COSÌ as always is concerned with expat mental health, so we are persistently offering our insights and experiences from the bumpy road of culture shock and social adjustment for Anglo-Saxons visiting and living in Italy.
Nobody in our group is a star struck newly arrived guest to the bell’paese, rather we are shell-shocked veterans with tremendous battle wounds and scars, from what life has thrown at us. Remember, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger and each negative can easily become a positive depending on how you take it. After all it’s Italy’s chaos, superstition and paradox that has gone into creating one of the most magical and idealized places in the world.
There is no need to be offended at our post about the ridiculousness of life in Italy and how to survive it as COSÌ lives here and we dive into life’s absurdity with a relish that is slightly abnormal, because we are all a little mentally unstable. Our posts are written with a wink of an eye, extravagantly wild hand gestures, a smile on our face, a bottle of red wine on the table and the ability of an Italian to laugh at himself.
As usual Sicily is the key to everything in Italy. Many of the peninsular’s cultural qualities have spread up from the South or become intensified here on this island isolated from the rest of the mainland.
Here’s my random list of ten culture shocks which made my skin crawl but through some kinda crazy miracle I have survived and continue to live with in Sicily.
1. Confusing Dialects
It’s normal to believe Italians all speak Italian, but the reality is in a country filled with individualists there are many regional variations and dialects, which are like different languages. In the South the day-to-day use of Italian goes out of the window as the locals slip into their comfortable dialect which is a confusing array of influences from Sicily’s thirteen different foreign occupations.
So what to do when you are affronted by a barrage of Sicilian you don’t understand? Well, don’t panic, stick to Italian, everyone learns it at school so they do understand you and if you thing you are being ripped off you are under no legal obligation to buy, just act like a Sicilian, yell a lot, leave the object in the store and try to get a better price. In general if you stick to family run Trattoria instead of Ristorante you shouldn’t be overcharged for meals.
2. Slow Living
When I first moved to Sicily I struggled with the slower paced lifestyle, I hated how most stores closed for lunch, but now there are many bigger supermarkets who are open all day just in case you have a craving for chocolate at midday!
The relaxed timetable is much less stressful and it helps you to savor the smaller things like a good lunch, an unexpected conversation or a surprise discovery while meandering the streets or markets.
3. Ugly corruption and politics
As with any other densely populated and ancient country corruption is often used to oil the wheels of progress and slash through red tape, something which never should be tolerated. It’s terrible to see but I always try to go above it myself, in my own dealings I’m always above-board and I think most people like to be honest. All the politicking and underhanded deals are about being furbi or shrewder than the next guy when there is money to be made but you can still make a living by being honest and hardworking. (Corny and idealistic I know, but true)
The majority of people in the South are either unemployed for all or part of the year, simply because of the lack of development and the terrible administration of the local economy. But this doesn’t seem to worry anyone too much, work is seen as a necessary evil and many manage to get buy with cash paying seasonal work, while an online job and savings in a foreign bank account are an expat’s lifeline.
5. Inter sex relations and friendships
I’ve always struggled to make friends in Sicily, which used to be mind-boggling to me as I’m a very charming person who makes a great dinner party guest. Most Sicilians and Italians cement their social connections at school and through family and rarely look beyond them, so for me it’s like being left out of the click.
I have some darling platonic male friends back in Oz, while I’ve been told here that men and women can’t be friends as men just want sex! WTF!?! So social life for me in Sicily is about celebrating Birthdays with the in-laws and somehow being gradually adopted into existing circles.
6. Bringing up baby
Having children in Italy is a challenge to say the least, from gynecologists who will ask you to drop your pants anywhere (operating rooms, storage rooms, in the hall on the way to the delivery room), to invasive family always offering unwelcome advice, a lack of private rooms and post natal visitors who will buy your newborn a Gucci and Versace wardrobe they will never wear.
Taking a step back, being pregnant in Italy is great, everyone loves children and family is always important. As a preggie woman you will get random gifts from shop attendants, good karma and well wishes from random strangers on the street and you will get to taste everything you see, as people believe you can give your unborn child a birthmark in the shape of whatever you are craving, so milk this superstition for your weight in Sicilian pastries.
7. Crumbling schools
I’m still at the beginning of my journey through the school system and in general public schools are suffering through huge budget cutbacks (usually if there is a need to cut funding in Sicily, the tightening of the belt is done around the neck of schools and hospitals, which is sad but true). So the schools paintwork is fading, cement has cracks on it and there is no toilet paper but the teachers are usually local and so they know who your child is, often they have been to school with the parents of the children, or are related or know the family tree of each student, which makes it hard for kids to act up, if the teacher knows where you live and everything else about you she can blackmail you into being good, so this is winning.
8. Pasta and pastina
Sicilian’s eat pasta every single day and children are fed tiny pieces of pastina as soon as they are on solids. I cannot understand the fixation. I’ve had countless arguments about the dietary benefits of pasta, too many carbs have ruined my waistline. I love pasta but enough is enough already, it’s not that healthy when something becomes an obsession.
9. Catholic up front
Italy is a Catholic country but I think that’s a bit of a farce, the Roman Catholic church is like this proud tradition which people act out through the year and deep down Italian’s are pagans, confused non believers or atheists like the rest of us. They just like to get dressed up, have holidays and be seen as morally upright while showing off their beautiful history through their church.
10. Women’s obsessions with cleaning and hairdressers.
This last point on my list is a personal peeve and I may be generalizing about this but hey I’m being self-indulgent and controversial today so I’m going to roll with it.
Sicilian women have an unnatural obsession with cleaning their houses, they will get up at dawn to scrub and disinfect or work through the night like shoemaker’s elves to leave their homes sparkling and above all so that no one sees their efforts. It’s amazing and dumbfounding. I really have better things to do with my time, for me it’s a quick dust and mop, then I need to get on with my life.
I love getting my hair done every once in a while, it’s special and makes me feel pretty but there are many Sicilian women who go continuously and obsessively. Many afternoons here in small town Sicily the men folk are sitting in the squares while the women are getting their hair done, talk about superficiality. Not that there is anything wrong with looking after yourself but, like I said before obsession isn’t healthy.
For some unknown reason I feel the need to quote Puck’s epilogue from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.
For more random insanity, be sure to see other COSÌ members posts popping up during the week, for a bit of fun.
Georgette (Girl in Florence): 5 Strange Wedding Traditions around the world
Rick (Rick’s Rome): Under the Puglian Sun
Andrea (Sex lies and Nutella):
Gina (The Florence Diaries):
Pete (Englishman in Italy): Italian Rituals
Misty (Surviving in Italy): Top 7 Weirdest Rituals in Italy
Maria (Married to Italy)