June 27, 2007

Drinking codes 2

While I am on a spree (see yesterday’s post), I would like to tell you a story that happened a few years ago while I was working in cultural exchange sending Italian high school and university students to do work and study programs abroad.

An Italian 17-year old girl went on a three-week high school program run by an American university for both American and foreign students. In addition to language study, they could take academic courses and activities such as art and drama -- an expensive and prestigious program.

On arrival, the students had an orientation in which they received THE RULES, lots of them. My sons have been through the same process every summer at day and overnight summer camps in the US. As my then 13-year old told me, “they tell us not to do the stupidest things that we would never have even thought of doing…..until they told us not to do them.”

At the end of the session, the students signed off on THE RULES and a ZERO TOLERANCE clause – immediate expulsion from the program on infringement of any rule, for example, no alcohol.

A few days later, our Italian student was discovered in a pub with two American girls. She had a small beer in front of her, half empty.

First I made a “cultural case”. Although she had signed a zero tolerance form, she had intimately understood (it’s a context thing) that she simply shouldn’t get drunk (and why would she want to do that?). So, when the American girls invited her to join them (what a great way to practice her English and fit in) she went along. The American girls were “transgressing” alla grande. Our Italian, not being so used to rules and their universal and inevitable application, was….let’s say, culturally confused. Only a few days before leaving Italy, she had gone out with her class and Jesuit priest teacher for a pizza to celebrate the end of the school year. With the pizza they all had shared coke, water and beer, so what was the big deal?

Then I made a “learning opportunity” case. I pleaded with the program director, “You could use this incident to have a frank, open discussion with the students about cultural differences in approaches to alcohol. The American students could even learn something from the Italians.”

In the end, rules are rules, and zero tolerance means zero tolerance – everyone is treated exactly the same, in every case, uniformly, with no consideration for outside circumstances.

She was sent home the next day. No reimbursement of fees. She had broken the rules. I think she is still confused.

A dopo-domani (from Trento),

June 26, 2007

Drinking codes

A friend sent this NY Times article on Rome’s new kind of tourist – the “lets have a party and throw it in Europe” variety that travel from country to country in a drunken slur and call it a “European adventure”. Rome used to be off the circuit, attracting those inclined to share a bottle of wine with friends and a large plate of pasta instead of slugging down endless beers and shots in Campo de’Fiori. Not that this behavior is unusual in other European and American cities, but it is new here, and not very welcome by local residents. Until really quite recently, Roman youth didn’t do the drinking thing. A beer (or coke) with pizza, piazza and a whirl on the motorino provided nightlife.

Not to be nostalgic, but the change is jarring, especially since it is being forced on Italian youth by the barbaric hoards that have descended on the city (including approx. 7,000 American study abroad students that pass through over the year) and the mass media. Until now, Italians have stood on the sidelines, watching the spectacle, but not joining in. That too will change.

In connection with a course I taught a few years ago for a study abroad program on, “Contemporary Italian Society”, one student did a final paper on the differences in drinking cultures between US and Italian youth. She interviewed students, talked to local pubs, performed ethnological sightings on the weekends and concluded that the different approach to drinking was fundamentally an outgrowth of the bella figura -- that intrinsic Italian need to always act in good taste, to put forward one’s best as a way of showing respect to others, to maintain aesthetic standards at all times. She found this explanation amazing and profound.

I also think she moved one step down the road of cross-cultural understanding. I wonder if she put some of that knowledge into her suitcase when she returned home?

A domani,

June 25, 2007


Holed up in the AC this afternoon -- it is just too hot out there!

So, after lunch, I took the opportunity to read the newspaper cover to cover.

In the "Business and Finance" section, I found an article, "Living with a computer; and technology becoming a drug." That is, kids segregating themselves in their rooms and only dealing with the outside world via a mouse -- a particularly American and Japanese problem it seems. Although a prominent contemporary Italian philosopher, Umberto Galimberti, is alarmed at these developments, and the possibility that man will become a function of technology and not the other way around, he does not believe technology creates addiction as other drugs. My son's liceo friends, anyway, prefer their cell phones and meeting in the piazza to "facebook".

