Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Cultural Adjustment

There are now three American couples who have retired here to Umbertide. Joseph and Paul arrived first. Joseph blogs about his life experience at "A Passage to Umbria": a passage to umbria
Nancy and Luther arrived this summer and Nancy has been blogging about her experience at "Nancy goes to Italy": nancy goes to Italy. I encourage you all to read their blogs for other points of view about life here.

All three couples have gone through various adjustments in beginning their new lives here.  All of us loved Italy before we arrived, had traveled here frequently and we had all studied some level of Italian. Each one of us wishes we spoke the language better and knew more before we came.

Besides the language, Gary and I have gone through our ups and downs of adjusting to life in a foreign country. In a former life, I was the wife of an Air Force officer. We lived in Libya, on Wheelus Air Force Base before it was closed. We used to say that military people only liked 2 posts; the one they just left and the one they were assigned to next. What does that mean for those of us who will have no "next post?"

I found this chart, which I think accurately describes some of the adjustments that we have experienced.

For most people who come to visit Italy, including yours truly, they are in the "everything is new, exciting and different" part of the curve. Think of the beginning of a love affair. A new love often equates to a better love, whether it is or not. At this stage, everything is fun, wonderful. We are enchanted with the new. And then, with time, things shift. The endorphins start to wear off, and reality starts to seep in. I have always hated it when this stage is over. I used to say when "the reality of Monday morning laundry sets in" you know the affair is over.  It just seems that one day the veils that were over our eyes are lowered and we begin to see reality more clearly.

Things that were amusing, are no longer so. Life in Italy is very inconvenient. As a tourist, I found this charming. Going to different markets for items was an adventure. As someone who lives here full time, not so much. It is draining to have to think where can I buy envelopes? Where do they sell furniture polish? Instead of "how charming" the mantra becomes "why can't they...."

Luckily, this state of annoyance doesn't last very long. We are jolted back to a happy state by reminding ourselves, WE LIVE IN ITALY! We are living many people's dream. So what if the plumbing is archaic, so what if you can't get any type of food other than Italian. We love Italy so what's the problem?

Unfortunately, this stage doesn't last for long either. Before you know it we are plunged into a real sense of the "Oh, my god, what am I doing here" feeling. The culture of the US and Italy are signficantly different, sometimes in ways that aren't so great. The three couples constantly hear Italians lament, "Why are you here? Our dream is to go to the US." Eventually we asked ourselves the same question, "Why are we here?"  This can be a very difficult and depressing time. It is easy for couples to turn to each other and say "Whose idea was this anyhow?" If our relationship with Italy were a marriage, the shoals of disillusionment loom large. Many marriages crash on these rocks. In Italy the rocks shows up as"nothing works here." The focus turns to all of the things that are wrong with the country rather than what is right.

Here is another chart of cultural adjustment. Note Stage 3, the Re-Integration stage. I think many ex-pats get stuck here. I have heard several ex-pats (not Americans) say, "Italy would be great except for the Italians". Huh?This sense of superiority is a dangerous thing. It can creep up on you when you are most unaware. I have been guilty of this in my frurstration about Italian's inability to market themselves and their products. But who died and made me Queen of Marketing?  Here is another look at the stages of cultural adjustment. You need to know that I am favorably biased about these types of charts. As a former organizational development consultant, I love models. I think they are helpful in bringing meaning to chaos.

I found that visitors were the antidote for me to move from stage three to stage four. It is hard to criticise the food, the people, the life, when one's visitors are swooning over the beauty of the place, the deliciousness of the food, and the simple and healthy life style we are living.

I think at year two we have arrived at stage four thank god. I understand where to find things. I understand how the taxes work. We all understand, more or less,  how the drivers will behave, and how to respond to them on the autostradas. (Gary says they drive either too fast or too slow and they are always unpredictable.) I now feel better equiped to face whatever Italian dilemma presents itself. My language is competent, if not great. I know I can talk my way into and out of most situations.

My friend Paul thinks we move dynamically back and forth between all of these stages, sometimes in one day, I don't know. It's too hard for me to think of it that way. I do know that I am very happy to have left the overall feelings of stage three and remember why I initially fell in love with this crazy country. I see Italy more clearly now. I accept that the country is both charming and frustrating. The Italians still make me laugh. The countryside continues to restore. The food really is delicious and healthy. The Italian culture feeds my soul. My neighbor recently asked me why I was here when she dreamed of being in San Francisco. I answered that Italy was good for my soul.  She looked at me and nodded, "Italy has a lot of soul." And that my friends, is the truth from my perspective.

So I am back on track. Not quite to stage 5 yet, I don't really feel like I am myself again, but I feel closer to myself than I have been for quite a while.

We are planning our year, with trips, guests and projects. I am taking on a major writing project to put together a guide of agriturismi in northern Umbria. I am rededicating myself to the language. I will speak better next year, and I will be more consistent in these posts, so you will have to put up with more philosophical musings in the year to come.

Italy is a heart breakingly beautiful place to be. It is a country with such deep flaws and such staggeting beauty and gifts that it is easy to be seduced here. We fall in love. We fall out of love, and then one day, we realize that our love is deeper and more abiding than shifts of time. And that is a good thing.


  1. (my third attempt at commenting...Google is so annoying sometimes). One of my questions for you and Gary would be "how do you cope with missing friends and family when you cannot be together for one reason or another"? Looking forward and wishing you good luck on the Guide. Hope I will be able to make use of it in the future. Also, keeping posting...you are living MY dream!

  2. Hi Melanie. HappyNew Year. The hardest part is missing family and friends. We have gottten more organized in talking to people on Skype and Facetime. The time difference (9 hours) to California makes that connection particularly challenging. Hope you have a great 2015