26 August 2012

LIFE: The Pot Holder Guy

SARONNO, Italy – One subject that never fails to intrigue me is why some people find it easier to adjust to living in a new country than others. I have a couple of theories on the subject, starting with this: it’s easier to adjust if you are the person making the decision to live in that country. From the ex-pats I have met in the 22 years I’ve lived in Italy, this has been true just about 98 percent of the time.
 That's Diane on the Left
One exception was Diane, one of my Italy “daughters” that I wrote about back in April 2011. Diane is an all American girl, born and bred in Florida, with a breezy personality and a backbone made of steel. As if facing a new culture wasn’t difficult enough, imagine trying to do it with three babies under three, a large house to manage and a husband who works 16 hours a day. But she never gave up. 

While Diane never learned to speak Italian, it didn’t seem to hold her back. Were there things she didn’t understand? If you ask her she’d say tons of them, but she approached every situation with a positive attitude and a smile that even the grumpiest of the grumpy Genovese could not resist.
Italian Kids Living Their Italian Life
I thought about her the other day when I found a video on You Tube posted by an American who lives in the Dominican Republic. He claims the reason ex-pats give up on living abroad is because of cultural fatigue. While he makes some valid points, for me, he seemed to be the one suffering from cultural fatigue, but you can judge that for yourself. His theory is that some ex-pats are worn down by the never ending challenges of everyday life, and this results in cultural fatigue.  He uses some pot holders he bought at a local market as an example. 

He says when he bought the pot holders, he had an expectation of what he could do with them – i.e. pick up hot pots, but the reality of the situation was that when he picked up a hot pot with the pot holders, the fabric melted. He then thought that perhaps he had used the wrong side of the pot holder to pick up the pot, and tried it again. This time the pot holders didn’t melt,they stuck to the pot.
 Could be Anywhere in Italy
Now you may not think this incident in itself is significant. So he bought pot holders and they turned out not to be good, why doesn't he just throw them away and move on. Except, as he rightly points out, things like this happen a hundred times a day. You approach a familiar situation, in his case buying a couple of pot holders, with the expectation that they are going to do what in your logical mind pot holders are designed to do, help you handle hot pots, and when they don’t, it is frustrating. 

Multiply those frustrating incidents over a period of time and you end up with cultural fatigue and an overwhelming desire to just get back to where ever your normal is.  Simply put, you just get  tired of trying to figure out things that you know you know, but now, in your new environment what you thought you knew turns out not to be right and so you have to figure out what all those things that you thought you knew actually mean in your current culture.  
 Author Elaine Sciolino
I recently read an interesting book entitled La Seduction – How the French Play the Game of Life, written by an American journalist, Elaine Sciolino.  Sciolino lives in Paris and was the Paris Bureau Chief for the New York Times, so she knows a thing or two about living abroad. What struck me the most about her book was how similar the French and Italians are, although neither would ever admit it. Behaviors that I had always thought of as ‘so Italian’ were popping up on every page. And, closer to the point, so was the rationale the French use to justify certain actions and behaviors that she, as an American, still can’t wrap her head around. 

She’s been in Europe longer than I have so I don’t think it’s a matter of time, I think it’s a matter of acceptance, and a matter of choice. You can laugh at the differences, like the time Gary, Chris and I got stuck in an elevator with a real estate agent and instead of calling for help, he called his wife to tell her he was going to be late for lunch. It was the nosy old ladies of the building – every apartment building in Italy is required to have at least one – to fetch the fire department and rescue us from the dangling coffin size elevator. Or you can mentally strangle the twit which doesn’t solve the problem either.   
 La Seduction Could Easily Be La Seduzione
Not only did the real estate agent not apologize to us for being inconveniently stuck in the too close for comfort elevator, he didn’t even offer to drive us back to the real estate office, leaving us to fend for ourselves in a city he knew was not our own. He dashed out the door, visibly upset because it was almost 2 PM, an hour past his lunch time.  

I realized after reading Sciolino’s book that somewhere along the way I have given up getting upset over things I can’t change, especially Italian things. I wish some ex-pats I know would do the same, they wouldn't be quite so miserable. Speaking for myself, I can’t imagine living anywhere else but Italy in spite of incidents like the one with the real estate agent, and after all these years I’m happy to say that I am still madly in love with this Italian life, even if it is frustrating at times.

By the way, the pot holder guy’s name is Andy Lee Graham and here is his cultural fatigue video.

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