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Big and Small

Cappuccio is enjoyed in Italy in the morning and only in the morning.

Cappuccio is enjoyed in Italy in the morning and only in the morning.

Friends and family ask us all the time “ . . . what are the biggest differences between living in Italy and the U.S.?” It’s hard to say. There are the obvious things that are attributable to expatriate life—the language, the lack of a wide web of friends and acquaintances built over a lifetime and the sometimes-puzzling infrastructure comes to mind. But it’s often the subtle, smaller moments that sneak up and let us know that we’re not in Kansas anymore. And that’s a good thing.

Brian is learning to graft cherry trees with Pinuccio.

Brian is learning to graft cherry trees with Pinuccio.

We’ve been coming to Martina Franca for 18 years now, so it isn’t as though we landed without any context. But a summer sojourn is very different from an entire year, experiencing the change of seasons and the passage of time. We’re steadily building a new infrastructure, one that is rich with friends, colleagues, acquaintances who can count on our presence beyond a month or two here and there. And as we build, our knowledge grows. Everyday we’re better equipped to answer the question about differences between our old lives and the new one in Italy.

What are the biggest changes? In no particular order . . .

Sunday lunch in Puglia is incomplete without braciole e ragu'.

Sunday lunch in Puglia is incomplete without braciole e ragu’.

The rhythm of the day is completely different here and it’s mostly based on the change of seasons and the weather they bring. In the winter, we’ve barely finished the midday meal when the sun starts sinking in the sky. In December, it’s dark by 5:00 p.m. In the summer, no one emerges after lunch from the cool of their stone houses until 5:00 p.m., much later if they can possibly arrange it. Summer dinners start at 9:30 or 10:00 p.m.

Members of the extended Sisto family collaborate to operate the family olive mill.

Members of the extended Sisto family collaborate to operate the family olive mill.

Work and family life is almost completely intertwined; there is little compartmentalization. Since 93 percent of all Italian companies are family owned, there is seamless integration between these worlds. Children are involved, at least peripherally, in the family business and are more present in their parents’ lives as a result.

Everyone is an expert on his or her own region’s cuisine. From great-grandparents to teenagers, there is a common body of knowledge about what one eats when, how traditional dishes are prepared and when they are in season.

Puglia's famous fava bean puree with bitter greens and sauteed peppers.

Puglia’s famous fava bean puree with bitter greens and sauteed peppers.

• The corollary to the above item is that there is no such thing as Italian food. It’s all regional, with regional specialties and ingredients that are beloved in one city and unknown in another.

Some systems work really well. Others don’t work at all. For example, all of our infrastructure bills are paid by electronic debit to our Italian bank account; our electric usage is read remotely and our charges are calculated accordingly. Courier service (UPS, etc.) is generally pretty reliable, although the drivers have a hard time navigating the centro storico (historic center of town) where we live and often call to negotiate an alternative delivery location like the nearest bar. The Italian postal system is every bit as bad as you have heard. Maybe worse.

Family and family identity is of paramount importance to Italians.

Family and family identity is of paramount importance to Italians.

Life revolves almost exclusively around the family, which has a broader definition than nuclear families in most of the U.S. I have never met so many cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents, all of whom live locally, usually next door. There is general incredulity that we have left our family in California and Oregon to live here. Don’t we miss our now-adult children? Yes, terribly.

• There are very few obviously homeless or deeply disturbed people wandering around the cities, and none in the smaller towns, at least in our region. While there are occasional vagrants who are almost exclusively from somewhere other than Italy, it is rare to see groups of homeless people here. The social safety net is embodied by the extended family here, no matter how burdensome the responsibility.

The kindness of Pugiese friends new and old never ceases to amaze us.

The kindness of Pugliese friends new and old never ceases to amaze us.

• The kindness and generosity of most every Pugliese resident we meet is both overwhelming and unanticipated. The impact it has on our daily lives cannot be overstated.

What are the small differences that sneak up on us? Just a few . . .

The obligatory after-lunch dessert supplied by the guests.

The obligatory after-lunch dessert supplied by the guests.

