Culture Shock with a capital SHHHHHH

Yesterday I over-salted the soup. But luckily I also forgot to salt the bread. Sometimes things work out. Lately the bread I make is tiny little loaves like soft fat breadsticks. I mix about half the flour into my starter overnight. In the morning I knead the rest of the flour in along with salt. I leave it to rise for an hour or two. And then the fun begins. Dominique and I make the breadsticks together. He decides each day what shape of bread to make for himself and Axa. Axa loves crunchy breadsticks (like the Italian ones that they give children whenever you walk into a bread shop and have in little packages in restaurants), so we can make hers quite intricate. We’ve had lizards, houses, flowers, and a stick man that Dominique said was how he would look himself when he was grown up. It’s even better than playdough!

I last about three weeks in the country before the city mouse bites me again. (Is it the same in the city? I’ve forgotten.) This is vexing because I have this idea that it is really more virtuous and noble to live in the country. I know it’s not just me, because after all, Virgil thought so too. And I believe the idea originated (like all good things) with the Greeks, who were all respectable farmers, whatever else (civics, military service, philosophy, etc.) they did on the side.

I wish I could feel the way my country mouse friends do; they get a dozen or two or three acres, put in a garden, and live happily ever after. It’s so uncomplicated, and so, well, uncomplicating. The clean air clears your mind, and the rhythms of nature gently, inexorably draw you into their embrace. But I miss the frenetic beat of the city. Asphalt, graffiti, grunge and all. And I can’t stand country music. Really, I can’t. I’m glad Tony’s new love is Italian pop.

I miss the social aspect of the city too. We have friends out here, and it’s nice, but I have a hard time getting used to a small town, where everybody knows everybody else, and more importantly, everybody knows everything about what everybody else is doing. Sometimes I long for the blissful anonymity of not knowing that everyone in town, from the shopkeeper to the hairdresser, has heard about you already. The other thing is, I’d like a few homeschooling friends that we can get together with. And I wouldn’t mind spending some time with expats either. I consider that to be one of the pleasures and necessities of life abroad.

Poor me, right? Culture shock is a normal part of life. I read that you have to go through all the phases of grief, which sounded silly to me in the excitement of planning a move to Italy. Whatever. Maybe I just need a gelato.

Last night I dreamed that somebody had stolen all the paintings out of our Church. Tony and I decided to go spend the night there to see if the robbers would come back, so we could catch them. Sure enough, they did, and we pretended we didn’t know they were robbers. Then Tony went to phone the Branch President so he would bring the police. But while he was gone, they stuffed me in the washing machine. And I felt so claustrophobic.

Tony promptly interpreted my dream for me when I told it to him. It’s all about personal space. Our landlord (who lives upstairs and parks his motorcycle outside our front window) pops in on me several times a day to ask how we are, if we are happy in Italy, if the last thing he’d fixed is working well, if Tony is home from work, and if my washing machine is still leaking. The leak has been fixed for weeks, and I’ve told him innumerable times that it’s fine, but he still asks me about my washing machine every time I see him. At first it was funny, but after a while, I wearied. You see, he wouldn’t even knock before he came in. Sometimes I would come out of the bathroom after hanging my clothes up and find him in the living room. He’s in here as I write this, in fact.

For several days in a row, he would walk in the front door, open the door to our bedroom, poke his head in where Tony was taking his afternoon power nap (yes, lunch breaks in Italy are long enough to drive home and have lunch with your family, have a little talk and snuggle with your wife, and then take a nap) and say, “psst, Tony!” before I could stop him. And when he wasn’t walking in, he was peering in. You see, our front doors are glass french doors. They and all our windows have the normal Piemontesi lace window coverings that let light in but can’t be seen through from the outside unless you walk right up to the window and put your eyes up to the glass. Which no one would ever do, right? Wrong. Sometimes he would just walk up and stand at the door, peering in.

In fact, one time, two days after we moved in (before I was aware of the peering), Tony was sleeping in our bedroom, so I was in my underwear putting on my lotion on the couch in the living room. Suddenly, what should I spy but our landlord, just outside the glass door, tinkering with something. (It turned out that he was installing a hook and latch on the outside of the door. It does sometimes blow open in the breeze when I leave it unlatched from the inside, which I often do so that the children can come in from playing outside. But what a strange solution to a problem about which we had not even complained. Tony took off the hook and latch after a few days, because our landlord kept locking us in from the outside. We could still eventually kind of jimmy it open from the inside, but it was just too weird.) I hastily pulled a towel over myself and sat as still as a mouse, hoping he wouldn’t peer in, or worse, barge in. Luckily, after a few anxious minutes he finished his tinkering, locked us in, and went away.

Now, I’ve realized for quite some time that the American concept of personal space is different from most other places. For instance, once when I was buying a damask tablecloth in Damascus, the vendor told me that it would seat eight Americans, ten Syrians, or twelve Pakistanis. I notice the difference on park benches. If one American sitting on a bench, nobody would consider sitting at the other end, no matter how much space is left. Who would do that but a pickpocket or a stalker? But in Italy, two or three strangers will sit down on the same bench and soon be conversing like old friends. They don’t plaster themselves against the opposite wall of an already occupied elevator either. Well, there aren’t actually that many elevators here, probably yet another reason that Italians don’t get fat.

This extends to relationships. In Syria, as in Italy, keeping up a personal relationship can be an exhausting business for an American. Even if you’re running late, a hurried “hello” to your neighbor as you pass is really not enough to excuse you from rudeness. The sheer amount of time spent here in talking and visiting makes me wonder how anybody gets anything done. But after all, what is more important to get done than nurturing relationships?

Will the invisible bubble around me that marks my personal space eventually shrink if I live outside the United States for long enough? Maybe. I’d certainly be a whole lot more comfortable if it didn’t stick out so far and bump into so many things.

4 thoughts on “Culture Shock with a capital SHHHHHH

  • Pingback: Let the Chickens Stay — Casteluzzo

  • September 24, 2010 at 8:21 am

    So far we have been reading them from my laptop, although an e-reader is definitely on my Christmas list. I don't mind so much reading off the screen when it's just a little bit at a time. And it's handy for while we've been traveling and moving around so much.

  • September 23, 2010 at 1:45 pm

    Wow! I wouldn't be able to handle the landlord, he sounds kind of creepy actually. We're planning to move to a small town soon and I wonder if I'll feel the same. Is the idea of growing my own food, getting back to nature, etc. one of those "it seemed like a good idea at the time" things?

  • September 23, 2010 at 12:22 pm

    I really enjoy reading your blog. I have a question: The books on "The Baldwin Project" that you read to your kids… do you read them from your computer, a reader (like Kindle) or so you print them out?


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