I can still remember now, 11 years later, the tight knot of anxiety in my stomach when I arrived at Milan Linate airport with my two heavy suitcases and waited on the pavement for my boyfriend Marco to show. After 18 months of a long-distance relationship, I’d left my life in London to move in with him. We wanted to understand whether we had a future together or whether ours was simply a holiday romance that had lingered on too long.
I’d been working as a freelance TV director and producer in London so while I was not taking a serious risk in leaving for a spell, it still felt odd to be stepping off the career ladder at a time when I was riding high and good job offers were coming in. As I stood waiting in the burning July sun, I reassured myself that I could always fly back to London for short projects. For now, I needed to take my foot off the gas and see what happened.
But as the weeks in Milan turned into months, I discovered that taking your foot off the gas is not easy. For the past ten years, most of my self-validation had come from my career — and now, it was stalling. The situation was starting to feel like a double-bind: I was happy with Marco - after years of tortured TV types, here was a man who was comfortable in his own skin, honest and kind. The problem was where we lived and the limited job opportunities on offer. A far cry from sun dappled piazzas and rose scented boulevards, Marco’s flat was in a grey industrial suburb where finding a patch of green was a challenge. I spent my days looking for work but Italian TV paid a third of what I earned in London and the projects were banal at best. It was also starting to grate that Marco’s mother lived next door to us and dropped in several times a day.
Finally, after eight months in Milan, the day came when I’d had enough. I didn’t want to work on programmes about washed up celebrities with arrogant directors who were in the job because of nepotism. I didn’t want to be screamed at for hesitating a second too long at the traffic lights or choke my way through fetid morning smog. Milan was getting on my nerves to the point that I was starting to hate the place and hate it deeply. Then, one April day, an offer arrived for a short project in the US and I took it, without hesitation. It was tantamount to tossing a grenade under my relationship and I knew it.
After the programme finished, and following weeks of stressful phone calls, I returned to Italy and Marco and I tried to work it out (again). What occurred next was a surprise: things changed and life suddenly felt a lot better. We rented a house near the mountains where we spent our weekends walking and cycling, and I started writing a novel. I’d always wanted to write but I’d never really had the time, or at least I’d felt guilty about “wasting” my energy on a project with no future. But now I was sitting down at my desk every morning and I no longer cared whether anyone else ever saw the manuscript. The world of The Few was a place I longed to return to and I almost dreaded the time when it would be finished.
In the years that followed I ended up working in a job I very much enjoyed and four of my crime novels were published. Marco and I now have two small children and live in the countryside of Piedmont where my boys go to a lovely nursery surrounded by amazing scenery. I say all this more in shock than anything else.
Moving abroad was, without doubt, the most difficult, exhausting and frightening thing I have ever done. If you’re thinking about doing it yourself, think long and think hard. Frankly, I’m not sure I’d ever have the energy to go through it again but, looking back, I am so glad I did.
The Extremist by Nadia Dalbuono (£8.99, Scribe Publications) is out 8 Feb and available to preorder.