Karen Rigatti is American and has been living in Milan since 2008. Karen looks like a Macy’s catalog model with her apple pie smile and Californian blonde locks. One might think she came to Milan to walk the runways, but it was a job in a law firm and later, love, that brought her across the pond.
Today, she is a Certified Professional Counselor, working with expats dealing with the challenges of anxiety, self-doubt and that general feeling of being overwhelmed that often, unexpectedly comes with moving to Italy.
As an expat and mother herself, she understands familiar struggles such as facing new parenthood far from home and the trials of inter-cultural relationships which can sometimes leave both parents feeling adrift.
Karen sat down with Easy Milano to talk about her life and how it has evolved since moving to Milan. We talked about learning Italian, love, parenthood, divorce, reinvention, and other challenges expats in Italy face.
When you’re ready for a different result, try a different approach– Karen Rigatti
What brought you to Milan? Why did you stay?
My story is a very common story, I met someone. I’m originally from Arlington, Virginia, right outside of Washington, DC. I had been living in San Francisco, already for about 10 years at the time. I was sent on a three-month assignment to London. I was Director of Attorney recruiting for an international law firm and helping them organize their European offices and their recruiting efforts. I thought, ‘What a fun adventure, it’s just for three months!’ The second week in, I met my ex-partner, an Italian lawyer who worked for the same law firm in the Milan office. He lived in Milan and I stayed in London and we did the usual back and forth. After a year I moved here, and that was 14 years ago.
Did you think you were going to live here forever? Or maybe one day go back to America?
My ex husband is a lawyer. We would have loved to have picked up stakes and moved to America but it just wasn’t viable. He was a partner in a law firm and in his 40s. He would have literally had to go back to law school to be able to practice law in the US and that was not going to happen. So, it was pretty clear from the beginning, of course, that we would live here. Nobody goes into marriage planning for their divorce. But yes, I came the with the idea that this was permanent.
When we broke up, a lot of people asked if I’d go back to the US as if I had nothing to stay for, but I did. It’s not that it didn’t occur to me, but it only occurred to me for about five minutes for a lot of reasons. I had just finished my graduate degree in Counseling which would have been rendered useless in the US, they would not have recognized it. My children were so young, I thought about them growing up so far from their dad, shipping them back and forth for summers.
And, at that point, I had been here for five years, my life had taken root for me. So, I knew, it was clear to me that I was going to stay.
Could you tell us about your children?
I have two beautiful daughters they are 12 and 11 years old. They go to the American School. They’ve both gone there since they were three. Oh, what more can I tell you? I can talk about them for days!
Are they bilingual?
Yes, they are bilingual, but if you ask them, they’ll probably say they feel more comfortable in English. Between attending the American School and spending so much time in an English-speaking, international community, I think they feel more connected to their American side.
And how about your Italian?
Yes, I’m fluent now but it was a struggle. I started studying Italian pretty intensely about six months before I moved here, and then really threw myself into it when I arrived. I went back to school to do my Masters in Counseling. Everybody in my program was Italian, except me. So for me, it was, of course, twice the work. It was as much a language course as it was a counseling course.
And it was hard also because I started right after my first daughter was born. She was three months old when I started it and then my second daughter was born during the course. Yeah, it was tough.
There were a lot of different layers and levels to learning Italian and of course, it’s never done. There’s no finish line. My biggest lessons were when I had to become 100% independent when my marriage ended, and my children were two and three.
I was guilty of what I see in a lot of my expat clients. I had let my ex-husband do all of the ‘heavy lifting in our day-to-day lives. I found it overwhelming to call the plumber, to deal with so many things. Things of course I always did as a professional, independent woman in my 20s and 30s. Even though I had really worked to learn the language, it was still hard for me to throw myself in there to that next level. And so, the real education I think came for me when it was just me and I felt like ‘okay, I’m gonna figure it out.’ And I still feel like that every day. Certain things are still hard but you know, it’s just me so I know I can do it. But I see so many clients struggle with the ‘It’s too hard.’ Sometimes, it is only when it becomes necessary that you really change.
Also, motherhood in another language is difficult. I mean, it’s stressful enough to become a first-time mother, but doing it in a foreign language in a foreign land far away from your family, can be exponentially more challenging. I’ve actually written several articles on pregnancy and giving birth in Italy. I did a three-part series on my website.
