Thursday, June 15, 2023

The Expat Life – Thoughts and Suggestions for Better Terminology

Views around Bergamo, Italy. Our new home: transplants.


Lately, we’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what it means to live outside the country you were born in. This is our 7th year living outside the country we were born in (the USA). What started out as a sabbatical in Italy morphed into living here. See TravelMarx: Sabbatical Lessons: Thoughts and Stories from our Italian Sabbaticals.

We recently started rethinking about what we call ourselves as we finished two unrelated books "The Lion and the Nightingale” and "Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice". That coupled with the unease of referring to ourselves as expats started us down the road of many walking-conversations around Bergamo to work this out.

We think words matter and, in this post, we propose some ways of thinking about the situation of living outside the country you were born in.


When dealing with the concept of people who live outside their native country, here are some words you might run into. It's a word soup with each term having some baggage associated with its usage.

Expatriate - a person living outside their native country.
  • Simple enough, right? No, because the term is often used to describe rich white people who live outside their country.
  • We get that, but for us, what bothers us more is the image conjured up by the word. As if we were living it up in Paris with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. We don’t identify with that.
  • As well we don’t identify with influencers, libertarians, or cryptocurrency stars calling themselves expats and fleeing something inconvenient, taxes, or needing to take refuge somewhere under the storm blows over.
Emigrant – a person when they leave their country of origin.
  • Yes, you could say we emigrated from the USA.

Immigrant – a person when they arrive at their destination. (definition)
  • Yes, you could say we were immigrants in Italy.
Migrant – a person who moves around from place to place typically looking for work or better living conditions.
  • This doesn’t apply to us in the normal use of the word unless you really stretch “better living conditions” to include a greater sense of happiness. But that is a stretch.
Dispatriate - a term used by the writer Luigi Meneghello as opposed to expatriation. Dispatriation for Meneghello meant a deliberate, sometimes painful, distancing of himself from the Italian culture he had grown up with, learning a new grammar of being.
  • This neologism avoids the racist overtone of expatriate while more precisely indicating intent of the move. Dispatriate is an expatriate who intentionally distances themselves from their nation of origin.
  • We are not intentionally trying to distance ourselves from American culture. Of course, moving away naturally creates distance, which can lead to feeling disconnected. It's unavoidable.
Move abroad – when someone moves outside their native country.
  • We don’t like the term because no matter the starting and ending point, it suggests a hierarchy, a movement from a “central” place to somewhere else floating, untethered.
  • Maybe it’s best to just to say “moved”, as it applies to us: we moved to Italy.

Nomad – someone who doesn’t stay long in the same place.
  • We are not nomads. We thought about: what if we spent a year or two in a city or country and then moved on to another. We abandoned the idea.
  • When we thought about being nomads, we realized we need a community that builds around us in time. A base of operation is more our style.
  • Today there is the fashionable term “digital nomad” - someone who works online in locations that change.
Extracomunitario - someone/something that isn't part of the European Union. 
  • Often used to refer to an illegal alien in Italian, and not in a positive way.
  • We've had friends use it with us as a joke.

Views around Bergamo, Italy.


Perhaps the best, neutral word we can think of in our case and others like us is “transplant”. We transplanted ourselves into another country. Why did we transplant ourselves? It wasn’t for economic gain (that’s for sure!), for fear of persecution (though with current situation in the US, you might wonder), or because there was a community of ex-Americans hanging out in Italy that we wanted to join (we are not those types).

We transplanted ourselves into Italy because we wanted to. We were curious and wanted to explore Italy. That curiosity and sense of exploration started when we took several trips here long before we moved here. Instead of visiting and saying “oh, that’s nice, no need to return”, we kept wanting more. The process of getting citizenship was part of the exploration.

As a point of reference, I only need to think about moving around in the United States. I was born on the East Coast but would never live there again if I didn’t have to. But it’s not just the East Coast. I wouldn’t live in the Southeast and Central US. Why? These areas simply don’t appeal to me. These parts of the country have their merits and people who love living there, just not me. It's kind of like that with Italy.

