(More than…) Two Years in Torino

"Le cose belle sono lente." –Pane e Tulipani

Category: hot culture/cold culture

It’s air! It’s moving! (I wish.)

Last winter I wrote about Italians’ attitude towards cold weather. (Short version: They don’t like it.) Given the unusually hot temperatures this summer, I figured this might be a good time to write about Italians’ attitude towards hot weather. (Short version: They don’t like it.)

To be fair, this July has been unusually hot in Europe. That is to say, it’s sort of like the weather in New York City, where we used to live, and cooler than in Georgia, where I grew up. The temperatures range from about 75-93F (24-33C). But the difference is that Italians don’t believe in air conditioning. Air conditioning falls under the same category as many of the Italian fears about winter: It’s air! It’s moving!

I’m sure there are other reasons that Italians don’t have air conditioning. It’s expensive. And in our home, it would trip the switch. Turning on the oven and the hot water at the same time trips our switch.

So instead we have two large fans. And shutters. And a routine with the sun.

It goes something like this: Wake up as early as possible and open all the shutters to let in the not-quite-so-hot air. Get something done. Anything at all. Run to close the shutters on the east-facing side as soon as the sun starts hitting the kitchen (8:30am). Close up everything after lunch and then sit immobile by the fan like a Victorian lady receiving visitors in the parlor, while drinking lots of water and looking for the least energy-consuming means possible to accomplish something. (Though being shut up in a hot room in dim light is a great temptation to grumpiness.) Around 4 p.m. start cautiously opening things up and trying to resume movement without becoming dehydrated. Move the fans back into the bedrooms before sleeping and close the shutters once again, but leave the windows open.

Does it work? Not really. I confess we’re not getting much done at all. I think this is why Italians go to the sea. If you aren’t going to get anything done anyway, you might as well be in some scenic location, so one day I went to Finale Ligure on the train with my friend Stella. But I prefer the mountains. And my car has air conditioning. So whenever I can find willing accomplices and a free day, I try to go.

And even here in Torino, some offices and stores have air-conditioning. It’s not turned up very high, but it’s still a great incentive to leave home.

Unfortunately, in the process of battling the heat, I’ve also discovered that I have raging summer dust allergies. Every morning after sleeping by the fan (positioned carefully to avoid my face) I wake up with red eyes and a stopped up nose. So I spend a lot of that precious daily movement washing everything (and using antihistamine eye drops). I think this new dust aversion is probably part of the Italian justification for their air-current phobia, but I do prefer having allergies to not sleeping at all, so I will continue to use the fans.

There is one great blessing in all this: Since Italians don’t have screens, either, many people get attacked by mosquitos at night. We have been incredibly lucky that the mosquitos have been few. I have no idea why.

And finally, during the last two days, the temperatures have improved, the skies have cleared a bit from their Po Valley haze, and I feel like the end to the heat wave may be in sight. I’m getting some stuff done again. And besides, I’m going to Georgia, where the air conditioning will be on full blast. I’ll be packing a sweater.

Learning Italian


When I started this blog, I had in mind compiling some sort of guide to what it’s like to live in a foreign country. That got wiped out pretty much immediately by the effort it took to live here, and also by the sense that Italy doesn’t work that way.  But I haven’t completely given up on the idea.

After three-and-a-half years, something is emerging from the fog. But that knowledge is less like bullet points and more like a frame of mind.

Lesson one for Americans: Living in Italy is not like going to Florence for the summer. You really do have to assimilate culturally, and your language skills can’t stay at, “Un gelato cioccolato, per favore.” Drat.

Having to learn a new language is a big part of what makes living in another country stressful. Italy adds to that stress by having serious problems with organization, bureaucracy, and a long-standing tradition of nepotism, but language is even bigger. That’s because understanding what people around you are saying is a big part of absorbing the cultural expectations and figuring out how things work. You need to be able to pick up way more than you are explicitly taught. This is especially true of “hot cultures,” which are more context-based.

Another aspect of learning a new language upon immigration is that it absorbs enormous amounts of energy, especially when you start learning in middle age. It especially absorbs social energy, and you’re often not fully aware of it until you realize you’ve been holed up in your apartment for two days Facebook messaging people in English because you really, really need to stop thinking about every word you say. But the only way to get over that hump is to go out and start speaking Italian!

