Reverse Culture Shock

I have yet to work up the courage to walk into a big American store of any kind. No Harris Teeter, no Barnes & Noble, and definitely no K-Mart. Keith has, and his shocked expression when he comes home is enough to scare me directly into agoraphobia. He went to Bed, Bath, and Beyond and reports that he was first of all overwhelmed by the constant bludgeoning stimulation of TV's at every end cap and intense smells around every corner. But mostly he was overwhelmed by the choices. We'd been warned about this, of course, but it didn't prepare him for the giant aisle of bath mats. He said his mouth literally sagged open, and his eyes became glazed and dull. Like I said. Directly into agoraphobia.

My feats of daring are simpler. Less impressive. I've walked down our pedestrian mall and enjoyed some burgers until the sensation that the walls were toppling in compelled us to leave. I've gone to a smaller specialty market, which was quite pleasant. And I drove. That was kind of a big deal, my first time behind the wheel in a year. I'm taking it slow, I just went to the Mexican market to stock up on my favorite hot sauce, and the locally owned all-purpose market nearby. That was fine. The woman in the Mexican market spoke to me in Spanish. Those tones are so similar to the lyrical sound of Italian that I felt like weeping (and how funny that in Italy, even if we spoke in not too shabby Italian, we'd often be what Nicolas called "English bombed" where the other person insisted on speaking to us in English; but here, I was spoken to in Spanish).

But I felt that same feeling of moving through water. I thought slow, I moved slow, I spoke slow. The checker at C'ville Market recognized me from my weekly marketing there in the past, and she asked me if Italy was as relaxed and happy as everyone said. I confirmed her impression, and added that where we were, there wasn't a compulsion to be more or do more, so there was much more time to just connect. She said she doesn't have a push to do or be more, but she has to work so hard to make ends meet. I offered that the national health care also helps, as people don't have the pressure of increasing health care costs. And she quickly cut me off, "It's great to have you back!" I guess she didn't want to hear about that. I've been in a country with multiple political parties for so long, I forgot about the bristle that happens when one casually endorses an idea from the "enemy camp". I often think that the horse race mentality in America really explains the division between us. If your party is right, then mine is wrong, and I can't have that, so I'm sticking with my insistence that yours is wrong. It is so black and white. In Italy, there are over 30 political parties. Much more room for nuance. So communists and capitalists can have a conversation without it becoming personal. Just don't get either of them started on Berlusconi.

My friend Mark who works for the foreign service sent me a lovely message with some words of advice gleaned from his many, many experiences coming home after years in another country. He said that in his opinion, it takes more effort to reintegrate into the U.S. than to integrate overseas.  Mostly because when we return, we forget that we actually have to make an effort to acclimate.  Whereas we automatically expect to do so when we move abroad. Which is a great way to explicate something I had realized—when we moved to Spello, it felt unfamiliar and it was unfamiliar. That matches. No problem. Whoo-hoo, adventure, etc. etc. But here, it is familiar but it feels unfamiliar. That's strange and my brain doesn't know what to do with it.  Mark suggested that we put ourselves in the frame of mind of tourists here. And put as much energy and enthusiasm around trying to understand life here as we did with figuring out the Italians we just spent a year with.

It's good advice.

Because there is a lot I'm puzzled about, and maybe instead of startling at how odd things seem, I can put intention towards understanding it. Rather than judging it, which I admit, has been my default. Even though I announced here not that long ago that I wanted to appreciate without judging, I have totally been judging. Not necessarily explicitly, but more like noticing a difference and instantly looking down my nose at that difference. Maybe it would be more useful to dig into that difference, and grapple with the difference, the same way we tried to figure out why the line at the Italian post office was so long at the start of the month.

Here are some examples of things about life here that have stunned me since our return:

