An Extrovert’s Struggles in Small-Town Italy

I barely made it three months in Italy.

Most people are surprised when they hear this, though not all.

There are the usual suspects who go, “But…Italy?!”

But there are those who quip: “Italy’s great for visiting, but not for living.”

Duomo, Milan by Expat EdnaExpat Edna and spritzes in Milan, gelato in Verbania by Joe ProvostDSC_7060.jpg- Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported

I have to agree, as much as it pains me to do so: I had been obsessed with Italy since I was nine; for fifteen years I’d tried to teach myself Italian and prepared for the day I’d inevitably move there and, obviously, love it.

I very much did not love it. Not small-town Italy, anyway.

It’s been a year now, which I think is enough distance to finally explain why things went south*:

Lanes of Milan by Expat Edna

I sometimes seem reserved in person, but I’m a huge extrovert.

Like, actually enjoys large gatherings of people, kind of extrovert. Can’t live alone and needs roommates, kind of extrovert. Can’t-be-left-completely-alone-for-two-days-or-I-fall-apart, kind of extrovert.

I’m the kind of person who would be totally happy never having a single day of alone time.

My Italian apartment by Expat Edna

I quite liked my Italian apartment, but I was SO ALONE.

The thing about introverts is they need time by themselves to “recharge”, right?

Time alone is death to me. I despise it. Just a little bit, and I get depressed. Too much of it, and I will actually wither away into a shell of myself.

I constantly need interaction, socialization, stimulation. I write every blog post with a show on in the background, and can only fall asleep listening to said shows. I always keep my social calendar packed and have text conversations going with at least ten people at any given time.

For me, when I’m feeling down, I recharge by going out — preferably to a busy bar, or packed park, or crowded concert.

In short, I need people. 

Aperitivo, Milan by Expat Edna

All this to say, moving to a small town anywhere was always going to be a struggle for me.

I thrive best in cities of at least five million. (Shanghai is currently at 24 million and I feel so alive.) Nameless Small Town had about 65,000 people (and felt like only 1,000).

It was the type of place where the historic piazza is the only attraction in town, and the rest of it — my apartment, my office, the train station — was all a 15-minute-walk-radius from that square. The type of place where I got confused looks on the street because people weren’t used to seeing an Asian around, and wondered how did I end up in their town?

Where most people were either ten years younger than me or thirty years older, and my Italian was about as good as their English (which is to say, I pantomimed a lot).

My first day there, I had my first-ever panic attack.

If there’s a version of claustrophobia for feeling trapped in small towns, then I had that, bad.

Here’s the part where someone might say, “Well you complaining idiot, if you were so unhappy, why didn’t you just leave?”

I did, often.

Milan was an hour away by train (a train that only ran once an hour…) and I was there nearly every free chance I had. The weekends I wasn’t in Milan or elsewhere for work, I would fly back to Paris to recharge in the big city. Eventually it got to the point where I was flying back to France every two weeks.

Old church, Milan by Expat EdnaSofa Cafe along the Canal, Milan by Expat EdnaSONY DSCDining and wandering in Milan by Expat Edna

photo of me above courtesy Tom

But you know what, Milan didn’t cut it for me either. From everything I’d heard, I was expecting a fashionable city with charm and food that would convince me to stay. Instead I found a gritty city that still felt small and unexciting, with generally underwhelming food that led to me cooking pasta at home most nights.

Worst of all, there were very few bloggers and no Gaelic football. One team did start up just as I was on my way out — but for the majority of my time there I was quite alone, trying to meet acquaintances of acquaintances, while bugging every person I knew to come keep me company.

(And while I didn’t meet that many people in the city, the handful I did get to know told me they didn’t enjoy living in Milan, either.)

So with that said, the biggest of thanks must go out to Tom and Erica for making trips out — when they’d never met me before — as well as Paris friends Joe and Andy, for helping me appreciate the nicer sides of both cities.

Leaving my Italian apartment in Autumn by Expat Edna

With Small Town Italy getting me down, and Milan not doing much to help, my boss at the time ultimately realized things weren’t working out for me — and I do appreciate that he allowed me to continue working remotely from somewhere else, anywhere else.

So it was exactly a year ago, on the eve of Thanksgiving, that I packed up my things and left Small Town Italy for good. My stint there had affected me physically — I looked terrible and lost a noticeable amount of weight in a short time — as well as mentally: to this day I still can’t quite hear Italian accents or look at Italian restaurants the same.