My own particular linguistic bête noire in Italian is using the formal and informal “you.” This is partly cultural: At my age, how many people do I have to use the formal Lei with, and when can I use the familiar tu? There are more situations in Italy where formality is appropriate than you’d think, and you don’t want to mess it up because you might look rude. Sarie tells me that her music colleagues (who are often in their 30s and 40s) will tell her, “Dammi il tu.” But this never happens to me, perhaps because I’m no longer at the age where people are just starting to use Lei with me. The confusion is especially bad with neighbors and friends of friends because I often don’t know where I stand. If possible, I hide behind the ambiguous voi (“you” plural, which doesn’t have a formal and informal) until I hear the Italian use the second person singular, then I follow their lead. But sometimes the other person does the same thing! And since the tu verb forms come more naturally, I’ve also been known to start with Lei only to revert to tu the minute I stop thinking about how I’m saying things!

As you might guess, automaticity is also important, because it cuts down on the energy expenditure and helps to reduce social awkwardness. As long as you’re aware what language you’re speaking, you can’t fully focus on the content of the conversation. To really make friends and get things done, you need to be able to plow through heaps of meaning without having to detour around linguistic roadblocks. You need to move on from being a Latka Gravas, because there are some pretty unpleasant cultural limitations that come with being an immigrant mascot. And if you are particularly verbal in your mother tongue, these limitations can leave you feeling like two different people. Not pleasant.


But there is good news. Once you finally get a handle on the basics, learning another language does start to snowball. You don’t have to be taught every little grammar point. Like a child, or like someone who simply moves to a different English speaking region, you start picking up the inflections, mannerisms, slang, strings of common phrases, and connecting phrases that you need to accelerate into automaticity. Energy is released to pursue other things. Sometimes you don’t even realize how you much progress you’re making until you look back.

Recently Sarie and I went to Dusseldorf, Germany for a few days. German has a good many words that are similar to English and which you can recognize when you see them written on signs, but I really can’t follow the flow of it at all. As we changed planes in Zurich on the way home, Italian crept back into the mix of languages I was hearing, and into the look of the people I was traveling with (Italians dress better!). As I boarded my flight to Milan and the woman in the aisle seat let me into my row, I said, “Grazie!” without really thinking about it. Then I saw that she was reading a German magazine, so I wondered if I had misjudged. It wasn’t until well into the flight that she started talking to her husband across the aisle in Italian. The sense of homecoming, of nostalgia, was palpable.

Funny thing, assimilation.

Winter in Italy


Most people think of Italy as a summery place. So instead, I want to describe winter. The temperatures here in Torino, which is near the Alps, are not so different from those in north Georgia, where I’m from. It’s hot in the summer (90sF/high30sC), and cold in the winter. But it’s not nearly as cold and blustery as New York City, where I lived before moving to Italy. In fact, it rarely gets below 25 (-3 C) here, and it’s almost never windy in winter. And it snows a couple of times a year, but it usually doesn’t last long. So all in all Torino has a pretty tolerable climate.

One part of the Italian stereotype does hold, though: The Torinese don’t like cold weather. But they also complain that it used to snow more often. And this summer they complained that there was no warm season at all. They could barely go to the sea. And they complain about the strange, violent hailstorms we’ve been having in summer. Get the picture? This may all be quite true, but weather makes a good subject for complaint. You can’t do a thing about it. Sort of like politics.

One legitimate reason people here don’t like the cold is that it’s generally drier in summer and damper in winter. Starting sometime in early fall, there will be a day in the 60s, and immediately you’ll see people wrapped up thickly in cotton scarves as though they’re suffering from acute tonsillitis. Men even wear scarves with their business suits–indoors. This is because Italians don’t like drafts. Not from air conditioners, not from the hot wind that sometimes comes down from the mountains (the Föhn), not from getting out of the shower, not from the part of the house away from the wood stove (if one is lucky enough to have one) or from near the thin windows if one pays a fortune for building-wide oil heat (like we do, can you tell?). And they especially hate drafts from damp fog or winter rain. As my Australian friend Zoe sums it up: “It’s air! It’s moving!”

