I always felt I was a little different from all the other kids. I loved climbing trees and sit there by myself, wondering about life. I craved for deep conversation, but didn’t know where to start. I loved touching the tree trunk, smelling the grass roots and just lying on the floor, belly down, connecting to the earth’s energy with my whole body.
I remember one day going on holiday in the deep south of The Netherlands and running out into the field in front of our farmhouse stay, overlooking the endless green hills, and shouting out: “this is the best holiday ever!”
Some years ago, we went back there with my family and it clicked: those hills looked exactly like the rolling hills of Tuscany.
I’ve always loved discovering smells, textures, the touch of nature in every sense. I’ve always loved physical touch and craved for that in a country where physical touch isn’t the common forte. I’ve always loved caring for others, making sure everybody feels good and catering to their needs. I’ve always been very expressive in showing my enthusiasm – and my despair – and always felt I was the odd one out in Holland.
I just wanted to connect: to nature, to people, to myself.
In Holland I always felt restricted in a sense. Even though it’s supposed to be a very “free” country, and it is in many ways, it also has very strict rules for its own society. It’s usually the case for the culture you’ve grown up in: you know the rules to live by because they’ve been fed to you ever since you were little and breaking free from them is close to impossible when staying put in that same culture.
In Holland there is a saying that sums up the national outlook on life: “Doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al genoeg.” “Act normal, because that in itself is already strange.”
I am anything but normal. I’m an incredibly free spirit and have freedom, connection and love as my main three values. I love showing my affection openly to others and spontaneously encourage anyone I feel a positive vibe towards. I express myself and always try to connect on an emotional level with others – and that isn’t always appreciated in Holland.
People won’t say anything, but you just feel the awkwardness when you want to spontaneously hug someone, strike up a conversation with a stranger or just express your enthusiasm with big words and gestures.
Being normal is the way to go.
Well, I couldn’t do that very well. At one point I had dreadlocks, then cut them off and dyed my short hair fuchsia, I had piercings and would go to rock bars and see The Backstreet Boys at the same time. I started teacher training college at 16 and I loved it so much that I wanted to do so well that I overdid it and got diagnosed with anxiety disorder a year later.
It was all too much. For years I felt fragile, not good enough and really insecure. I was far from the bubbly, expressive me I used to be. Maybe I had also overdone it a little; trying to stand out, to be special because deep down I felt I wasn’t. I felt I had to stand out to be seen at all. And so all of that was stopped to a halt when I didn’t even feel comfortable leaving the house anymore.
I quit university for a year and tried to gather myself together again. I started taking antidepressants and I slowly, but surely managed to get back on my feet. This medication allowed me to function again, pick up my studies back up and even do my placement abroad in Worcester, England. After that experience I felt stronger and more alive and decided it was good to stop taking the medication – in the end, who wants to be on meds to be normal? I judged myself and wanted to be off the medication at the first chance I got.
The empty stretch of Summer holidays followed and I fell back into that unmanageable wave of anxiety, helplessly tumbling me round and round and round.
I remember looking myself in the mirror and saying: “We are not going back there, you hear me.” Of course the strictness made it worse and just before starting my final teacher training internship I was back on my meds again. I felt defeated, but relieved. Without them I just couldn’t function, so I had no choice.
My graduation project came in sight: 3 months of teaching English in Italy. I worked as a language assistant at a private secondary school in Piombino, in the south of Tuscany, and I remember feeling that sense of freedom whenever I went on holiday in Italy when I opened up the doors to my terrace with a splendid view on the Island of Elba. The experience was great, but since it was a small town and I didn’t have so many things to do besides the teaching, I decided to go to Florence one day.
I remember walking around there and feeling so incredibly seen by the market salesmen, the waiters at the bars and the painters in the Duomo square. I now know that they were all tricks they used with all – mainly female – tourists, but still, there I was: connecting.
I still remember the spot where I ate my sandwich I’d brought from home – that’s Dutch practicality for you. It was great, though. I was sat next to the Arno, I saw the tourists passing by and I just felt the worldliness of this majestic city – and I was part of it for a day. I was struck by her beauty, by the buzz and most of all by the feeling that she gave me: that joy of all things I love about Italy. I found that feeling back there.
A year later I went back to Florence for a language course of two weeks. I was also in the process of breaking up with my boyfriend of six years. We had been living together for a year. If you want to know if you’re compatible, live together for a year and if you’re still happy together, then you’re a match. All it did to us was make our differences bigger. I was getting back up from my anxiety disorder through self-love practices and wanted to have more fun. He was loaded with responsibility with new challenges at work, a new study and the new living situation. It was way too much and his ill health functioned as a shield to not have to face it all. I remember leaving for a party one day and he was playing video games. When I came back, he was still playing video games.
I wasn’t able to acknowledge my own unhappiness and only realised it when my lips were touching a colleague’s, who was twice my age, by the way. It felt wrong and it felt so good at the same time, because I realised that I was finally having fun again.
The two-week language course flew by and thinking back of it, I feel the flutter in my heart again. Oh, how I loved being in Florence. When I came back, my ex and me went on a Summer holiday we’d already booked. Another tip: when you’ve booked a holiday with someone who is now your ex, don’t go on the holiday, it’s not worth the money. The holiday itself was fine, but when you break up, you must break up. Being together physically doesn’t do well for your energy – at all.
Anyway, we did break up and we didn’t see each other for a while. That’s when I finally had peace of mind – and of heart and could finally connect with myself. I asked myself: “What do you really, really want?” “Italy” My soul whispered right back. It was in that moment, in my living room, that I decided to go to Florence.