On the subject of places to live in the US, my thinking of the US has never been the same after reading American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.

Once I moved to the West Coast, I realized that was more my home, where I fit better. I “transplanted” myself there in my late 20s. But why did a fit better there? Too many factors that are hard to describe (or I’m too lazy to). Again, it's similar to our move to Italy.

Speaking of expats, we recently finished the book Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice about Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas. This is not at all the kind of book we would pick to read but we ended up with it, and I have to say once I started, I wanted to finish it. The author Janet Malcolm has some great turns of a phrase, like this on The Making of Americans (a work by Stein): "It is called a novel, but in reality it is a series of long meditations on, among other things, the author's refusal (and inability) to write a novel."

Stein is one of the colorful characters of the post-war (WWI) expatriate generation, the Lost Generation. Stein is credited with coining the term and Hemingway popularized it. After finishing Malcolm’s book, we decided we would never want to voluntarily go to a dinner party with Gertrude or Alice as guests. Insufferable people (and lost apparently).

There is a interesting graphic at the World Migration Report, that shows migrations “corridors” between starting and ending country. (I guess in one year we were officially counted in the migration, at least statistically.) The USA has been the main country of destination for international migrants (transplants?) since 1970. Germany is the second top destination. Italy is just outside the top 10. Most of the migration to Italy is from Romania.

The work of the sculpturer Bruno Catalano and his “The Travelers” statues, also known as Les Voyageurs. These haunting bronze surrealist sculptures represent emigrants.

Finally, we stumbled across the American Expat Finance web site that tracks people who are trying to get rid of their USA citizenship, officially termed “renunciation”. Many, are accidental Americans. Being a US citizen (no matter if you don’t reside in the US or ever did) means you are liable to pay taxes. So, it’s understandable why some would choose to renounce. In 2020, there were about 6,000 people who renounced.

Our Thoughts

These thoughts come from a larger list we’ve kept over the years that we’ve settled in Italy. It’s interesting that we even keep a list. Then again, that is the value of being a see and feel things differently and you almost need to stop and capture it.

* When outside your home country, your outside status is clear, at least at first. The sights, sounds, and language are the clues. You have a definite place as an outsider. Over time, that distinction may dissolve, but in the beginning it's a high. How do we hold on to the “happy discomfort” of the first week, month and year in a new place?

* Even in your own country, you can sometimes feel like an outsider, but you can't call yourself a transplant like you can when you are in another country. That feeling of being just outside is a special power.

* It can be refreshing to be on the outside because it implies no expectations, wide-open eyes to ask questions again, to be more alive.

* We are in Italy, which in many respects isn't that different from the US, but it's different enough to jumpstart our senses.

* We and others often seek relevancy in life. We have many friends moving from Seattle to Palm Springs, which feels like a move at becoming relevant again. For us, we felt both more and less relevant moving to Italy. We were a novelty yes, but also excluded (at least initially) from inside jokes, cultural references, and other “stuff” you’d know if we grew up here.

* When people ask us why we came here (to Italy). It’s easy to answer. When people ask us why we left (the US). It isn’t easy to answer.

* We are getting better but still find it annoying when asked questions like (1) “When are you coming back (home)?”, (2) “Don’t you miss the US?”, or (3) “Which do you like better, US or Italy?”. Answers: (1) We don’t know or have it in our plan, and home is here now. (2) Yes, we do sometimes. (3) We like them both, equally. Why choose?

* We are often confronted by people who when finding out we live in Italy, exclaim: “You are living the dream!”. This is odd. The best we can do is take it as a compliment and move on rather than delve into the who’s and what dream is this exactly. Is it a personal dream or a collective American dream of Italy?

In the book The Lion and the Nightingale: A Journey Through Modern Turkey by Kay Genç, the themes of leaving or staying in your native country and expatriation are touched on. The book is about a country (Turkey) that could imprison you for what you do if it’s against the state. What do you do? Stay and fight or leave. For us, this wasn’t the case. However, in the USA these days with the rightward swerve of the US, we wonder if we hadn’t moved already would this be a factor for us to move.