I know scores of expats who adore the country and tell me I was just in the wrong part (Go south! they all say), but it seems to me the real charm and appeal of Italy is the countryside experience: going to an agroturismo, getting away from it all; all that jazz that would make me want to throw myself onto the nearest train, hobo-style.

I’d like to go back to Italy, of course — I’ve heard great things about Florence and Rome; and of course, I adore Venice — and I will, but only to visit. Not to live.

*before any Negative Nancys start commenting, there are additional factors that contributed to this situation that I can’t discuss in a public forum. Just trust me, it was never going to work out.

Anyone else? Ever move somewhere where you just didn’t click with the city?

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Comments

  1. I can see how claustrophobic that might be. My current city is 100,000 but it feels so much smaller! It’s made me truly realize the city girl I’ve become. I think if I were not living with built-in company (fiance) I would’ve high-tailed it out a long time ago! But I feel so fortunate that I ended up liking it, especially after moving here blindly.
    Your story sounds like it might also be a case of “the wrong place at the wrong time”… you waited your whole life for that moment but obviously real-life stuff happening at the same time didn’t jive with it, you know? Maybe another time with, of course, other people :)

  2. I really appreciate your honesty and opening up like this. There’s so much out there about introverts but extroverts have their struggles too. And for me, it’s fascinating to hear your experience about how people make you feel. I’m ambivert who enjoys tons of time alone but nothing recharges me like a visit with a friend or two. But when I am in a big city with tons of people and I feel anonymous, I have the opposite sentiment from you. I think that is so cool! Just how people are so different! I applaud you for really giving it a chance but also for ultimately honoring who YOU are. That’s the most important thing. Who cares if Italy is right for everyone is? If it’s wrong for you, no need to apologize for moving on to what makes you happy. Bravo!

  3. Nowhere is for everyone! I am the exact opposite of you as far as personality—I need my alone time or I go crazy! But I can understand how someone could be the opposite, of course.

    I don’t think small-town anywhere is good for foreigners, unless you know someone or have people around your age! Even I wouldn’t like that. I love small-town Spain, but that’s because I know people, have family and friends around, and speak Spanish quite well. Makes a difference!

    Personally, I could never be 100% content with a big city. (Madrid is not my thing.) But as they say in Spain, “Para gustos, hay colores.” (To each his own.)

  4. I don’t want to be a complete hater, but I did not enjoy my short time (4 days) in Milan, so I can see that not going well for actual living, extrovert or not! At least you got out after not too long, eh?

  5. I totally feel you. I was in Torino for 3 weeks for work and it felt terribly isolating and lonely. On the bright side, everyone was really nice to me since I couldn’t speak any Italian and tried to help me in stores, restaurants, etc. I did appreciate that.

  6. Well, we are obviously the exact opposite. Small-town charm and alone time are what I love! Bug I totally get different strokes for different folks – glad you made it out relatively unscathed!

  7. I get it. I totally get it! I am rather the extrovert also (except when I am exhausted and then I avoid the world for a bit). I can manage a day on my own as long as I have some kind of contact with friends (WhatsApp and twitter make all the difference). Two days and I start being convinced the whole world hates me and I am a terrible person! So glad I now have the other half for company (though it is hard for me this week with him being away)

    I lived in Rome and loved it to bits. But it is Rome. And I had a roommate but I still remember suffering at Easter when my flatmate went home to her family in the south and all my Erasmus friends went home and most of my local friends I assumed would want to spend time with family!

    So basically, I get it! I also work better with people around me or otherwise I need music or TV shows also, always have done (family friends have a strong memory of me on my tummy doing homework in front of the TV surrounded by books) :)

  8. As we learned many times on our trip, not every destination will be the right fit for you and sometimes you have to know when to fold! (Ironically, that was a lesson we learned first & hardest in Shanghai!) I also definitely agree that some places are great to visit but, for whatever reasons, might not be the best to live long-term (and sometimes that’s not even entirely clear until you settle somewhere for a longer period of time).

    Also, three months isn’t nothing. Maybe it’s just a fraction of how long you intended to stay, but you gave it a good shot, and when it wasn’t working, you came up with an alternative plan and decided to give that a try instead. No shame in that! You didn’t love Italy, we didn’t love Paris, there are crazy people out there who don’t love London… if we all loved the same places, the world would be a very boring place indeed!

  9. I visited Italy for the first time this year. I went to visit friends in Torino. Honestly, I didn’t love it. I felt no WOW factor. Maybe my expectations were too high from all the “But Italy!” remarks we’ve all heard so many times? Maybe it was situational? All I know is it was lackluster at best. However, it was a short trip and only one city. One day I fully inter to give Italy another shot.

