Gut Check: How Bad Do You Want It?

Closed door waiting to be opened

Closed door waiting to be opened

I’m a lawyer by training and a writer by nature. Being able to pinpoint the perfect word has been a talent of mine dating at least back to my high school creative writing days when my teacher praised my “dime-sized portion” of shampoo I used to wash my dog and the squirrels “scurrying” away from danger. And it’s one I’ve worked hard on honing over the years.

But then on the plane ride over the Atlantic, in just about eight or so hours, I lost all ability to express myself in even the most basic situations, not to mention my sense of humor—or at least the sense of humor that used to make sense to everyone around me. Gone were the word plays and subtle meanings behind jokes and the talent for diffusing tense situations with a wisecrack.

In other words, I lost a huge part of what I thought was my identity.

But I wasn’t willing to let it go easily. So when I found myself getting a little too comfortable with basic words but still not really feeling part of things, I knew it was time to create a different Michelle here, one more aligned with the one I remembered from America.

Around that time Shelley of Un’Americana a Roma sent me a copy of L’Alchemista, the Italian translation of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. To that point I had never read an entire book in Italian.

And I knew it was time.

When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it. — Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

I love this book not only for its message, but also because, even though I didn’t realize it at the time, reading it proved to me just how much I wanted to let Italy seep into me, become a part of me, namely through its beautiful, lyrical language and how much I wanted to be a part of it.

By that point, I was able to communicate well enough on a daily basis and was getting by with basic verbs and tenses, but I knew there was still so much I was missing, including parts of myself still hidden from those around me. I’d see many a moment go by where I could have said something witty if only my Italian were better, where I became so frustrated trying to get a point across, I just gave up.

It was gut check time.

How bad did I want this life I said I wanted?

Enough to sit down every night with L’Alchemista for I don’t know how many weeks, make notes of the words I didn’t know, look them up and add them to my vocabulary list. Study them. Try to use them in everyday conversation. And then move on to another book—this time one in its original language by an Italian author. Io Non Ho Paura by Niccolò Ammaniti if you’re interested. Highly recommended.

Lest you think this all happened within the first few months I moved here, let me be clear—this was *years* in the making.

The Alchemist by Paulo CoelhoIt wasn’t until after I met Paolo (which was a year and a half after I arrived) and truly began throwing myself into colloquial conversations that I even considered reading an entire book in Italian. And I opened and closed quite a few before L’Alchemista came along. But when Coelho’s book showed up in my hands, I knew it was time to push forward.

The right book at the right time snapped everything into focus for me, and there was nothing like the feeling of turning that final page and knowing I had done it, finished a book in Italian, and, more importantly, I was on my way to reclaiming myself in this foreign land.


No matter the goal you’re pursuing, there will be times when things look bleak, when circumstances and maybe even people seem to be (or actually are) working against you–and the obstacles will likely be much greater than a measly language barrier. They may be physical, mental, emotional, and all of the above. You may hurt, wonder why you’re doing what you’re doing, get angry, get frustrated, cry. But you won’t give up. Because that is gut check time.

Time to reach deep inside, grab who you know you truly are, pull out every bit of your drive and determination, and push forward.

You already know that nothing worth having or achieving comes easily, but how bad do you want whatever it is you say you want? What are you willing to do to make it happen? Are you willing to take risks, make sacrifices, look like a fool, make laughable mistakes that will actually serve as valuable learning experiences?

Are you willing to trust your own instincts, follow your truth, and most of all, reach inside, pull out your very core, everything that makes you who you are, and put it all out there on the line?

Are you ready for gut check time?

68 Beans of Wisdom to “Gut Check: How Bad Do You Want It?”
  1. 03.18.2012

    Dearest Michelle, you are such a great writer…have I mentioned that before! 😉 Always from the heart and soul you are! Bravo!!! xo <3

    michelle Reply:

    Thanks so much Pam xx

    Laura Reply:

    Hi! My new Italian professor emailed me your link! She apparently already know me-your words are exactly what I needed to hear while I pursue my Italian studies after several years of neglect.

    Thank you for sharing your inspiration and story.

    It’s never too late! 🙂

    michelle Reply:

    Ottimo Laura! Good luck with your studies 🙂

  2. Rebecca

    Excellent post, Michelle. (Very well written!)There are lessons in these words for all of us. Thank you!

    michelle Reply:

    Thank you Rebecca!