  1. There is a lot of water in the toilet. I know that doesn't seem like a revolutionary observation, but the first time I used a bathroom in the States when we returned, I thought it was getting ready to overflow. Why is there so much water in the toilet? The flush seems odd, too. I can't quite get the hang of it, partly because my hand keeps searching for a low versus high flow selection and there isn't one. One flush.  A lot more water.
  2. This is also not revolutionary, nor is it polite, but it is factually true. Americans are huge. I can chalk some of that up to metabolic disfunction in any country—I know people here and in Italy who follow healthy dietary practice and still are large, or who are wildly sedentary and unhealthy and are skinny as rails. But, as a visual, it's stunning. Even though I knew to expect this, it's still stunning. Like I can't believe my eyes, kind of stunning. How can there be this many people whose weight is clearly in the danger zone? How can they allow this to happen? How can we as a society tolerate this kind of rampant unhealthiness? It feels absolutely crazy. My family thinks that it is a combination of high sugar intake (perhaps soda is a culprit, that's certainly what we've heard) and processed foods. Whatever it is, I think we need to take a hard look at our culture and figure out how we are enabling this push towards obesity.
  3. Cars are huge, too. I mean really, really giant. At first, I felt like we were at some monster-car rally. No, that's just the freeway. Also, the way people drive is different. At first I kept thinking cars were hanging out beside us because they were trying to tell us that our taillight was out or something. But no, that's how the flow of traffic works here. People drive in packs.
  4. Also related to cars—people sure love their vehicles here. Not only are the cars enormous, they are shiny and have tinted windows and buffed hubcaps. In Italy, cars were faded and dented and nobody gave a crap. Your car is how you got around, which might be surprising when you envision the homeland of Ferrari. But at least in Spello, cars were functional. I can imagine the Spellani disbelief at the American custom of washing and waxing the car on a Sunday afternoon. In the driveway (Siena noted, too, how strange it is to have houses set back from the road—with yards! They all have yards!). Also, cars function as identity announcers. Personalized license plates, boastful stickers about kids making honor roll, window decals that demonstrate how many people are in a family, and nauseatingly loud bass. I'm thinking pretty hard, but I just can't think of any instance in my year abroad where I noticed an Italian striving to prove an identity. Not through their cars. Not through their homes. Not through their activities. Maybe it's part of that emphasis on being special I wrote about earlier this year. Italians just don't have that. And really, that is so freeing. But there I go being judgmental again. Bad dog.
  5. This may fly in the face of what I just said, but I'm used to being the least fancy person in the room. Now I'm middle of the road. Everyone here is come as you are. I know I should value that, given that here I am with my hair as frizzy as it was when I washed it yesterday and my face bare of any make-up, but it just feels funny. Last year I was surrounded by stunningly beautiful people who had long ago figured out how to make that beauty shine. Sometimes it made me uncomfortable, because I felt chronically dowdy and mousy. But now that I'm here, fitting in with my lack of polish feels strange.
  6. There are so many choices here. The problem with 100 shampoos is that it creates the impression that there is a best we should be searching for. What's the harm with spending five minutes trying to isolate the best shampoo? None, in the moment, but it perpetuates the myth that perfection is not only attainable, but expected. Sure, I've heard Italians debate where to find the best pizza in town or who makes the best lamb scottadito (let me take a minute to sigh and mourn here), but those are conversational fodder, ways to engage with our food system in a way that sparks thought. Rather than a quest for perfection that paralyzes a person in the cereal aisle (a whole aisle for cereal) and underscores a consistent belief that if only this, if only that, we too would be perfect. Which is delusional. And hardly helpful. I only hope I can resist this compulsion, but I fear I will fall like we all do. For Madison Avenue's idea of what my life is supposed to be like. Even if I don't watch TV or interact with advertisements. It sort of seems like life itself is an advertisement for all the things one is supposed to have.
  7. Numbers. I can't read dates, I am getting so confused. But worse is weights and measures. A year of the metric system totally sold me. I was ordering French ham (and wasn't that a blessing) at Feast! and I got completely stumped on how much to order. What's 3 etti? The cheesemonger (oh, yes, that's what I said) helpfully suggested that I could order by number of slices. He also tolerated the slow, breathy talking that seems to be my reentry voice, with a gracious smile. Later, Siena said he was like an Italian. Open and friendly, without seeming like he was working at a carnival.
  8. I peered into my washer, and it felt like I was looking down a well. Hellooooooooooo! And I had a start of excitement when I realized that I didn't have start a load of laundry just to have clothes ready for the next day. In fact, my dress was washed and dried by the time I was finishing breakfast. It was a laundry miracle. And my oven? I could make two Thanksgiving turkeys. Even the tall, rangy Italian kind.
  9. I still don't have a phone, but when I've borrowed a friend's, I find myself walking outside to get reception. Completely forgetting that I am not within medieval stone walls. I can get cell reception anywhere in my house. Wow. In Spello, people keep their cell phone on their window ledges. If someone gets a call while they are in our house, they instinctively move towards the window or terrazza.
  10. Speaking of phones. Why is everyone on their phones, all the time here? What's so important that nobody can spare a moment to sit and contemplate the sky? Even when people are with other people, the phones are out, the fingers are flying across invisible keyboards. I can't imagine there are that many people mid-breakup, or other disastrous event that requires this kind of solid disengagement with actual reality in favor of virtual reality. Judge-y, judge-y. This is harder than I thought.
  11. We still haven't gotten our hands on American money. I saw some the other day and was surprised by how plain it is. All the same size. All the same color. But we haven't needed it because there are ways to pay besides cash. Feels so strange to hand over a piece of plastic and pretend it's money. Even stranger when the shopkeeper plays along and also pretends that card is money. And it made me remember—checks.
  12. Everyone speaks English here. I know that shouldn't be strange. It's strange anyway.

So perhaps it's understandable that we wince when we step into the outside world. That I limit my outings to one a day to avoid mental exhaustion. Even aside from the grieving of the Spellani daily rhythm, the world here is so different it's hard to process all at once. So my goal is to continue to take it slow. And try to appreciate and observe and understand without judging what is around me.

Except the coffee.

I'm definitely still judging the coffee.