There’s Diane Lane’s living in Italy and then there’s living in Italy.
Imagine you’re staying in a Bed and Breakfast somewhere in the hills of Tuscany. Every direction you look you see nothing but perfectly lined vineyards underneath the golden sun. You’re in the middle of a 3 week vacation through Italy. You’ve already seen the Colosseum, you’ve climbed the Duomo, you’ve taken a traghetto through the canals of Venice; the vino, the espresso, that incredible pasta you had overlooking the Duomo with the waiter who spoke great english and laughed with you as you tried to pronounce “grazie.” But, when it’s all over, you head home on your 8 hour flight where the unlimited wine makes you pine to be back in that cozy villa.
Now, hold on to that image.
But instead of hills replace it with a view of really old buildings that are in desperate need of maintenance, literally everywhere you look out your window. The scent of cigarettes and exhaust follow you everywhere you go.
That tuscan sun, it’s actually fog and clouds that blanket the city much of the fall and winter making it feel as though the walls that surround the city have now completely collapsed on you and enveloped everything.
That waiter, well, he actually doesn’t speak any english and grows increasingly irritated with you as you fumble through your food order.
When you visit a place for a short time you almost always find yourself with a romanticized view of those experiences. However, the longer you stay in a place, the more the realities of your new culture begin to set in and push up against your own cultural expectations. The nice shiny parts of that place begin to wear off and disorientation starts to set in. That disorientation is what experts call “culture shock.”
Now imagine you’ve just woken up and began your morning routine. Your kids have already been up for an hour or so but had been playing (read: without fighting) quietly enough to allow you to stay in bed a little longer than usual. You make your coffee, take your shower and sit down for breakfast. Suddenly, much to your early morning surprise, your doorbell buzzes. You open the door to a 65+ year old Italian woman, who, before you can even get a “buon giorno” out of your mouth, immediately unleashes more words and gestures than your B1 Italian class could have ever prepared you for. For the next 5 minutes (which actually feels like 20), an onslaught of Italian words reign down on you with a fury and emotion that could fell a dragon. You understand exactly what she’s saying (thanks in part to her continual repetition of the same two sentences), but you don’t have the words (or hand gestures) to appropriately respond. So, you stand there and press repeat on “capito” and “mi dispiace” until she realizes you don’t speak so well. Finally, she leaves. You take a breath, and go back to the table to finish your breakfast.
Sometimes, living in a place is just plain ridiculous. Sometimes you say the wrong thing at the wrong time. Sometimes you laugh when you should have showed empathy because you misunderstood the situation. Sometimes you hate the fact that you can’t get more than a spoonful of coffee. Sometimes you want something other than pasta for dinner. And sometimes you wish you could tell an old Italian woman how two year olds make a lot of noise and that you’re not purposely disrespecting them.
Transition from just visiting to actually living challenges you, pushes you, tries you in ways that you may never have expected. The challenge is to look at the honeymoon for what it is and hold those differences in tension. The vision of what was (or what you thought was) many times is dismantled and rebuilt 1000x over. And that’s ok, and actually pretty healthy.
We are learning more and more every day that getting adjusted and acclimated to a new culture is a process. A long one.
People way smarter than us name 4 stages of culture shock that one often goes through in the culture shock process.
Honeymoon. Negotiation. Adjustment. Adaptation.
It’s easy to think of these as a linear process, but as we’re learning, the reality is that you move in and out of these stages with great fluidity. As our experiences here in Italy continue to collide with our cultural experiences from the US it’s easy to allow self doubt and feelings of alienation to creep in.
“I wish I could speak better.”
“I know what you’re saying, I just don’t know how to respond.”
“Why don’t they have…..here?!”
“Our neighbors must not like us, they clearly don’t want to to talk to us.”
The better we are able to recognize, name, communicate, and actually understand why these different pieces of culture cause us stress or frustration the better we are able to hold the beauty and frustration in a healthy balance. And the easier it is for us to remember: this is normal. This is part of the process. This too is only a season.
We can celebrate the beauty of Diane’s Tuscan sun and at the same time mourn the reality of a winter spent in fog and car exhaust.
We can remember that incredible prosecco and yet long for a cup of coffee that fills a 16oz mug.
We can show ourselves grace because learning language is hard work and takes time.
We can know that the anger of an old Italian woman probably goes deeper than just being woken up too early – chances are good she probably just wants to be heard.
As missionaries we must learn to simultaneously celebrate and mourn. We know that God uses all of our experiences to shape us and form us, but our ability to be open and aware to how they are shaping us is a continual challenge and invitation.
We must step forward in faith, knowing every season is, in fact, a season.
Celebrate that which is good, mourn the losses.
It too shall pass.