  3. 03.18.2012

    Fabulous post Michelle and so true.

    michelle Reply:

    Grazie Sue xx

  4. 03.18.2012

    Great message Michelle. You and Diana had similar posts today and I enjoyed them both. I remember when I got serious about wanting to speak Italian, I did the same thing – read books in Italian with a group. It would take me one hour just to read four pages, but I stayed with it, year after year and it paid off eventually – not just speaking better but now I’ve read dozens of Italian classics, from “I Promessi Sposi” to “Se Questo E’ Un Uomo.” Tenacity is the key, and your passion can be realized.

    michelle Reply:

    Good on you, Linda! It is quite a commitment, and I can’t say I’m always consistent with it, but better some work towards a goal than none, right? 🙂

  5. Silvana Longo

    Buona domenica Michelle!

    Thank you so much for writing this post…timely and completely relatable! I am innately drawn to the Italian language and taught myself thru courses and travel devouring every new word and its meaning incorporating them and new verb tenses whenever I could. I remember when I was 19 and after spending two weeks in Calabria, I had my first dream completely in Italian! I guess that was my first moment of recognition that this language was permeating thru my veins. It’s like something else takes over when I am conversing in Italian. It’s a lifelong passion that never ends and feels like home no matter where I am. Like you I am also a writer and after years of taking a break and not pursuing that path, I have recently started working as an editor for a home decor magazine. It has all the potential of a dream job for me but there have been some challenging personalities that are draining me and depleting my confidence and enthusiasm. It’s gut check time for sure! I don’t know what the future holds but I know I have to get centered again and realign my life with passions. Your blog and your life are an inspiration to me!
    Spero veramente un giorno di conoscerti in persona! Grazie mille.


    michelle Reply:

    I wish you much luck and strength in aligning your passions with your actions, Silvana…sometimes you’re in someone else’s dream job, but not your own…and I think your gut knows when that’s the case 😉

  6. 03.18.2012

    Oh, gosh, Michelle. This is so pertinent today. I’m taking part in a community writing project at the moment and the prompt today is, ‘what is one massively impossible dream you’ve always had?’ I’m not sure I can write about it at the moment because it’s still not realised and I don’t want to jinx it. What I do know, though, is that if I really want it I need to stop dreaming and start working like hell.

    Thank you for writing this.

    michelle Reply:

    I think getting over that idea of jinxing something was actually quite huge in my pushing forward on things…the idea that putting it out in the Universe is actually a beneficial thing and not asking for malocchio 😉 Much luck to you, Katja…to dreaaaaaam the impossible dreeeeeeeam hahaha….

  7. 03.18.2012

    Grazie!…one’a yo best posts…….Ican hear your train engines roaring

    michelle Reply:

    HA! Woooo woooo (that’s the whistle) 😉

  8. 03.18.2012

    great post. and at the right time. thank you!

    michelle Reply:

    Thank YOU for reading, Petra!

  9. It’s synchronicity, not just coincidence that I read your post today! I’ve just (this morning) started working on that issue you write about, so it must be a message that I’m reading your post now. I’m glad you shared your experience with us.

    PS: I’m Dutch and I remember the first time I dreamed in English 😉

    michelle Reply:

    Dreaming in another language is pretty darn cool, I agree! Thx for stopping in, Miss Footloose — so nice to see you back around here 🙂

  10. 03.18.2012


    Bravo! Bravo! Bravo! I think we of the “recovery community” should make you an “honorary member” of our community.

    It seems to me that the sharing in this piece is a culmination of a arduous but rewarding process. For those that have participated in this form of “self examination and change” in any particular life area recognize that you will be rewarded for you efforts as you live day to day.

    This also seems a natural resting point. The psyche seems OK with doing all this work but it also seems to need to rest and see what the “lay of the land” is now. Your “Essence” knows that you are not demonstrating “ITS” finished product. In the words of Paul Harvey Sr. “we don’t know the rest of the story” yet. That part of our lives is yet to come.

    I would also share that in my own case which seems to parallel much of yours, that the process you outline in the last line of your article is not for the feint at heart. It is my humble estimation that what you describe and many of us have accomplished is nothing less than meeting, accepting, and manifesting “that which creates us breath by breath”. Call/label “that” by any title you want or need, I call it “IT” and am able to recognize “IT” in others having done this soul work.

    Again in my humble estimation, your writing and sharing has over the last few years taken on a dimension of wanting to help others if life through the sharing of your inner most self and that my dear is the description of many many many saints.

    Smile, you deserve it.

