Scarves when it’s 90?

“Oh the food though…”

When Americans think about Italy they often have a very specific (and more often-than-not, romantic) view of what Italy is like. Many we have met have been to Italy on a vacation or two and had the time of their life. To be honest, Italy is beautiful, it’s charming, romantic, enchanting, and just about every other adjective you could imagine to use. Italy is a country with a rich and complex culture; but as we are learning everyday, there is a vast difference between traveling to Italy for the “vacation of a lifetime” and actually living here.

A while back, the author John Maxwell remarked, “All the best leaders in the new millennium will be missionaries.” Even for us, that seems like a pretty bold statement.

Why do you think he said that?

In a flat, globalized world it seems as though we are always crossing cultures–or at least we should be–and we need to know how to do that well if we hope to be fruitful. As our family prepared to move here and, as we live here now our prayer has been, “Lord, help us learn and understand Italian culture.” We recognized early on that our ability to connect the Gospel of Christ to Italian lives is intricately connected to understanding culture.

The author Annie Dillard once asked, “Why do people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute?” It’s easy to take a hurried and shallow look at God and miss the amazing. It’s just as easy to take a hurried and shallow look at culture and miss it’s depths. Each day, we try not to “do culture” like people “do God.” Rather, we try to allow God to open our eyes and our minds to see what “tourists” might miss.

Culture is a funny thing however. It’s a bit complex and can be difficult to get our arms around it.  But it’s worth studying because along the way we grow to better understand places, people, God and ourselves. One way of describing culture can be to identify patterns. Every culture be that a national culture or a sub-culture such as a particular business group or social group have engrained patterns that inform who they are…it’s our jobs as missionaries to learn and grow to understand the culture(s) we find ourselves in. 

As we approach our 4th full month of learning how to live here in Italy, we’ve been reflecting on a few of the differences in culture that we’ve experienced. Each day we gain cultural insights; and more often than not the assumptions that we brought over with us are not the whole picture. Here are just a few cultural differences we’ve experienced.

  1. Efficiency. “When in Italy – doubt” should be Italy’s catchphrase. When you move to Italy you have to unlearn everything you’ve ever known about things happening in a common-sense sequential manner and you have to learn the new system of nobody knows how things work, when, or why. It’s fascinating. Very little seems to be intuitive and you can’t easily figure stuff out without asking people. In order to thrive you really must hold EVERYTHING with open hands. Just because you can pay that bill at the Post Office doesn’t mean the next bill that you receive can be paid there.
  2. Space. The US is enormous so it’s no surprise that Americans are accustomed to space. Big cars, big houses, big yards, and about two feet of space between themselves and other people all the time. Italy is not gigantic and in most cities here the people live packed into a small apartment. They don’t require the same personal space. One of the first things that we noticed when we first arrived is that strangers touched me (and our kids) all the time and nobody says, “sorry” or “excuse me.” At first it seemed rude, but then we realized later that it’s because there is simply nothing to be sorry for. Sometimes you run into other people….and that’s that. We won’t even get into driving here…suffice it say…there’s no space…either go or get out of the way.
  3. Levels of neurosis. Italian culture is pretty calm compared to American culture (in SOME things). Things that would send a typical American into cardiac arrest usually won’t get more than a shrug from an Italian. For example, bad dinner service. If an American has to wait more than ten minutes to order he’s going to burn down the restaurant. In Italy? Calm down! The waiter will get here eventually (after twenty five minutes). Cutting in line…well, it’s just your fault for not protecting your space. It’s the same with chaotic driving (couldn’t resist) or an array of other things that seem like the end of the world to Americans. Italy seems to understands the concept of taking things in stride and choosing what you get up in arms over. Now…if a child hurts themselves…look out, you’ll have every parent in the room tripping over themselves to make sure that the child is ok.

To really understand culture, and to interact with it in a way that can bring profound change, but as we are learning, it’s not enough to simply observe the differences in culture. We must go deeper by asking ourselves, “Why do people behave that way?”  That question looks for meaning it looks for values that are held by a people group. Below the surface, below observing differences, are the things that influence behavior, and if we desire to see change and transformation that will be significant and durable for any of us, the change must take place below the surface – at a heart level. 

We recognize we have a ways to go before we enter into heart level spaces and conversations – but we continue to be students of culture. We are grateful for the cultural guides God has put before us who can translate culture and give us insight into the “why.”

But to be real honest some things may just continue to ever be veiled in deep mystery – like, how is it 90 degrees outside and you’re still wearing a scarf…and jacket?!?!