"In any case," the article continues, "in America, there is talk of eliminating computers from the classroom."

That's not a problem here, because computers have just barely found their way in the door and are still looking for a place to sit and a plug or two.

Resistance to change is sometimes a good thing, because what goes around often comes around. Sending the Americans out to test-trial new ideas and learning from their mistakes is an effective European tactic. Americans love change, anything new must be better, because it is new and because change is intrinsically good. Then if it turns out not to be so great after all, well, you can just change again, back to what you had, and call that a "new" idea too. This way, you don't even lose face! About 10 years ago I attended a presentation on the future of computers in classrooms -- elementary school classrooms -- by an "education expert" traveling through Rome on an MAIS tour (Mediterranean Association of International Schools). Although the audience was a bit sceptical, she did a very good show and to our surprise, what she preached has come true. Only to be reversed.

Italians are resistant to change. Very. Anything new will certainly be worse. There is a saying that goes, "the bad things you know are better than the bad things you don't know." At least you have figured out how to live with the bad, circumvent the worst of it and bide your time. The new, in the form of change, would alter that balance and then who knows what would happen. Everyone talks about the need for educational reforms, but whenever new ideas are put forth, the "fear of change" syndrome steps in, and puts an end to that.

My old high school has developed a "new" Latin program over the past eight-ten years -- studying Latin, experts discovered, develops logic and reasoning skills. My Dad studied Latin too and my Grandfather actually taught it as a four-year mandatory course, until 1968. I went to school in the 1970's when the "new" idea was its abolishment in favor of modern languages. It seemed like a good idea. But the pendulum has reversed its arc.

In Italy, Latin has never seen its demise in the liceo tradition and the Italian liceo classico is the only one in all of Europe to still study ancient Greek. Change was too hard to enact, and the pendulum hangs in balance.

a domani,

June 22, 2007

Oral exams

I spent the day at a meeting and orientation for a group of Italian and American Fulbright scholars where I held a workshop on Cross-cultural communications.

It was HOT and the combination of post-pranzo dozzies and no AC was potentially fatal, but they politely sweated it through with me and I think enjoyed the intellectual challenge that delving into into the depths of our cultural selves entails.

Over lunch, I asked the American professors at my table if they had ever had any experience teaching Italian university students. One had and here is what he said. 1. They asked the best questions he had ever had from students. 2. If they couldn't follow a lesson, or were just tired, they would either walk out or start chatting to a neighbor. 3. He so enjoyed the oral exam tradition that he has decided to try it on his American graduate students.

This led to an interesting discussion about the pros and cons of oral exams versus American style "quizzza" (multiple choice). With the recent reforms of the maturità exam, the terza prova of the three day written exams will be in this imported American format. Italians say that it is arbitrary and doesn't allow a student to show what he/she knows. At the same time, says another of the American professors at the table, a lot of B....S.... goes on in oral exams.

To each educational system, its assessment tools.

a domani,

June 21, 2007

Conference moments

My sister is also a mad blogger, only she gets to do it as part of her job as "MeetingsNet web editor and editor of Association Meeting Magazine."

She has even won awards for her industry blog called face2face.

But she still has time to check in to my blog every now and then and recently wrote a nice piece on "cultural moments" in today's meeting and conference industry.

The importance to business results of achieving cultural self-knowledge before venturing abroad.

She writes real good too!

a domani,

P.S. don't forget to vote to your right. Just click on the logo to enter the site, then click on "sign up" to register, and vote -- not that hard.

June 20, 2007

Time and the forces to be

I am having a true, culturally-based "time-orientation moment".
I just need to rant and whine.
"Why can't they...."

I need dates, now, and I can't have them. They haven't been decided. There are too many last minute outside forces that haven't settled and until then, dates can't be set. Unfortunately intercontinental flights and such don't have the same flexibility.

