Living the expat life in Sardinia
My parents divorced when I was six months old. I have no recollection of this time, what I do remember is having a bright and happy childhood filled with lots of hugs and kisses, from both parents, always. My early years of travel was the forty minute drive from one parent’s house to the other and back again, every other weekend, on Christmas holidays and summer vacation. I clearly remember those drives with my father; I would pick out landmarks to remind me that we were almost there. He would tell me all he could about our surroundings while The Rolling Stones played on the old Ford Bronco. Back and forth I went for sixteen years. I savoured every minute.
I really began my jet set life at the age of four, my mother and step-father took me to Cape Cod it was the first time I swam in the ocean and the first time I ate fish. It was also the first time I choked on a fish bone and it was the first time that my life flashed before my eyes. I swore off fish for a good twenty years after that incident. Every year we headed to the Cape, and every year the same armoured suit man sat in the corner of the dining room, and every year he scared the beejeez out of me, and every year my mother wanted a picture of me with him. One picture does exist, I have it in my possession, somewhere … maybe it’s only locked in my memory. But I have it.
During the summer holidays my father and his wife along with my step-brother would drive or fly to Florida. We would splash in the ocean, run around in the motel parking lot, steal money and candy from the vending machines, and get extremely sunburned only to later bathe in milk. I will never forget that experience or the pain.
It seems to me that my life has always been about getting going. Around the age of eight to twelve my father would take me on motorcycle tours throughout our city, I felt like I was in a traveling gang of elderly thugs who drank ice cold Coca-Cola from the can.
When I was sixteen, myself and seven other girls drove to Daytona Beach! Oh what a shock! All the people traveling, partying, just having a great time. I couldn’t get enough and four years later I moved to Australia. And that’s where the real story begins…
Moving to a new country, learning a new language and starting a new job are stressful factors for any expat. There are hardships to being an expat in any country. I’ve been an expat for eight years and in four different countries.
Bondi Beach, Sydney, Australia
My first expat experience was in Australia where I spent nine months living the life between the outback and the ocean. I worked in small beach-side cafes just to make enough money to travel further up the coast or deeper into the red desert. Some jobs lasted a weekend, some three weeks, but never over three months in one place, as my visa did not allow it.
Australia was an easy transition from my home and native land of Canada. Both countries speak English, albeit with different accents and slang words. I fit in easily here; it was my home away from home for almost a year. I met many other expats doing the same thing as I – traveling, and living the life we have always dreamed about. It was truly here, in Australia where I found my desire to travel, to see more, to experience life with both eyes wide open and write about it.
I grew weary of Australia; I wanted to experience and see more of our fascinating world. So I applied for a new job.
St. Helier, Jersey, United Kingdom
My apartment was the size of a jail cell, probably smaller, but it worked and it was cheap. I worked full-time in a snobby rich restaurant where Sirs and Madams dined. I made decent money enjoying the gratuity of the élite, not being taxed by the tax man, and I traveled around the tiny grey island. But something was pulling me to back to Canada.
After England I was in Canada for three years until the next expat adventure began. I worked as a waitress, bartender and manager at several restaurants throughout my Canadian city. Working as a waitress allowed time for travel and the generous tips helped fund the adventures that waited. I worked full-time, working nights and days, picking up extra shifts, longer shifts, a double shift just so I could sample Italian gelato or sit on Cuban beaches for hours watching the waves roll in.
When I wasn’t planning these short vacations, I was throwing the dart and chasing a dream, a dream to see and live throughout our beautiful world. A dream to be a nomadic expat.
There is always a next: the next town, city, beer, airport or acquaintance. While living one expat life, I was silently building and planning the next.
My third expat adventure came about one wine filled evening with friends.
“Just throw the dart.”
Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands
I researched this island and found it was an expat haven! Expats from all over the world had flocked to this stunning stretch of coast for years. Tax free, white sand beaches, a fantastic night life and lots of good work made Grand Cayman the ideal choice for me.
I applied to several restaurants via fax; I heard from one and accepted without hesitation. I worked for two years at a large restaurant on the famous Seven Mile Beach, I honed my skills as an international waitress and bartender, saved money, partied like it was nineteen ninety-nine, met hundreds of other expats from all over the world and set eyes on my future husband, for the first time.
When I wasn’t working I spent my time on the beach, in jujitsu class, yoga class, at friends’ houses and reading. I flew to one of Grand Cayman’s sister islands Cayman Brac and drove around this tiny island for two days. Exploring, hiking, being lazy in a hammock and sleeping all day. I was in expat heaven.
In 2007 my future husband called, and in May 2008 I packed up my bags for my fourth expat adventure.
By now I was a pro, I knew the ins and outs of being an expat, or so I thought.
Unlike the first three countries where I could speak my wild English tongue and use my working skills to make some money, in Sardinia I had no skills and I didn’t speak a word of Italian.
Finding new friends proved to be difficult. It took me over a year to befriend the one and only friend I have today. The Sardinian women want nothing to do with me; I can see it on their worn faces. I wanted to wear a t-shirt that said “Hey, I’m nice, and Canadian, talk to me.” Instead I cried on the bathroom floor, in my husband’s arms, on Skype to friends back in Canada and even in my dreams.
Thankfully life evolves and with it so did I.
I’ve learned the language(s), developed friendships old and young, cooked whole pigs in my oven without eating a bite and gone au natural in a setting where you can only feel with your soul.
I spent my first four years as an expat living in other English-speaking countries. The cultures were rather the same, the language was the same, mind a few slang words, and finding friends was easy, very easy.
Australia, England and Cayman Islands were all easy to adapt to in terms of fitting in as an expat.
