February 27, 2007

Emergency room

We spent the evening at the emergency room -- don't worry, just to do an x-ray that confirmed there was no fracture.
No Italian health system horror stories to tell for today. We registered at the entrance (my son popped up in the computer from previous ER visits to other hospitals in the city), waited about a half hour, had an x-ray, conferred with the doctor while he wrapped a stick to two of his fingers and left. What's missing?

You got it, no payment or insurance forms to fill out. Now that's a different concept of what is "fair" -- emergency health care for all! Think about that the next time you get an urge to complain about the lack of lines.

a domani,

p.s. I also delived both my sons at this hospital on the Isola Tiberina at no charge -- no creature comforts either, but you get what you pay for, medical care and BYOTP.

February 26, 2007

Standing in line, cont

For par condicio, if they don’t do it, why do we? Stand in line, that is. It is a cultural imperative for us, where there are two people, one is first and the other is second, that is the fair way. Lines are about fairness. I got here first, therefore, I am the first to pass. It is a simply the way things are. Fairness is about applying the same rule, in the same way to everyone without distinction, at least that is what it means to us. Fairness might be defined differently in another culture, because it is culture-based value. In some cultures fairness is about treating each person uniquely instead of treating everyone in the same way – expecting life to be fair is not realistic and what is right often depends on the circumstance.

Or maybe we just have better eyesight and therefore when we enter a space, we see the others and get in line.

A domani,

February 25, 2007

Utopian Dreams

At Feltrinelli bookshop today, I came across the new book by British journalist and author Tobias Jones, Utopian Dreams: In Search of the Good Life. I peeked at the inside front cover where I found, “…the exploration of the meanings of community and solitude – a voyage to the places where the soul, spirits and the sacred are central concerns”. Wow. Heavy post-modernist stuff that made me think of all those Anglo-American souls that sell everything to move to their personal utopian dream – Italy. Although the book is not about Italy, Tobias Jones knows Italy well (he is the author of The Dark Heart of Italy) and may have caught the bug himself while he was here.

As a wet-behind-the-ears blogger, I have been also been peeking in on other bloggers in Italy. Many of the 58 I found through www.expat-blog.com fall into the above category. Blog introductions include:

“Exciting and challenging place to live”


“My love of everything, anything Italian started back in the spring of 2002. I am going to live my dream by moving to Italy in January 2007. I hope to inspire other people to follow their hearts to a place so magical and divine. This is the ride of my lifetime, jump on it if you dare.”

“This is our dolce vita. We fell in love with Italy when we visited before and are preparing for an adventurous move to the old-world country! We know it’s not going to be all dreamy and sweet gelato, but it’s an experience we can’t wait to take on.”

“We are pursuing our dream of living in Italy since May 2006.”

“The adventures of an American girl who quits her job, packs her cats and heads to Italy to “restart” life.”

Can a country really come through on these high expectations? Reality usually hits 6-8 years into the game, when the pleasures of Italy crash head on with economic realities. Oops, there go the fantasies. Can you really have it all? Unfortunately the wonderful parts of a culture always have a backside and what you love about Italy creates what you hate -- same with the US. Wouldn’t we all love Italy with American post offices, bureaucracy, plumbers and drivers? Or the US with Italian food, good cheer, beauty, relaxed ways and friendly manners. Instead we are forced to choose and live both sides of the equation.

So here’s to utopian dreamin’.

A domani,

February 22, 2007

...and they all fell down

The government slipped and fell – or better, a push made it slip that caused it to fall. In any case, here we are starting all over again with a stroll up to the Quirinale.

It is foreign and incomprehensible to us – the game playing and posturing that creates meaning from context more than the words. The newspapers are full speculation as to how the fall was orchestrated and its meaning, nothing is clear.

Locker room talk at the pool came up with this version. Italics are my running cross-cultural thoughts.

1. Italians are afraid of themselves, their natural attraction to strong leadership by one man that once caused them to bring a Fascist dictator to power. (The desire for a strong one man leader is an outgrowth of their ancestral patriarchal society or in any case, their strong orientation towards family, headed by a strong father, as the basic unit of survival).

