Five years ago, newly engaged, with a newly incorporated business and a shiny new Italian passport in hand, we packed up six suitcases and boarded a one-way flight to Spain. Through a combination of adventurous spirit and complete naivete, we landed in Valencia, a city we’d visited once before, for less than a week. Three and a half years later (clearly haven forgotten how hard the first year in a new country was), we moved again, to our now home in Lucca, Italy.
Covid time vortex aside, it’s shocking that five years have gone by. But at the same time, life in Europe is life for us now. It’s where we’ve grown our business, gotten married, met some of our closest friends, adopted our dog, and bought our first house. As with all major milestones or anniversaries (euroversary?) it’s impossible not to reflect on all the ups and downs, challenges, adventures and lessons learned over the last five years.
The number one takeaway? The bigger the risk, the bigger the reward. Starting over, understanding new cultures, learning two languages, making new friends... it’s all been a challenge and a half. But (as we were all reminded last year) life is short and it’s only what you make it. So, for us, every single second has been worth it (vale la pena!), and we have every intention of continuing to push ourselves and take risks for the next five years, and the five years after that.
So what’s different about life in (southern) Europe vs. the U.S.?
Everything you’ve heard is true. Siestas, post-lunch passeggiatas, long, sunny aperitivo hours. Both Spaniards and Italians know how to slow down, open a bottle of wine, relax and enjoy life… which is wonderful until the moment you’re trying to get something done (home renovations, car registration, dental work... anything). There’s a “domani, domani” attitude that makes every task/project last faaaaar longer than it needs to. More often than not, we miss the efficiency of the USA. Life here is relaxing, but patience is key.
We never realized how unique America’s capitalist-centric society is until we lived in Europe. Both Spain and Italy have a very large middle class, resulting in a general feeling that everyone (or the vast majority of people) are in the same boat. People live in generally the same size houses (read: small) and have a somewhat similar financial status. Salaries are far lower than in the U.S but pay a living wage, and the people in the highest income brackets are heavily taxed. In general, there's a different relationship with money - it’s more about having enough to feel secure and have a high quality of life, and less about the opportunity to become a billionaire.
Perhaps one of the main reasons (in addition to the awesome free healthcare) we love living in Europe: travel is easy, cheap and accessible. The continent is small, and within a few hours you can be almost anywhere. Having a large handful of different countries/cultures/languages at our fingertips is a dream come true, and quite different than international travel from the U.S., which is usually a bigger and pricier trip.
Newsflash. Things are old here. Like, really old. Strolling down cobbled streets past 500 year-old churches may be lovely when you’re vacationing in Europe, but living in an ancient city is a whole different ballgame. When it’s hot, the streets of Valencia often smell like sewage because the sewage system is ancient and has to navigate underground Roman ruins. Here in Italy, we had a pipe break in our bathroom and watched as the contractor jack-hammered a six foot-wide hole into our tiled stone wall trying to locate it. We don’t have screens on our windows or a drier for our clothes (we literally haven’t had fluffy towels in five years). Let’s just say, there have been many, many times when we’ve missed how everything just works - and works well - in the U.S.
As privileged college grads, we were pretty used to the idea that we could find a good job anywhere we went. Before moving to Europe, we left management and director positions and thought we could easily figure something out while we worked on growing Cohica. A few months later, we found ourselves teaching English at a kids summer camp for $125 a week - talk about a dose of humility! Good jobs (which we did find later) are not easy to come by. This is why most people find a secure and well-paying job and stick with it, sometimes for their whole career. But work here is different. It's more of a means to an end, and who you are is not what you do. Life doesn't center around work, and very few people are impressed by a fancy resume or title (we tried when we first moved, and people literally did not care).
Spain and Italy (especially Italy!) have incredible food. Not just the cuisine, but the ingredients themselves. The produce is unbelievably fresh and local (usually from our region), and meals are prepared based on what’s in season. While we sometimes yearn for strawberries in the middle of winter, we’ve learned to embrace seasonal eating. It means that the food we eat is always changing, always fresh, and almost always sustainably grown and distributed. That being said, one thing that’s severely missing: fast-casual. The U.S. offers convenience and options… SO many options! If we’re lazy and don’t feel like cooking, it’s pizza for dinner. At least once a week, one of us yearns for a burrito. Enough said.
While Europe is full of different nationalities, there is a European culture that runs through every country. We love having friends from Sweden, England, Scotland, and Portugal, but multi-national doesn’t necessarily equal multi-cultural, and we miss the diversity that is found in (many parts of) the U.S. Italian culture is beautiful, but is largely based on tradition and the way things have always been done. When people from all different parts of the world bring different perspectives, foods, and traditions to one place, you naturally get a more interesting, forward thinking and modern society.
People often ask us if we miss the U.S. The answer is always, yes, of course. It will always be our home, and there’s a serious comfort with the places we’ve always known. We miss our families and our friends, the empowerment of communicating freely, and the ease of knowing how things work. And Mexican food. We really miss Mexican food. But life in southern Europe has offered many things that we were looking for - challenge, community, travel, work life balance and a very high quality of life. The low cost of living and free public healthcare allows us the freedom to comfortably work for ourselves and travel as much as we can. And the gelato doesn't hurt either.
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