December 28, 2006

No Schopenhauer please, I'm American

My 18-year-old son looked up from his Hegel, Kant and Schopenhauer and asked, “Mom, did you study philosophy in high school?” What could I say, but, “no”. I ran across a few philosophers in history or English courses, but no philosophy courses were offered. He shook his head in horror and disbelief…. Here I go again, defending my American education-based ignorance. No, I did not take Ancient Greek or even Latin (thrown out of the public school system in the post ’68 frenzy of “new ideas” only to be later reinstated as a “new idea”), not to mention philosophy. But I did get into a “top” college, which sounds like collegio, a high school level boarding school generally for students who cannot make it in the public school system due to behaviour problems. Liberal arts – with something called a “major” – not a real education filled with specific content.

Cultural Moment. I actually did have an education, liberal arts as it was, but the content was different because the aim was different (learning to think, communicate, analyze, solve problems etc) which serves the American need for future-oriented workers. The US has little need for content-laden cultural and historical background that ties you to the past. Onward we go, from the present to the future with lots of skills and entrepreneurial spirit, often based on scattered ad-hoc content.

Italians place importance on a mass of shared cultural information. This was essential at the time of the founding of modern education with the Gentile reforms of the 1930s. Italy was still a young country and it needed to have everyone on the same page – culturally, not emphasizing regional differences but national unity: common history, literature and roots that go back Ancient Rome. No room for fostering individualism, but unity in one national cultural background through education. As one reform falls to the wayside after another, this still holds true. Avanti I Promessi Sposi – the national novel.

I appreciate the wealth of content that my sons are receiving and the skills they are learning to be able to absorb this mass of information. I also appreciate the skills that I learned that allow me to absorb masses of information I encounter every day. In the end, both systems work.

I will get back to education another day – lots of interesting differences!

A presto,

December 27, 2006

Holiday Cards and Calls

Christmas cards arrive – from friends and family in the US. Phone calls and text messages with holiday greetings – from friends and family in Italy. Hmmmm there is a cultural difference here.

One is on the time front. We plan ahead in incremental linear steps – the family foto taken on summer vacation and later transformed into a card. Then comes the computer address lists, labels, stamps and the whole thing in the mail. The message is: I have been thinking about you for some time in order to get this card organized and in the mail. You have the honor of being on my Christmas card list and are therefore in my thoughts and heart. Here, there is a grand mad rush on Christmas Eve that barely leaves time for phone calls and text messages. The message is: I am thinking of you NOW and I really want to communicate that to you NOW – immediacy is the key.

Another is on the communication front. Italians are just part of a more oral oriented society. They talk, a lot, and a written note just seems aloof and impersonal. A card represents a one-sided communication in reference to a past emotional state, not a verbal interaction like a quick call with all its warmth and urgency.

I appreciate the cards and the calls and even the text messages. It is nice to be thought of during the holidays.

A domani,

December 26, 2006

Holiday Moments

Holidays bring on lots of "moments" even in the best of circumstances when surrounded by family and friends and your own long-standing rites and rituals. Living abroad during the holidays brings on a bit of nostalgia, even for the parts you didn’t really like – eggnog and elderly aunts with facial hair for example.

In Italy, Christmas has lots of its own rituals, which I pick and choose among, but it is mainly about food and family and the emphasis on food can bring on a cultural moment. Every conversation I overheard or participated in during the week before Christmas was about Christmas Eve and Christmas day menus and with whom each of these festive meals would be shared. No singing Christmas carols by the fireplace, very little talk about the gift giving part, none about the religious part, just food and food and more of it!

Appearances, attention to aesthetics, good taste and the grand “show” take the stage – a moment in the year for this fundamental aspect of Italian culture to stand up and shine in all its glory.

I decided to give myself a special gift and take a day off from La Bella Figura. For the first time in a few years, I spent Christmas with just my husband and two children and we went to the seaside south of Rome on the 24th for a nice fish lunch and walk on the empty beach in the warm winter sun -- everyone else was frantically preparing for Christmas eve dinner. We opened a few presents on the 24th from relatives and the rest on the 25th before sitting down to an American Christmas meal – which actually turned out to be a good looking show and tasty too!

Cream of artichoke soup
Turkey with chestnut stuffing
Mashed potatoes, peas, carrots and pearl onions
No pumpkin pie though – no one likes it in my Italian family – just lots of pandoro, torrone and walnuts.
Vino novello to accompany it all and a round of espresso (no cappuccino) to finish it off.

Today’s menu: Turkey soup, of course!

Hope you all had a Buon Natale and Santo Stefano!

