# 60 Ten irksome culture shocks in Italy
It's been a while since my last rant about the pesky parts of culture shock in Italy. I've learnt to adapt to most of the stuff I used to find bothersome; after all, you cannot pretend that an entire culture will change to fit your convenience.
These days, I take culture shock with a smile and try to put a comic slant on it. Most of the time, I feel like David Attenborough in a BBC documentary, interacting with the natives while being fascinated, perplexed and amused at the same time.
The other day, I met a visiting Italo Australian, and we talked about the frustrating elements of culture shock. He asked me how long I had lived here, and when I said it had been more than twenty years, he said, well, you must be Italian then. I don't feel Italian. I still feel very much like a foreigner.
While I am fluent in the language and culture, some things still grate on my nerves. Also, the hard truth is that Italians will never truly accept you; your accent will identify you as a foreigner, and the way you speak Italian will always make you stand out from native Italians. That will never go away, and your accent isn't going away unless you obliterate it with the help of a speech therapist.
After more than two decades of living in Italy, I often find myself going through a strange kind of 'reverse' culture shock every time I'm back in Australia (but that's another story).
But rather than complaining about things that are irksome or bashing the darker elements of Italian culture, I'd like to mention ten salient points of culture shock I still need to navigate that sometimes still bother me, make me laugh and others that aren't too bad—the hilarious consequences of living in Italy instead of simply visiting.
1. A lack of personal space and privacy
In Australia, we have way too much space compared to the population. Here in Italy, there are too many people for the physical space. The result is tiny apartments and houses, insufficient parking and a population with no problem invading other people's personal space. You will be spoken to way too close to your face. People will stare at you and look at you up and down. Your in-laws will comment on your appearance and interfere because life is always lived close to others. It's just the way it is. Particularly in Sicily, even in the bigger cities, family life spills out onto front door steps and into piazzas as the local community coexists with the concept of family.
Yes, it's suffocating, oppressing and soul-destroying, but you'll get used to it. The in-laws will do it out of love; the community wants you to be a part of it, and strangers have always done this. Please don't feel like a victim; no one is out to get you; it's the reality.
It is usual for people to stare at you when you walk through the piazza; they are trying to figure out who you are. It's what they do to pass the time. If you are in the town square, you are part of the show of people watching the performance of life.
Women will be asked how old they are because people want to know your business. It's not considered rude; it's just information gathering so they can guess your age, comment on your physical appearance and compare you to themselves and others around them. It's all part of integration and becoming a part of the community.
2. Insane formality
Italians can be terrible intellectual snobs, proud of their language, hard-earned jobs and education. So be prepared to be highly formal when first meeting people. Be sure to use the 'lei' different proper grammatical way of addressing teachers, doctors, lawyers and people older or more experienced than you. I was surprised to discover that Italian society has an intellectual class system. There is a distinction between those who can speak Italian well, with a particular education or accent and those who can't. As a foreigner, you will permanently be corrected when you make grammatical errors or are reminded of your quaint accent. Over the past few years, I've been working in the local schools in Sicily, and I've transformed from a foreigner to the title of 'Maestra' or 'professoressa.' It's a marked transformation to go from an outsider into a formal colleague of other teachers, who happily address me with the 'Maestra' or 'collega' and use the elevated grammatical form of 'lei' instead of the informal 'tu'. The silly game many Italians are forced to play is hilarious. We are all the same people; get over yourselves.
And don't get me started on the school system in Italy; it is one of the few places where Italians can be gainfully employed. In a country where unemployment is the norm, some people will do anything to work in the schools. And so once they enter the academic arena, it becomes a bit of an ego trip. Many delusional people work in schools, not the best qualified and the majority aren't there to teach, they don't give a crap. Sad but true.
3. Male and Female dynamics
I've always been perplexed by the relationship between the sexes in Italy. I think women have a terrible struggle with sexism and bullying in Italy, which has never been acknowledged; for goodness sake, there isn't even a word for sexism and bullying in Italian (even though the English terms are slowly being adopted.) It has always bothered me how men and women in Italy cannot be considered friends; Italians have words like fidanzato/a, and amico/a, which refer to boyfriend, girlfriend or fiance; there is no term to express a platonic friendship; it's sad. Why can't you be friends without sexual connotations or expectations? While men who are friends with other men seem much more intense, you will often see perfectly heterosexual men kissing one another on the cheeks, walking arm in arm, standing close to one another and embracing. If you saw this kind of male behaviour in Australia, you would assume it was a gay couple. Not so in Italy.
On the other hand, female friends are not so amicable; women compete with other women. The insanity is instead of lifting one another; they are judging one another physically and playing the sexism game. Come on, Italy, let's stop playing games; we all need to move on.
One of the things I noticed even on my very first visit to Italy is how dirty the place is; in the big cities, it is dusty, people sweep their balconies out onto the street, and laundry hung out to dry will drip on you as you walk by, you will accidentally step on abandoned dog poop and stumble upon dumped trash along the side of the road and under bridges (especially if there is some labour strike occurring).
