It's amazing to me how much of anyone's comfort level has to do with knowing language and culture. This is something that had never occurred to me before I moved here. If you've known me for a while you probably know that in my lifetime I've moved a lot...I mean, A LOT!! My dad's job included relocating every few years so I spent my childhood moving from town to town and sometimes house to house within the same town. Then I got married and spent the first 12 years of my marriage moving. Before we settled in Fort Worth the longest I had ever lived anywhere in my life was 6 years. I've been both relieved and blessed to be able to live in Fort Worth, in the same house, for 13 years. More than anything I wanted to give my kids something I never had...a hometown. And (as anyone who has moved can attest to) each move came with stress. For me it was starting new schools, meeting new people and becoming familiar with all the new things around me. But in all that time two things never really changed. The language and the culture around me. I could still walk into any school, store, church or office in my new town and speak, knowing I was going to understand and be understood. I was completely familiar with the process of going pretty much anyplace and getting what I needed.
Fast forward a few years and here I am in Italy. Never before have I felt stress and anxiety in a move like I have this one. I have written in my previous blogs about some of this and it's not like it's a totally new thought but every now and then something will hit me like a ton of bricks. It happened a few weeks ago. Mark and I are taking language lessons on Saturday mornings and like everything else in my life, sometimes they go well and sometimes they make me want to run screaming back to the U.S. I wish I could make my brain be "on" all the time but I have times that I just can't think or recall anything very well. But this particular Saturday I was not only able to recall needed information, I was taking in the new stuff like a sponge soaks up water. The few days that followed were wonderful because I was able to communicate (still limited of course) with people I came in contact with. For the first time since we came here I didn't feel extreme stress just stepping out my front door! That's when it came to me: being familiar with language and culture, especially together, has so much to do with comfort levels.
Let me give you an example using a trip to the grocery store. The shopping carts are locked and attached to the other carts. To get one you need a Euro coin to put into the small lock box in the handle of the cart to unlock it. When you are done with the cart you insert the lock chain back into the lockbox and get your Euro back. I might have figured this out without someone explaining it to me but it wouldn't have been a speedy process. You also need your own shopping bags or you can buy them at the check-out.
In the produce section, you have to put on plastic gloves, bag your items and weigh them to get a price sticker. If you don't know this you can get yelled at in Italian. Of course you have no clue what that person is saying. If you get a nice person they won't yell but you are still clueless. I was blessed to have someone take me to the supermarket for the first time and explain it to me, however the first time I went on my own I forgot about weighing and pricing the item. Fortunately the checker was very nice but it took me forever to figure out what she was saying.
If you want to buy something at the deli counter you first have to know what you are buying. A lot of the meats look the same and if you don't know the differences you can end up with something you don't want. Knowing the language here can come in very handy. Knowing how to ask is important also. Italians don't respond well to anything they perceive as a demand. Plus, you can't ask for anything in ounces or pounds. It's grams here but of course you also need to know the Italian for gram. It's also helpful to know that deli items are sold by the etto which is about 100 grams. So you can ask for un etto, due etti (200 grams) or un etto e mezzo (150 grams). But figuring out what to say is only half the battle. Understanding the responses can also cause the deer in the headlights look...These things also apply to figuring out parking meters, asking directions or just being able to order coffee.
Do you get what I'm saying here? It's no wonder I had never really thought about these things before. I was born into the American culture and English is my first language. Yes, you have differing cultures within America but if you speak English it doesn't take long to figure something out. Never once while living in the U.S. did I ever have to look up and then practice what I wanted to say so I could go to the store ask for cheese.
I've come to realize that knowing the language and understanding the culture is the key to having peace of mind for this type of thing. I wish I could tell you that I've conquered this completely but I can't. I still feel anxious when I'm going someplace and I still get back into the car and breathe a sigh of relief when I'm done. But I'm getting there. My comfort level and my confidence are growing be it ever so slightly. We've been here for almost 6 months and I can definitely tell things are better than they were in the beginning. I'm hoping by the time our 1 year anniversary comes around the correct words and phrases will just roll off my tongue without much thought. Honestly, if I'm never fluent in Italian that'll be okay. I'll just settle for not wanting to crawl into a hole and then pull it in after me!
On that note, I guess I should go "studio il mio Italiano".