Gina Mazza currently lives in Florence with her beautiful 7 month old daughter and her husband Alessio. Originally from Vancouver, Canada, Gina wanted to share with us the story of her coming here and how she overcame some of the cultural differences she encountered when settling in.
By Ela Vasilescu – Writer/Journalist
Ela V.: Why did you choose Florence as your home?
Gina M.: The shortest version of the grand story is: I initially came her to study on a study abroad program, as the many stories of expats begin. The difference with me is that I had nothing romantic with my now-husband back then. Five years later I married an Italian, not in the least expecting that to happen during or even long after my study abroad program!
Ela V.: Tell us the story of your romance.
Gina M.: I first met my husband during my study abroad program, because his family owned a bar down the street from our residence, but I was actually in a sort of relationship with his friend at the time! Later on we connected on Facebook, still with no romantic intentions. Alessio invited me to his family’s B&B in Sicily should I ever return to Italy, but not really expecting that I would actually take him up on the offer. Five years later, I did. I certainly didn’t believe the man would tell me he loves me after just a few days, even though I was a wreck since my father had passed away just a week and a half prior to my departure. I almost didn’t go, but there was a divine plan I certainly didn’t predict! It was also very strange he was so forward, because he is actually quite a reserved person. I guess he knew what he wanted! Four months later, for the month of December, he came to stay with my family and told me wanted to marry me then. We got married five months later in May, and seven months later we moved to Italy.
We first lived in Milan where he was working and had his family, but we didn’t like living there. We really missed Florence because we both loved it here. I fell in love with Florence the first time I came here and our goal was always to come and live here.
Gina M.: Florence is such a rich city. It’s rich in history, art, beauty, great food, and I feel like even though it is small city, you can explore it and can never get bored. There’s always something to discover in every corner, there is always something to learn. I love sharing my passion for this city with people.
Ela V.: How would you describe your expat life before your daughter was born?
Gina M.: Of course, like anybody who first moves here, I found it very difficult to adjust. Now, I find it difficult to adjust to some things when I go back to Canada! People told me that such a day would come, but at the beginning I couldn’t see that light at the end of the tunnel yet. It takes longer than I would have liked to think to get integrated. I am still not really integrated as far as having many Italian friends. Just a couple I’d actually call “friends,” and others who are acquaintances. I’ve found that Florentines often have their groups rooted from childhood, and they’re hard to break into. The ones I call friends are the more open-minded few, typically the ones in cross-cultural relationships who I’ve met through the expat/immigrant community.
My husband and I got married very quickly, so not only did we not know each other, but we also didn’t know much about each other’s cultural differences. There were a lot of barriers between us that we had to overcome.
Ela V.: What were the cultural differences you were confronted with?
Gina M.: I think the language was the main one. It was very difficult to communicate because I didn’t know Italian at all and he had a very basic knowledge of English. Culturally I think it was also our perception of family. As a small example, I was raised to be very independent. Here you lean a lot more on family for things. I rarely shared a long meal at the table with my family, but meals can regularly last for hours.
Ela V.: What was the hardest thing to overcome?
Gina M.: For me one of the hardest things still is communication, the language. I wish I had more opportunity to learn Italian. We usually speak English at home and I speak English at work as well. Now with our newborn daughter plus work, I have no time to study Italian. I would love to be able to be more independent and do things for myself, and not have to rely so much on my husband to communicate for me. I am such an independent and friendly person it would be amazing for me to be able to connect with people here on a deeper level.
Ela V.: What is the best part about being an expat?
Gina M.: There are many things that I love here. Life here is entertaining, to say the least. Even right now as I look around in this park, I can see a dad drive by on his bike with his child in front of him, singing songs loud and clear for all to hear. I find things to be so alive and entertaining here; I feel like there’s never a dull moment. I love how much more broad-minded I’ve become in adopting a new culture and language.
Ela V.: How is it to be an expat mom? Do you find it difficult?
Gina M.: The hardest part is being away from our families. But there are many principles in Italian culture that I’m happy my daughter can experience here, like the strong sense of family, and the healthy food culture.
One of my biggest problems with Italy is education. When I imagine my daughter going to school I still, at least for now, imagine her going to a school in Canada. I appreciate Italy’s love for family and children, but the educational methods are very “old school” and not very current or innovative. In Canada you learn social values and emotional competencies in school, whereas here you are mostly sitting at a desk listening to the teacher talking at you for very long hours and putting pencils to paper without manipulating or learning from other things.
Ela V.: How do you feel about the Italian way of raising children?
Gina M.: I like the fact that things are not so strict here in some ways. I think in North American countries people go a lot by schedules, while here I am encouraged to feed and help my child sleep when she needs to instead of going by a schedule. But when we go for vacation in the South for example and I see small children still awake at 1 am or 2 am, because their parents are still dancing and chatting I think there needs to be a balance between the two. It’s sweet to a point, but I believe you need at least a little bit of structure.
