Big and Small
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.
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 . . .
• 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.
• 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.
• 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.
• 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 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 . . .
• 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.
• 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.
• 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.
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.