On Culture, Church and Conditioner – The Truth Behind Culture Shock

I started going to Mass again since I moved to Italy. It’s a surreal experience for a semi-religious American. We go most often to the Duomo of Monza, which is an even grander experience than your typical chiesa, though all the churches are ornate, detailed and rich in atmosphere. You won’t find sunny churches with sparse decoration here, no sir, here it is dark, ancient, symbolic.

The Duomo is shaped like most Italian churches, in the form of a cross. The head of the cross is where the priests (yes, plural) say the mass. Ornate tabernacles and an altar with 6-foot-tall candles occupy most of the space. The 12 alter boys and deacons and priests of various sorts take up the rest.

Today was a tiring day for me. I stumbled over even the simplest of sentences in Italian and couldn’t seem to marry my previous daily habits with those I have, or have to have, here in Italy. The priest at this mass is screaming into the microphone – it’s the first week of Lent here, and we need to come back to our religious roots, or something of the sort.

It’s the first time I’ve ever seen an Italian priest so animated and it makes me think of my sister’s email describing her father-in-laws recent baptism. Seemingly out of nowhere to us, him and his wife were called in to the church, and, taking the next step, he was baptized at The Vineyard. She sent a video of him on stage, arms crossed, clearly emotional. People were cheering and singing and when they dunked his entire body in water my sister’s breath heard through the video only gave away the slightest element of laughter. We’ll call it surprise.

Going to church is different for me, not new but renewed. Doing business in Italian is different for me also, trying to use il formale when I address strangers and acting like I know how to teach English. Living with a boy is new to me and being so dependent on another is new to me. During our first major grocery trip Marco and I briefly split up, he to get affettati for his lunch sandwiches and me to choose my shampoo and conditioner. Easy. He found me in the aisle 15 minutes later, scanning row after row of cleaning products through tear-lined eyes and trying not to panic. Conditioner doesn’t seem to be as popular here and finding a brand that had both shampoo and conditioner was proving difficult.

I never agreed to give up luxurious hair when I agreed to move to Italy.

Mass at the Duomo is different from mass in Sovico, the city, one town over from Monza, where Marco is from. For one, the old women in the Duomo wear fur coats. Fur coats of every color, nearly always cinched at the waist and varying lengths only by centimeters; this one to the knee, that one below the knee. They wear heels and briefly glance at the others with fur coats as they pass by for communion. Out of the city the women only dare to rock their fur on the collars, lining each practical parka hood with a strip of fur varying in poof and color. I notice the hats here are a bit more of a statement though. The priest is still talking about Lent – it’s a period of meditation and recommitment before the renewal of Easter.

Easter – once my favorite holiday – is just one week away and I won’t be home. I’ve done this before, missing Thanksgiving – my real favorite holiday – when I studied abroad in Florence two years ago. I think about our annual Easter egg hunt. My mom stuffs the eggs with money instead of candy and all the cousins fight to the death for the highest bidding egg. It’s not exactly to the death, but my cousin did make my sister bleed once… Though maybe this isn’t what you’re supposed to be thinking about during Mass.

It seems you can be present without really being present. We do it when our mind wanders in class, in a meeting, during church. But you can also be present without being present in your everyday life, in your current location whether it’s physical or temporal. I’ll be more present when work slows down. I’ll be more present when I’m retired. I’ll be more present after I’m gone. I have barely heard a word of the sermon and don’t want my time in Italy to pass without discovering how to live here 100% in the present moment. I need to get over this ‘shock’ of a new life.

There are four stages of culture shock: honeymoon phase, frustration, adjustment and acceptance. Every new place or new action is exciting, until you begin to trip up on the differences and miss the familiar. Why don’t they have screens on the windows? Why can’t I find a breakfast place that serves eggs? Why are the cups so. little.?! More often than not it’s the little things that get ya.

This past week I’ve especially been fighting Italy. Fighting the culture, the language – struggling in particular with my lack of autonomy while I continue to figure my way around. I cried when I couldn’t find boots to replace my current, destroyed boots to get me through this last push of winter. I cried when plans changed and we spent over six hours with friends I didn’t much care for (though not in front of them thank goodness!). I cried talking to my mom about how I miss the power to just get in my car and take care of things myself.

I (re)realized what I need to do to get over this feeling in a Laundromat. I went to dry my jeans – with few personal dryers in Italy my jeans were a shapeless mess and I was desperate to tighten them back up, do something ‘normal’, something American. While I waited for my clothes I started a new book by Tiziano Terzani, a famous Italian journalist who spent decades living and reporting in Asia during the Vietnam War, Khmer Rouge Era and Chinese Cultural Revolution. His life goal was to try to fully understand each new place, trying to learn and live the real culture – not his own culture superimposed on the location. In the end he fell in love with each new place, told its story more accurately and lived his live presently.

I think the fight between my born and bred culture and my current, new culture will still arise at times. Terzani was forced to live in a neighborhood for foreigners during his time in China. I, on the other hand, have the freedom to choose how I live here and, more importantly, choose how I react. The real success is to work on letting the fight go, fully enjoying the true Italia – not America superimposed on Italia, fading my frustration with a wider acceptance and less attachment to my previous, American, habits.

I know Easter will be different this year, but I promise I won’t cry about it.

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4 Responses to On Culture, Church and Conditioner – The Truth Behind Culture Shock

  1. Pingback: What I’ve Learned From a Year (and a half!) Abroad | From Italy, With Love

  2. Pingback: Year in Review – 2014 Top Posts | From Italy, With Love

  3. Pingback: Round Peg, Square Hole – On Fitting in Abroad | From Italy, With Love

  4. Pingback: What I've Learned From a Year (and a half!) Abroad - From Italy, With Love

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