Years ago, I was eating at McDonald’s in the Florence, Italy train station when I spotted three tall men in American football jerseys. I was glad to see some compatriots, so I went over and struck up a conversation. It turned out that the Americans were playing for a league that was trying to spread the sport in Europe, apparently without much success. We chatted for a while, and one of them mentioned that his contract was almost up.
“Man, I can’t wait to get out of here,” he said, “and get back to the real world.”
I knew exactly what he meant. I’d also experienced the feeling that in this new country, nothing made sense, no rules were obeyed, and the basic logic of the universe didn’t apply. But then I’d started speaking the language, understanding the logic, and moving into a space where the Italian world felt more real to me than the American one I’d left behind.
I recalled the football player’s remark recently, when I heard about some new research. It seems that living abroad is not simply a matter of relocation. It’s a matter of mindset. And what you get out of it depends more on what goes on in your head than on your dates of arrival and departure.