  10. I’m a big city gal too – though I do appreciate and enjoy certain smaller places…it all depends. I lived for three years in a ‘city’ of 120,000 and when I left I was just so done with it. Now I’m living in Canada’s biggest city and if I move it would likely only be to a bigger worldly city rather than to downsize!

    Glad you gave it the good old college try!

  11. You know, I think moving to a small town is always a really hard change – for extroverts and introverts – especially if you don’t know the language very well. I’ve had friends that moved to small towns in Europe and were really disappointed because even though you’re living in a really cool country and you’re a train ride away from amazing places, it’s hard to make friends in a small town. All that is to say, you gave it a shot and when it’s clearly not working out, what’s the point of living a life you don’t enjoy?

  12. With so many blog posts on the wonders of small-town Italy, it was interesting to read your stir-crazy take on the situation. Thanks for being honest!

    I’m originally from a town of 2,500 people, so being in a small town doesn’t bother me as much as it does others. That being said, I’m very happy to be living in a bigger city at the moment–there’s so much more to do! (And public transportation, thank goodness.)

  13. To be honest, I been following you for a while, and maybe I’m a wird person, but I’m a super extrovert person who needs alone time every now and then. I will never get tired of Italy, small or big town it smells culture and tradition to me. I do understand you are Asian, and after 7 years in China, I will never get tired of Shaghai or even Ningbo, I assume you speak mandarin and Chinese people will always try to engage with you, well … This is not goimg to happen in Europe. I’m living in a small town in the border, between Belgium and holland, and let me tell you I love Italy hahaha on the other hand I do remember your reasons and for the same ones I HATE Bali. It suppose to be a beatiful trip to cure my soul but it ended up in a so miserable jorney. I think if back that time you were in Japan instead of Italy, today your post will be about how much you hate Japan hahaha Personally I don’t think I will go back to Bali. The more important thing is, one year later, here you are, enjoying life!!!

  14. I kind of understand that feeling, though I’m definitely not as much of an extrovert. The small town I stayed in in Italy was great, but it was a university town with a lot of international students so there was more interaction. I doubt I could live long term in Italy, but Florence was the best place city I visited there (I really didn’t enjoy Rome).

  15. I love this because I’ve discovered I’m the opposite–I need a healthy balance of people and alone time, and I found it best in a smaller city (Santiago’s got a little over 95,000 people) rather than a big city like Madrid. Your apartment looks like a dream to me, but I also understand going stir-crazy somewhere, especially when we stick out as Asian women. I definitely felt that in my college town after 4 years.
    I’m glad you know what you want and need now!

  16. Negative Nancy says:

    Had you lived in a city/town of less than one million people previously?

  17. I understand you, believe me! It’s really hard to move to a small town in a new country where you can’t speak the language. To be honest, I don’t think it’s even that much about the size of the city you move in as a foreigner – it’s about the community (specially when you’re an extrovert!). I’m something in between (both extrovert and introvert at times) and, even though Lausanne was small, I found the community brilliant! London, on the other hand, is massive… and it’s hard to actually create a lasting community (with everyone being so busy, so far away, etc). That, together with the fact that it’s just overly crowded wherever you go… drains me.
    When I whine about where I live, my friends tend to say that any place will be wrong if the rest of your life isn’t quite ok… but I disagree – I think your “home” needs to be aligned with who you are, otherwise you’re already off to a wrong start!
    I’m glad you made it to a place that resonates much more with your personality!

  18. Your candor and self awareness is charming. I’m enjoying reading about your adventures!

  19. I’m not particularly extroverted, but I can’t handle small-town living either. (I lived in a small town during college. Never again. My college best friend and I are from Chicago and agreed that we thrive best in areas of 1 million+ people.) Also, I’ve traveled quite a bit in Italy, but never to Milan because I heard it was an underwhelming, industrial city. I think it’s hard for people to relate if they’ve never lived somewhere that made them truly miserable, especially on a physical/mental level, but I definitely see how leaving Italy was the best choice for you. I hope you’re doing much better nowadays!!

