So, my husband accepted the job in Italy. We were moving and we needed a house. I have heard that moving is one of the most stressful things one can do. Add to it the challenges of an international move, and stress doesn’t adequately describe the feeling.
The company set up a trip for us to go house hunting in Parma. We were put up in a very nice hotel right in the center of town. We walked the narrow, cobblestoned, beautiful streets and explored our new city. The buildings were architecturally beautiful. Many had interior courtyards, carved edifices and delicate detail. Parma was gorgeous and romantic and everything that I had hoped for. I was excited.
House hunting in a foreign land is challenging. There is the language barrier and cultural expectations that must be tempered. And there is the fact that most American houses are larger than what Europeans are used to living in. Space was an issue. I had reduced our belongings by 1/3, but we still had more stuff than the average Italian family. I meticulously filled out the forms telling the relocation expert what we were looking for. Our relocation expert, Ignazio, arrived in a fancy big car to drive us around and look at houses. My excitement grew. We were driving around Parma and the buildings were just gorgeous. The countryside was stunning.
In my excitement, I asked questions, I commented on how lovely the town and the surrounding villages were. I tried to engage Ignazio. Yet, every time I made a comment, Ignazio ignored me, and when I asked a direct question, Ignazio looked at my husband and answered the question. I seemed to be invisible, although, he clearly heard me as he was answering what I had just asked?? There is a saying the USA, that a happy wife equals a happy life. Clearly, this was not an idiom in Italy, or at least not with this guy. The thing is, my husband is happy wherever. His housing needs are much simpler than mine. I wanted to find a place that would not only fit all of our stuff, but also, one that would make the kids comfortable and happy. When I walk into a space, I can envision where every piece of furniture will go and I can quickly assess if the space is big enough. Machismo Ignazio didn’t seem to realize that I was the one that he needed to please. The first few apartments and houses that he showed us were not even the right number of bedrooms. What he called a bedroom would not fit anything more than a twin bed. Where would wardrobes go?? My excitement was waning. My excitement was transitioning to worry and frustration with Ignazio. Surely, there had to be bigger spaces. It felt like there was a puzzle piece missing. His car was bigger than some of the places he showed us (ok, that may be hyperbole, but you get the idea).
After a few days of house hunting, I was near hysteria. We were running out of time and there did not seem to be anything in Parma that fit our family. Plus, Ignazio was still ignoring me and my feedback, thus, we were not making any progress. A friend in the USA hooked me up with a producer of a popular international house hunting show. They wanted us on the show. I saw angels and heard harps playing. Salvation was on the way. Uh . . . no. Spoiler alert, if you are a fan of these type of reality shows, you may not want to keep reading as I am about to burst your bubble. Pre-production called me and explained that they do not actually help you find an apartment. The show features families who have already found a place to live. They move the family completely out of their apartment, film it empty, film the family looking at a bunch of other apartments that no one really intends to rent, move them back into their apartment and film the result. “Why would anyone do that?” I asked. That process did not seem like it was going to help my stress levels. We declined the show appearance. One more trip in the big fancy car did not help either. I was no longer enjoying my first visit to Parma and I was on the verge of causing a scene at the relocation offices.
One evening, after yet another stressful and unsuccessful day of house hunting, we decided to go out for a walk and find a restaurant that the hotel had recommended. Armed with a map and American confidence, we set out. While the narrow, cobblestone streets are charming, they are also quite confusing. We got lost and the streets were empty. This was surprising for a Saturday evening. We would later figure out that we were far too early, but I digress. We went into a few shops and asked if they spoke English. No. We gave them the name of the restaurant and the map and pointed. Nope, they couldn’t help us.
So there we were. Standing in the street, tired, frustrated, running out of time to find a place to live, lost and hungry. Anyone familiar with the old Jack Lemon movie The Out of Towners? We were that couple.
As we stood there staring at the map, tears of emotional exhaustion in my eyes, a garbage truck the size of a golf cart pulled up. A man got out and approached us. He spoke no English. He looked at our map. We showed him the name of the restaurant. He pointed in a few different directions. We were still confused. He waved his hand. We stood there with blank stares. He waved his hand again and added a head nod toward the garbage truck. “I think he wants us to go with him.” I said. “Should we? We don’t know this guy. He could drive us somewhere and murder us after stealing our wallets and jewelry. We have 2 children at home. We cannot get murdered in Italy!” We were armed with American confidence AND American fear culture, but again, I digress.
I still do not fully understand why, perhaps our sheer physical and emotional exhaustion took over, but, we decided to get in the garbage truck. The gentleman drove us around for a few minutes, picking up garbage bags that had been left on the streets. Then he delivered us to the front door of the restaurant. We thanked him effusively. He smiled and said “Niente. Buon appetito.”
Then something wonderful happened. The stress dissipated and my husband and I started laughing. In the USA, a garbage truck would NEVER offer to drive you anywhere – liability and union rules. Nor would we ever agree to get in a garbage truck with a perfect stranger. Too scary. But here in our new country, the garbage truck was a sign. Here, in our new country, we were going to have to learn to adapt. We were going to have to accept that the best apartment may not be the size of the house we left behind. We were going to have to embrace the changes, the stress, the new rules, and, the adventure of it all. We were going to have to learn to recognize that sometimes the most beautiful carriage is not a big fancy car, but a golf cart sized garbage truck.