cousin of the lesson above— not exactly the same but definitely in the same family. I remember being overwhelmed at the thought of what to pack for our 3-month stint in Florence. It was sweltering mid-August when we arrived and would be chilly late November when we left. What things would we need? Which toys and stuffed animals? Which vanity “essentials?” Which shoes? We managed to pack everything into a couple of large suitcases, and off we went.

The answer to our earlier question was that we didn’t need much. We settled into our small house, with our few things, and our small car parked out front, and we were fine. We didn’t miss the stuff or the space. We enjoyed an intimate breakfast around the tiny kitchen table. We huddled together on the lumpy sofa, in front of the small computer screen, for “family movie night.” We had no clothes dryer, no air conditioner, not much heat, and a lovely bathtub with no curtain and water trickling from a hand held shower head. At first it was all strange and new and exciting, and eventually it was all routine. At no point were things so inconvenient as to make any of us unhappy.

 

Now that we’ve been back two years, we’ve become reacquainted with the joys of owning a clothes dryer. However, I haven’t forgotten the simple lesson, indeed a gift— the knowledge that you don’t need many things or much space to be completely satisfied. Nor have I forgotten the crisp freshness of sheets dried out next to a fig tree.

3. You Can Keep Friends

With the amount of time I spend talking about our time in Italy, you’d think we lived there for a year or more. Yes I’m slightly obsessed. The truth is that we were only there a little over 3 months. Soon after arriving, the kids began school at the International School of Florence and with that, upon us was granted the 3rd and most important gift I’d like to talk about.

We walked into the student and parent community feeling somewhat sheepish about the brevity of our stay. Would anyone bother to get to know us and actually befriend us? For us, it would mean the difference between a rich and joyful experience and a lonely 3 months. But what would be in it for them? I soon learned that this was a very special community, tight-knit and familial and yet very welcoming. Since this was an international school, we made friends from all over the world, many of whom we still treasure to this day. From our perspective as newbies, we learned from these friends how much it means to keep your heart open and welcoming. And since then, I’ve learned that it doesn’t take much effort (and is well worth a lot more) to keep a place in your heart for those you’ve let in.

As I write, I’m working with some of my Italy friends on a plan to run a half marathon in Las Vegas later this year. I’m so grateful to have them in my life (thank you Facebook) and I eagerly await our reunion.