In Genç's book, we learned about the poem by C.P. Cavafy called “The City”. A good description of the poem is described in the article by Orhan Pamuk Other Countries, Other Shores, where he writes “Cavafy stayed in Istanbul for 3 years and then returned to Alexandria. His leaving Istanbul is the source of the sorrow that permeates his unforgettable poem...” And continues with the key interpretation of “There is no other city to go to: The city that makes us is the one within us.”

The City by C.P. Cavafy

From Poetry Foundation. Translated by Edmund Keeley.

You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried like something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you.
You’ll walk the same streets, grow old
in the same neighborhoods, turn gray in these same houses.
You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there’s no ship for you, there’s no road.
Now that you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere in the world.

Left: Bruno Catalano statues in Venice. Right: Views of Bergamo, Italy.


Here are some quotes that we like about being outside the country you were born and grew up in. Many are from the blog Taken By The Wind (source1, source2).

“You're an expatriate. You've lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed with sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafes.” — Ernest Hemingway (the original expat) from The Sun Also Rises.

“The loneliness of the expatriate is of an odd and complicated kind, for it is inseparable from the feeling of being free, of having escaped.” — Adam Gopnik from Paris to the Moon.

“Loving life is easy when you are abroad. Where no one knows you and you hold your life in your hands all alone, you are more master of yourself than at any other time” — Hannah Arendt

“You know what else is nice about being a foreigner? Whatever you do takes place in a capsule that need not be discovered and opened by someone back home. Nothing really counts–it was the life that falls in the forest. That’s how I looked at it. I felt free to…oh, I don’t know.”— Patricia Marx

“I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.” – Bill Bryson

“What makes expat life so addictive is that every boring or mundane activity you experience at home (like grocery shopping, commuting to work or picking up the dry cleaning) is, when you move to a foreign country, suddenly transformed into an exciting adventure. Try finding peanut butter in a Japanese grocery story or explaining in broken Spanish to the Guatemalan pharmacy that you need cough drops and you’ll understand. When abroad, boredom, routine and ‘normal’ cease to exist. And all that’s left is the thrill and challenge of uncertainty.” – Reannon Muth (the author of the blog

“What I found appealing in life abroad was the inevitable sense of helplessness it would inspire. Equally exciting would be the work involved in overcoming that helplessness. There would be a goal involved, and I liked having goals.” – David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day

“When you grow up in middle America you are inculcated from the earliest age with the belief – no, the understanding – that America is the richest and most powerful nation on earth because God likes us best. It has the most perfect form of government, the most exciting sporting events, the tastiest food and amplest portions, the largest cars, the cheapest gasoline, the most abundant natural resources, the most productive farms, the most devastating nuclear arsenal and the friendliest, most decent and most patriotic folks on Earth. Countries just don’t come any better. So why anyone would want to live anywhere else is practically incomprehensible. In a foreigner it is puzzling; in a native it is seditious. I used to feel this way myself.” – Bill Bryson

“When I was living in England I found that the more I lived abroad, the more American I discovered I was.” Daniel J. Boorstin


For us living in Italy, we live with less than we did in the USA. No car, a much smaller house. We consume less water and energy. (We know, we measure these things.) For us, it feels just a small step closer to sustainable.

We use the term exploration and awe a lot to describe what we like about our life in Italy. It’s like when you take a long hike and see new things. You explore and you get your awe, at least on a small scale. Living in Italy is like a long hike for us metaphorically: we are exploring and awed at what we find.

When we moved to Italy, we wanted an experience different than what we had back in the USA. We weren’t sure what that experience was until it happened. Experience first, question later.

After writing this post, we flip on the morning news to find that there's been another migrant shipwreck. Governments are in tilt on what to do. It does put things in perspective. The year we came to Italy, we did it in comfort, on a plane. Others didn't make it. We came to Italy with modest means and by choice. No matter what you call us: expats, migrants, living abroad, or transplants, we call ourselves lucky.

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