Our Italian Adventure: Cultural Differences
Updated: Mar 26
This part is called: Which cultural or everyday life differences are surprising and pleasant, and which differences take a while to get used to and understand?
PART 12: I thought it might be interesting to share how we pulled off living in Italy for part of the year. I will post some steps we took.
We are in Puglia until the end of September, then back again in the winter.
The topic we will explore is Cultural differences.
Step 1: I was already acquainted with the Italian language and culture since I lived in Italy for eight years (my university years). I was familiar with some cultural differences, but others were surprising, pleasant, or take getting used to. This experience in Italy helped shape our decision to live here rather than in other European countries.
Step 2: Familiar: From my experience living in Italy, I found, and still find, that it is not challenging to develop warm and lasting friendships with locals. Whether Rome or Lecce, Latium or Puglia, I find the Italian people welcoming, interested in our backgrounds, and open to spending time together and sharing their lives.
Another aspect of Italian life that is familiar is the importance of food. Breaking bread is more than grabbing a bite and always involves conversation, sharing one's life, and exchanging cooking ideas, even among men.
One more beautiful aspect of Italian culture is the affection expressed between friends and an authentic sense of care for one another. This point is more difficult to explain, but there is a comfort with physical expressions of affection (kissing, hugging, walking arm in arm) that can seem unusual for an American but can enrich one's life.
The other aspect, caring for one another, is expressed by a sincere interest and concern for the other person. Among our local friends, there is a great effort to accommodate our work schedules without being asked. Another example is when I buy fruit; the vendor asks me to tell him what I think and lets me know that if my watermelon or peaches aren't sweet, to come back for a replacement.
Step 3: Unfamiliar: Though I lived in Italy for eight years, there were, and are, some things that I never understood.
One of these is when our local friends talk and argue about Italian politics. That completely loses me.
Another unfamiliar cultural difference is a "baroque" way of speaking. When I listen to a talk, speech, sermon, or presentation, I am used to a speaker who summarizes, synthesizes, and arrives at the central point quickly. Here in Italy, at least in Puglia, there is another style of public speaking, which is more "baroque" and gives a more flowery presentation while eventually arriving at the point, as I keep glancing at my watch.
Step 4: Some surprising and pleasant differences: Though we had a hint of this in the past, one pleasant difference is the intensity of friendship we experience in Puglia. Friends quickly become like family, and the bonds are lasting.
Another unexpected difference is how music and dance weave different generations together. Here in Puglia, one might see a grandmother dancing the "Taranta" (traditional dance) with her teenage son and having a ball. Or hearing a young person ride past on his motorcycle while singing a classic Italian song in full voice. That sense of the present tied to the past through music and dance is impressive.
The great food in Italy, especially in Puglia (OK, maybe I am biased), was surprising in that it is even better than what we dreamed.
There are many other pleasant differences, but that would take another blog post.
Step 5: Cultural differences that take a while to get used to and understand: When I first lived in Italy (Rome), I thought a group of friends could grab a meal, catch a movie and then go out for a drink. When the meal took a few hours to play out, I complained (the ugly American). I saw the long meals from only my cultural viewpoint.
The cultural difference at the heart of the long dinners, especially in the south, is that eating together is more about building a community than consuming food. When I realized this, I came to enjoy the time together at the table rather than rushing through so we could go on to the next thing.
Another challenging cultural difference is that everything seems slow, even walking. In California, we tend to hurry from point A to point B, but in Italy, walking is always more of a stroll. It took some getting used to, but now we value the stroll as a time of building community, enjoying friendships, looking at architecture, and becoming part of life on the streets.
Another challenging cultural difference is focusing on the group rather than the individual. Coming from California, I am used to deciding what I want to do, the goal I set, and how I want to spend my time. In Puglia, we tend to spend time with groups of local friends. In these groups, many things get decided by consensus: where to go to dinner, how to arrange the tables, when to depart for a road trip, what to buy for dinner, etc. But over time, we have realized that focusing on the group (community) rather than solely on the individual is making our lives bigger.
Step 6: : Insights: Before moving to Puglia/Italy, we focussed on building and prioritizing our friendships here, which is paying off since now our friends here are like family. Experiencing differences from other viewpoints can enrich one's life and enlarge one's perspective because having my priorities challenged can help me experience life in a new way. When cultural differences arise, my initial reaction can be to assess and pass judgment. If I go down that road, I won't learn anything. I remain the same.
Some of the cultural insights gained so far during our time in Italy include the centrality of relationships, the focus on the present moment, the care for one another's welfare, and the emphasis on community.
Watch for my book coming around the 1st of the year: "Stories from Puglia: Two Californians in Southern Italy."
More next time.