A domani,

December 20, 2006

Food Rituals

Conforming to social norms in the realm of the pallet is as essential a part of Italian culture as conforming to the latest fashion dictates and always arriving with the proper gift for every occasion. Keeping to Italian food rituals as to what time of day, week or year you eat or drink this or that, in what order, accompanied by which olive oil and in which setting is never intuitive and, at best, only an acquired skill for Americans living here. We simply did not have Italian mothers and did not grow up with Italian food culture.

Meals for Italian children would be an exhausting exercise for anyone but an Italian mother, starting with breastfeeding and weighing the baby before and after each feeding to be sure that he or she has taken enough. Then comes the vegetable and meat broths with dozens of types of pastina, olive oil and parmigiano, the best sole at the market steamed and carefully de-boned on Fridays for lunch and the best cuts of meat cooked and hand ground along with crushed steamed zucchini. All patiently fed spoon by spoon with the concentration most of us would save for brain surgery. Course by course, meal-by-meal, day-by-day, holiday-by-holiday, season-by-season Italian children are indoctrinated into the rhythms and regimented world of Italian food culture.

The next time, you feel an itch to free up and rebel against food order, timing and combinations of ingredients set in stone, keep in mind that the greatness of Italian cooking was born into and because of this frame. The Great Russian novels were born within the confines of various difficult political systems, as the Great Italian cuisine within the confines of Italian food rules and rituals. In captivity, creativity is unleashed.

A domani, E

December 19, 2006

The Cappucino Mystery

The end of our lunch arrived along with the waiter, “quanti caffĂ©?” he asked. Julie responded, “Two, one regular and one with milk.” then sighed and whispered across the table, ”I know that I should have just an espresso after lunch, but I am American and I am going to have milk in my coffee whenever I want to.” Ahh Haa – a Cultural Moment!

Italians will tell you that medical science has proven milk to be dangerous when served with or after a meal– it will curdle and impeded the digestive process. Maybe it has to do with Mediterranean genes, but we do not seem to have this difficulty – or worse, we just never noticed it. All those school lunches washed down with red cartons of milk. I now shudder at the thought.

There is something else going on, culturally. As Julie noted above, it is a question of the individual’s right to choice. A strong American cultural value, which makes it very difficult for us to really, intimately accepts all those unwritten Italian “food laws”.

There is a time of day, week and year, a place and an atmosphere in which certain foods are eaten. There are certain breakfast foods, certain mid morning snack foods, certain lunch foods, certain supper foods, and certain seasonal foods. Ice cream in the late afternoon, or after supper from April through October. Cappuccino for breakfast or even as a late morning snack. Always move forward from antipasto to course 1 to course 2 to salad to fruit to coffee. The difference being that all this is instinctive for Italians; it comes naturally as just the way things are. They even order Chinese food as first courses (shrimp fried rice) and second courses (sweet and sour pork). There is no choice involved, no desire to break free and be adventurous, rebel and have that cappuccino after lunch or a second helping of pasta after your meat.

We Americans feel very confined in this regimented world. It does not come naturally to follow rules that invade our personal sphere. We eat what we want to eat, when we want to eat it and in any order we want to eat it. It is our right to personal self-expression. You eat what you want and I eat what I eat. I express myself and my personal place in the world by what I choose to eat.

Personally,” I’ll have an espresso, please”, because sometimes rules develop over centuries out of common sense and good taste.

More on unwritten rules and Italian creativity tomorrow.

A domani. E

December 18, 2006

What is a Cultural Moment?

I have called this blog, Cultural Moments, so I had better begin at the beginning and describe what I mean by the term. A Cultural Moment is a twitch, a deep gut-wrenching punch, a squirmy, queasy, lightheaded feeling that comes on when people and institutions act in ways that put you outside your cultural comfort zone. It can be followed by anger, frustration, feelings of hopelessness, nostalgia for home or just plain confusion.

These Moments are an integral part of life abroad and offer an opportunity to dig deep inside to identify what aspect of your own cultural background is causing the Moment at hand. For long-term Americans abroad, like myself, this process leads to integrating cultural differences into a personal way of being. But even short term visitors can enjoy an enhanced travel experience and understand another culture better, and their own.

I have lived in Italy for over half my life and over the years I have absorbed and integrated many aspects of my adopted culture into my way of being. Yet I still have Cultural Moments and I have learned the importance of confronting them head on.

I would like to use this blog to explore specific Cultural Moments that come on in daily life -- social, work and family environments – and work each one through the process pf observing and describing what is happening in a non judgmental way, interpreting and finally evaluating the Moment.

But enough explanation for today. Tomorrow I will begin with perhaps the greatest of Italian mysteries for foreigners: No cappuccino after lunch! Italians will tell you that is a question of digestion, but this unwritten rule (and our reaction to it) actually uncovers layer after layer of cultural intrigue – theirs and ours.

A domani. E