It also rains a lot in the fall–as in heavy, pouring rain, from late October to early December this year. But that wasn’t so cold. The coldest and dampest aspect of winter, at least here in the Po Valley, is nebbia fitta–thick fog. This is why the cars here are equipped with fog lights, fendinebbia, and there are drastically reduced speed limit signs in case of fog (not that anyone here obeys the traffic laws). To ward off this freezing fog phenomenon, the humans are equipped with piumini (long down coats). The temperature may be quite reasonable, in the low 40s, but when the fog sets in so thick at night that the traffic signals send out long rays that intersect with the beams coming out from beneath the portici, even I am glad for a layer of goose feathers. I confess I wear a knit hat now if it gets anywhere near freezing. And a scarf, of course. I am becoming a total weather wimp.

There are other consolations of winter: bagna cauda, chamomile tea and other tisane, pudding-thick hot chocolate, salsiccia (link sausage), and clementines (and clementine peels on radiators!). And in places like Florence, which suffer from tourist-crowding and heat all summer, December with its shimmery-dressed shop windows against the rustic brown buildings, and its long-rayed afternoon light, can be absolutely breathtaking.

Yesterday morning a friend and I took the car out for a trip to the suburbs. As we hit the end of the city proper and made for an open road heading out to the west, the mountains opened up before us, in every direction, all covered in snow. It was so clear you could see every crevice, and the sky was a deep blue. The mountains are as inevitable as anything else about Torino, but I don’t hear anyone complaining about them. In fact, whenever I see them, I feel incredibly lucky to live so near.

Buon anno! Bon any nou! Happy New Year!



DSC_0062 2

After our family’s six-week trip to the US, Sarie and I barely had time to get back on European time before we found ourselves on the way to the Netherlands, along with Alberto, for an early music festival at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam.  We spent nine days there, and while Sarie and Alberto played German Baroque music for violin and oboe, I visited museums.  Then we toured a bit together during the remaining two days.

This was my first major trip to another European country since we moved to Italy (not counting very short day trips to Switzerland and France), so I was pretty curious to see how much things could change within a short distance. Sarie was happy to see Alberto again after six weeks and to finally get some instruction in Baroque music.  All in all, it was a very happy trip.

I’ll probably do two or three posts on the Netherlands, because I went so many places during our time in there. Scroll down for somewhat detailed explanations of the photos below:


Photos above, after the one of me at the top: 1. Sarie, Alberto and Alberto’s oboe teacher at the Early Music festival.  They loved his comical faces and had fun imitating them! 2. A common wooden shutter arrangement in Amsterdam. This type of shutter was almost always painted red or orange. Dutch orange is a very popular color for decorating in the Netherlands.  3. A typical example of the bike culture in Amsterdam.  As Sarie said, “It’s not hard to cross the car part of the street, but you’re taking your life into your hands crossing the bike lanes!”  We also noticed that people there matched their bicycles as people elsewhere match their dogs. 4. A typical canal scene with flowers and houseboats. 5. Serendipty: a floating concert!  6. A shop window: We loved noting all the cozy Dutch details.  7. More bricks and shutters, from the top floor of the Rembrandthuis (hint).

From foreign to familiar


A gathering of young adults from our church, representing in various proportions and length of residency and with some margin for error: Nigeria, Ghana, the US, the UK, Australia, Swedish Finland, Indonesia, Brazil, and both northern and southern Italy.

My pastor’s wife recently lent me a fascinating book about navigating cultural differences, From Foreign to Familiar by Sarah Lanier.  Lanier is a consultant to foreign missionaries who has lived in many different parts of the world. Upon taking the book from the shelf, I immediately flipped it over, scanned the blurb, and exclaimed, “Sarah Lanier.  Well of course she would be from Georgia!  That’s a very Georgian name.” It gave me a funny feeling to immediately sense that familiar context in a foreign country.

As a matter of fact, I had just confirmed myself as a member of what Lanier herself calls a “hot culture.”  Hot cultures tend to have a strong sense of context, maintain a friendlier environment, value relationships over tasks, feel obligated to invite you if they mention an event in public, feel obligated to share food if they eat it in public, talk delicately around problems instead of addressing them directly and accurately, show deference to authority, have a strong sense of what dress and manners are appropriate for a given occasion, have a stronger group identity, and have a more relaxed sense of time.  The Southern US, at least when and where I grew up, was a fairly typical example of a hot culture, with the possible exception of the group identity.  (Southerners tolerate certain types of eccentricity quite readily, as long as the eccentric has good manners.)

