Living the expat dream?

It’s 12:25am on a Friday night, and I’m a 20-something expat (a word we from England like to use so we can keep the negative connotations we place on “immigrant” away from us) living in Milan. Is it all Emily in Paris? Fashion, baked goods and handsome men?

I mean — I suppose the show isn’t too far off. If we swap baked goods for Neopolitan pizzas, and added the fact that the fashion and handsome men are the accessories of other women that I happen to notice instead of my own, then sure. It’s 100% Emily in PAris (note the capital A acting as the la torre Eiffel).

But as we, we being almost everyone in the world, know — it’s also been a strange year. Not quite the 20-something expat life of our dreams.

While Milan is all about lifestyle, that lifestyle has recently changed. The summer was full of freedom and celebration — finally liberated from the constraints of a quarantine and not being able to touch each other for months, Italians from all regions of Italy flocked to the glistening beaches that flank almost all sides of the country. Desperate to bask in the sun, sea and help re-stimulate the country’s economy, the mood was almost… light. This sense of newfound freedom and appreciation for life was the only makeup anybody needed, and the months spent in isolation faded from memory just like a long-haul plane journey after you’ve landed.

And now? Flash forward 2 months and the rapid change of season is among us. The skies are grey, the air is cold, and the streets are no longer overflowing with energy and passion.

I live just around the corner from a street so often buzzing into well into the early morning. Two inter-crossing roads, ironically joint by a Catholic church, is both the gay and ethnic district (what does that tell you about diversity in Milan?). The 4 euro cocktails that energize the liveliness of the mingling gay men that watch the sfilata (fashion show) of newcomers, combined with the late night coffees keeping the middle-eastern and Ethiopian communities awake, means that this small minority melting pot stays alive until 2am at the earliest. Thank God my window faces away from the street.

But now the silence is deafening — forgive the cliché. The 11pm curfew is reminiscent of the eerily spooky chapters in the final Harry Potter books. It’s strange. Not being directly affected by the virus (thankfully) this fear of the intangible is confusing for me. And it’s also dividing much of the population here. The Milanese who fear going outside in the rain in case they catch a cold are all too happy to continue smart-working and sanitising their hands at every opportunity. Meanwhile the ‘work-hard, play-hard’ types feel thatthe masks and new restrictions are a power grab from the government — after all, how many lives could a 11pm-5am curfew really save?

Being conscious of the fact that I will never have enough information to make an informed decision means I sit on the fence, not wanting to wake up one day with a fever and respiratory difficulties, but also not wanting to spend another 3 months at home baking bread that I’ll never eat and taking vitamin D tablets to make up for the lack of sunlight in my North-East facing apartment, senza balcone.

The world does feel particularly apocalyptic right now. The USA are about to have another election. I can’t pretend to follow American politics much, but being a global superpower and one of the UK’s only “allies” now that we’ve made sure to cut, burn and then piss on all ties with the EU, it’s safe to say the result of this election will have some impact on both the world and my home country directly. Also even if its politics don’t directly affect me, the voting outcomes are always a rude reminder as to the number of racists there are who remember to vote. Che peccato.

In recent times we’ve also had rising tuition fees, increasing house prices, rallies against ending racism, abortion and — hey, do you remember when both Australia and the Amazon were burning? Feels like eons ago. In short, being a 20-something right now is rather dire.

While Emily from Emily in Paris does deal with a long-distance relationship breakdown (pretty easily — go her) and an initial bout of loneliness and exclusion many of us “expats” have to face when moving to a new country without knowing the language; her broad smile and puppy-dog eyes leads her to a series of all’improviso sexual encounters (that all seem to end in an orgasm — hmmpf), a beautiful apartment in a major part of the city (old but also charming), and also, somehow, incredible career progression — all the while she’s dining out constantly, wearing a new outfit every day and shamelessly throwing away her morals in the name of “doing what feels good”.

I, on the other hand, am writing this from my bedroom comprising of 3 walls and a curtain, and living with a housemate who after 7 months has extended the conversation from “hi” and “bye” to “how are you?”. After making the wrong bachelor degree decision and subsequently having at least £70k worth of debt to my name, I still have no idea what career I’d like to pursue, let alone am I making steps to achieve it.

Having the external pressure of trying to dodge a mysterious but very real virus, a crumbling economy and ever-growing class gap back home, the added inner turmoil of trying to navigate a new culture and language, plan my future and achieve inner peace (that many of us 20-somethings are trying to achieve) has been a little rough. I don’t know if anyone would make a TV series about my life this year. I think failed bread making attempts and zoom calls complaining about how boring everything is would be a little too relatable for some.

But has it been all bad? No.

Despite my pessimistic tone, I’m actually (dare I say) happy. I decided to accept Milan for all the challenges it’s brought (and continues to bring) me. My self-confidence has been completely bashed this year, I endured being in lock-down hundreds of miles from my friends and family before it was cool, and the bureaucracy… oh God the bureaucracy.

But I’ve fallen in love and been heart-broken. I eat more pizza and sushi than you could possibly imagine (the pizza… oh God the pizza). I’ve learned to spend time by myself again. I’ve discovered a new appreciation for speakers of other languages, and have understood more about the kind of person that I would like to be. I’ve been challenged, and I’ll continue to be challenged which I think is an important part of life.

Do I have savings, career progression, or am I being chased by incredibly hot men who are good in bed? No.

But am I living my ultimate dreams?

Still, probably not.

But I am also surviving, growing and discovering who I am and who I want to be. I’ve met people who have shown me immense kindness, and have enabled sides of myself to come out I didn’t know existed. I’ve also reconnected with dozens of drifting friends, and have come to understand more about what’s important in my life, and what isn’t.

I’m privileged enough to know that that for me, right now, is all I need.

20-something Brit living in Italy, writing to destress.