    Love and Light


    “Namaste ‘- Divinità di me riconosce la divinità di te …”

    michelle Reply:

    Hugs to you, Richard; thank you for your lovely thoughts and for sharing your experiences, as always 🙂

  11. 03.18.2012

    Oh how I hear you. And sorry to say it, but that sense of humor you once had will probably never come as a natural translation of your old self. But you may get a new, Italian, sense of humor (in addition to your old one).
    My first completely Italian book (read with dictionary in hand) was (the It. translation of) Anna Karenina, only because I got it, used, and for free, many years ago when I would never have bought such an expensive work, and it worked as well as anything I probably could have chosen.
    Since then, I have read much in Italian (many works which were never translated into English, as far as I know), though reading in Italian still seems a much slower process (though that may be that the books I choose to read, or find to read which are only in Italian are a bit “heavier”) than reading in English.
    My dream (still remaining to be fulfilled) is to manage to finish reading an entire book by Umberto Eco in Italian (until now, to understand the subtleties of Eco, which I realized were there but knew I was somehow missing, I have finished the books in their English translations, which have always been wonderful and barely seemed like translations).

    michelle Reply:

    After nearly nine years here, I’m OK with how the sense of humor is “translating,” if you will…and now in calabrese as well as Italian every now and again haha. But yes, the cultures and cultural references are just different, so there’s always going to be something “missing,” though now I’ll find it missing in English language conversations based on the Italian I know…weird but fun 🙂 I’m still not at the point with reading Italian, though, to be able to tell great writing from OK writing…at least not that I’ve noticed. I would LOVE to get there someday 🙂

  12. 03.18.2012

    A great post Michelle, I admit that I have no desire to be able to read novels in Italian should I be ashamed of this, no I think not. My immersion into an Italian lifestyle has been different to yours on many points, age and marriage to someone who speaks my own language for a start. Gut check, we are proud of our achievements having moved here as ’empty nesters’

    michelle Reply:

    Oh of course I don’t think it’s anything to be ashamed of; we all have different goals in life, and that includes different levels of language learning for those of us who move to another country — I’m sure you also know (or know of) people who have been here much longer than either of us who still barely speak Italian. Now *that* is something I couldn’t imagine even without an Italian partner, but to each her own 😀

  13. 03.18.2012

    Michelle…loved, loved this post. You are an inspiration for so many – following your dreams, difficulties and all. For the last 10 years or so, I have always followed my gut – and it never steers me wrong. On the other hand, our heads can lead us far astray from what is right for us, but the gut can never deceive us like that. 🙂

    michelle Reply:

    I hear you, Jeni; maybe not everyone’s gut is always right, but mine sure has been 😉

  14. 03.19.2012

    Hi, I really appreciate you sharing your thoughts on this.. Its great motivation and inspiration for me. its only been 2 years since I’ve moved to Italy and I feel like I’ve lost my voice (or part of it). so much of the way i used to BE (which puts into perspective how much of who I am is how I communicate) simply slipped away and got replaced by a semi-mute something. hehe.. but yes, it does “seep” through you when you allow it, when you take courage and surrender. all great learning involves great leaps. the Alchemist is so fitting for this topic. again, thanks. – Kat

    michelle Reply:

    Yes, it’s interesting how people then think you’re quiet/shy — a reasonable assumption based on your quietness but not necessarily true! Best of luck, Kat 🙂

  15. 03.19.2012

    I remember clearly learning French in the same way, back in 87 sitting on metro’s reading my first book. Now I’m in Thailand and it’s a whole new game, I have the basics and can more than get by. As the Thai language is written in a different script I cant just pick up a book and start to read, or am I using that just as an excuse? thanks for the reminder.

    michelle Reply:

    Sounds to me like you don’t make many excuses in life, Neale 😉 Thx for coming by and sharing your experiences 🙂

  16. Gil

    I started to follow you because of the way you wrote about various very interesting subjects. You seemed to be writing from your heart and soul! I know, not too lawyer like…

    michelle Reply:

    Haha thank you Gil 🙂

  17. 03.19.2012

    This is great- and something I NEEDED to hear today! Thanks for the wisdom.

    michelle Reply:

    Happy to hear that, Andrea! Thanks for reading 🙂

  18. 03.19.2012

    Well said, Michelle. Well said.

    I haven’t been able to read a real novel in Italian yet.

