Spring is here in Bologna. Pollen is swirling in the wind, vibrant greens have exploded, offsetting the city’s muted ochre, terracotta and rose coloured walls, and on most afternoons, Giardini Margherita is full of half-dressed students, soaking up the sun. In line with the arrival of Spring, my time in Italy is fast drawing to a close. Only eight more days before I move to London!
I’m very much looking forward to this new adventure, but am also a bit sad as about three months ago, I really started hitting my stride here in Bologna. My Italian was getting pretty good (for a beginner) and I got some cool part-time jobs that made me really feel like I was fitting in here: editing an English manuscript, teaching at an English school and other small jobs tutoring and babysitting.
While I’ve been living in Italy for the past seven and a half months, it took me three or four months to really feel like I belonged. So I wanted to share five things I have learned that really helped me settle in.
1. Join a community
Not knowing the language, underestimating how difficult communication was and struggling with the new processes and bureaucracy is incredibly difficult when you feel disconnected. One of the first things my husband and I did was to find a church community. As Christians, we know the value of being part of a community that meets regularly and church is really important to us. Within a couple of weeks of finding a church we connected with, we had met so many lovely people and had people to encourage us when things got difficult.
And there are so many other ways to get connected, such as joining an association like InterNations or signing up for a language exchange program or simply searching for local events for English speakers.
2. Be direct – ask for friendship
As a New Year’s resolution, I knew I needed to make more friends. There were people I knew through work and church but I wasn’t really good friends with anyone. I felt really lonely. So I messaged a couple of girls I had met and pretty much asked them to be my friends. That was the start of a great friendship – we’re even going to Florence this weekend together.
Interestingly, they said that they assumed I had heaps of friends here in Bologna and therefore probably wouldn’t have made the step to be close friends if I hadn’t told them I was lonely. It was a bit of a risk but it completely paid off!
3. Walk around
Bologna is a city of beautiful old buildings, pretty porticoes and history, history everywhere. Sometimes when I just feel ‘over it’ and don’t want to leave the house, I make myself go for a walk to the city centre and just look around.
I take my time to really look at things, rather than just hurry past as I do when I have a destination in mind. Or I’ll get something to eat and just sit in Piazza Maggiore, people watching and listening to music, perhaps writing if I feel like it. It’s my favourite way to remember why I wanted to come here and what I love about the place.
4. Go on a trip
There were many times when I felt overwhelmed with being in the same city and I just wanted to get out and travel. So I’d go on a day trip or an overnight trip to another city. Fortunately, Bologna is well connected by trains and you can catch a train from Bologna directly to almost every big city in Italy.
Spending the day as a tourist, taking photos, eating the local foods (each region in Italy has some type of food they’re famous for) is a great way to alleviate the boredom of living in a city without your usual friends and family, and the associated guilt at feeling bored when you are living a life people have only dreamed of. The best part of going for a small trip is that feeling of coming home when you arrive back to your adopted city.
5. Call home
This isn’t particularly mind-blowing advice, but at the start, I struggled to pick up the phone. I thought that I would be disrupting people back home if I call them just to chat about nothing. The time difference is also a little difficult to manage – Australia is alternately 8 hours ahead or 11 hours ahead, depending on daylight savings.
After the first few phone calls that tended to go on for an hour or so, I got the hang of calling when it best suited me and my family back home – I’d often talk to my sister while she was on the train to work while I was having a late night glass of wine. Frequently touching base is another good way to remember the good things about your life in a foreign country, I share the good stories, the nice things that have happened as most of the small annoyances really aren’t worth sharing.
I hope this helps anyone else struggling to settle into a foreign country. Feel free to comment if there are any other things you find helpful when moving to a new country.