Initially I planned to go there for 6 months. The other 6 months of my sabbatical I’d spend in Australia. See, this was another trick of my mind. My sister had gone on a nine-month backpacking trip to Australia and so had many other people my age – so I guessed I would have liked that – or needed to like – that too. I said I wanted it, I even got some info about it, but then, I didn’t actually do anything for it. I had everything worked out for Florence, while Australia just remained some sort of idea for the future. I still haven’t been there after now having lived in Italy for nearly a decade.
When I decided I’d leave, it was a year before actually going. This allowed me the time to save money, get new renters for my house, get rid of my furniture and organise all my stuff. I even lived with my dad for four months. This was quite the thing because we were the typical description of a love-hate relationship at times and so my willingness to move in with him to prepare for my trip showed how much I wanted this. I actually had a great time and it went very well and the experience really allowed us to connect on a much deeper level.
The night before I left, I was sitting in the garden of that previously mentioned colleague. He was teaching me to appreciate red wine. Good thing he did, because I was going to Tuscany after all. I drank too much, slept too little and remember rushing to the airport with way too many clothes for my suitcases. I passed the security gates with two sweaters tied round my waist, a pair of jeans wrapped around a bag and more stuff than my two hands could hold. But I managed.
I arrived in Florence on the 31st of July 2010; nearly nine years ago at the time I’m writing this post. I started out at the same language school I had studied at a year prior and in my boldness I had asked them if they needed an English teacher for their teachers. Their English wasn’t all too great, which I found slightly inconvenient teaching only foreigners who don’t always know how to follow everything in Italian straight away. They claimed they didn’t need any help, yet they offered the possibility to do an internship exchange deal with me. I’d work as an assistant secretary for four hours a day and I’d get four hours of Italian class in return. It was a match made in heaven because it allowed me to seriously work on my Italian skills (imagine doing everything in Italian for 8 hours a day; my brain was fried!), to get to know the city from an insider’s point of view and to, there it is again, connect with the locals. That school was my family and I always say that I “grew up” in that street. It’s where it all began.
It gave me a great foundation to build my Florentine life up from scratch. They arranged housing, a day programme studying and working and a new social network. After 6 months, this would all end and I was supposedly going to go to Australia. When I admitted to myself that I probably would have fun there, but didn’t see any reason for leaving the place that currently made me so happy I could die that I decided to not go to Australia and give Florence a real shot.
I’d have to do it all by myself now. Find work, housing, friends. The school deal ended, and with that the convenient housing situation – it was for students only, and many of the people studying at the school had left. Now I was in it for the real deal.
I knew that I could find work in Florence teaching English I just didn’t know where to start. I put up posters on notice boards, placed ads online, had business cards made and told everyone I met that I was an English teacher and I wrote an application letter to every public school and private teaching institute in Florence. I’d deliver them myself, paper map in hand, biking around the city asking for the principal.
Not all applications were answered – most of them won’t, but one or two were, and that’s how it started. I opened the Facebook group English Teachers in Florence to connect and exchange experiences, information and students. I’d soon have an overflow of requests and was working round the clock; I was setting up my life in Florence for real!
I was only just getting by financially, but I didn’t mind; my pay off was being able to support myself in Florence. I did become very creative and open-minded about ways to generate money, though. I accepted and created all sort of jobs: babysitting, teaching Dutch at the Dutch school, interpreting at a cooking school, writing for a Dutch magazine, accompanying tourists; you name it and I did it. It was fun, adventurous and it never made a day boring or predictable.
That was how it was in Holland. I could already sort of like predict how my day, my year, or even my life would go. Of course, that’s never really the case, but it just all felt so dull. I didn’t feel energised, alive, or like I was having any fun. This was both because I didn’t take enough initiative and because I didn’t really feel inspired to. I just didn’t feel in my element, like we say – and it showed.
Moving to Italy has really brought about a shift in my energy, my outlook on life and how freely I feel I can express myself. Here I do feel in my element: I can be theatrical, emotional, affectionate, physical, enthusiastic, loving, caring, dramatic – and I never feel “too much” for it. All of this allowed me to stop taking antidepressants a year after moving here – and I’ve never gone back since. I’ve cured myself from anxiety disorder by following my dream of moving to Italy. If that’s not setting yourself free, I don’t know what is.
Maybe I was always meant to be here. I don’t know. What I do know is that it’s strange how those hills brought up so much joy in me as a child and now I live in that landscape. After 8 years of the city life in Florence and changing teaching for professional writing and then switched that around for life coaching, I decided to follow my heart again and follow my love into the Tuscan countryside.
We live in a beautiful farmhouse and look out over an infinity of green hills that still make me want to pinch myself to see if this is really real. I’m able to immerse myself in nature, to live the Italian lifestyle buying and preparing local foods from the grocer’s and fully dedicating myself to love, taking care of my man and our puppy.
I feel free to be myself here, to breathe in the fullness of all that I am and breathe out all the emotions that my heart holds. I am able to connect to myself here, high up in the hills of Tuscany, being surrounded by nothing but nature, silence and sunshine. This is where I’m free to be myself. This is what the next step looked like after Florence. This is what prepares us for our coming next step, one where love and connection are going to play the lead parts of my life.
Thank you for coming on my journey with me. If you feel connected to my story in one way or another, please leave a comment below. If you feel the need to connect with like-minded women, join my Facebook group Women Who Dream of Moving to Italy and find others who are just like you.
Love & courage,