I lost a little bit of this strong cultural identity as I grew up and moved on to larger cities within the South during the 70s and 80s.  I learned to tone down my accent and deal with sarcasm, because it was absolutely necessary in order to attend a big, suburban high school along with transplants from Chicago and New Jersey. But I’ve never quite lost these initial Southern habits and preferences, and in fact, often felt a bit flabbergasted in New York City when I’d try to arrange spontaneous get-togethers for other moms and kids. And I never quite got over my need to chat to sales clerks using colorful idioms, even though I knew better.  Even after fifteen years, I always felt a little too warm and sensitive in the context of that highly structured, achievement-oriented culture.  But I learned a different, more direct and efficient way of dealing with people, for sure.

Then we moved to Italy.

Obviously, not everyone in Italy, or even in Piemonte, is the same. Some people are much more formal and have a more developed sense of organization than others.  Some are warmer and kiss-ier than others.  Some are dressier than others, more extroverted than others.  But still, you don’t know where the assumptions lie until you’ve observed for a while.

Remember my initial frustrations with bureaucracy? I’m now convinced that the reason that, for example, it took me five months to enroll Sarie in the conservatory was that I made a couple of initial and egregious mistakes in dealing with Italian bureaucratic culture. And how could I have known better, since I was in (and from) the United States? Italian bureaucracy is a very high context procedure.  You really don’t know what it’s going to take until you’re right in front of the bureaucrat–perhaps for the third time.

Perhaps my principal mistake was trying to obtain a clear-cut enrollment procedure at all, and especially via e-mail.  Even though I didn’t have the option of meeting people in person, I needed it!  For another thing, there is a definite protocol for writing business correspondence in Italy.  By NYC standards, it seems incredibly formal: using the titles dott. and dott.ssa for just about everyone, using “illustrious” in the greeting, adding lots of flowery adjectives, and ending in “Porgo i miei più distinti saluti,” which the literal translation of “I send my most distinguished greetings,” just doesn’t seem to convey properly.  And furthermore, no one does anything until the last minute.  So no wonder I wasn’t getting anywhere!

But of course, I had no way of knowing this, and to this day don’t really know what the proper solution would have been.  The actual procedure not only required a passable knowledge of the Italian language and bureaucratic conventions, but also of Italian commercial procedures, such as filling out a postal check and having the proper identity information (which isn’t even used in the US). And furthermore, the same procedure that finally worked for us may not have worked for the next person. Sarie is still, to my knowledge, the first full-blooded American to have enrolled in the Torino conservatory.

But bureaucracy was only the initial and most aggravating problem.  I realized after some time here that I would require a different sort of wardrobe, a different sense of time and hospitality, and that I was likely offending people regularly by not following the proper greeting procedures when I entered stores. I’m slowly learning how to do these things, but I’m pretty sure I still step on toes.  Now I try to ask: Do I need to bring something to dinner?  Do I need to pay for that gift, or will that offend the giver?  And I understand, for instance, that even the most professional businesspeople will likely not return my e-mail until they have an answer, even if it takes weeks. Or plan any event more than a few days in advance.

I personally find the Piemontese to be about right on the hot/cold culture spectrum. They have a reputation in Italy for being cold and reserved, but aside from a few apathetic bureaucrats, I usually find them to be not unlike myself, at least in their comfort with emotion.  As I’ve learned how to address them, I find that they can be almost conspiratorially friendly. The nicer manners, the sense of proper dress, the family connections, the indirect way of getting information, respect of elders, and the greetings in stores, all remind me of the culture of the Southern US. But a culture as group-oriented as Naples or Sicily might have overwhelmed me completely.  So, I feel like I’ve landed in the right part of Italy.

I may list more of these “foreign to familiar” differences as I run into them. I certainly don’t have a handle on them yet, but I’m starting to get a little more comfortable, at least. And at our international, English-speaking church we have plenty of Africans and Filipinos, and smaller numbers from many other cultures, who provide yet other perspectives and greater variety along the hot and cold culture spectrum.  Interesting!