by Melinda Gallo

My expatriate experience

I know quite a few expatriates who live in Florence now, and the one question that they generally have a hard time answering is why they came to Florence in the first place. Some people found love, got married, created families, and never left, but many others like myself came alone (as I did back in 1997) and found themselves not wanting to leave.

I consider Florence my home. Even if I were to leave, I would still feel connected to Florence. I don't feel this bond as much with California where I was born and raised. I love my country and especially my state, but it didn't provide me with what I really needed in my life: a chance to find my true self.

When I graduated university, people would ask me where I was going to work with a degree in French 18th century literature. I was fluent in French, but besides teaching, no one could see me working in any company. I told everyone that I wanted to work in France, and many people mocked me for my naïveté and told me to come to my senses. I usually heard something like, "No one is going to hire a new graduate to work in France. It'll be at least 3 to 5 years before that'll even be possible."

I graduated in December of 1989, and by the beginning of February 1990, I had landed a job in Paris. The company that hired me was a French software company that develops a database program that I still use to this day. When I ended up telling people about my new job, most told me that I was lucky. But, I'm not sure I believe in luck as I believe that I too played a role in getting that job as well.

I moved to Paris in May 1990. Within a few months, I had a studio apartment near Parc Monceau in the 17th and walked fifteen minutes to work every day. At times, I felt so French that I would sometimes forget that I was American. I walked around my city and adored it. I honestly never believed that I would ever leave France because I couldn't imagine a place more perfect for me. To this day, I still hold Paris dear to my heart.

I didn't meet any Americans until I had lived there more than four years. I wasn't interested in meeting other Americans at the time because I felt it would take away from my experience. I wasn't interested in meeting people who would complain about how different things are in France compared to the US. I seem to have an easier time than most at just accepting the places in which I live. I noticed the differences, but couldn't judge that one was better than the other.

One day, I saw ads in the FUSAC, a French/American classifieds paper distributed all over Paris, for a pottery class and a writing class. Both of these hobbies had been gnawing at me for years and finally I decided to sign up for both.

After only a few writing classes, I felt that what I really wanted to do was write. When I was taking my first 18th century literature class, I read "La Religieuse" by Denis Diderot, with whom I share a birthday, I decided to become a writer. His book inspired me tremendously, but I felt that I couldn't write until I had something to write about.

I broke up with my then boyfriend as I realized that we didn't fit together; I couldn't see my life with him any longer. It all became even clearer when, a few weeks after that one of my best friends, Pierre, committed suicide. I felt tremendous amounts of guilt as I had had the urge to call him for many days and never picked up the phone. "Tomorrow," I kept telling myself, but tomorrow came and it was too late.

I couldn't bring myself to go to his funeral in Lyon, which is only a few hours away from Paris by TGV, as just the thought of it now still inundates me with sorrow. He was 25 and had his whole life ahead of him. At that time, I told myself that I would do everything in my power to always listen to my heart. It was a painful lesson for me, but to this day, I try to continue to do so.

I quit my job shortly thereafter. I had moved out to Saint-Germain-en-Laye, which is a beautiful suburb on the west side of Paris, with my ex-boyfriend for a year, and after our break-up I decided to move back to Paris.

Upon my return to Paris, I felt as if I had lost my bearings. The entire life I had created with my ex-boyfriend had disappeared. Our friends took sides and mostly chose to be with him because I was the one who left. I was alone in Paris and never felt worse.

I tried to focus on my work and found myself working 10-hour workdays; I was the only one in the company who had three job titles. Writing was my trusty friend who helped me to get through many dark moments. It never numbed the pain, but it allowed me to step into my pain and sadness, and slowly go through it.

I eventually met a British guy who loved France as much as I did, but he was living in England. I had just started my consulting business and was able to move anywhere, so I did. I moved to England with much happiness to just pick up and start afresh.

After a year and a half, we broke up and yet again I was forced to make it on my own, but this time in a country that I didn't consider my home. I loved England and have fond memories of living there, but I think I mostly didn't feel at home there because I didn't choose England, it chose me.

I filled my time with reading, writing, working, running, and learning about crystals, tarot cards, astrology, and other unconventional, but interesting, subjects. One day when I felt that I couldn't continue my life as if it were on hold, I decided to move to Italy for a few months. I don't know what made me think of going, but I had always wanted to learn Italian.

I chose Florence because I was told it was the best place to learn Italian. I had been to Florence only once for a visit the year before and found it charming, but I really fell in love with Siena. The only problem with Siena was that it was a little small for me, and after visiting it a few times and walking around, I felt there wasn't much to it.

I had my logical reasons for coming to Florence: to learn Italian and to find my inspiration to write, but after being here only a few weeks, I just couldn't bear to leave. Before arriving in Florence, I had planned on visiting Venice and living in Rome for at least a month or two, but those plans disappeared after I arrived in Florence. Looking back now, I don't really know why. I just felt impelled to stay. I felt that Florence had given me a heartfelt welcome, not by the natives, but by the city itself. I felt at home in Paris because I transformed myself and became French. But, Florence allowed me to be me and commended me for it.

Florence gave me a chance. A chance to finally follow my heart completely and without fear. It was my chance to leave my old life behind and recreate myself. In essence, to be reborn.

Each time I leave Florence, even if it's for the day, I feel a pang of sorrow in my heart. I love visiting other cities and countries, but I feel that a part of me will always be here in Florence. I feel a sense of motherliness that I have never felt anywhere else. When I am in Florence, I feel as if I can settle into her warm embrace and any problems I might be having will just work themselves out.

I feel very strongly about people who are thinking about picking up and moving to another country. I think that if we have a desire that is brewing deep in our hearts, we should listen to it carefully. In life, there are no mistakes, there are only experiences that we take with us as we continue along our paths.

I don't know what everyone else's experience is like because each person comes here for different reasons and different expectations. Some people live abroad and enjoy it, but they feel more at home somewhere else. I think that living abroad is a wonderful experience that allows us to stretch ourselves, but maybe it isn't forever for some.

I do not know what life has in store for me, and I actually prefer it that way because I love the journey. Even though I know that there will be winding roads, steep descents, and treacherous climbs ahead of me, I am content because something wonderful is always waiting just around the bend. My greatest joy is when I'm able to stand still for one moment and look back to see just how far I have come, and then to look ahead to see where I will be going.

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