So I get nervous. The Italians around me (one husband and two kids) don't understand why. They live with uncertainty and ambiguity just fine, it is "just the way things are", for them, not for me.

My oldest just finished his first day of the written portion of his maturità exam. Tomorrow is the second day and Monday the third and last. Then there is the oral exam, but he could not know the date that this will take place until today when the class order was chosen out of a hat (first will come section C, then section B) and a letter of the alphabet (S). So, now he knows that he will be the second student of his graduating class of four sections to be grilled to a crispy crust, on the first day of the oral exams, Thursday the 28th. Then he will be free, but we couldn't know that earlier and he could have possibly finished as late as July 15 had the letter "T" been extracted and the section "B", so he (and we) couldn't make plans any earlier than that date. Would that make you crazy?

My second son is off for a 10 day collegiale or athletic retreat tomorrow with the junior national volleyball team that will finish with a four day tournament with teams from Brazil, Russia, Holland and Italy -- pretty neat for an 18 year old. On July 1 he will finish this segment, and then there will be more -- but when? A month ago, we timidly asked the forces to be, when the nazionale would finish up this summer and were, oh so kindly, told that it would be "i primi di agosto" (whatever that means), so we have intercontinental tickets for August 3. Now, yesterday, we found out that they will finish the 23rd, so we could have anticipated our trip a few days. Would that make you crazy?

In the meantime, the two brothers would like to get together and even take a trip as they haven't seen each other since Christmas, but we still don't know son2's schedule, so son1, can't make his plans with friends fit around a trip with his brother. Would that make you crazy?

Why doesn't all this make them crazy, only me?

I know why. I have lived here way too long not to know. Because, in the end, it will all work out, somehow, someway, without stressing and ranting "why can't they just set dates." It's a flexible time thing and an intimate acknowlegment that fate will rule as it will over the best made plans of man.

Another Italian mystery.

a domani,

June 19, 2007

vote today!

Today was an exciting day for two reasons.

As you can see from the logo to your right, a certain Chris Abraham nominated my blog for the "best educational blog" on the "blogger's choice awards" site. Click on the logo, sign up for the site and vote! THis is of course assuming that you are a regular viewer and have enjoyed my "vignettes with a lesson". The more votes the better. Thanks Chris (whom I have never met, even virtually).

I also picked up a copy of The Roman Forum magazine and there it was, my article on the American expat community. The introduction says, "In the run-up to this year's July 4 celebrations, cross-cultural blogger Elizabeth Abbot paints a comprehensive picture of Rome's constantly evolving and ever increasing American community." I am pleased that the editor pegged me as the "cross-cultural blogger" yet again. I also mentioned my blog in "author's note" at the end. I hope I have a few new readers as a result! The article is not on-line because it has just come out hard copy, check back to the website later.

Although the article was not on cultural differences, I did add one paragraph near the end that I would like to share.

"But there is something that keeps more and more Americans coming. A desire to experience the balance that Italian culture defines -- a halfway point between the harsh Anglo-American ones based on the individual and driven by time, and the Eastern cultures that are just a bit too different and impenetrable. Italy offers the best of both, a meeting place along the cultural spectra and that is its fatal allure."

Thanks to all for your interest and support.

a domani,

June 18, 2007

Nap time

Back from Cervia on the Adriatic coast.

The Romagnoli certainly do distinguish themselves for simpatia and hospitality. Besides a wonderful stay at the hotel Rosenblatt enveloped by a warm and relaxed atmosphere, one afternoon we got lost and stopped to ask for directions to the Palasport in Cesenatico. The man said "follow me" and accompanied us there over five kilometers away, only to wave and turn back. It was not on his way. "Toto, this is not Rome anymore."

But my cultural moment for the day is about children. There were lots of them in Cervia as it is the nonni season -- the period of the year when grandparents take grandchildren to the sea.

