Ciao! My name is Garrett McKenna. I’m an American originally from Boston. I moved to Italy on September 28th, 2005. Bologna (the city of tortellini and ragú sauce) was my first Italian “hometown” and I’m currently living in Milan (the city of fashion and design).
1. Why did you move abroad?
After I finished college, I decided that I wanted to “explore my roots”. Like almost everybody from Boston, I had both Irish and Italian ancestry (my Dad’s side is Irish and my Mom’s side is Italian – both going back to great grandparents). I moved to Galway, Ireland for ten months and worked at a bar/restaurant. After that, I returned to the states for a bit before setting off for Italy. When I first got here I had no job, no friends, no place to live, and I barely spoke any Italian. It was supposed to be a one-year-experience thing, but here I am more than 5 years later…
2. How do you make a living (working? Tell us about your experience)?
At first, I did what a lot of expats do: English teaching. It was really the only job that I could do (being that my Italian sucked). Getting a job teaching English is really easy, and there is a big demand for it in Italy, because it’s one of the European countries with the lowest level of English proficiency. The job wasn’t bad and I liked being up in front of the class teaching. I have always enjoyed being the center of attention, and teaching was a way for me to sort of “run the show”. Also, all modesty aside, I was really very good at teaching. I had a great relationship with my students, I always got them laughing, and I used my creativity to keep my lessons entertaining. One thing you can definitely say about my lessons is that they were never boring!
After a few years of teaching in Bologna, I moved with my boyfriend (who I met here in Italy) to Milan. He had a good job opportunity here and, for me, teaching in Bologna or teaching in Milan was all the same, especially because my great group of English- speaking expat friends (American, British, Scottish, Irish, Canadian, and Australian) were all more or less going their own way, returning back home, or moving on to the next adventure.
Thanks to the combination of my improved Italian and the fact that I finally gained dual American and Italian citizenship (after a crazy, long, and painful process of tracing back my Italian blood to my great grandparents) I was able to get non-English teaching jobs. My first job was a relocation coordinator, helping non-Italian speaking expats working for big multinational companies with their transfer to Italy. After that, I finally landed a job that related to my college degree in the field of communications. For the past 3 years I have been doing PR and press office activities for companies that need somebody that knows English and Italian.
I also still do some private English teaching on the side as well as translations and voice recording for some extra cash because Milan is expensive and the average Italian salary is ridiculously low! The common denominator in all the jobs I’ve had in Italy is English – it’s the card that I always need to play because what I may lack in Italian (which everyone speaks here) I make up for with my English (which is a rare thing).
3. How often do you communicate with home and how?
I usually talk to my parents about once a week, though sometimes it can be once every two weeks. Skype is nice because we get to “see” each other, but I usually have a lot of things to do around the house so talking on the phone is a nice option because it allows me to “multitask”. I stay in touch with most of my friends with Facebook or sometimes on the phone too. I also get cards and packaged every once in a while which is always well appreciated.
As far as physically seeing people goes, I’m always home for Christmas and in the summers I alternate between going home one year and having a vacation with my boyfriend the next.
4. What's your favorite thing about being an expat in Italy?
The fact that I’m “different”. Among my group of friends, at work, and in my apartment building I’m not just another Italian, but I’m “the American”, the guy with the non-Italian name and the foreign accent that sometimes can’t remember the right word in Italian. In Bologna, I mostly hung around with other English speaking expats, while here in Milan, I’m the only American that I know and I’m surrounded by Italians. It’s cool and it makes me feel like I’ve really assimilated into the culture.
5. What’s the worst thing about being an expat in Italy?
Having my family and friends so far away is not the best thing in the world. I mean, I know that it was my choice to move to Italy, but sometimes I really wish I could have everybody from my American and Italian lives all come together. Also, sometimes people here forget that I come from a different culture with a completely different language. This can be frustrating when people expect me to behave, think, or talk 100 % like an Italian guy would.
6. What do you miss most?
Kraft Macaroni n’ Cheese, Hamburger Helper, Buffalo Wings, and Miller Lite beer.
Anything else? Oh yeah, obviously, my family and friends.
