Thoughts on Living Overseas

The following are thoughts that Allyson has written down based on our experiences of living overseas. This is not the first time for Jason to live overseas, but it is for Allyson. We realize that many of these things are true for the rest of Europe and for many other countries all over the world. We also realize that obviously not all of these apply to every single missionary; these are strictly based on our personal experiences and perspective during this first year in our city of Milan. Many of the following things were points of frustration and sadness during our first months of getting adjusted, but we’re happy to say that although they may be quite different from what we’re used to, we’re finally to the point of laughing about most of these things! We hope you will get a couple of laughs out of this, too…welcome to a glimpse of our world and daily life. 🙂


  • · you have to defrost the freezer once a month. We used to only do this when we were moving.
  • · Allyson is taller than the refrigerator.
  • · the largest plastic cups you can find are the size of Dixie cups.
  • · men wear red pants like we wear khakis.
  • · the skillet pan on the gas stove is your toaster.
  • · the sun and air are your dryer.
  • · olive oil and red wine vinegar are your only types of salad dressing.
  • · the iron is your fabric softener.
  • · opened windows (for us, opened doors in each room) and plug-in fans are your AC.
  • · you realize that Europe is NOT “America East”.
  • · the public transportation system has at least one strike a month. (The rest of Europe looks down on Italy for this, so hopefully Italy will feel pressured enough to finally end these ridiculous things!)
  • · you forget what it’s like to have soft bread.
  • · some type of pasta is eaten 4-5 times a week, many times twice a day.
  • · you have to make weekly walks/trips to the grocery store and markets since the refrigerator and freezer are so small.
  • · salads are never eaten with or before a meal, always the last part of a meal.
  • · pizza is cut with a knife or meat scissors, and only forks are used to eat spaghetti. (It’s a dead giveaway that you’re an American when you start cutting your spaghetti with a knife and fork.)
  • · you know to NOT turn on the television after 9:30 at night.
  • · in stores there are whole aisles dedicated to pasta and whole aisles dedicated to wine.
  • · in writing numbers and money amounts, commas are used where we use decimals and vice versa. For time, a period is used where we usually use a colon.
  • · military time is used for practically everything.
  • · grocery/store bags are not free.
  • · you have to pay to use public restrooms. I’ll never understand this, especially since most of them are pretty filthy!
  • · much of the milk comes in boxes and are intended to be out of the fridge and on shelves until opening. The largest milk container is 1.5 L …forget about those gallon jugs!
  • · you can only go to BARS to buy matches and international phone cards. Even though grocery stores sell candles, it’s illegal for them to sell matches.
  • · when driving, there are no right turns on red.
  • · the drinks of choice are Orange Fanta, red orange juice, and ACE (mixture of carrot, lemon, and orange juice).
  • · the entire flooring in homes consist mostly of marble, with some tiles. Carpet is rarely used here.
  • · first floors are actually called “0” or ground level, and the second floors are labeled as the 1st floor.
  • · dogs are often seen in grocery stores, on the subway, and in restaurants.
  • · you live in a country known for vineyards, yet nowhere can you find grape juice or grape jelly. Our guess is that the grapes are all used for the wine!
  • · bills come every two months, sometimes even longer, and they are never an exact amount since you are only charged with estimates. It’s your responsibility to check each time if the bills are too much or too little, but of course nobody tells you how to do that. (This remains a HUGE source of frustration!)