One evening we took a walk in town after dinner and wandered into the main piazza where a show was taking place, I tri pessenti (that is, I tre pezzenti), a comic/singing/playing trio that seemed out of the 1960s. There were a couple of bars open with lots of tables set out and more chairs arranged in rows for the spettacolo. It was about 11:45 pm and everyone knew where there children were -- in the piazza with them. A couple of four-year olds were dancing the night away just under the makeshift stage, babies were banging their hands to the rhythm while strapped their strollers, a group of 8-10-year olds were running around behind the stage playing tag and a gang of pre-adolescents were just hangin' by the wall.

Many of you out there are thinking, "why aren't they all in bed!" Well, they were, from about 2-4:00 in the afternoon. Now they are up and about and from the looks of it having a great time, and so are their grandparents!

Let's just call it "fragmented sleeping time orientation". In the summer months, kids (and their grandparents) sleep in two segments, one from the late night to the morning and the other after lunch.

It seems to work, and sure cuts down on babysitting fees.

a domani,

P.S. even the hotel pool was closed from 1:30 to 3:30 to cut down on the noise and facilitate nap time.

June 13, 2007

Regional food

Back to food -- in Italy it is hard to avoid. Always magnificent and full of surprises.

Last summer we traveled coast to coast in southern Sweden and the summer before in Greece. Although they are quite different countries they had a similar approach to food -- the same everywhere. Menus didn't vary much, more seafood by the coast, but always cooked in the same way. In a small off-the-beaten-track Greek village, we hoped to find a special local dish and instead found a menu of Greek salad (feta, olives, cucumbers, tomatoes) and souvlaki. Amazing that a country with so many sheep produces only one kind of cheese!

Not in Italy. It takes just moving a few kilometers to the next town to find a slight variation to an already particular regional dish. Last weekend, we discovered the area around Sestola, in the Apennines north of Pistoia, the ski resort to Alberto Tomba as a child and host to the 2007 under 20 national volleyball finals.

And what did we find? Tigelle, or crescentine, which are a kind of variation on the nearby piadina, only thicker like a raised pancake and smaller in diameter. They were everywhere, the local speciality. Our pensione sent us to have the best crescentina about 8 kilometers out of town and off we went for lunch with a group of 14.

The crescentine came hot and split open, ready to be lightly spread with a paste made from lard, garlic, salt and rosemary which melts to send off a pungent glow. To this you lay prosciutto or salami and dust with parmigiana before closing the top and biting in.

You can vary the inside with local pecorino cheese and add salad on the side before turning to the crescentina's sidekick, the gnocco, which is a fried bread puff that invites yet more prosciutto or salami or cheese and as you near the end of the feast, nutella or jam.

Instead of local wine, we dug into a five liter jug from Puglia that one of the couples from Leverano, a small town in the heel of Italy, had brought along for the trip. The restaurant owner even joined us for a glass -- cheers.

Food is integral to the concept of campanilismo, or "loyalty to your bell-tower", by giving Italians something tangible that connects them to their roots, to their hometown, to themselves. They can be particolare by connecting to the particular way their particular town makes a particular regional dish, of course within the very strict rules that govern what constitutes good taste.

Local food specialities help create the foundations of identity, not only within the community, but of yourself as a part of that community. The roots of the Italian "group thing" reach into the belly.

Off again tomorrow, this time to the Adriatic coast for the under 18 national volleyball finals. Wish the M.Roma team well!!

a lunedi,

June 12, 2007

Sitting on the cultural fence

So many ideas are bubbling up...but I have to choose. Therefore, before it becomes too stale, I need to have a quick look at President Bush's Roman holiday.

We left very early on Friday morning for a beautiful, verdant corner of Italy in the Apennines mountains between Pistoia and Modena and didn't return until late on Sunday, so I have nothing in particular to report first hand on the excitement in Rome. Instead, I would like to have "a think" about a comment made by the current Minister for Foreign Affairs, Massimo D'Alema, in yesterday's newspaper. "America is a great country, and Bush perfectly understands that our government (now of the left) is loyal, although certainly not as much in line with his program as the past government (led by Berlusconi). But today Bush understood that we have two assets missing from Berlusconi's government: we are stronger in Europe and have more credibility in the Arab world."