2. So to counteract this fear of themselves, they set up a system of democracy in its purest form – everyone is represented. (The school system is partly the source of this idealism. At school you get a good grade for knowing the theory not for analyzing its practical application.)

3. Everyone means EVERYONE and this has brought about an absurd number of parties that range from a split between reformed communists and communists on one side, and the Lega on the other with even parties for pensioners and consumers. (But this does not indicate strong individualism; I would call it “particularism” or the desire to stand out from the rest for some small particularity -- a desire to be seen and noticed.)

4. Obviously (to us) this doesn’t work. The extremists on one side or the other are always doing what they do best, making a lot of noise and dropping little bombs – like today’s vote against the party line on foreign policy. (They seem to comfortably live the ambiguity of causing the fall of their coalition’s government while loudly denouncing the other side).

So, we have it all: a group (family) orientation over that of the individual, a propensity for the application of rules to fit particular needs, a very high level of tolerance for ambiguity, theory at the expense of practicality -- yet only the tip of the iceberg.

A domani,

February 21, 2007

Standing in line

Yesterday I overheard a conversation on the tram among group of American study abroad students. “So, like, when you, like, try to get some pizza and you try to get in a line, but, like, there is no line, just no line – there is not even a system for a line!”

Yes, this is a tough one; it hits every time I take an Alitalia flight back from NY. The hostess calls out, “first boarding lines 34-60 only” and EVERYONE stands up and crushes in, “ah yes, I am going home”. So, why do they do that? And why don’t we?

I know they don’t do it just to drive foreigners crazy, so there must be a rationale, we just have to figure out what it is. I got part of the answer by watching the little boy at my feet on the same tram. He was dressed up in his carnevale outfit and holding his mother’s hand. I leaned over and asked him who he was dressed up as. He briefly looked my way, stone-faced, and turned to his mother to know what to do. She gave him very clear clues that he should look only at her and he never looked back, not even out of curiosity, and spoke only to his mother, no one else on that tram existed for him.

When this little boy grows up, having learned that the people with whom he should interact are prioritized into concentric circles of family, relatives, family friends, school friends, he may not notice you as he walks into the pizza shop and therefore “cut in line”, a line that he just didn’t notice. You are out of his vision, out of his circle, out of his group and he has no obligation to notice that you exist. For him it is just the way things are, you don’t notice people (and cars) that are out of your circumscribed circle of vision.

I often see people stopped in the middle of the sidewalk or an exit chatting with friends, not noticing that you need to pass until you finally interrupt, “SCUSATI”. Then they turn and look and see you for the first time, slightly surprised that you are talking to them and, without a word and while continuing their conversation, move ever so slightly aside, just enough to let you pass -- the same in-group orientation perhaps.

It’s the only rationale I can come up with after a visit to the base of the iceberg, and you?

A domani,

February 20, 2007

Home Blessing efficiency

“Times are a changin’” even in the Italian Catholic church. Today is Martedi Grasso and the party will soon be over, tomorrow marks the beginning of the quaresima and the forty days before Easter. Susanna in the pool says that when she was a child (let’s say 40 or more years ago), quaresima really existed and, with the exception of one day exactly twenty days into the period, she never went out for forty days -- no parties, no sweets, lots of church and a very sober lifestyle. Nowadays, “its always a party”, she says and quaresima has lost its sense.

In any case, the traditional Benedizione Pasquale or "home blessing” still stands. The first time a priest rang my doorbell and announced that he would enter and bless me and my home, I was quite startled. I had two small children and was so busy and tired I hadn’t noticed the messaged taped to the front door of our building announcing his arrival. I stepped aside and let him swing some fumes around (as the boys turned up their noses and fanned the smell away), and awkwardly let him bless us and our home for Easter. I explained that I wasn’t Catholic and didn’t know the prayer in Italian, but he kindly proceeded in any case. He would return each year and the boys and I learned to enjoy the rite; it was comforting to know that my home and soul were in good hands and he was a nice man.

Since we moved to a more residential area, I have only seen one house blessing priest although each year there is a notice taped to the door of our building. Maybe I just haven’t been home. But this year there is a novità-- an invitation to sign up for the home blessing at the local parish. The invitation explains that this new procedure allows the home blessing to be an important moment of
prayer for those who wish to take part while being respectful of those who practice other religions. You have to fill out a form and drop it off at the parish before February 28 to receive your blessing on March 7 between 16:30-19:00.