Italy opened my eyes to the challenges other expats may face when moving to a foreign country. I have been privy to many of these obstacles and some I still face. Each day is a learning experience albeit in language, culture or traditions. Sometimes I wonder if I will ever really fit in, but these thoughts are few and far between when I look out my living room window to the amazing sea-view.
Challenges I have faced and fought while living the dream in Italy.
Living the Dream. When I hear this from people back home I silently cringe. We can live the dream in any city, town or country in the world. It’s up to you, to find your dream and start living it. It was my choice to move to Italy and start a new life: my dream, my goals, and my destination. I worry about bills, health, and making ends meet just like everyone else.
Language Barriers. Learning a new language while living in the host country can be a kick to your self-esteem. When I arrived in Italy I didn’t speak a lick of Italian. My self-esteem plummeted and I felt somewhat stupid. Stupid in the sense of not being able to take part in an ongoing conversation, not being able to follow said conversation and soon delving into my own English thoughts that related nothing to said conversation. I knew I had to change, and change fast or Italy would swallow me up forever. After four years in Italy I am still learning the language(s). I can hold conversations and follow along in others. It’s a daily struggle, an up-hill battle that only I can combat.
Finding Friends. We all need a little friendship. In the three English-speaking countries that I lived in, finding and making friends was easy. I spoke the language; I understood the subtle body language and tones of voice but here in small town Sardinia things were completely different. It’s a small town, smaller than I have ever lived in. Population 2000. Everyone knows everyone and they all stay safely close within their tight circle of friends and family. Wary of outsiders and their intentions but once these hurdles are fought; you will find a faithful friend forever.
Cost of Living. Everything in Italy is expensive. Gas is €1.90 a litre, my favourite yogurt is €2.89, fresh string beans €7.00 a kilo, two pizzas from the local pizzeria cost €15-20, six imported bananas cost €2.02, for doctors’ visits I have paid over €800 in the last four years! Here a hundred, there a hundred! The list could really go on; from our outrageous electricity bills to a water bill that never arrives, life in Italy is an upside down mixing pot of confusion.
The Unknown. I think one of the biggest problems Italy faces is the constant changing of laws, rules and prices. How can the price of a postcard stamp change so drastically? One day .80c the next €1.60, just ask my sister! There are so many unknowns in Italy that one wonders if the powers that be really understand what’s going on. For the locals it’s constant confusion by their governments. For the expat you hear, “You’re in Italy, get used to it!” I’m pretty much used to the unknown now, but I will continue to question why.
I’d never felt so alone in those first few months, so isolated, so scared of the adventure I’d just taken on.
I was an outsider, I didn’t fit in, and the 2000 population knew it. I was gossip and in no way like the rest of the women in this small town. Tall, blonde, athletic and I have big feet, an oddity in this short, small, rugged place.
There are still I few things I don’t adhere to as a wife to a Sardinian. I don’t iron jeans, socks or bed sheets, I re-cycle cans, paper, plastic and glass and I don’t clean the floors every day or twice a day. I sit in the town square with the men, smoking my one cigarette of the day while their wives pass with shopping bags in hand and faces up-turned. I don’t care because I Am Canadian. I also don’t hail to the almighty hand and word of my Sardinian husband, like most women here.
To fit in, I studied, a lot, by myself and with my husband’s help. I buried my nose in Italian Now! Level 1 by Marcel Danesi, listened to Italian Earworms CD’s (learning Italian set to music, awesome for the beginner,) studied the Italian dictionary, watched Italian movies with English subtitles, wrote down pronouns, verbs and memorized sentences that pertained to me.
E ora parlo e scrivo in italiano, And now I speak and write in Italian.
This bit of knowledge has been a godsend. Without language I would have nothing here, no job, no friends, no face to face contact, and no fun. I had to study, I have to study.
I studied Italian; maybe it was the wrong choice. I should have studied Gallurese.
Within one language in Sardinia there are a hundred others. In my town they don’t speak Italian (well to me they do) they speak Gallurese.
Gallurese is an Italo-Dalmatian romance langauge deriving from Corsica and the Sardo languages. There is nothing romantic about this barbaric tongue and there are no books to study it by.
Imagine moving to a new country with study books in hand and studying for a language that the majority in your little town doesn’t speak. My world is not an Italian world. My world is Gallurese. When I go to work all communication is in Gallurese, when friends come to the house Gallurese is spoken. I now I understand three languages: English, Italian and Gallurese.
However, I only speak two: English and Italian. Gallurese I leave for my husband and friends. They get a kick out of the few words I speak. Some locals have asked me not to speak in dialect (even the odd word) as I am not Sardinian nor from the Gallura and is considered disrespectful. But these people are few and far between and have a foot already slung in the grave.
Being an expat in Sardinia is a wonderful eye-opening experience, I’ve learned how to cook, how to relax and how to enjoy the wondrous beaches this island has to offer.
People often ask me “Don’t you miss home?” Home is where my heart is, home is where I lay my head at night. What I’ve missed most about my years abroad is my family. I’ve missed my three nieces growing up into young beautiful children and their laughter when I call them a pet name. I miss friends who I’ve had for ages; I miss their warm smiles and open hearts.
I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Every day is a new day, and every day I learn something new. In the beginning it wasn’t easy; I wanted to fly away from this island and never return. But I’m stronger than that, I’ve evolved. Some say I’m stubborn. The point is: this expat is never going to retire. I’ve persevered and continue on, on the adventurous path my parents laid before me.
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Jennifer Avventura is a freelance writer, runner, and Aunt to three golden nuggets and lover of all things chocolate.