Getting Touchy in Tuscany

When I went to study art history and literature in Florence, Italy, for an academic year, the California State University system sent me and the other students going abroad to a series of lectures about the effects of culture shock. Looking back, I can't remember them saying exactly how this condition would manifest. We were merely told that it was something that we could expect to experience and that being able to label culture shock when it occurred might alleviate its discomfort.

While living in Italy, I found the cultural differences and similarities fascinating to study. With limited language skills, even the simplest daily activities, such as going to the market and buying vegetables, required concentration.

Buying vegetables was a learning experience for reasons other than the language barrier. Italians just do things differently. Nothing can be taken for granted. When one goes to a vegetable or fruit vendor in Italy, one does not, under any circumstances, touch the produce. If you go there and start pinching the tomatoes, you will learn—as did I—that this is unacceptable behavior. I remember standing before a horrified vegetable vendor as he asked me how much I wanted. Then he chose and bagged the tomatoes for me and asked me nervously if I wanted anything else. Back at the University, my Italian professor, Isabella, explained to me that one never touches the food in an Italian market. The vendor will serve the customer.

Okay. Instances such as these are easy to adjust to. Other differences were more subtle and took time to pinpoint. These subtle differences are what I consider the source of the dreaded culture shock that the lecturers had attempted to prepare us for. For example, we Americans are very cautious about such things as body contact with strangers. When walking along a sidewalk, we find it only polite to move completely to opposite sides of the walkway to avoid touching those who walk in opposite directions.

In Italy, sidewalks are very narrow, and Italians believe in body contact. In fact, they will go out of their way to brush shoulders with those who share the pavement. I found myself scaling walls to move far enough aside to avoid touching those walking toward me. To my bewilderment, the Italians did not comply in the appropriate American fashion by moving as far as they could to the opposite side of the walk. Instead, as I stiffened against a wall or tottered on the edge of the sidewalk to avoid falling into the streets, the Italians would lurch toward me in an attempt to ensure physical contact. No matter how hard I tried to move out of the way, the Italians would come at me like heat-seeking missiles. I thought they were simply rude. Yet, when I succeeded in maneuvering away from them, they would look at me as if they had suffered a slight affront.

It wasn't until I had been there for several months that I finally understood that, to the Italians, avoiding body contact was like saying that there was something wrong with them.

I finally understood this principal when I went to a pizza parlor with my American friend, Margaret. She and I had become traveling companions while in Italy. It was the first time either of us had been in Europe, so we spent many hours talking about how strange and beautiful everything was. On this particular day, we stopped at a pizza a taglia (pizza-by-the-slice) place and went upstairs to sit and eat. We discovered the dining room completely empty and chose a table in the corner against the wall. After a few minutes, an Italian couple entered the room and surveyed that it was empty, except for Margaret and me. Margaret smiled and said, "Watch. They will come and sit as close to us as they possibly can."

She was exactly right. Although the entire room was empty except for the two of us, the Italians came over and sat at the table connected to ours. And they sat as close to us as they could.As Margaret and I smiled across our pizza, a picture came into focus for me. I could see the American proclivity for physical distance as an ominous mindset. We Americans are trained to pull as far away from one another as possible, while here I was in a place where moving together was a way of life.

What had been confusing and stressful suddenly became yet another aspect of the Italian culture, which I came to admire.

The students in my group all experienced varying degrees of stress adjusting to being in Italy. Those who had the most difficult time were those who expected Italy to be like America. One of my roommates, Shawn, didn't like shopping for food because she had to pay each vendor as she went, rather than standing in line at a check-out counter and paying for everything at once. But she was also upset because they did not stock Wonder Bread at the bakery. All they had was that freshly baked stuff. For Shawn, life in Italy was rough.

The students who had the easiest time were those who were extremely curious and didn't spend time socializing within the American cocoon. They simply plunged into Florence and were only seen by us in class. These are the ones who became fluent speakers of the language in a relatively short time and were extremely intolerant of sob stories about the absence of Wonder Bread and peanut butter.

I fell somewhere in between. Margaret and I used each other as security blankets and ventured out together. We soon met Italians and spent more and more time off on separate adventures.

Even after we became more comfortable in our Florentine surroundings, Margaret and I enjoyed spending time together talking about our different experiences. We would puzzle over what seemed like the Italians’ strange behaviors and laugh at their idiosyncrasies. I've heard it said that it takes many years to assimilate into a foreign culture, and I believe it to be true. My one year in Italy left me with a continued sense of wonder. Now that I have been back in the States for several years, I still find myself smiling and shaking my head as I did over those many cups of espresso I shared with Margaret while we sat together and laughed at the way this strange land translated through our American psyches.