Every business dealing is preceded by a “getting to know you” chat. Every single one. Even my recent emergency call to ENEL, the electricity company, about our mysterious power outage. Bypass this step at your peril. After a full and complete discussion of the level of English instruction in the Italian public schools and an assessment of the ENEL operators’ children’s progress in the language, two technicians arrived at our door five minutes later and fixed the problem in ten.

• There is a protocol for gift giving of all kinds here and everyone knows what it is but us. We’re groping along and mostly getting it right, but worry about missteps dogs our efforts. From hostess gifts to saint’s day remembrances, it’s easy to miss the nuances.

Almond cookies and pastries are always welcome at the end of a Pugliese meal.

Almond cookies and pastries are always welcome at the end of a Pugliese meal.

• We’ve found a complex set of rules involving eating and drinking that are apparently designed to avoid problemi del transito o del fegato (digestion or liver problems). No cappuccino or breakfast pastries after 10:00 a.m. If you miss this deadline, be prepared for the fisheye from your local bar staff. No cappuccino after meals for any reason. Ever. Beer is the appropriate accompaniment to pizza, not wine. Fruit precedes sweets after meals and fruit must be peeled with a knife, then quartered. Chicory is served with pureed fava beans and never with pasta; cime di rapa are served with orecchiette, never another pasta shape. Ragu’ (tomato-based sauce in which various cuts of meat have simmered all morning) is obligatory at Sunday lunch (these three are Pugliese-specific rules). I could go on, but you get the idea . . .

Paying with the exact sum of cash required by each purchase is especially appreciated, if not expected. Rounding to the nearest even number is common. Don’t have the exact change or you’re a little short? Pay the next time you’re in.

Every Italian outing begins with the group gathering in one place, then traveling together to the destination.

Every Italian outing begins with the group gathering in one place, then traveling together to the destination.

Fending for oneself in terms of directions is almost unheard of. If you’re invited to someone’s home or have plans to meet them somewhere, be prepared for an escort. From your front door to the destination. When groups of people are going to one fixed destination, they’ll meet somewhere neutral and rearrange their passengers to travel together, one car right after another.

Working with new friends, we're learning more about this culture every day.

Working with new friends, we’re learning more about this culture every day.

You may have the flavor, if not all the specifics, of the big and small differences that are shaping our lives in southern Italy. What is more difficult to convey is the sense of possibility these changes have brought us. We’re stretched to learn new things, interpret sometimes-cryptic communication and navigate a complicated labyrinth of cultural understanding. We are not always prepared, but we are seldom disappointed. Would we do it again? Without hesitation and probably sooner.

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6 Comments Post a comment
  1. James E. Faris #

    Very interesting, as always. It gives us pause to think in terms of our culture and what it requires. It seems we have fewer customs and traditions for better or worse. Interesting that you do not have a homeless problem as we do here, increasingly. Also we can imagine there is no violence in the schools. Do children have iphones and use them for texting as they do here? Your days sound full and rewarding and we appreciate your blog.
    Love to you two.
    J & P

    March 22, 2013
    • Just when we think we’ve got a handle on all the cultural nuances, we dig a little deeper and learning something new. It has been a fascinating process. As for cell phones in schools, I need to ask some teenage children of our friends about classroom policy. Violence in schools is really not an issue here except to comment on just how bad things are in the U.S. I am planning an upcoming post on things we miss though, so stay tuned.

      March 23, 2013
  2. Lovely post. Much of it familiar and brings back wonderful memories of times in Calabria and Sardegna. Un abracio! Also makes me wish my mother and brother lived even closer.

    March 22, 2013
    • Cultural nuance is a subject of endless fascination for me. Glad it resonated for you, too! Un abbraccio anche a te!

      March 23, 2013
  3. Thank you for the posting Catherine. Sounds like an terrific life all in all. Those traditions feel shaped by generations of lives. Sounds like you are well appreciated there. I suspect you are also finding room for improvisation.
    Im taking notes for the next journey to Puglia – always a pressing desire. Ciao Bella!
    Miriam

    March 23, 2013
    • You are overdue for another Pugliese sojourn! Come visit–we would so love to see you both! Thanks for reading, too.

      March 23, 2013

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