This week Italy celebrated the holiday Ferragosto. It is one of the oldest holidays in Italy celebrating the harvest and a long strenuous season of agricultural work (the date has since been adopted by the Catholic and Orthodox church and August 15th is today celebrated around the world as the Feast of the Assumption of Mary). With Ferragosto comes a complete slowdown and in many cases shutdown of cities throughout Italy. Perugia is no exception. In the windows of most shops and places around town you can find a little sign that reads, “closed for ferie.” Many of these places are closed for weeks. Not days. Weeks.
A few days ago we were planning an afternoon walk with our boys to the city center to get a little gelato and try to “escape” the heat of our home. As is customary for new missionaries on the ground, we’ve been systematically trying different gelato shops around the city – you know; to “learn the culture.”
This particular afternoon we set out to return to a shop we had tried before and really enjoyed. The boys were ready! As soon as the word gelato leaves our mouths, the boys shoes are on and they’re waiting at the door. As we approached centro, we quickly came up to our gelato shop of choice only to find that notorious sign hanging in the window, “closed for ferie.” Immediately we were to forced to come up with a plan B. Gelato was promised, we had to figure something out!
Now there was a time when we first arrived here in Italy, just a few short months ago, where any one of us would have been frustrated, disappointed, or angry by said closing. But this wasn’t our first experience of “surprise we’re closed for_____.” In fact this wasn’t our second, third or even fourth time.
There is an ongoing joke in our home that every time we get ready to leave our house to go do something, one of us will undoubtedly say, “well, we’ll see if it’s even open today.” Even our boys have learned to temper their expectations of what might occur when they’re close to getting what they want. Instead of getting mad that they weren’t getting gelato at their favorite place, Emerson, our oldest, simply shrugged it off and said, “well let’s find another shop.”
Life here in Italy RARELY goes the way you think it will. The thing about living in a different culture is that if you’re not careful, your expectations can sometimes be miles away from reality. And when expectations and reality don’t line up, stress builds. It’s easy to think that when things go the way you want them to, life is good. When things don’t happen as you’d like, life suddenly becomes negative and disappointing; stress builds. When stress builds (and is not dealt with appropriately) it can significantly diminish your ability to succeed and thrive. The closer our expectations are to reality, the better we are able to adjust to our cross cultural context here in Italy.
We laugh now when we say out loud, “well, we’ll see if it’s even open today.” But what that little statement allows us to do is to be aware of our own expectations (that things should be open when we want them to be) and connect them with the reality (that in Italy, you literally never know if something will be open or not). By doing this, we are able to close the gap between expectations and reality and in turn lessen the stress we feel when something doesn’t go as we think it should.
Handling expectations is key to life overseas. It’s important to be aware of the expectations that we bring to each situation we face and ask ourselves, “are these realistic?” If we don’t even know the expectations we hold, it’s near impossible to fully understand the myriad of reasons and places stress builds up when those unknown expectations are not met.
It’s also helpful to remember that part of serving, of ministering, of living life in a different culture is that we must be willing to die to our expectations (lay down our lives). If we hold our expectations with clenched fists we’ll almost always be disappointed and, in many ways, miss out on gifts God desires to give us through our faithful laying down of our selves.
When we are able to name our expectations well, and understand them in light of the reality we find ourselves in, we are able to better avoid the rollercoaster of “things go well, life is good, things go bad, life is bad” thinking. Instead, we can move towards better learning and understanding of our new culture and adjusting our expectations towards the reality of our new culture, which allows us to thrive…and find another gelato shop.