I am sorry that I won’t be indiscriminately blessed this year but it would be a bit odd to ask for it, not being Catholic and all. The new reverend’s name on the invitation is Don Peter and I imagine that he is importing some non-Italian efficiency into the system – too bad.

Happy Carnevale.

A domani,

February 19, 2007

A multicultural moment

Yesterday I asked the question, “have I become a multicultural person?”, so today I would like to ask what that means. It is a term that is usually found at the end of the intercultural learning process, so it must be hard to earn and difficult to achieve.

It also has a lot to do with cultural moments, because it is these moments – and what you learn about your own culture from their exploration -- that lead to cultural self-awareness, without which, achieving a multicultural perspective is not possible. It has to do with mastering the tools of cross-cultural communication to the point where you can then apply them to new and unknown cultures.

Most of us – even those that live abroad – are way back there in the learning process, still assuming that our way of perceiving the world is the “real” way, not just a cultural-based one. We, especially Americans, like to think that we are autonomous, independent and therefore not subject to the forces of our cultural heritage, but we are. We are imprisoned into thinking that time is a noun, linear and onward marching, that the individual is always at the end of the day the basic unit of survival, that “where there is a will, there is a way” and that rules should be applied equally and universally. But these are cultural imperatives, not the way things are. We have to take stock and do our best to examine our cultural moments day by day.

So am I a multicultural person? No way, just doing my best to understand a little more every day.

A domani,

February 18, 2007

five things about the US

I am going to take up Shelley’s invitation to share “the five things I miss about the US”. This is tough. The US is a great place to visit, like Paris or Istanbul, but although there is family and familiarity, it is not home anymore. I was 22 when I got on a plane and first arrived without a word of the language or a drop of Italian blood in my veins, just to “see something of the world”. I stayed just a bit too long and once passed the tipping point (marriage and then kids to be exact), life became Italian.

But, now that I think about it……

1. What I miss most is the two big “O”s: opportunity and optimism, to be able to run with an idea without ending up hitting your head against the wall or wandering in a quagmire of paper and ambiguity. I hate to have to say it, but after 26 years I have learned to accept that Italian ways are tricky and opening doors takes more than a straightforward key.

2. I never drink American coffee here and it would never even cross my mind to seek it out, but when in the US I like waking to the sound of coffee being ground, the aroma of freshly perked coffee, choosing a mug among my mother’s collection and sipping it slowly while reading….

3. The NY Times Sunday edition that arrives on your doorstep with a loud THUMP – a huge vacation treat.

4. Service in the form of supermarket baggers. I think about them everytime I try to simultaneously open those sticky plastic bags, throw in the items of my nearly 100 euro spesa (family style), give my GS punti card to the gum chewing cashier, open my purse and wallet and hand over cash, wait for her to ask me for change (hai 34 centesimi?), dig out 34 centesimi, hand them over, get back the rest and -- having held up the line by now with this exchange -- finish bagging and finally load the loot in the cart. I want to hug those US baggers as they smile and repeat, “have a good day”.

5. Written instructions, programs, schedules, calendars. Just write it down!

For the rest, I don’t crave American foods (except Christmas sweets with cinamon, all-spice, ginger and molasses), would never consider having a cappucino after lunch or feeding infants anything but minestrina con olio d’oliva e parmigiano. I live without a dryer (and where would I put that) using “hanging time” to think, drive without fear and have learned to distinguish among grades and variations olive oils. Life is good.

Have I crossed the line to becoming a fully integrated immigrant and a multicultural person?

A domani,

February 17, 2007

Italian women and TTO

Foreigners who write about Italy generally notice its women, it’s hard not to – plunging necklines, extravagant accessories, spiked heels that clatter on cobblestones somehow never slipping between the cracks, a fortune of make-up on faces surrounded by every strand of hair in place – they try and succeed in being noticed.

They make us feel dumpy and clumsy and mostly envious. Ahhhhh La Bella Figura.

"But what is behind the façade", we ask, feeling slightly superior for our lack of constant attention to outer appearances. We wear sensible shoes to do our errands in Rome.