Besides that I miss the convenience of America. In the USA you can buy whatever you want, whenever you want, and wherever you want (and it’s either probably on sale or buy one get one free!) In Italy, if you need to get something at a store (whether its tomatoes, a t-shirt, batteries, or nails) it can sometimes be such a hassle. Either the store doesn’t have it, or it’s sold out, or it’s not available in the color you need, or it’s not compatible with the version you have, or it’s only available on the 7th Wednesday of every month with and even number of consonants in its name and only if the sun is shining and the day before wasn’t a public holiday.
Also, even though some people say it’s insincere, I also miss the friendliness of Americans. I miss the way that if you bump into somebody in America they say “Oops! Sorry!”. I miss the way that the cashier in the supermarket says” Hi how are you? Can I help you with anything?”. I miss the way that when you are walking around the park, a perfect stranger can say “Beautiful weather today, isn’t it?”. These things just don’t happen in Italy. If you bump into somebody they just glare at you, the cashier at the supermarket doesn’t even respond when you say “thank you”, and you’d probably get locked up in jail if you started talking about the weather to strangers. Of course I’m generalizing and exaggerating here, but you get the idea…
7. What custom/ habits do you find most strange about your adopted culture?
Italians hate air conditioning. As you can imagine, that doesn’t go over too well with me, being an American and all. In my ex-office, I would always argue with my co-workers when they wanted to turn the AC off or complained of it blowing directly on us. I told them all to bring a sweater to work, even in August, because you can always add an extra layer if you’re cold, but I, who am roasting my butt off, can’t work in underwear…
Italians also believe in this thing called colpa d’aria. Basically, it’s the belief that a cold draft of wind can be responsible for a myriad of ailments from a stiff neck to a stomach ache to a headache. I’m pretty sure this ties into their aversion to air conditioners.
Another point, though this is really banal, is that when you go to the movies in Italy, you get a row and seat number where you are supposed to sit. The amazing thing is that Italians are really infamous for not respecting the line or waiting their turn, but people will strictly adhere to their movie theatre seat assignment even if the theatre is completely empty!
8. What is a myth about your adopted country?
People back home find it weird when I tell them that it gets cold and actually snows in Italy. I think a lot of Americans have the idea of tanned guys with Sophia Lauren on the back of their Vespa zipping around the streets of Italy under the warm Tuscan sun. Summertime can be like that, but we definitely have four seasons (though our winter is a lot milder than a Boston one).
I also think the concept of the “bella vita” is also a bit misunderstood. Maybe if you are here on vacation, then it seems like the bella vita, but I’ve been living here for a while now. Don’t get me wrong, I love it, but there are days when I am rushing, stressed, late for work and days when I get caught in the rain without an umbrella only to find that the store I was going to is closed. You know, “regular everyday stuff”.
9. What advice would you give other expats?
The hardest part is finding the courage to move to a foreign country. After that it’s all an adventure. It can be fun, frustrating, new, exciting, scary, challenging, and confusing, but it’s worth it. I think that if you’ve ever considered it, then you should do it. It may not work out, but at least you’ll be able to look at your mental checklist, tick it off, and say “Hey, I tried it. Now I know that it’s not for me”.
Also, don’t get discouraged by red tape! Sometimes, sitting at home in America and researching on the internet, it seems like a hopeless situation. You really just need to save up some cash, buy a ticket, and figure out the rest when you get there!
10. When and why did you start your blog?
I started my blog, A Change of Underwear, at the end of October 2010. I’ve always dreamed of being a comedian or a radio personality or something like that (I’m ready for an audition whenever you want!). Basically, I really only feel 100% me when I am expressing my opinion, making people laugh, and ”just being Garrett”.
My blog was a way that I could keep my bill-paying day job and still have some creative outlet where I could express myself and get some feedback. I felt that I would be able to talk about my life as an Americano guy living in Italia in a way that would be interesting to more then just other expats.
It’s really given me a lot of satisfaction and quickly became my hobby of choice. I often find myself thinking “Now why didn’t I start this blog thing sooner?”.
It’s a way that I can put my thoughts down for others to read (I think it’s a pretty human thing to believe that your opinion and ideas really count) and it’s proved that there are other people who think the same way I do, have had the same experiences that I have, and enjoy certain things that I do.
My blog is called A Change of Underwear because I feel that I have changed as a person. Changed from my old pair of American undies into a fresh Italian pair.
I’d really love it if you could stop by my blog. Leave me a comment and let me know what you think.
Garrett's blog, A Change Of Underwear
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