  20. Ahh Edna, you are such an extrovert and reading your post, I am just glad that you accepted that things weren’t working out in Italy, and moved on. I know if it were me, it would have been really hard to come to that decision, feeling like I was giving up or not trying hard enough to make it work or something. Which isn’t true at all, and it’s good you have the self-awareness to know what environments help you thrive. Hope the people-loving Edna I know is feeling energized and alive in Shanghai :-)

  21. Thanks for the shout out! I’m not surprised that you struggled in Vigevano. I mean, I loved the town square, but I don’t think I could live there. When I was back home in the UK, in my small little town, it got to the point where I was taking as many trips as were financially viable (hence me snapping up your offer to visit you!) And Milan itself…I enjoyed it, but it’s definitely not the most buzzing metropolis in the world. I’ll have to make it over to Shanghai at some point, or gently coerce you into visiting me here in Taipei!

  22. Girl, it’s like you’re reading my mind. I’m in the middle of a small “city” (I’d say town) right now where there’s apparently a population of 88,000 (WHERE are these people?). I live on the outskirts too and I can’t just walk downtown; I have to grab a bus. Everything here is so spread out that it’s mostly just countryside and, as someone who thrived on living in Mexico City – one of the biggest cities in the world -, it’s been really tough for me too. I totally understand where you’re coming from.

  23. Oh no! What a shame. Sorry you had to go through all this. Must have been really disappointing to have dreamed of a place since you were so little and then have it so let you down :/ I guess the same thing sort of happened with me and Spain…I’d planned to visit there ever since I started learning Spanish at age 12, but then when I finally went to study abroad there in college is was so NOT what I expected, I ended up leaving half-way through the program, I was really THAT unhappy there.

  24. No place is right for everyone, and I think Italy tends to be an extremely polarizing place – people either love it or they hate it, and that’s magnified even more when it comes to living and not just visiting. I moved from Canada to Rome on little more than a whim just over two years ago and while I’ll admit that it’s worked out spectacularly well for me, I also recognize that the whole experience could have just as easily slid off the rails, gone differently than expected or wanted, and ended up with me heading onto another place in search of a city that “clicked” with my personality. I’m a total introvert and I adore (and crave) serious alone-time, and I think that was what actually made my first few months here (before I started to meet friends and make connections) work out instead of falling flat on their face. If I had been an extrovert like you, the aloneness and cultural isolation of even a big city like Rome would have driven me out very, very quickly – I can’t even imagine what a small town would have been like! Good for you for giving it a try, deciding it wasn’t right for you, and moving on in search of what is right.

    (PS just discovered your blog and am enjoying reading through some older posts!)

  25. Thanks for the shout-out, love! I didn’t realize that Tom had never met you in person either. That’s so funny because you both are so a part of my life, even if it’s just OMG Edna would totally drool over this meal’ or ‘I bet Tom would approve of the underwear calendar that’s on my fridge’ ;)

    So happy for/proud of you for making the changes that you needed to to be happy. We need a Skype/gchat date after the holidays. Or I will continue to send you photos of delicious seafood until you die of jealousy <3

  26. Oh, that’s too bad your time in “small town Italy” wasn’t all that happy a one… Now you know you thrive in large cities – so maybe you’ll Rome a chance in future. In our relationship, George (being raised in Europe) loves people and large cities, and Janice prefers quieter places.

  27. i was in a small town in southern italy, it was ok for three months then it just got unbearable. I stayed a total two and a half years and decided to leave. Best decision in my life.

    • @bfbc I think the warning sign for you was “it was OK”. There’s a book out and I hear that the author says about deciding…
      =
      “Saying “no”
      When deciding whether to do something, if you feel anything less than “Wow! That would be amazing! Absolutely! Hell yeah!”—then say “no.””

      I should have left a few cities MUCH earlier and even several social interactions that weren’t a “HELL YEAH” but I try to give everything a chance. But I guess those are a “Hell No!”

  28. I grew up in a town with 70,000 people. It was fine, because I had a social net, mates at college etc. I had a great social life and there were many students around me everywhere. It was and still is a young city.
    Then I lived in Vienna for years – and it was perfect. The ideal size for me.
    But then I had to move to a small town – and with small I mean: less than 12,000 inhabitants. IT’S HELL!!!! I can’t wait to get out of here – back to a city with 2 Million people. After a year of almost dying of thirst I will finally be me again, alive again. Oh, I can’t wait!

    You should have moved to Rome or Florence instead. :)

  29. I didn’t love Milan either! I think what you said is mostly true, you’d have enjoy the getting away from it all feeling because that’s where a lot of the charm lies for most places in Italy. I never really imagined what it would be like for an extrovert. Actually, I’ve never really read an honest account of what it’s like to BE an extrovert. Thank you for sharing!

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