Then there is Grazia. I met her on Tuesday at a TTO open mike session organized by an American woman who works in the field of gender equality in developing countries. We had to go around the room and each tell a story about how we had done something tough, fearless, maybe a little crazy, surely gutsy and perhaps outrageous. (TTO stands for “That Takes Ovaries” to distinguish women’s bold and daring acts from those of men).

Well, the sweet, pretty, quiet Italian thirty something sitting at the end of the sofa looking very demur and proper told us where she has been for the past two months – on an oil pipeline barge with 180 men and no other women. While they lay the pipeline, she observed the effects of its construction on marine mammals in the area for a pilot project through the Ministry of the Environment. We all leaned slightly forward to hear more. While she had not been victim to any physical abuse, she had clearly suffered “mobbing” and had lived virtually in isolation for the period. But she did her job and said that, if asked, would do it again.

So the next time you think that Italian women are a step behind us in the independence field, think of Grazia and think again. The lesson from Italian women is that you can comfortably live the ambiguity of being concerned with how you present yourself within the concept of La Bella Figura while also being someone with whom men have to reckon. TTO to Grazia!

a domani,

February 14, 2007

understanding and being understood

Straight off the train from Trento to book club. This month’s book, Snow, by neo-Nobel prize winner Orhan Pamuk. What kind of Italian cultural moment could I have with nine other American women and one French one (married to an American), discussing a book set in a desolate border town in Eastern Turkey by a Turkish author?

Well, I did! Pat mentioned how difficult it had been to follow the train of thought of the Turkish characters, their very different ways of thinking, “I was looking for a linear thought progression and I was getting something else. I finally just sat back and relaxed and just hoped I would somehow understand something of their exchanges.” We all laughed because it was true, the characters did have a different way of interacting and conversing that left us a bit confused. Then she added, “it’s like my Italian husband, I figure out the subject and the verb but then he dwindles off, never finishes the phrase and expects me to have understood.”

Ahh Haaa. Me too! Its that ole context thing. We are just supposed to get it without “it” every being said – to read meaning from the context instead of the words. From the heads nodding in the room, I think a few of the women in the room were thinking the same thing. Then we got back to the book.

Context. When it is high, knowledge is already shared (as with in-groups) so there is no need to spell it out, meanings are communicated indirectly instead of explicitly, mutual expectations are accurate, the emphasis is on relationships and processes instead of practical outcomes, and relationships are accepted as being very supportive and important instead of placing importance on individual self-reliance. History is also essential to an accurate reading of the context. Communication is aimed at the building the relationship not necessarily conveying or receiving information.

I just call it the natural Italian radar that follows them around.

A domani,

February 12, 2007

How to tell time

Visiting my son in Trento is always like a short trip abroad. The bus outside his apartment complex passes at :10, :25 :40, and :55 every hour on the dot. Stores close at 12:00 sharp and open at 3:00. People walk faster, drink more beer, eat dinner earlier and conversations have a crisp, pointed quality to them. Austria is not far away.

He is doing his “maturità” year (5th year). At school, he says that there is less conflict between teachers and students in Trento than in Rome and more mutual respect. He has a math test this morning that has been moved forward three times, the last time at the student’s request. The teacher agreed and then just went ahead in the program, today’s test is on earlier material.

Italians learn time orientation at school. I don’t remember ever having a test or paper date changed or cancelled during my school career. Here it happens all the time. My other son in Rome just studied for an important biology test that was cancelled because the teacher’s home printer didn’t work that day. She finally gave it to them as a take home assignment a week later. Does that get your back up? It didn’t bother him, “pazienza”. When the test actually does take place it will just cover more material.

School is not about learning to work within deadlines, but about learning the material. You are expected to be prepared, and the timing of the testing is not relevant. “Interrogations” are oral exams in which a few students are randomly called to the front of the room to be literally interrogated. You may know when an interrogation will take place but never who will be called on any particular day – talk about stress, but it doesn’t bother my sons, just me!

We were trained at school to work towards dates and deadlines broken down into programs and assignments; as adults we need fixed guidelines, and the lack of them drives us crazy. Italian school teaches tolerance of ambiguity, prepares for the whims of fate, and trains for flexibility -- very useful cultural traits indeed when living in Italy!