  • · bills are not paid with the simple process of putting checks in the mail – all bills are paid by standing in lines, and the lines are never short or organized.
  • · the postal system and pharmacies are hard to explain. Post offices here are also banks to pay bills.
  • · there is BUREAUCRACY, BUREAUCRACY, BUREAUCRACY….ahhhh!!!! This one really can’t be explained, and our blood pressure rises just thinking about it. We’re not even in a third-world country and it’s horrible here, so we can’t even imagine what it’s like for so many of our friends in third-world countries.
  • · fresh bread from the bakery is good for only one day because it doesn’t have preservatives.
  • · alcohol is served at McDonald’s.
  • · you have 5 trashcans: plastic, paper, glass, dirty/food, and diapers.
  • · there are three different places to take all the trash, of course all located in extremely inconvenient places below and around the apartment building.
  • · eggs are brown and very fresh, sometimes still with feathers on them.
  • · you can’t find orange cheese, only white.
  • · normal coffee cups are like tea cups, because Italians drink the strongly concentrated espresso.
  • · the handle/button for flushing a toilet is in a different place for every house and every public place you go. This is also true for where to turn on the water for a sink in a public place.
  • · in your home the closets are a large piece of furniture, not something built into a wall.
  • · each city has a protective saint whom people pray to and adore.
  • · forget all the cute and convenient toddler snacks in the States – Jake’s favorite snack is foccaccia bread from the bakery! Toddler food doesn’t exist – kids go straight to eating “grown-up food”.
  • · you walk, walk, walk, and walk some more.
  • · things are closed every Mondays, lunch break, and often on Thursday evenings. Of course the lunch times are all different depending on where you go – restaurants, stores, shops, doctors, etc. It sure would be nice if everyone took their lunch break at the same time and for the same length of time!
  • · typical American treats to make for Italians are blueberry muffins and peanut butter cookies. These are always a big hit, since the Italians have never eaten them before.
  • · Carrefour and IKEA are your specialty stores and the closest thing to stores back home.
  • · our porter and other residents in the apartment FREAKED OUT when they learned on the day Allyson had a 24-hour stomach virus that she went to the store to buy cold 7-Up! When sick, Italians are appalled that anything cold and carbonated would be used to help the stomach. Hot tea seems to be the answer for everything. Many Italians also think Jake is weird for drinking cold milk. 🙂
  • · people are afraid of cold breezes from windows or doors, even in the dead heat of summer. In July we had a more than miserable 5-hour train ride, because nobody in our section would open a window for fear of the breeze. The general thinking here is that breezes make you sick!
  • · people who knock at your door include a priest wanting to bless your home and a guy selling a subscription to a communist newspaper.
  • · your washing machine takes up to two hours to do a complete cycle.
  • · the law requires that you wear a fluorescent orange “construction jacket” when your car is stopped on the side of the road.
  • · you have to pay for your grocery carts (it is reimbursable). We have finally learned to have a 1 or 2 Euro coin on hand!
  • · you can’t get pepperoni pizza! The Italian word “peperone” means “bell pepper”. Instead of pepperoni, Italians normally eat ham on their pizza.
  • · Jake won’t dress up again for Halloween until we return to the US…he will almost be 5.