How did you go from law firm to counseling?
My undergraduate degree was in psychology, and I always wanted to do what I’m doing now. When I finished my undergraduate, I didn’t want to continue with another degree. I always thought psychology is a profession that requires time and life experience, something you can’t get even with the best degree. So I really thought at the time, it’s something I’ll probably go back to later in life. And then through a series of other decisions and choices and you know, life taking on its own path I ended up working for the law firm as a recruiting assistant, and then over the years, continued to work my way up and became the head of attorney recruiting by the time I left 11 years later.
The Milan office of the law firm was quite small. It just wouldn’t really have worked for me to continue working at the firm, and it was kind of a perfect time to leave and start something new. And so I thought, this is the time to go back to get my graduate degree and start the path that I really wanted to do all along. I completed my Master’s in Counseling here in Milan in 2012.
Do you find parallels between recruiting and the counseling work you do today?
Very much so. There was very much of a counseling element to working with candidates of all ages and backgrounds. I worked with all levels of associates from law schools, first-year associates, Junior associates, mid-level associates, partners, senior partners. All of them were considering their options and weighing choices and so forth and so on. And so there really was quite a significant counseling aspect at times and very much obviously, a people job.
Is counseling like psychotherapy?
There are certainly similarities, but there are also important differences. The role of the certified counselor is still fairly new here in Italy, as compared to Anglo-Saxon countries, such as the US and UK. Counseling is generally a relatively brief treatment that is focused most upon behavior. It usually targets a particular symptom or problematic situation and helps clients in finding ways of managing feelings and patterns of thinking and dealing with the difficulties or challenges. Psychotherapy is generally a much longer-term treatment which focuses on gaining insight into chronic psychological and emotional problems. It focuses on the patient’s history and way of being in the world rather than specific problems.
How do you help your clients?
Many of my clients are highly educated, international expats living in Milan. There is, I think, usually a general understanding of what counseling is, and they have already taken the first step to reach out and ask for help.
Oftentimes, realizing that moving to Italy is a lot harder than they anticipated is very real. I have clients who have lived abroad, this is not their first rodeo, as they say, so can be even more shocked at things that they’re struggling with, with this particular move living in this particular place. Because each international move, as we know, is a unique experience. So just because you’ve been an expat in other countries doesn’t mean you’re going to sail through moving to Italy.
Many people underestimate the enormity of living abroad, especially if it entails a shift in their relationship and they’re no longer able to do certain things independently. I think anxiety, depression, intercultural relationship issues, cultural adaptation are some of the biggest challenges.
Do you work with children and families?
I don’t work with small children. My clients range from high school students up through people in their 50s or even 60s in terms of giving you an age range.
I work at Bocconi two days a week in their counseling department. And so obviously, by definition, they’re all students; everything from first-year bachelor’s up through Ph.D. students, and in my private practice, fifteen years old is about as low as I go in terms of age.
I see individuals and couples. In couples counseling, a myriad of issues come up, and very often a big piece of that is the intercultural nature of their relationship. Also, new parenthood, I see a lot of couples who are in that phase of life.
I have very, very few couples that I’ve ever worked with who are from the same culture. The cultural aspect is so vast because a lot of times couples have come to me for what they think is their problem, and it is but they don’t understand all the layers underneath it and how much of that is about their cultural differences. So begins the process of unpacking that and helping them develop a greater understanding of how that is a constant contributor to some of the friction that they have.
Problems and issues vary, and some can be related to anxiety or depression that may have been underlying, but this move has exacerbated those underlying conditions for them. If I do recognize symptoms, I refer my clients to a practicing psychiatrist who can prescribe medication if necessary.
What do you miss most about the USA?
I’m extremely close to my mom, who still lives on the East Coast outside of DC. Because of the pandemic, I haven’t seen her in two years. It’s hard to think about. That, to me is the hardest part about living abroad. We leave each other messages every single day and we talk and FaceTime as much as we can. We’re finally planning to see each other soon.
And I miss crabcakes! Being from the East Coast, I adore seafood, and crabcakes are my favorite.
Last question, what is your favorite place in Milan?
There are too many to name, but Chihuahua Tacos hits the spot every time, and Sunday lunch at Erba Brusca always feels like a weekend getaway just 10 minutes from home.
Many thanks to Karen Rigatti for taking the time to share her experiences and insights into expat living in Italy.