By: Kevin Nye
I’m a lucky man. I’m lucky because I have family members in Austria and without them, I never would’ve visited Europe in 2012. If I had never visited Europe in 2012, I wouldn’t have desperately needed to return to Europe in 2014.
In late winter 2014, my then-girlfriend, now-fiancée and I decided we were going to get TEFL certified and go teach English abroad. We wanted to go to Europe, primarily Italy, and learn about the world while seeing it all firsthand. We wanted to use our natural advantage of being born in an English-speaking country, and we wanted to get paid for something we do anyway; speak to people. We enrolled in the Online TEFL Class with International TEFL Academy in May of 2014, completed our course in August, and moved on September 3 to teach English in Italy.
While about a million things happened during our whole experience, I can whittle that list down to one horribly perfect contradiction: Our world got immensely bigger while getting impossibly smaller.
In Milan, things can be weird. The people are not always friendly; they’re bizarrely thin; they shove you out of the way to make sure they’re first onto the subway; and they’re known for having really strange theories about human health (what’s that? You don’t wear a scarf from September through May? That’s how you catch cold). But living there opened up all of Europe – the city has three airports and an enormous, hulking train station that spiderwebs out to all sorts of places.
Within 40 hours of touching down in Milan, we were on a train to Lugano, Switzerland — a paradise only about 35 miles from the city center of Milan. And yet it was a place where a different language, a different lifestyle, and a different culture thrived.
Two weeks later, a four hour train to the southwest landed us in Nice, which is one of the gems of the French Riviera. Again, a different language, a different lifestyle, and a different culture. Yet all of these things are so close together that they can’t possibly coexist, right?
One week later we had the good fortune of meeting my cousin in Innsbruck, Austria. This too was about a five hour train from Milan. Austria speaks a different dialect of German than Lugano…I think you see where I’m going here.
We traveled as near the four corners of Europe as we could, reaching Lithuania, Greece, Spain, and Ireland – none were more than a two hour flight from Milan. Each was worlds different than any other place we’d gone.
We traveled to 17 of the provinces in Italy, including places where English may as well be Mandarin Chinese instead of the international language of business. But eventually we learned something.
People are just people. No matter where you go, they all have the same fears, the same desires, and probably the same primal urges. Everyone wants a roof over their head, a stress-free atmosphere, good food on the table, and good company to share these things with. They just prioritize those things a little differently depending on the country you’re in.
For example, people in Italy work on a completely different schedule than you do in the United States. Restaurants in Italy often don’t open for dinner until at least 7:00 PM. When you go to dinner at an Italian restaurant, you should expect to be in your seat for at least 90 minutes and as much as two and a half hours. If you’re in a store where you take a number (like a post office or a cell phone store), you’re free to leave, and if you come back after your number was called, just walk up to the window and say you were gone. This would cause Americans to start bleeding from their eyes, but it’s just part of daily life in Italy because their top priority is alleviating their own stress.
You might also think it’s completely normal to be able to send something in the mail and have someone receive that thing you sent. But if you’re in Italy, it’s a privilege, not a right. A set of keys took seven days to arrive in Milan from Verona. The two cities are 104 miles apart. When I mentioned this to my Italian students and their parents, they were uniformly shocked at how fast my keys arrived. This is just part of life.
And despite the fact that some cultures and some people are rough around the edges (Milanese) or not very talkative (Austrians), or even perceived as lazy (Spanish), people really will help you out in a pinch, because they’re all people and we have to look out for each other.
Unless you’re trying to cross the street in Naples. You’re on your own there. Good luck not dying.
About the author: I'm Kevin Nye. I grew up in the Cleveland suburbs before moving to Chicago where I worked for a software company and did comedy for fun. When selling software became too daunting, I took the easy way out and moved to Italy with my fiancee and no job to teach English. It worked.
For more on Kevin's experience in Italy, check out his Q&A: Teaching in Milan, Italy Q and A with Kevin Nye