    I’m still struggling through “Il Viaggio in Italia di Valentina”. I don’t understand why a kids’ book has so many verb tenses!


    michelle Reply:

    Yeah, I kind of just skip over verb tenses a lot of the time. Ahem. 😉

  19. 03.19.2012

    Ciao Michele– this is a wonderful post– for me your work with The Alchemist feels like the essence of the repatriation process although clearly returning to one’s ancestral home would give you a great psychological and even material edge. I’m finding that translating some of my poems into Italian, and reteaching myself vocubulary and syntax are helping me reclaim my own immersion in the language nearly forty years ago when I took a huge risk and a train alone down the coast to be with my Giuseppe. Forgive me for including the link here to my memoir, a homage in fatti to Italia. I found it interesting when an Italian American writer picked the book apart some time ago and accused me of presenting stereotypes– particularly regarding my chapter on Torino. I disagreed as certainly in 1973, certain familial traditions were alive and well where women were concerned. In any event, you are breaking ground for those of us longing to be right where you are in a niche that is about our dreams. I hope one day to have the memoir translated into Italian; … xxxj

    michelle Reply:

    Thanks Jenne’ and also for including your link 🙂

  20. Ah, that brings me back. In 2005 I was finally getting a bachelor’s degree. I decided it would be in Italian humanities; so I had to chose an Italian professor for an advisor and he told me I had to read Il Gattopardo and a few other Italian classics. Il Gattopardo by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa was written many years ago and is not easy to read. I blanched and told my teacher my Italian was not that good. How am I going to read this book? His simple answer; Just start reading. IT was a mighty struggle but I did it; and went on to read many more. I recommend voglio i pantaloni and also anything by Ignazio Silone. The first of his i read was Il segreto. wonderful. Good luck on your reading adventures. I will try to find “The Alchemist”

    michelle Reply:

    Thank you for the recommendations, Mimi! Hope you enjoy The Alchemist as much as I do 🙂

  21. 03.21.2012

    Thanks for writing this post. I randomly came across your blog this morning and so pleased I did! We (as in, my husband and I and our 3 young boys) are moving to Italy in 7 days… this has been our dream for a long time and now it is actually happening but I’m freaking out about the language barrier. I only know very basic Italian and know I will get frustrated because I initially won’t be able to express myself, the true “me” properly. Reading books and writing down and studying and using words I don’t know is a brilliant idea and great to hear you have had such success with it!
    Thank you for your inspiration 🙂

    michelle Reply:

    Best of luck to you and your family, Brigitte!

  22. Never give up!

    Yes circumstances have been painful but each step taken is one closer…

    I just finishe The Alchemist in English, and loved it.

    I love you idea of reclaiming yourself, so beautifully expressed
    ciao lisa

    michelle Reply:

    Thx Lisa; piano piano 😉

  23. Jae

    Thank you so much for writing this. As far as learning Italian, my stepdad gave me props for learning so much so quickly the first time I visited him and my mom in Genoa. But by the time I visited them a second time, having not kept up with my studies, I didn’t remember anything! What a difference it made, even knowing a handful of phrases that first visit. As far as pursuing your dreams, at 36 I have a real opportunity to do that just because of where life has led me. It’s terrifying, but it’s also exciting and uplifting and I haven’t been so full of hope in many years. Best of luck learning the colloquial!

    michelle Reply:

    Best of luck to you, Jae! Thanks for coming by 🙂

  24. Rose Marie Milcetic

    Michelle, that writing was so poignant. It really touched me!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    michelle Reply:

    Thanks Rose Marie 🙂

  25. 03.24.2012

    For the past year, I have been dreaming of the move to Italy. I’ve constantly been discouraged by my parents who are Italian immigrants. They continuously utter the words, “non è una vita per te figlia mia.” After being there twice in one year… I strongly disagree. The thoughts and desire of living in Italy flood my mind daily.

    This post was truly touching. It definitely allowed me to have a gut check. I initially said I would only move to Italy if I got a job teaching in an international American school, but after seeing that was not happening any time soon, I decided to apply to Au Pair for 10 months. I hope I get it.

    I’m trusting my instincts, following my truth and willing to put it all out there on the line in order to finally achieve il mio sogno. Hopefully, the universe will aspire to help me achieve my dreams, prestissimo.

    As always, your blog is an inspiration.

    michelle Reply:

    I hope you find what you’re looking for, Rosie…best of luck! And thank you for reading 🙂

  26. Kay

    Confession time… when my brain is too addled to study Italian I read un libro rosa, something I would never dream of doing in English! I don’t need to think about the plot at all, and I know that I have understood when the oh so predictable ending rolls around!