  • · people in business do not get the concept of customer service.
  • · there are no people to sack groceries. Because the cashiers usually sit and scan groceries super fast, most times you usually have to just dump all the groceries back in the cart and then bag them yourself either by the door or outside.
  • · there are more immigrants from North Africa than from Eastern Europe.
  • · there is a roundabout/piazza to drive through about every 5 minutes, and each of them usually have 4-6 roads branching off of them. These are quite stressful.
  • · street signs are simply light gray plaques posted on the sides of buildings. These are very hard to see both in the day and especially at night.
  • · street names change every block or two.
  • · yellow and white street markings mean different things. Back home usually yellow means a new driving direction and white means a passing lane, but here yellow is used for bus lanes and white (even with the same spaced-out marks) means two driving directions. And yes, we’ve already had the experience of thinking we were passing when really we were driving in the opposite direction of an oncoming car!
  • · there are no school buses, the kids and teenagers ride the public metros, buses, and trams as the adults do. We’ve learned this because we get out of school the same time as regular school does, and public transportation is quite chaotic.
  • · your apartment is located on the same street as a soccer stadium that seats over 80,000 people, and you know not to “go out” on game days because it will be impossible to find a parking place when you get home.
  • · people don’t have front and back yards, just patios and sometimes only one patio.
  • · a treasure is considered a little Philipino store, no bigger than a walk-in closet, that have American cake mixes and frostings, cheap ramen noodles, and Brazilian cheesebread and drinks.
  • · the roads and so-called driving rules are another “Ahhhh!!!!” topic. Again, something that just can’t be explained and must be seen with your own eyes. Please don’t be surprised if you find out that we’ve hit a motorcyclist. There are tons of motorcyclists, like ants all over the road, and they don’t follow any rules.
  • · there are apartments, apartments, apartments! Besides the few touristy things in the center of downtown, this city seems to be completely full of apartments, usually 6-10 stories high. It’s rare to see apartments under 4 stories tall.
  • · the men care about their looks just as much, if not more, than the women do.
  • · “parking lots” are just parking on the curb, or in the street median. In the States I would never dream of parking on the street median, but seeing the medians here you realize how nice the medians are in the States and that doesn’t seem so bad now. Here the medians are just areas of potholes, rocks, etc, yet you see them full of cars everyday. The few parking lots that do exist here are for stores outside of city limits or on top of or below a building.
  • · the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex seems tiny compared to this city. You understand the real difference between rural, urban, and suburban life. We see DFW as more suburban-ish and Milan as real, raw city life.
  • · public places are very non-child friendly. I have yet to find a place with a changing table, let alone just some space to change diapers, and high chairs rarely exist in restaurants. Most public transportation venues have tons of flights of stairs as opposed to escalators – makes it really fun with the stroller. (One of the main reasons for Allyson’s back problems!)
  • · fishnet hose of every color (both young and old women wear them!), mullets and mohawks, “ski mask-sized” sunglasses, “witch” shoes (the pointy ones that extend 3-4 inches past the toe), “clown” ties that are short and wide, and anything in any shade of PINK are alive and well. Oh yes, it’s true!
  • · there are apartment buildings where it is common knowledge among the residents to always leave your car parked in neutral. This way people can move (yes, push and move it!) when it’s in the way and other cars need to park. We saw this happen with our own eyes – our friend who is 13 years old pushed some cars for us so we could park our vehicle! It’s a normal thing here, and I guess when you think about it it makes sense since there is just not room for all the cars here.
  • · the only American “restaurants” are McDonald’s and Burger King. Usually big cities in Western Europe have some famous restaurants/places like Hard Rock or Starbucks, but we think Milan is too proud to have these type of places in their city. Even though Pizza Hut is located in many international places, of course they would die if a Pizza Hut were here!
  • · there are three main types of restaurant choices: Italian, Chinese, and Turkish/Arab (donor kebaps).
  • · each day on the tram you pass by the church holding da Vinci’s Last Supper and the Duomo cathedral.
  • · walking home each day from school to catch transportation, you walk past the front doors of the famous La Scala opera house.
  • · dogs are treated as well, sometimes better, than children are.
  • · men urinate in public almost as often as dogs do.
  • · daily you see typical “city people” who often have no regards for getting out of the way while walking on sidewalks, no interest in smiling at people, and talking constantly on cell phones.
  • · the elevator in our apartment is actually considered a large one because it can hold 4 people. Most elevators can barely hold 3 people.
  • · having only 15-20 mosquito bites is considered a good day.
  • · beggars from Eastern Europe are playing music and openly nursing their babies on subways and inside the stations.
  • · soliciting in public places is not prohibited.
  • · the few places where grass exists, you know not to walk in them because that is the “bathroom space” for dogs.
  • · rush hour is often 7:30 in the evening .
  • · we “enjoy” a healthy dose of second-hand smoking every day. (According to a recent article in the Milan newspaper, a day spent walking around in Milan is equivalent to smoking 10 cigarettes!)
  • · you blow your nose and clean your child’s nose at the end of each day, there is black and gray on the kleenex from all the pollution you’ve inhaled.
  • · octopus, squids, rabbits (the whole body), and horse intestines are in the meat section…right beside the chicken and beef.
  • · in August the city literally shuts down because the Italians are all taking their annual month-long vacation.


