2 years Later – What I’ve learned as an “Economic Migrant” in Europe

We’ve been in Italy almost exactly 2 years now.  A few thoughts….

2 years Later – What I’ve learned as an “Economic Migrant” in Europe

Rev. Dr. Tim TenClay


Let me start out with a little disclaimer: I’m a married, straight, white, male American with two young, blond, outgoing daughters.  Each of those descriptors makes my life easier than that of the “average” immigrant in Europe (if, indeed, it is possible to speak of an “average migrant.”)

Nonetheless, about 3 years ago, we began preparing for a move to Italy, where from a technical perspective, we would become “economic migrants.”  Often, people in our situation, refer to ourselves as “expats,” but I dislike that word.  To me, it seems a not-so-subtle way of saying that “we” (generally, white mid- to upper-class Americans or Europeans) are not “them” (“migrants.”)

I have learned a lot over the past two years of living in Europe as an “economic migrant.”  Here are 10 things I wish people knew about the experience:

  • “Being legal” isn’t easy.

When I came to Italy, I did everything “right.”  I had a passport; I had a visa; I had all my documents; I had a helpful employer.  Still, knowing what paperwork to file, where to file it, when it had to be done, and what documents I needed to bring along (original? duplicate? triplicate? notarized?) is a never-ending struggle.  Websites seldom give me all the information I need (and rarely in my native language), and calling ahead is useless.

I want to be legal.  I’m doing everything in my power to be legal.  Yet, even those who are supposed to be “in the know” are often unable to tell me clearly what’s necessary.  (Then, when every time I think I have everything in place, we find a mistake or something needs to be renewed.)

  • “Learning the language,” even if one is highly motivated, takes time.

Let me be clear.  In general, I believe in the phrase: If you live here, you need to learn the language.

However, that’s much more easily said than done – even for someone who is extremely motivated (which, I’ll admit) is not always the case.  It isn’t enough to “watch TV” (even if that worked “so wonderfully” for your cousin when he spent a year overseas).  Finding a class that’s appropriate for my level, is affordable, and does not conflict with my work schedule is extremely difficult (and often extremely expensive).  All of those “free language classes” you have heard about are wonderful, but they are not all suitable for me.  (All of which at least quadruples in difficulty when dealing with a family and a school.)

  • Saying “Those immigrants… oh, but not you” still sounds racist.

This probably goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyhow.  Ending a sentence with “but not you” never works.  It doesn’t matter if one is talking about gender, race, culture, or religion.  I understand that you are trying to be kind, but I simply do not believe you.

  • Race and religion are a big deal.

My “migrant life” is vastly different than that of many of my African and Middle-Eastern friends.  Partly because I’m a white American; partly because I’m a Christian (and a pastor, on top of that).  People sometimes joke about how ironic it is that I moved to Italy when “Italians all want to move to New York,” but no one ever questions my motives.  When I go to the immigration office and answer their questions, they seldom give me the impression that they think I’m lying to them or that they do not trust my answers.

As a side note, the term “economic migrant” is so broad that it pretty much has no significance at all.  Essentially, it is the official category for anyone who is transitioning away from a country where the UN doesn’t recognize a real war or serious conflict where one is in imminent danger.  How do you measure any of those adjectives (real, serious, imminent, etc.)? No one seems to know.

  • Losing my identity was harder on me than I thought it would be.

I knew I was leaving behind some of my identity – my “place in this world.”  This is, after all, not my first time living outside of my home country.  However, I left behind a stable (dare I even suggest reasonably “successful”) career where I was known for the things I did well and had a “place at the table.”  I lost all of that.  No one understands my education or experience.  Even in the church, which at least recognizes my credentials, I am seen as a “new” pastor and lumped in with seminary students and recent grads (as if my decade and a half of experience never happened).  I have met dozens of professionals who, as immigrants, now mop floors, park cars, and deliver groceries (and that’s if they’re lucky – often even those jobs are hard to find).

People ask why we chose to move here, but “choice” is a tricky word.  I came because my wife had specific work to do.  Some of us come to provide a future for our children that we don’t believe that can have in our home countries, others leave their home countries to escape incredibly dangerous situations.  Remember, the term “economic migrant” means pretty much nothing.  There is no “normal” situation when it comes to migration or immigration.

In the end, though, our home countries no longer have us and our experience, and our new homes either refuse (actively) or (innocently) don’t know how to use us – often that all leaves us feeling useless and frustrated.

The thing I wish I could get across more than anything else is that my language limitations are not reflective of my experience, intellectual capacity, or capabilities.