    (I used to cringe that it should have come to that, but what a great sense of achievement i feel when I read it without translating in my head, and arrive at the final page knowing exactly what the story was all about).

    michelle Reply:

    Nothing wrong with that, Kay! I love that feeling too 🙂

  27. 04.01.2012

    i have enjoyed The Alchemist
    for years
    am not surprised
    one bit
    that you love it

    and in Italian!

    {{ i have an app
    for learning Italian on my iPhone,
    one word a day,
    today’s word—>

    motore di ricerca…

    not certain how useful
    that will B for me, michelle,
    i am learning…

    michelle Reply:

    Hahaha well better a few words than nothing at all, I suppose 😉

  28. 04.02.2012

    Hi Michelle

    Your latest post came through on my wall on FB, I haven’t read anything from you for a while, just due to timing on FB I guess.

    …well it’s good to be back, reading and enjoying your writing. Just for good measure I now have your RSS on my igoogle page too!

    The Alchemist, absolutely loved it when I read it, such an inspiring read. Just as your posts are…honest, caring and full of sharing. I mean you even give away both yours and P’s ancient family recipe’s, that’s rare!

    Thanks Michelle, it’s good to be back and reading again.


    michelle Reply:

    Nice to “see” you, Annette 🙂

  29. 04.03.2012

    Ciao Michelle, I have been on this journey too for 20 years ormai. I hope it never ends. Italian is the language of the heart. Mine anyway. Mine is good – not perfect by any stretch – but I can say things in Italian I can’t or won’t bring myself to say in English. Funny. Part of being a different better version of me in Italian I suppose. But also because Italian became literally my language of love quite early and so there are those associations…the ones that go ‘oltre la lingua’. Hope I haven’t lost you! I think I want to say that, more than really wanting to get inside the Italian language I almost had to. Without it I’d only be a fraction of me.

    Thanks for the exquisite reminder Michelle. Janine x

    michelle Reply:

    Sounds like you’ve come to a wonderfully happy medium, Janine 🙂 Thx for commenting!

  30. 04.03.2012

    What an elegant and resounding post. I was always been saddened by not having my jokes/cracks understood, but I’ve found that by gathering the right type of friends, people who also want to know you to the core, that there is a way to thrive in another language, even become someone richer. At first I dwelled solely in English, now I think I would have trouble living without rolling and connected Italian words. And as my kids are bilingual there is no turning back now.

    But don’t ever ask me to laugh at a carabinieri joke!

    michelle Reply:

    Oh that’s a shame about the carabinieri jokes…some of my favorites 😛

  31. 04.08.2012

    Funny, I feel that I’m not entirely myself in Italian…even my husband’s neighbours think that I am a ‘sweet, reserved girl’…which anyone who knows my English self would say is ridiculous!! I look forward to the moment when I can express myself, my real self, in Italian. And in the meanwhile, I really did enjoy ‘Io non ho paura’ in English. Thanks for your message…and Buona Pasqua

    michelle Reply:

    I think most of us appear shy — hard not to when you don’t know what to say! It comes in time, though; hope you had a lovely holiday as well 🙂

  32. 04.14.2012

    Such an appropriate post for me to read now! I stumbled on your blog while researching lawyers abroad. I’m a “former” lawyer too (though i still practice) who left her job to travel and find my true passion. It’s definitely “gut check” time for me – I’ve wanted to be an expat for the longest and now it’s time to make it happen. Thanks for your post and love your blog!

    michelle Reply:

    Good on you, Lily! Hope all is working out for you 🙂

  33. JoeyLea

    Great post – inspiring to all!
    Thank you.

  34. Jill

    I am just reading this again tonight and for whatever reason, it speaks to me much more directly tonight than the first time i read it. I think I am at a crossroads in a number of ways…my art, my health/fitness, some personal irks that perhaps need to be allowed to fall away from me. Taking the time to do nothing and really mull over priorities–how much do I really want this? How important is this? Are these agonizing personal relationships and issues worth it, or should I let this person/issue go? In other words, is my desire to stay the course really bringing me happiness or am I just prolonging my own misery by staying a course that leads to nowhere worthwhile?

    Thank you Michelle. I never fail to THINK after reading your blogs. You (and Diana) slow me down. You make me reflect. You both have something that eludes me (perhaps because I am in crazy dirty crowded China and not beautiful, rich, luscious Italy) but the glimmers I get from your writing is like a tiny ray of sunshine in the gloom. 😉



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