  • · you use foot lockers (the same ones used as luggage to move here) as furniture in your home. The two foot lockers we brought over are now used as our coffee table/storage bin and as Jake’s toy chest.
  • · during the first couple of times of going to the grocery store, you have either cried while shopping or come home crying. You’re so overwhelmed with a lack of products from back home, and you don’t know how you’re ever going to learn how to cook in a new country. It remains a family secret how many grilled cheese/ham sandwiches we had during our first weeks here!!
  • · Christmas and Birthday lists are full of things like barbecue sauce, velveeta, taco seasoning, peanut butter, baking powder, brown sugar, pancake syrup, Tylenol, and videotapes full of American TV shows.
  • · it’s necessary to have both great knowledge of Biblical and spiritual issues (obviously), as well as political issues and world history.
  • · you fully understand why both your mother/grandmother-in-law, both past and present missionaries, rinse and reuse ziplock bags.
  • · you also understand why your mother-in-law often wants to eat at Cracker Barrel, Sonic, and Chick-fil-A while in the States. (In addition to those three yummy restaurants, we’ll add Chili’s and Whataburger to our list.)
  • · you also fully understand why your husband and his siblings (all MKs) are a bit obsessed with Taco Bell and cereals like Fruity Pebbles and Captain Crunch…the non-brown, unhealthy, loaded-with-sugar type of cereal.
  • · you daydream about the convenience and CHEAP prices at Wal-Mart and Target.
  • · cooking from scratch is a normal thing. (Allyson always cooked before, but was never one to really cook homemade things. Now, she has used the blender and mixer more in the past months than in all of our years of marriage!)
  • · you eat fruits and veggies that you’ve never eaten before. (I know, Allyson’s family is VERY proud of her! You’d be shocked if you knew what she’s been eating.)
  • · you don’t eat ketchup with all your meats…this is totally an Allyson thing. Those who know her know how obsessed she is with ketchup.
  • · you have the recipes for pickles and Bisquick.
  • · the cookbook used on a regular basis is the one you bought at missionary training, Newcomer’s Guide to Cooking in Africa: American Recipes from Scratch. You’re also sad because you left the Brazilian missionaries’ cookbook back home in the States, not knowing what a treasure it would have been over here!
  • · driving in the States is awesome, even despite the worst traffic jams or construction sites you’ve driven through in Dallas. Being overseas and witnessing how the roads and driving “rules” are, you see how driving in the States is FANTASTIC!!
  • · you have said some of the most vulgar and offensive things ever in your life because of language mistakes.
  • · your “company vehicle”/car doesn’t come with power steering or a radio.
  • · you have no choice in where you’ll live, what you’ll drive, your dishes, your furniture, your neighborhood, your sheets, colors, appliances, etc. (We weren’t able to crate our things over here.)
  • · things considered a “luxury” are not nice new homes or a good car; instead they are church nurseries, air conditioning, being able to buy bags of ice, 24-hour pharmacies, Wal-Mart, warm bread with butter, and ice in drinks.
  • · you’re an expert at parallel parking, and you’ve lost count of how many times you have “love tapped” cars behind and in front of you. (In the States we would never dream of hitting and tapping cars! Back home if this happened, we’d feel like we would need to call the insurance company or something.)
  • · you watch the Olympics and find yourself cheering for athletes from countries you can’t even pronounce but are familiar with because you can say, “Hey, we know someone who is working in that country! That’s their people group!”
  • · you often need naps, not only because of being worn out from your toddler, but from your brain being so overworked by learning a new language.
  • · based on just the first 6 months of living overseas, you could already write a book about all the experiences you’ve had with paperwork, bureaucracy, different so-called “offices”, driving, etc.
  • · each day it seems you’re doing some kind of math calculation: pounds to kilos, Fahrenheit to Celsius (for both the weather and the oven), miles to kilometers, yards to meters. You also want to call the U.S. Government and say, “Why doesn’t America get a clue on this one? The rest of the world uses these systems of measurement!”




2 Responses to “Thoughts on Living Overseas”

  1. Adriana April 21, 2007 at 4:39 am #

    THis brought back many memories. I totally agree with you Allyson. You have overcome a lot.

  2. NickandShannAn July 28, 2012 at 8:43 pm #

    I love this! Thanks for all the tips =)

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