Thursday, March 12, 2015

Intercultural Intimate Relationships and Life in Italy

   Did I catch your attention with the title?

   Sorry, this post is not about some Italian man I've met and fallen in love with. It's just the title of the reading I had to do for my Intercultural Communication class yesterday, and was the title of the subsequent lecture we received.

   But it really was enlightening, and I hope to share some things with you that I learned in the lecture!

   For yesterday's class, our professor brought in a guest speaker: his wife. Born and raised in Instanbul, this Turkish woman (also a Muslim) left all she knew and all she was familiar with (her family, her home, her language, the patterns and expectations of living in Europe's most populated city) and moved to a small town on the outskirts of Florence, Italy. She married this man, whom she could not even communicate with in his native language (they both spoke English as a secondary language), and moved in with him and began searching for a job and slowly learning Italian.

   Obviously, there are a lot of intercultural communication-related obstacles to overcome. First, living in a new culture. Then, interacting with someone, on a highly intimate level (marriage is rather intimate, after all), and learning how communication and behavior differs between cultures. And the list goes on and on.

   They have been married since 2008, and have a daughter who speaks Turkish, Italian, and is learning English.

   They laughed as they described several instances in which their cultural differences led to misunderstandings and humorous scenarios. For instance, when their relationship was still transnational and required "Skype dates," she would never be the one to say "Okay, it's 2 in the morning so I am going to go to bed." He wondered for months why he was always the one to initiate the "goodbye" routine, and he felt bad each time, thinking she would be perfectly content talking the whole night through. Maybe he wasn't as committed as she was? He finally approached her about it, and she laughed, saying, "Of course I want to go to bed and end the conversation. But it would be rude for me to be the one to end the conversation. You are the one who called me." Apparently, whoever initiated the phone call and pressed the little green button on Skype was responsible for ending the call as well--otherwise, it was rude!

   In another scenario, after they had been married for about a year, my professor went out with some friends for a late night, only to come home at around 1 in the morning to find his wife waiting outside in the garden. He asked her why she was outside, and she said she had forgotten her key in the house and was locked out. Shocked, he demanded how long she had been outside and why he didn't call her. She responded that it had been around 4 hours, and it would have been rude to disturb him.

   She also shared that Italians are much more open and disclose much more than Turks. At an Easter celebration with her husband's family within the first year of their marriage, a family member leaned over to them at the dinner table and inquired about their sex life. She was horrified that this would even be a topic for discussion (the professor admitted that he was taken aback as well, stating that his uncle was simply crazy).

   She then opened up to us about the struggles of being a Turk in Italy. She claimed, "The Italians see a Turk or hear 'Turkish' or 'Muslim' and get this idea of a brutal extremist. I'm not that." She said that she has gradually been accepted into the culture, but will still run into issues with people stereotyping against her for "something that my people did many many years ago."

   Following the lecture, the floor opened for discussion, and I asked her how she dealt with being ousted by the Italians, as us Americans are as well. I asked why the Italians were so against us being in their country. She looked at me with compassion and understanding, and said, "Yes, I know exactly what you are talking about. Let me tell you what it is..."
   She then launched into the biggest rant I have ever heard, and my professor just sat there with this hilarious look of horror on his face as his wife described the Italians' sense of superiority and their relentless belief that everything in Italy is the best. The food is the best, the views are the best, the art is the best, the history is the best, the cars are the best, the clothes are the best, the wine is the best. "You know," she said mid-rant, "I think Italian people travel just so they can say, 'Oh, well, it's not as beautiful as Italy!'" We laughed as she continued on, ranting about how Italians are so convinced they are amazing at everything and that no one knows any better.

   And I have truly observed this. Italians are very proud of their culture. And that's not necessarily a bad thing! They have a lot to be proud of. They have a rich heritage, have amazing food (seriously, it's incredible), and have produced many of the greatest thinkers, artists, architects, musicians, etc. the world has ever seen. But this pride transcends national identity. They are proud of their favorite restaurants, their favorite stores, etc. "Oh, I know the best gelato place." "My mother's tomato sauce is the best." "No one does (fill in the blank with literally anything) better."

   They have convinced themselves that they are superior in every way, and that all the rest of the world can do is sit back and observe in awe. But, when the rest of the world comes to observe, they don't want us here! It is like a grandmother who wants the grandchildren to appreciate her fine china set on display, but you can't touch it, breathe on the glass, or even imagine one day owning that china set!

   Why is this? The professor's wife explained: "Immigration and tourism--but especially immigration--is a very new concept for the Italians. And they have a hard time accepting that. Coming here and being different is not acceptable for them."