I won't get into Euro-politics, but rather reflect on the fact that Italy in general and this government in particular does have a certain affinity with the Arab world and often acts as a very viable moderator. Italy is in an enviable position of being culturally between the extremes of the Individualistic/ linear time/ universal rules/ and inner-locus-of-control oriented cultures and those farther down the spectrum that encompass a group/ flexible time/ particular application of rules/ and outer-locus-of-control orientation. Italians sit very nicely and comfortably on the fence between the two, which can, at times (to the Americans), seem like they don't have backbone, don't take strong positions, waffle and waver and act in a rather Machiavellian fashion. Perhaps it is their role -- interpreters and moderators between the two extremes -- that makes Italy a strong and important ally, strong and important enough to necessitate a visit by the American president.

a domani,

June 11, 2007

My space

Lunch conversation with my now 18 year old son -- "My space" and cultural differences (thanks to an article in today's La Repubblica "Business and Finance" section).

It seems that all his international school friends used to have "my space" pages but have now moved to "facebook" on which they spend lots of time putting up photos, music, video clips, blog entries and such after school.

His Italian liceo friends do not. They put up photos to share through a version on instant messanger, but otherwise they see each other at school and then wait until the next day, using sms messages in a pinch.

Hmmm. I'll have to think about this one.

have to run...
a domani,

June 7, 2007

School's out

School was scheduled to finish on Saturday June 9. Then, a few days ago the principal announced that it would close instead on Friday the 8th. My son's class had a last history test yesterday and a few students from his class were expecting to be "interrogated" one last time in philosophy tomorrow. He was worried instead about a last surprise interrogation in science and history, for which he had planned to study this afternoon.

But instead, at about 12:30, the teachers received an announcement from the office that the school would be closing today. No last minute interrogations. No time to get organized for a party in the piazza. No time for good-bye's and such. The bell rang and the year was over. How is that for a different time orientation! One day more or less, whatever. The year had been long enough in any case. Let's be flexible.

My son said it was strange, not having a soft landing to the year, and the teachers were disturbed about not fininshing off their last testing. Some students will have final grades based on fewer individual grades than others. Now is that "fair"? Doesn't bother him -- a different sense of classroom competition.

I assume President Bush's arrival has something to do with this early closing as the school is in a central location and the police will have other things to worry about tomorrow than wild students getting out for the summer.

They got that today instead -- flour, eggs, tomatoes and more flew in the piazza and my son went straight into the shower when he got home. It is a kind of ritual, I just wouldn't want to have my car parked in that piazza today!

Happy summer.
a lunedi,

off line

I will be away and off line for a few days.
Check back in on Monday!


June 5, 2007

The stress of meritocracy

Today’s top moment was receiving a pack of April and May New Yorker magazines from a woman who had read this entry. She was very happy to find a home for her old subscriptions and even suggested that I pass them on to Shelley for her tourist apartments so that they can continue a long and happy life. Expats get that way about their beloved magazines.

The first “Talk of the Town” commentary I read from the May 21 issue fit nicely with Trento’s Festival dell’Economia topic, “Human Capital, Social Capital” – at least the human side. It was about higher education and meritocracy. “Americans want education to be two things, universal and meritocratic.” So why all the stress? While everyone, in theory, gets a place at the starting line, the weeding process that makes the system efficient is hugely stressful. “The more purely meritocratic the system – the more open, the more efficient, the “fairer” – the more anxiety it produces, because there is no haven from competition….Everything you do in a meritocratic society is some kind of test, and there is never a final exam…..which at some point starts to get in the way of becoming educated. You can’t learn when you’re afraid of being wrong.”

I write to my US friends with their college-applying children that I am SOOOO happy not to be going through all that stress. Their children have applied to an array of “top” colleges, all are super kids with lots of interests and activities in addition to great grades, all are stressing on which school to pick, which one didn’t pick them etc. Their parents are stressing on the future fees….

