I found out that my blog has been included in a list of Top 15 Italian Lifestyle Blogs by Ville in Italia. Check out the link if you’d like to discover other blogs and resources about Italy.
Culture shock! That’s what we experience when we leave our comfortable and familiar environments and spend time in foreign surroundings, immersed in different ways of thinking and doing things (which, for the record, are not usually better or worse, but different). These experiences can make us laugh or feel like a slap in the face. Listen to the noise. It’s the sound of paradigms shifting.
Sometimes culture shock can lead to life-changing, soul-searching revelations, but it’s usually the ordinary things (like a first encounter with a squat toilet) that cause such surprise.
Then, since life likes to keep things interesting, we experience reverse culture shock when we go back to our country of origin, since what used to shock us in the foreign country has become our new normal.
Here are twenty of the mundane day-to-day things that have taken me aback when I returned to the good ol’ U. S. of A. on various trips.
Some things are generalizations, and all of them reflect my personal experience in Torino and South Jersey. I realize things may be different elsewhere.
20. Stores Open Twenty-Four Hours a Day… and on Sundays! I can go to the food store at 11pm on Sunday night if I so desire. When my sister ran out of soy milk on a Saturday night, I automatically thought, We’ll have to wait until Monday to get some more.
In the beginning of my time in Italy, I would find myself without groceries on Sunday and no way to procure any. I’ve finally gotten the hang of this, and now on Saturday a mental alarm sounds in my brain and tells me, Go shopping today or starve!
Actually, there is a supermarket in my neighborhood that recently started having Sunday morning hours. They hung a big sign outside announcing this.
19. Cashiers Put Your Change Right in Your Hand: This may sound weird to someone who hasn’t lived in Italy (or any other country where they do this) but in Italian stores, rarely does one put money directly in someone else’s hand. It’s a custom that I don’t really understand. It may have to do with hygiene, but how I can’t say, since two seconds after the first person puts the money down on the counter, the other person picks it right up.
Anyway, next to Italian cash registers there is a little platform on the counter. You put the money down on the platform and the cashier, bartender, etc. picks it up and put it in the cash register. Your change goes back on the platform and you scoop it up and get on your way. It seems like many unnecessary steps, but no one seems to care.
On less frequent occasions, a cashier actually will hand you the money or accept it into their hand, but when this happens, both parties are very careful not to touch each other at all.
When I first came to Italy I would try to hand people money and hold out my hand for my change and it was awkward. Now I’ve gotten used to it. Then in the States, I would automatically put the money on the counter, sometimes right in front of a cashier’s outstretched hand, which I hadn’t really noticed. Then I would realize what I did when the cashier gave me a dirty look to let me know how rude I was, or barely disguised his aggravation for the effort it took him to pick up all the coins I had placed on the counter.
18. Door Handles, Sinks, etc.: I’m sure this varies from house to house, but dude! who moved all the door handles and sinks six inches lower? The first couple of times I went to open a door, I missed.
17. Cars Stop for Pedestrians in the States. Such a routine act of safety and following the law filled me with wonder as I crossed streets parking lots on foot in New Jersey.
In Italy, cars don’t usually stop if you’re waiting by the curb at a pedestrian crosswalk to cross the street. If you want to cross, you have to make sure there’s a reasonably safe distance for a car to stop, and then just head into the road, watching the car to make sure they see you and stop. But be careful. Sometimes, if you are crossing the street and you are in the middle of the pedestrian crosswalk, and there is just enough space for a car to fit between you and the curb in front of you, the car will turn and drive past you, sometimes [shakes head incredulously] raising a hand to thank you for letting them pass.
The painted lines at the crosswalks look different, too. In Italy, the crosswalks are painted with short thick white lines running parallel to the curbs. They’re called strisce (stripes). In my area of New Jersey, crosswalks are painted with two long thin white lines that run perpendicular to the curbs, and the pedestrian walks in the black space between the lines. I was driving once and passed over one of them without a second thought, since I was used to the look of the Italian strisce. Only when I was in the middle of the intersection and saw the teenager who was confidently starting to cross the street (still far away thank goodness) and the horrified look of a woman who was watching the scene and probably judging me for being a monster who doesn’t stop for pedestrians, did I realize that those lines were marking the crosswalk.
16. “Italian” Pronunciation: Hee-hee. What is this “min-ah-strohn” the server is mentioning when she tells me the soups of the day? Surely not minestrone? Or, what I could scarcely believe but my sister swears is true from her days working at Wawa (a convenience store), “pros-ah-cutie” is an accepted pronunciation of prosciutti.
15. The Friendly Shopping Experience: I walked in a store and was greeted by an enthusiastic “Hello! How are you doing today?” that almost knocked me off my feet. At the entrance of another store, an employee walked up to me and asked me if she could point me in the right direction. Three different people working behind the counter at a convenience store smiled at me and said hello. At checkout in a department store, a cashier greeted me and asked if I had found everything I was looking for. I know most people are just saying these things because it’s their job, but it’s a difference and I noticed it right away.
On the other hand, the greeting at checkout is often just that bored ‘Hey, how are ya’ which just means ‘Hello’ and doesn’t require any response, and certainly not an explanation of how you are actually doing that day. If you know they don’t really care about how you are, would it be better if they just didn’t say anything at all?
I cannot in my wildest imagination imagine an Italian clerk asking me “Come stai?” They usually use the formal form of speech anyway, in which case it would be “Come sta”, which sounds even more absurd. I’m not saying this because I don’t think Italians don’t care about other people, but because a standard greeting (i.e. Buongiorno, Buonasera, Salve) gets the job done fine.