   My professor chimed in, stating, "The world is globalizing, and there is exposure to new things and the spread of other ideas, and that scares the Italians. They want to hold on to their culture and their heritage and not let anything in."

   What was their advice? His wife, who has personally faced these struggles to a degree I cannot even begin to comprehend, said, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Try your best to live like them."

   My professor added, "The Italians will not make friends with an American or Turk; they will make friends with you. They don't want you to wear your culture like a stereotypical sleeve, but be respectful of the culture, remain true to yourself, and show them that you are a genuine person interested in their culture and you have something to offer as well."

   On a personal note, I have noticed some changes gradually in my daily life here. The butcher at the market smiles when he sees me, as he recognizes me now and knows that I want 1/2 kilo of sliced chicken breast. He knows that I'm here for a while, and that I'm serious about being here and want to experience the fresh meat and produce that they have to offer.

   Italy is undergoing changes with immigration and tourism. The globalizing world is coming in on Italy, and while they may not know what to do with that now, they are certainly adjusting. It is interesting to witness and experience firsthand, and every time I face a challenge because of where I come from and the fact that I am something new for them, I want to feel proud rather than ashamed. I respect their culture and heritage, and want to immerse myself in it and appreciate it, not destroy or tarnish it.

   And slowly, but surely, they are realizing that.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Vienna, Austria: Living With a Stranger

"So...what's this girl's name again?"

As the train rattled under our seats, I looked across the row to my friend, who was fixing her makeup after the 13 hour train ride.

"Elisabeth. And she is SUCH a sweetheart! You will love her!"

"So you met her..."

"Last week in Barcelona. We hung out for the whole day!"

I couldn't believe that I had hopped on a train and was traveling to Austria--with no itinerary, no plans, and only a backpack full of rolled up clothes and the knowledge that I was going to be living with some person I had never met and my friend barely knew.

"Well, she said if we were ever in Austria to come see her," my friend said, smiling. She wasn't nervous. So should I be?

We met Elisabeth as we got off the train. I had expected to meet a fellow student, who was studying abroad in Austria and had met my friend on a weekend trip to Barcelona. But, no. Elisabeth was an Austrian--born and raised in Salzburg, working in Vienna.

She opened her doors to us, letting us stay in her small Viennese apartment. She had gone grocery shopping and stocked her fridge for us, laid out fresh towels, and gave us her bed (she slept on an air mattress on the floor). I wasn't used to this kindness from strangers--especially in Italy, where it is against the law to have someone stay the night!

We spent the entire weekend in Vienna, touring the palaces, museums, churches, and opera houses. I had traditional boiled beef and potatoes, Viennese cakes, and a "hot pot"--a make-your-own Chinese food concept!

You can read about my trip in detail here, at this article I published for

The Austrians were VERY friendly; much friendlier than the Italians. You could easily see that the Austrians cared more about establishing friendly relationships with tourists, and didn't mind that people wanted to see their beautiful country. They were proud of their heritage, as are the Italians, but didn't boast their superiority.

Elisabeth was very curious about American culture. She would serve us cream cheese, bread, and tea, and while we ate she would ask us question after question, all the while shoveling more food onto our plates. Did we watch "Good Morning, America"? Did we like shows with Charlie Sheen? How did the Americans view immigration? How did America's welfare policy work?

As we answered her questions, we asked her the same. Apparently, Austrians enjoy American shows such as "The Big Bang Theory", "Gilmore Girls", "Grey's Anatomy", and so on. Guns are illegal in Austria. All dogs in public have to be muzzled. They don't dislike immigrants, but are experiencing higher crime rates and are trying to find peaceable ways to address it. The Roman Catholic Church puts a tax on Austrians who identify with the Catholic religion.

She was very interested in our political views. She asked several times about the Republican/Democrat divide, and my friend and I carefully answered her questions, trying not to reveal which end of the spectrum we placed ourselves. We didn't know each others' political views, as we didn't want to risk causing detriment to our friendship. However, one day, on the metro, Elisabeth began talking politics again. She looked at us and said, "So are you two on the same team?" (I loved how she worded things--several times we had to fish out a thesaurus so we could communicate!)

My friend's eyes grew about twice in size. We froze in silence. Finally, we both started laughing.

"What's so funny?" Elisabeth asked.

"I guess, in America, you don't really talk about it unless...there are situations where you would have to..." I said, laughing.

Elisabeth looked confused. "Well, why not?"

"We don't know!" my friend said, still laughing.

We discussed America's views on politics, how media presents biased viewpoints, how stereotypes arise based on what party you affiliate with. Elisabeth was fascinated with our way of life--from our language, to our food, to our politics. And, in living with a stranger (who very quickly became a friend) and being able to tour a foreign city with a local, we learned a great deal about the Austrian way of life, too!