  • I don’t trust the people I should be able to trust, and I’m almost always afraid.

I hesitate to say “I am always afraid,” but sometimes it seems like it.  I am in a constant state of (usually low-grade) worry.  I worry that if I’m pulled over, my documents may not be perfectly in order (or I will have forgotten one of them at home), that I will not be able to explain myself if I’m caught in a dangerous situation, that my children will not be able to find me if there is an emergency (or that we will not be able to find a hospital), or that I will say the wrong thing to the wrong person.

I do not trust police officers (even though I have met several on a personal level, and honestly believe they are good people), and I go out of my way to avoid situations where I might have to show my documents – even though they are all in order and I do speak the language well enough to understand questions and answer them with adequate clarity.  Even though I know I’m “above board,” I worry.

I know many people in my community whose documents are less certain than mine; sometimes I lay awake at night wondering how they manage to stay sane.

  • We’re not all the same.

Guess what? The United States is a huge country.  (Africa is a huge continent, too!)  I probably do not know that person you meet when you were in New York City on your honeymoon (even thought I lived in upstate New York for four years).  Not all Americans think the same, vote the same, grew up eating the same foods, or even like the same sports (some of us do not even really like sports at all.)

Italians have a highly-developed sense of regional discernment: they can tell where someone was born by the tiniest dialectical differences and food preferences.  Indeed, the dialects (in some cases, actual languages) of different regions are so different that Italians often cannot even understand each other when they speak.  You should know: the same is often true for the US, or Ghana, or Nigeria, or Syria.

  • “Little things” are often a very big deal (for you and for me).

My parents taught me that when encountering someone on the sidewalk, I should move to the right-hand-side of the sidewalk, the oncoming person moves to their right-hand-side of the sidewalk, and – in that way – traffic on the sidewalk will move effortlessly and with a minimal need to swerve or run into one another.  I was taught hundreds of little “rules” of common courtesy – ways of interacting with other people to make society more pleasant for everyone.   Almost none of them apply here.  I have to constantly remind myself that Italians are not more rude than Americans, they just have a different set of cultural courtesies and expectations – courtesies and expectations that I often do not know.

I’m an extreme extrovert and still sometimes want to lock myself in my room after a day of what – to my mind – seems constant rudeness.  I imagine my Italian friends often think the same thing of me.  I really am a polite guy, just know that I don’t always understand how to be polite in your context.

  • Everything is harder here.

This is not a criticism of Italy.  If I were a foreigner living in the US, it would be the same.  Nonetheless, things that are simple for a native are often more difficult for a foreigner.

In my home country, I knew what store to go to when I wanted to buy something.  I knew who to ask if I had questions.  I could guess the ballpark price for things I wanted to purchas.  In short, I had a lifetime of knowledge that enabled me to do things like buy a car or figure out what vaccinations my daughters need for school or buy a turkey for Thanksgiving.  Very little of that knowledge is applicable here.  Even if I understand the words, I often don’t understand what they really mean (i.e. a “doctor” in the US usually implies either a medical doctor or someone with a terminal degree in their field, in Italy an individual with the title “dottore” or “dottoressa” may have little more than a bachelor’s degree – same word, completely different meaning.)

I could easily walk into 3 stores in my hometown and buy a pie plate; it took me a year to find one here and I still have not found a 9×13” pan for cakes and brownies.   Granted, pie plates and cake pans are relatively insignificant, but they serve as a perfect metaphor for pretty much everything time I need to find or do something new.

  • It’s very seldom about you, but you can make a difference.

I need you to know: I love my new country.  I may live here the rest of my life (I have no clue, but I’m open to the idea).  There are so many wonderful things about Italy: art, music, architecture, great people, good food – the list could go on and on.  On the other hand, I’m sometimes worn out and frustrated at simply trying to live and take care of my family, and to do it all alone (remember, unlike for most Italians, our parents and family are a world away).  I don’t hold that against the people I interact with on a daily basis, but they can make a difference.

I need people I can trust (and people I can trust with my children).

I need patience when I’m trying to explain or ask something (I’m working on the language, but it’s going to be a while).  Chances are, I’m trying to figure out how to discuss  the implications of something like my doctoral thesis while using the equivalent of a 2nd grade vocabulary.

If you want me to do something, you need to know that I may know a dozen ways to do that in the US, but have no clue where to get what I need to accomplish even the most simple tasks here.

In short, I need friends who are actually friends.

So does every other “immigrant” in the world.

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