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Kate: Driving like a Maniac

In our InterNations Recommended Blog section we let you take the spotlight! Expat life in general is, of course, a perfect breeding ground for great, user-generated reads, and life in Italy makes no exception. Take your time and browse the great blogs showcased in this article!

Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to Italy, etc.

I’m Kate Bailward, also known as Katja, or Katja_DLaM, and I write about my life in southern Italy at Driving Like a Maniac. I’m originally from the Westcountry in England, but I’ve lived in Italy for three years now, starting in the Salento region of Puglia before moving to southern Calabria and thence to Catania, Sicily.

I first moved here in October 2009, to start teaching English at a private language school. I didn’t really know what to expect when I first arrived, and it was something of a shock to the system. I spoke barely any Italian and I’d never lived abroad before. However, three years later I’m still here, with no plans to go back to the UK any time soon, so that’s testament to the fact that you can get through most things if you’re tough-minded enough.

When and why did you decide to start blogging about your experiences?

I’ve been blogging in various guises since 2004, so it wasn’t something that was new to me. However, DLaM is the first blog I’ve owned in which I’ve concentrated on telling not just individual stories but an overarching one as well – the progression of my life here - and I’m quietly pleased to note that there has been definite progression over the three years.

I started DLaM shortly after I arrived in Italy, once I’d got over the initial homesickness, so it’s been an entire documenting of my stay in Italy up to the present day. Many people start blogs as a way to keep in touch with friends and family back home. For me that was never a motivation. My family do read, but they’re not my main audience. I have a core group of readers who are also expats based in Italy, but over the three years the readership has grown to include people from all over the world. What’s wonderful is that I’ve made new friends through it, as well as being able to keep old ones updated; it’s become much more to me than just random scribblings disappearing into the internet ether.

Do you have any favorite blog entries of yours?

Although there are many funny anecdotes from over the years, some of the posts that make me the happiest when I re-read them are the ones about nothing very much more than peace and quiet. However, they summarize the very essence of la bella vita, and therefore seem appropriate places for new readers of the blog to start.

Tell us about the ways your new life in Italy differs from that back home. Did you have trouble getting used to the new circumstances? Did you experience culture shock?

As I’ve mentioned above, I was homesick at first. I couldn’t speak the language and had never lived in a foreign country before. Add to this the fact that pretty much as soon as I’d arrived the Salento started to be drenched in monsoon-like rain, and the friend that I’d arrived with left after a week, and you have a very unhappy Katja. This lasted for about six months. Not to say that I was miserable for the whole of that time, but it took that long for me to start feeling like I could do more than just grit my teeth and stay out my contract.

So what changed? Well, the weather, for a start. Yes, I’m that shallow. But I’ve discovered that, like the people of my adopted country, I’m a summer person. Winter is for hibernation. Summer is when Italy comes alive. If anyone reading this is thinking of making a life here, I can recommend starting it in the spring, rather than the autumn. Trust me on this one. Spring is beautiful, sunny and warm enough to cheer the bones in preparation for the thorough baking you’ll get in the summer.  Autumn is rainy and cold, and a lot of houses here don’t have central heating. Brrr. Also don’t – as I did the first year – go back to England from July to September. The summer months are the best ones here – why waste them in the comparative cold of the UK?

Do you think you were fully prepared for what awaited you in Italy? If you could, would you change some decisions/preparations you made?

No, I wasn’t at all prepared! I spoke no Italian, which had a major effect on my settling-in process. Sure, it made for some hilarious misunderstandings along the way, but it also isolated me at first. The Salento is not a major English-speaking tourist destination, so English is not widely spoken. I picked up functional language pretty easily, but that’s not enough for making friends. In the UK, if I’d moved to a new city, I could have gone to a café and struck up a conversation with someone. In Italy that just wasn’t possible. I spent a lot of time hiding away because I was scared to try to speak. This went on for the whole of my first year. If I could change anything, therefore, I think I would have made a much more concerted effort to learn Italian. But then again, I’m lazy as hell, so it’s entirely possible if I moved somewhere else I’d make exactly the same mistake again, just in a different language …

Every expat knows that expat life comes with some hilarious anecdotes and funny experiences. Care to share one with us?

Oh, far too many to mention! One of the early ones, the motorcycle diary, is a cautionary tale about the need for sunglasses and covering bare legs in hot-blooded southern Italy. More recently, I have written about turning a car into a makeshift boat (clue: it ended soggily), and the way in which seven year olds can bring you back down to earth with a bump. I’ve also got a bit of a soft spot for the story of how my bra nearly caused an international incident. Seriously …

Which three tips would you like to give future expats before they embark on their new life in Italy?

  • Get a working knowledge of the language before you move here. I’ve muddled by and do OK nowadays, but it’s taken me 3 years to get to upper intermediate level – so still a long way from fluent - in Italian. This is largely because I’m lazy and don’t study, but is also because I arrived here starting from cold, bar a couple of online lessons. Yes, it’s possible to get by if you arrive knowing nothing, but it will enrich your experience so much more, and make the settling in process a thousand times easier, if you can chat to people and make friends. However, if you decide not to learn Italian before you get here, I’m reliably informed that finding yourself a local boyfriend/girlfriend is the best way to get to grips with the language quickly. I’m still working on that one …
  • Make your own mistakes. This is, of course, completely contrary to point one, whereby I entreat you to learn from mine, but truth be told my mistakes are part of what’s made me love my life here.  And believe me, the first time you surmount a major difficulty, it’s the greatest feeling in the world.
  • Learn to accept the way that life runs here. You’re not in your home country. It’s the rule, rather than the exception, to spend an hour or more queuing in the post office. Wireless internet will fail to work on a regular basis, not just in remote areas but also in the cities. Electricity is ridiculously expensive and shops aren’t open on Monday mornings. On the bright side, however, once you’ve gained people’s friendship they will fall over themselves to be helpful.  Want a beer that the restaurant doesn’t have? No problem – the waiter will run down the road to his friend’s place to get you one. Need a different way to cook cime di rabe? The market traders or shop owners will be only too happy to give one to you. And the sooner you learn not to sweat the small stuff, and that people have different priorities here, the happier you will be.

How is the expat community in Italy? Did you have a hard time finding like-minded people or fellow expats?

As an English teacher I’ve always been thrown into a ready-made expat community, by virtue of being surrounded at work by other English speakers. However, although there are some days when all you want to do is to speak your own language and to have someone laugh at your jokes rather than just looking politely baffled at your culturally different sense of humor, it’s hugely enriching to get out of the expat bubble.  My second year in Italy, when I joined a local choir, was a real breakthrough for me, and the point when I realized that I was falling in love with Italy. For me, it’s important to have friends of all nationalities, not just your own. Work out what makes you tick and then use that passion to make new friends – friends who share that excitement. Language difficulties will disappear as you discover common ground, and friendships will be made that will last for life.

How would you summarize your expat life in Italy in a single, catchy sentence?

Driving like a maniac since 2009 – an English girl’s life in southern Italy.

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