The concept of recycling is slowly being taught, and the use of plastic bags is banned by law. However, many parts of Italy have been permanently damaged by the illegal dumping of toxic waste. Including areas outside of Naples, the sea floor near the island of Capri is in the middle of a major clean-up, and parts of Sicily near Gela and Caltanissetta have become 'terra bruciata'- burnt-out wasteland thanks to the decades of a poorly managed petrochemical industry. All heartbreaking.
5. Dolce Vita
Despite the negative aspects of culture shock, I love the pigheaded Italian approach to life. Their dedication to the Dolce Vita allows them to savour life fully. Italy is all about slow living, talking, socialising, taking care of themselves, enjoying a drink, a quick coffee, preparing good food, and then taking the correct time to taste and digest it all. There are always plenty of holidays during the year to spend time with friends and family, as work is seen as a necessary evil and should not get in the way of living in the moment. Amen to making more memories and not more money.
There is something good for the soul when you live in the present, focusing on everyday life. Taking the pressure off yourself is excellent if you are feeling burnt out, and trauma can be healed when you have more minor expectations for yourself and are generally accepted for the way you are.
I find the Italian lifestyle wonderfully relaxing and nourishing, and above all, it gives you space for creativity, thinking and learning or listening to new stories, from history to the local gossip, which brings me to my next point.
6. Gossip mill 100%
When you come to Italy, you can be assured that someone will be talking about you. An Italian gossip mill is an outstanding machine; it connects everyone to everyone else professionally and personally. So why not use it to your advantage! Let people know you can teach English, take good photos for a reasonable price, make birthday cakes, and babysit. It's the best way to get a job, honestly! And also how to find a good plumber, electrician, accountant or lawyer. Make friends with the local gossip, avoid making too many waves, and blend in. Complain about the same things as they do, agree with them, but don't add to the venom.
7. Coffee culture
Italy has the best coffee in the world, yet having coffee here is quite a rigid traditional ritual. In Italy, coffee is exclusively a short black (espresso), and cappuccino is a morning drink served with whole cream milk and not piping hot. A latte will give you some milk with a dash of espresso; a macchiato will give you a short black with a dash of milk. Coffee is served quickly at a 'bar' or cafe with juices, wine, spritz and bitter aperitifs. If you are after something more substantial, you could sit down at a wonky table and grab a cornetto (croissant), pastries or a quick panino but don't expect much else. An Italian bar is a spot you nip off to for ten minutes when you are at work or have nothing to do during the day. Starbucks opened its doors in Milan in 2018, so there is usually no takeaway coffee, no small, medium or large frappe, and no free wifi or working on a computer at the cafe'. Sniff! Some places are adapting to the needs of their clients. Mainly in cities with large expat communities, you will find places that now take away coffee. Also, if you find a regular coffee place and they get to know you, they might be open enough to prepare an order to your taste.
8. Arrogant Doctors
Medical practitioners in Italy rarely have a suitable bedside manner; it seems that's been left out of the prerequisites. So be sure to revise how to use the formal 'lei' form while addressing them, write a list of questions to ask them, and insist on being transparent because they aren't wasting time on explanations, unfortunately. The poor public hospitals are the victims of terrible cutbacks and lousy management, so be kind to the doctors and nurses as they are very stressed, but they are doing their best despite any rough edges.
9. The danger of ice
Since we are at the end of a long, hot, tourist-rich Italian summer, I thought I'd mention Italians' fear of consuming cold drinks with ice and avoiding air conditioning. Many visitors complain about the lack of icy cold beverages and arctic blast air-con. I understand this insanity as I grew up in Australia, where people put their glasses in the freezer to get their beer chilled extra. I feel a little embarrassed for my Italian friends and family when I explain their avoidance of cold in summer to others, as they believe it is terrible for your health. Italians are slightly hypochondriacs and avoid icy drinks (except for granita) and air conditioning as they fear it could make them sick or, in some extreme cases, kill them. My husband is always telling me the same story about a school friend who drank an icy cold drink one summer and dropped dead as the difference in temperature sent his body into shock; if this story were true, I would have died of brain freeze many years ago.
This may surprise you, but Italian bureaucracy has a massive problem with middle names. It is imperative to consistently use all of your names on every possible documentation, from bank accounts, I.D cards, passports, bills, signatures and tax file numbers. You will be denied payments, get other people's bills to pay and get perplexed looks from confused postal workers. A signature is always written surname first, then the first name, followed by all middle names.
If you decide to abandon your middle names at the border as they are too confusing for Italians, then good for you as long as any other documents you use do not contain them, as you will be forced to update everything if a middle name is discovered.
If you don't have any middle names, lucky you!!
I've always had problems as my mother named me a member of the British royal family with two middle names. I always had to spell out my complex Italian surname in Australia, as no one understood or could pronounce it. So when I moved to Italy, I thought that'd be the end. But my pronunciation of Del Borrello to a Messinese sounds like I am saying Gian Borello. My name has been transformed numerous times, and one of my consonants was robbed. Sicilians only like local surnames and not others from other Italian regions. Santa pazienza! So, it looks like I will always struggle with my name.
I hate to be long-winded, so I will stop here for now.
I'll keep trying to write something here as often as I can.
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