14. I Can Return Anything to the Store: Really. Well, almost anything. I went to the supermarket and bought cocoa powder and imitation vanilla extract to make cookies. My sister said she already had cocoa powder and that imitation vanilla extract was made from propylene glycol and was gross. I lamented the fact of having wasted all that money. She said, just go and return them. Return them? To the supermarket? I was flabbergasted, then remembered I can do that.
13. People Look So Varied: Probably the strangest thing for me when I started coming back to the States after long periods of time in Italy was how many different kinds of people there are walking around, and how different they look from Italians. You know, mixing pot and all. Yes, there are a lot of different kinds of Italians, but in general I find there is less of a range of physical differences among Italian people as a whole. Back in the US, I’d look around me at people with all kinds of shapes, sizes, colors, features, attitudes, and clothing. After the relative uniformity of Italians, Americans look kind of foreign.
12. Food Products: Milk… cereal… nuts… oatmeal… jelly… you can get such huge quantities of so many things.
Olive oil and shallots cost more. Peanut butter and pancake mix cost less. I can’t find things like powdered saffron and cheap boxes of cooking wine. I can find things like seedless grapes and frozen kale.
And sandwich bread. You may think I’m crazy saying this, living in the land of heavenly Italian crusty bread and all, but sometimes I just want to make a sandwich with two big slices of soft twelve-grain/oatmeal-nut/honey-wheat bread. (To tell you the truth, I’ve pretty much stopped making sandwiches since I’ve come to Italy.)
That reminds me of a story my grandfather told me of a time his Italian-immigrant parents took the family to the beach. They packed sandwiches for lunch filled with authentic Italian meat and cheese, but all my grandfather wanted to do was buy a hot dog from the vendor like the Americans were doing.
As far as eating out, the options in the US are more varied in terms of world cuisine, and it’s easier to find vegan options in “normal” places. Torino has some Mexican, Indian, Chinese, Lebanese, Kurdish, etc. restaurants, but the options are limited. I hear the Italian food is great, though.
11. Self-Serve Pharmacies: I can go to a pharmacy and pick out my own pain medicine, eye-drops, etc. without having to talk to anyone.
10. Books: The table of contents is at the beginning of a book, and paragraphs are always indented. Maybe Italians are used to it, but I feel a sense of dread when faced with a large block of text without indented paragraphs (but only some books are like that). The pages of American books seem toxically white (most of the paper mills in Europe have switched to chlorine-free processing).
9. The Restaurant Experience:
-Servers wear uniforms. Servers come by several times during the course of your meal to ask if everything is okay and if they can get you anything.
-The server will bring you as much free water as you can drink and you don’t have to buy a bottle of water if you want to drink some. Cool beans.
-The downside of the above item is that the glass is filled to the brim with ice and is so cold I can’t drink it. I usually forget to ask the server for no ice when they take the drink order.
-Taking your leftovers home in containers is encouraged and the server will ask you if you want a container if they see food left on your plate. There is no shame in taking a doggie bag home, as there seems to be in Italy.
8. Houses Are Built from Wood: Walking through Philadelphia, I passed a house that was under construction. Only the frame was up, and it was a two-story wooden skeleton of two-by-fours and nails. I was in the city with an Italian once, and he saw a similar house going up. “Whoa!” was his reaction. “They make houses out of wood?” In Italy, wood is scarce and houses are made of concrete.
7. The Absence of Balconies: Again, walking through Philadelphia, the houses looked strange and I realized it’s because their facades are completely flat. There are no balconies sticking out! I’ve grown to really like my balconies in the city. They’re useful for many things, and balcony doors are large and let in a lot of air. In Torino, apartments are built so that they are open to the air on both ends (one end facing the street and the other facing the courtyard), so opening the balcony doors on both sides of the house lets in a nice moving breeze.
On the other hand, many houses in Philadelphia are narrow two- or three-story row houses which all have their own little backyard. I don’t think backyards exist in Torino, because apartment building are built around a common courtyard.
6. Anything Goes: This varies by person but it seems like Americans have more of a laid-back attitude about what is acceptable, and Italians stick to the “rules” more. Americans aren’t scandalized if someone eats lunch in their car at 11am, takes a shower after eating, drinks cappuccino after breakfast time, or doesn’t wear socks in the winter.
This isn’t to be confused with the more laid-back, slower pace of life Italians are famous for.
5. Highway Signs: Highway signs list the name or number of the road they lead to, which is different from in Italy where they have town and city names with arrows.
4 . How Spread Out Houses Are: In my town in the US, people mostly live in single family homes spread out along roads and in neighborhoods. In Italy, even in towns people tend to live in closely spaced apartment buildings.
3. Serving Size: I’m not talking about huge portions in American restaurants, though that’s true of course. I’m talking about how I’ve gotten used to weighing the pasta before cooking it and making just one bowl for everyone. I made pasta for my sisters and nieces one night in the States and, without thinking too much about it, made enough for everyone to have one bowl. Then my poor five-year-old niece wanted seconds and there was no more left. Now when I cook, my sister reminds me ahead of time to make a little extra.
2. Greetings: I’ve already written about this here and here, but it’s still strange to switch from one country’s ways of greeting people to the other’s, and I still get confused.
REVERSE CULTURE SHOCK #1: People ask me where I am from. Yes, when I am in the US. What the hay, paesani?