My older son is just going to enrol in the University of Trento and study economics. Getting in is not the stressful part -- although there is an entrance exam that weeds out the true losers -- passing exams one after the other until the end, is. In fact, there is a very high percentage of non-finishers (about 70%). It is just a different way to let everyone get a place at the starting line, a different way to set in motion a weeding process and a different kind of stress.

The big difference is that Italians buy into a much less expensive version of stress.

Do they get a good education? From my experience, those with the desire to study and the capability to do so, come out very well prepared. The others less so. Not much of a difference there.

A domani,

June 4, 2007

Social mobility

My husband was in Trento this weekend with our son and went to hear a few speakers at the “Festival dell’Economia” that took place from May 31-June 3. This year’s theme was “Capitale Umano, Capitale Sociale” and several interventions addressed Italy’s social class mobility within a wider economic context.

The journalist Marco Margiocco, in an article for the Sole 24 Ore financial newspaper, sustains that Italy is a “prisoner of its older generation and its social classes or castes”. Recent data from a European study on “Social mobility in Europe”, indicates Italian social classes as being 20% more rigid than those of Great Britain and at the bottom of at least the top seven European nations. Antonio Schizzerotto, a sociology professor at the University of Milan and expert on international social mobility adds that, “Italy does not value its human capital to the same extent as the other industrialized nations. The day to day reality is that individuals are not encouraged to do better, because they are not rewarded for their efforts. The individual that is the best prepared may not be chosen for a position or once in a role, does not necessarily advance. In his or her place, the usual “figli di papa” go ahead. The rate of social mobility, advancing ones social class through work, is only 20%, while in other European countries it ranges from 40-55%.” I soliti raccomandati statistically exist!

Economists agree that this is not a good thing for Italy’s economy and is even a major factor (together with social capital and infrastructures) in keeping Italy at the bottom of the advancing world.

The article, like the Festival dell’Economia itself ended without answering the question, “why”. The upper classes fear competition? Has Italy’s hyper-unionized workforce played a role? Does it have to do with the social stratification process that takes place in secondary school? What aspects of Italy’s history have encouraged this fossilization – not only in the South?

Lots of good questons. I’ll add another "cultural moment" one. What’s a mother to do to make sure that her sons have the possiblitly to be the best that they can be?

A domani,

June 3, 2007

Rites of passage

It has been a week marked by rites of passage: my son’s 18th birthday and party, a Italian Jewish wedding and a university graduation party. All a bit different in practice and in meaning.

My younger son turned 18. He and a friend from his class (girl), whose birthday fell just a day earlier, asked to throw a joint party and the parents all agreed. So we rented a club, a DJ, ordered food and drinks and two cakes. The kids put together an invitation list of 130, decided on a 1960s theme and made slick 1960s style invitations. It was a big success and a formal rite of passage. We wish them well!

No school prom at 18 and the social events of this important year are the birthday parties that serve as “coming out into society” rites. The invitation announces “abito scuro” – a dark suit and tie for the boys and evening dress for the girls and everyone took the deeper meaning of the party to heart – a send off from youth into adulthood.
The 1960s theme was a success too – check out these girls!

Notice the bottles in the picture? Yes, they had a brindisi or toast with the cake.

The Italian Jewish wedding was also a bit different with its Italian Jewish rituals. It was a privilege to be invited as an outsider as the Roman Jewish community is quite closed and conservative. The women had to sit apart from the men so I was alone as I watched the lovely ceremony. The couple was surrounded and physically protected by their respective families during the ceremony which emphasized the role of family in their future life together. We wish the couple well!

A friend’s daughter passed her thesis in front of a commission with 110 e lode – the highest recognition -- and she had a party to celebrate. The difference being that the party was at home, where she lives and has lived for her years of university study and where she will stay while continuing a graduate degree. So the party was inter-generational, her childhood and university friends, relatives and parent’s friends all toasting her success. She was beaming and happy and we wish her well too!

A domani,