31 May 2015

LIFE: The Pot Holder Guy

CHIAVARI, 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 as to which country you are going to live in. From the ex-pats I have met in the 25 years I’ve been in Italy, this has been true just about 99 percent of the time.
That's Diane on the Left 
One exception was Diane, one of my Italy “daughters”. We both lived in Genoa Nervi in 1990, both of us new to Italy and trying to figure things out.  She was the first to adopt me as her “home away from home” mom, someone she could talk to and able to help out   when she needed a hand.

Diane, an all American girl, born and bred in Florida, has a big smile, a breezy personality and a backbone made of steel. She ended up in Genoa after her husband was appointed Director of the new aquarium that was being built as part of the Columbus celebration planned for 1992. 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 was working 16 hours a day. But she never gave up. 
Nope, No Dried Parsley Here Either  
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 found hard to resist.

I thought about her the other day when I found a video on You Tube posted by an American 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 most suffering from cultural fatigue. His theory is that most of the time ex-pats are simply worn down by the never-ending challenges of everyday life in another culture. He uses potholders he bought at a local market as an example. 
Kids Are More Resilient  
He says when he bought the potholders, 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 potholders, the fabric melted. He then thought that perhaps he had used the wrong side of the potholder to pick up the pot, and tried it again. This time the potholders didn’t melt, but they did stick to the pot.

Now you may not think this incident in itself is significant. The man bought potholders and they turned out not to be very good, which brings up the question 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 this 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. 
The Pot Holder Guy  

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 relationship to your current culture.  

A while back I 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.
The Game of Life  
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. I may not understand the why behind certain actions or ways of thinking, but I think I have figured out that a whole country isn’t going to change just because I, or some other ex-pat, don’t understand something. 

The potholder guy would be well served to learn how to just accept the fact that there are going to be many things he isn’t going to understand as he travels around the world. It’s not always an easy thing to do, but in the long run it’s better for your health an well being. By the way his name is Andy Lee Graham and he posts rambling videos on YouTube on how to travel the world on $10 a day. His backstreet world may not be your world, but you can check out his posts at the HoboTraveler.com.


  1. Excellent observations. It parallels what I went through when I lived in Paris. The accumulation of what we perceive as absolutely illogical is hard to shake, especially when there are things--detours and obstacles really--that get in you way in every little thing you try to accomplish. Making a phone call, buying something to eat, having 2 cubes of ice dropped into a warm drink, Turkish toilets, tissues for toilet paper, the dreaded riposa... It does drain on a person. Even though I was offered a fantastic job at the largest photo studio in Paris, had the boss' secretary with me at the Prefecture to act as translator, and was promised a very good wage for skills that French photographers were lacking at the time, I still got handed A stamped card giving me 30 days to leave France. And this was after owning a moped, traveling over 3000 miles around France to learn the lifestyle, getting and decorating an apartment in Paris and spending every day on business apointments with studios and magazines looking for work. Even after all this... and coming back to the U.S with $300 in my pocket, I was actually relieved to be "back home", speaking English like a native, eating food I didn't have to figure out what it was, starting all over from scratch with new job, apartment, car, etc. (Kismet... within 6 months I opened my own studio in Manhattan which I ran successfully for the next 28 years...) It was tough to try a new life in France but I never regretted the experience. It's part of me.... and the recent 3 weeks I spent in Italy I found that Italy would be even tougher to try living in. Ex-pats are a tough bunch of survivors, just like pioneers trying to make their way in the outback! --Jerry Finzi

    1. Living abroad is not for everyone. I've been in Italy for 25 years and I don't think of myself as a "survivor" but as "fortunate" for having the privilege to experience living in one of the most fascinating countries in the world.

  2. I agree completely! I had to resign from an expats Facebook group because of the negativity and constant complaining about "what is wrong with Italy." Do like the Italians do: enjoy the wonderful cuisine, wine, culture, people and shrug off petty annoyances like paperwork.

  3. I left an expat Facebook group as well Nancy McCoid, and for the same reasons. The level of complaining had gone beyond ridiculous.