Ode to Culture Shock
Today was a sad day.
That doesn’t mean that something bad happened today: quite the contrary. Today was, in every sense of the word, ordinary. Your average Italian Sunday with the Gasparro family. We rose at our leisure and ate breakfast accordingly, took turns in the shower before our weekly chores, maybe packed our bags for school the next day. The exact same things that they’ve done nearly every Sunday for their entire lives. Their habits and rhythms, the patterns that construct their everyday… which, believe it or not, don’t apply to me.
These nuances are culture, and what I’m experiencing right now is culture shock.
I never thought that culture shock would be a real problem. The language barrier I foresaw, as well as the looming threat of homesickness. But as for culture shock, I always figured I would roll with the punches. After all, my definition of culture was limited to visions of cathedrals and Renaissance art, of pizza and pasta, of operatic Italian ballads ringing through the alleyways. I conveniently forgot that culture goes far, far beyond the visible layers.
Culture is what constitutes a life, what constitutes the lives of the many, what is inextricably woven into someone’s reality. It’s your predilections and distastes, your political opinions and religious beliefs. It’s the way you organize your shoes, the way you greet your friends, even the way you eat apples (yes, they peel their apples here, and no, there is nothing more unnerving than a completely skinless apple).
After two months, I’d hoped that these nuances would be a bit more natural for me, that practice would make perfect, that I’d once again be comfortable in my own skin. And, most days, it’s not a problem. I’m wrong 90% of the time—when I put plastic in the compost bin, when I forget to rinse down the shower walls, when I set my glass too close to the table’s edge, etcetera—but I still get the job done.
For some reason, today was not one of those days.
Every simple request felt like another mountain to climb, every stumble a fall, every task a burden. After a morning in bed, I was exhausted by lunch. I became irritable, snappy, greeting each explanation with a sharp “ho capito” and retreating back into my shell. By the end of the day, my host mother asked that I relocate some clothes and I burst into tears.
But, like all tantrums, this one came to pass. After trying to explain to a very confused host mother that she hadn’t done anything wrong, and de-escalating the situation as best I could (most people aren’t habituated to crying foreigners in their living rooms), I was able to see with a bit more clarity. Of course this isn’t easy. It’s not supposed to be. It’s frustrating, and uncomfortable, and awkward for all people involved; nonetheless, at the end of my little breakdown, I was met with individual hugs from every member of the clan.
Perhaps those are international.
(A totally irrelevant picture of my host sister and mother in front of the Spanish Steps in Rome)