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Planting Ourselves Beyond the Comfort Zone

Growing up far from my big fat Italian roots in Chicago, the only cultural underpinnings that piggybacked into my adulthood were a determination to learn the language, a magnetic draw to the arts, and a ravioli recipe. So I knew that if I wanted my kids to have even a minor sense of their cultural identity – beyond pasta and hand gestures – I had to put in the effort. When they were little, I imposed some of my awkward and limited Italian into their lives, but with meagre success. It was also during those years that the idea of living in Italy took hold. I couldn’t imagine a better way to weave the language and culture into their lives.

So my husband and I started to take the notion of a year immersed in Italy out of the “fantasy” realm. We put away money whenever we could. We began to plan with a single school year in mind. And despite all those voices in our heads (“This is ridiculous, just use the money for a vacation”; “Don’t disrupt your rhythm”) we managed to slowly build our escape velocity.

I’m sharing this window into our lives for two reasons:

1) Because taking extended time abroad was both amazing and challenging-as-all-heck — and something that can benefit any family (or anyone).

2) Our time abroad served as a powerful “reset” precisely because it was so challenging.

When we set out to do our year in Italy, I had to push beyond my comfort zone at every turn to make it happen. And while I can’t go back and reassure the old, easily-intimidated me about how doable and rewarding it would all be, I can do that for anyone else who harbors the notion to go beyond the borders for a while. In fact, I wrote the book I wish I’d had at the time, and it launches this week: Let’s Leave the Country! A Guide to Your Family Year Abroad

Writing about our experience isn’t intended to convince anyone they must do it too. But not sharing insight into something with such potential for growth seems almost selfish. And that’s what the year abroad was for us: a re-set which shaped us for the better, and let us re-see life and the world through fresh eyes.

For our daughters, who were in elementary school during our year in Genoa, the experience boosted their resilience, making the family year abroad even more valuable. A year of being “outsiders” (with funny accents and poor language skills) would give anyone an infusion of grit — and moving to a foreign land is “insta-grit” on steroids. The reward for not retreating into their all-English comfort zone? Within a few months, they had the language down, speaking and comprehending Italian better than their mother who had studied it for 25 years. Talk about a dose of grit for my ego!

For my husband and me, one of the biggest challenges was re-finding (and refining) our identities. All our lives we had grown accustomed to letting our surroundings define us: where we lived, our family reputations, the colleges we went to, the job titles we had, etc. But imagine breaking your rhythm for a year, far from all the social cues that shape you. Imagine if nobody knew you, and your identity couldn’t rely on the common labels people attach to you. That’s disconcerting on one level, but also imagine the freedom you’d have to define yourself, in any direction of your choosing.

Being a clean slate, with only your basic human interaction skills to guide you, exposes you down to the studs. It teaches you how others impose their assumptions about who you are, and how you have the power to accept or reject what they project on you. This kind of deep experiential understanding is a gift, not to be underestimated.

And when things got difficult, our family bonds strengthened. We only had each other for understanding and empathy. Even something as simple as going to a pharmacy was often a “test.” Try explaining a body rash to a pharmacist in a foreign language, with customers lined up behind you within earshot! That kind of torture might get you some sympathetic words from a new Italian friend, but only your family members truly “get it.”

Similarly, when we discovered something amazing as a family