A domani from Trento,

Independence and family

I have a particular Italian family (PIF) starting at the top with a particular Italian mother-in-law (PMIL) who I stopped to visit in Verona yesterday. From the beginning we have never had a typical Italian mother-in-law -- daughter-in-law relationship. She had been terrorized by her MIL and had sworn that she would not do the same. For the rest, I play deaf and don’t pick up on any interference that conveniently falls outside my radar -- being foreign does have its advantages.

But family is family, and the Italian one has its own particular cultural make-up. The fundamental Italian unit of survival is clearly not the individual but the family and the web of relationships and reciprocal obligations that tie its members to each other make for different concepts of the individual, and consequently what independence means and how it is achieved.

Americans find it very difficult to view the very Italian cultural concept of independence coming about within the family (instead of away from it) as a valid way to become a mature adult. We tend to put on our inherent cultural blinders when viewing very different cultural reality.

While recently raising adolescents, I was surprised and uncomfortable at how my Italian peers let their children have so much freedom to explore while my American friends (mainly New England suburban moms) set curfews, hand out chores and use any available means to send their children the message that they should move out at 18 if they wanted to have some freedom. As parents we feel uncomfortable being accomplices to the experimentation process, we see its proper place off somewhere in college, out of our sight. I slowly learned to envy Italian parents who can stand by and let it all happen under their noses without feeling like they have to interfere, while actually enjoying the spectacle!

In the end, independence is more a psychological than physical state and appearances can be deceiving.

I love watching adults with their adult parents that have moved on from the parent / child relationship to establish new and mature ones. Maybe the Italian route to independence while staying within the family leaves more room for all family members to mature, create new relationships and finally achieve a new and different family balance.

A domani from Trento,

February 11, 2007

off line

greetings from Trento.
I am either without internet but with a computer or with internet but at a computer that doesn't seem to read my files that are on a usb pen...
Last three posts will be online tomorrow evening when I get back to Rome.
Check back in!

February 6, 2007

Tend and Befriend

I received an email yesterday with an attached study on Friendship Among Women from a few years ago. A couple of woman scientists at UCLA initiated the study after noticing that the women in the lab reacted to stress in different ways than the men while 90% of stress research had been done only on males. The end result is that men react to stress with “flight or flight” patterns while women “tend and befriend”. It turns out that friends help us live longer.

So what does this have to do with my Italian cultural moments?

A long-term American expat woman (and friend) in Rome also received this study and wrote:

“I had read this before…it is probably true and it is sad for us because I think living here we miss that “neighbor” kind of contact with other women that we might have in the States…if I had to state the thing that I missed the most living here it is the friendship of women…girlfriends…chatting everyday...I remember when I came I found some girlfriends through Italian school and exercise classes…but after the first few left and I grieved…I never wanted to get so close again…my last talk everyday girlfriend went sort of mad and disappeared!”

Although not all of us go mad, we do grieve as our fellow foreigners move on. We all have Italian women friends, but we also eventually notice that these friendships are different and that we are, well, foreign, and never, never, break into their souls and inner circle to become friends in a deeper sense of the word. My closest Italian women friends I either inherited from my husband – his high school friends – or they are also foreigners in Rome, from Milan or Catania, while the rest remain close acquaintances.

One Italian / American friend grew up in Rome and attended Italian schools until the end of middle school before continuing at an international school, university in the US and graduate studies in the UK. Back in Rome, she immediately hooked back up with her middle school friends – they are her inner circle in which she finds her closest friendships although nearly 15 years have intervened.

So while the women scientists at UCLA clean up the lab, make coffee and gossip when under stress, we become frustrated and saddened as we seek out Italian women friends with whom we can really get down to tending and befriending.

a domani,

February 4, 2007

book clubs

I am researching book clubs in Rome for a side project, which got me thinking as to why book clubs are such an Anglo-Saxon activity? Why don’t Italians have book clubs? They do, of course, in a trendy kind of way while posing as foreign-styled intellectuals, but not seriously and with long-term commitment.