Ela V.: Is there any cultural difference that you cannot ignore and still bothers you?
Gina M.: There is a certain ignorance regarding other. There can be a lack of respect for other people and your environment, which drive me crazy I come from a country where we are very attentive when it comes to being considerate, where we care about the environment and the wellbeing of other people. Canadians are famous for saying sorry all the time even if they didn’t do anything wrong. Here in Italy I feel it’s the opposite. In Canada the rules are rules, here in Italy the rules are just suggestions. Recycling is also a major issue here. Vancouver is a very “green” city and we value our environment very much. Children learn from a very early age in school to recycle and to respect the environment, whilst here I don’t see very much of that – but at least it’s slowly progressing, even if painfully slowly!
Ela V.: Were you satisfied with the medical care system here while you were pregnant?
Gina M.: I have nothing but good things to say about the maternal care here. I was surprised by how good the medical care here was during my pregnancy and even through labor, giving birth and post natal care. I had really high expectations, because Canada has a free medical care system and it’s very good. I noticed that in Italy pregnant women are treated with the utmost care; they are treated like a delicate flower by most everybody. Throughout the pregnancy doctors tell you to rest and focus only on the well-being of your body in order to create a healthy human being. Also if you work in a school with small children as I do, as soon as you find out you are pregnant you are given an early maternity leave because they consider it a high risk for a pregnant woman to be around children who may pass on illnesses to you. On the other hand I wish their maternity leave after the baby is born would be longer.
Ela V.: Where did you give birth?
Gina M.: I went to the natural birthing center Margherita at the Careggi Hospital and I went through the public system. A lot of expats were encouraging me to get a private doctor, but I decided to go with the public system and my obstetrician and all the other doctors I saw were great. Everyone was very caring and attentive and I would highly recommend to anyone who is having a child here and wants to give birth naturally to go to the Margherita birthing center. There are only five rooms and it almost seems like a little B&B hotel!
To go through labor was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it was amazing to be able do it in an environment like this where I could have a big room to myself and my husband or whomever I wished to have present, and several things to use during labor like a Jacuzzi tub. The nurses were incredible. My husband was able to sleep with me in the double bed, and even the food was not bad! We also had a kitchen space, where you could interact with other moms there.
We stayed at the hospital for the 72 hours after I gave birth and before we had to leave we were asked if we want to stay and have lunch. We almost wanted to say we wanted to stay for another night.
Ela V.: Does your daughter go to daycare when you are at work?
Gina M.: Fortunately my husband works from home. He is a freelance interior designer and we have a business for helping tourists and expats we started this year. I only work in the afternoons, so my husband designs during the day and when I leave for work he is able to take care of our daughter.
Ela V.: Is Florence your permanent home now?
Gina M.: I think our long term goal is to have a place in both countries and sublet whenever we’re not in one place or the other. We would love to spend more time in Canada too because we go there so rarely.
Ela V.: What advice would you give to an expat mom who is planning to move here?
Gina M.: My advice would be to come with an open mind, expecting a lot of challenge, but being ready to grow from it. I am somebody who really likes to embrace challenge and I like change, so before coming here I told myself that. However there were a lot of difficulties that I don’t think I could have anticipated until actually moving here. I think the healthiest perspective one should have when coming here is to roll with the punches and grow with the punches. I think it’s really important to avoid the dangerous game of comparison. Accept your country of origin and your adopted country as different, not better or worse. You should come prepared to put aside your reservations and put yourself out there to learn the language, the culture and to interact with people around you. That was one of my mistakes: I initially depended too much on my husband, which also put pressure on our very fresh and new marriage. I also had too many expectations for myself, thinking that I could speak the language in a flash. I think you become more confident if you put yourself out there and if you are willing to laugh at your mistakes.
Ela V.: How did you find out about the FMs4Ms Network?
Gina M.: When I first moved to Florence I was Goggling blogs and trying to find information online about how to get connected; that’s how I found it. It wasn’t until I got pregnant that I started to meet other moms. I had come to know a few moms who were already in the Network and then I started meeting with the expecting moms and toddler group. I am grateful for this community and would encourage others to reach out too!
Living an expat life, being pregnant and giving birth are unique experiences we could all learn from and relate to. We would like to read more of your stories, your experiences, your fears, your expectations. Together with journalist Ela Vasilescu we would like to continue this project and expand it to also include birth stories and pregnancy experiences.
Moving to a different country and starting a new life, although exciting, can be scary and the process of integration is slow and excruciating. We want to include birth stories in the project because each woman has a distinctive memory about the moment when they gave life to a new human being and reading those stories would help and inspire other mothers to be or fill with joy and melancholy the ones who are already experiencing motherhood.
We would like to explore these three distinctive threads (living as an expat, pregnancy and birth stories) that whilst seemingly different, they trigger situations and feelings unlike others and by sharing them we could help others understand they are not alone, offering the support they need to move forward.