A friend of mine, Marina, is a big reader (one of the few Italians I know that actually devours novels) and we pass away hours on the beach in the summer lost in book discussions. She always asks me about my book club and although she thinks the idea is intriguing, she can’t quite get her hands around the whole concept, the organization, planning and commitment behind it and – this is the biggest stumbling block—how you could meet with strangers to talk about books. She just couldn’t do it, open herself up and discuss a book with a stranger, even if that stranger was a fellow bookworm. There would be something very crass about sharing your intimate passions with someone you don’t intimately know.

This is the cultural moment of the day – forming groups. If an Italian was to form a book club, he or she would do so with a group of intimate friends, it would just be the extension of their regular gatherings. Most likely they would have all gone to school together and a book club would be a natural progression from their classroom years. Italians belong to groups; they don’t enter and exit them. You simply are a member of a group, your "in group". Joining a group that is based exclusively on a common interest, is odd, for them, not us. We join, participate in and leave groups regularly as individuals that choose to be a part of that group for that period of time. We probably have more associations and interest groups per capita than any other country in the world – from chamber music, to book/gardening/chess/bridge clubs, church activities now to internet forums. We love to seek out others with whom we share only one sphere of our lives through a common passion, even if they are not and never will be friends.

So although we form and participate in lots of groups, we do so as individuals and always have the choice to leave – as an individual. This is an American cultural trait, not a universal one.

A domani,

Ps. if you belong to a book club in Rome, please send me an email or leave a message. I am putting together a list of clubs.

February 2, 2007

Make way for the wild boar

Today's entry is dedicated to Shelley and Food Week at AHIR (At Home In Rome): all food, all drink, all week leading up to World Nutella Day on Feb. 6. The piece is the opening to an article for the annual international insert of a conference management industry trade magazine group. Julia and James are college friends of mine, now living in Boston.

"Julia Meigs often accompanies her husband James to medical conventions, and a couple of years ago they traveled as far as Mantua, Italy. In the introduction to a collection of letters she wrote home during her family's subsequent sabbatical year in Verona, she describes her first taste of dining the Italian way: “We had enjoyed three different wines matching the three exquisite preceding courses at a seated dinner for 70 people. And now the fourth course was arriving, the roasted boar, a huge caramelized confection resting on a pallet garlanded with a rosemary runner interwoven with figs and kumquats — a far cry from the one-course American banquet meal featuring chicken with mystery sauce.”

No doubt about it, meals are a distinguishing factor between European and American conferences — not just the food itself, but the purpose of mealtimes, defined along a spectrum that includes nourishing the body and nourishing relationships. Food in Europe is a conduit to social relations, never nourishment for its own sake, and social relations are the basis for doing business. Would the idea of a sabbatical year in Italy instead of England have materialized over an e-mail exchange while dropping sandwich crumbs onto a laptop computer? Not a chance. A relationship first had to be formed over a roasted boar. That done, James' Italian colleague simply shook out his linen napkin and asked: “Why don't you spend the year here in Italy? I'm sure we could find a place for you at our hospital in Verona.” And he did."

So Shelley -- that's the power of food, Italian style.

a domani,

February 1, 2007

Meet the iceberg

The time has come to introduce you to a friend of mine, the iceberg. Those of you who have ever had any kind of cross-cultural training already know him well and will just have to be patient. For the rest of you, here he is:

Culture is often compared to an iceberg – the exposed tip that rises above cold and turbid waters represents the visible part of a culture, the behaviours we see such as how people dress, what and how they eat, how they interact among each other, even political and educational systems, work and play habits and friendships.

This visible culture has its roots in the solid and ageless submerged part of the iceberg that represents the vast world of a culture’s value and belief systems, assumptions about how the world works and patterns of thinking – how a group of people conceive of themselves, their relationships with others, time, authority, rules and the role of destiny.

Our cultural moments are therefore complex. They start at the tip, a behavior that bothers us and puts us outside of our cultural comfort zone, but they then quickly slip down into the dark, murky water below the surface as our world (of values, beliefs and assumptions) is threatened or at least not validated by what is happening around us. We feel frustrated, angry, sad, confused or lost as we try to defend our way of being, our sense of ourselves.

The good news is that these moments offer a grand opportunity to get to know our own culture for the first time as we explore what in the heck brought on the moment in the first place, “What is it about me and my culture that feels threatened by what is going on around me.”

Just another million dollar question.

A domani,