The Comforts of Foreign Culture

Nowadays, the amount of virtual information we can gather on any particular topic has swollen exponentially. In terms of travel, we no longer have to scour the library for guidebooks and travel literature – we can simply type in “Bangladesh” and scan through thousands of years of art, history and culture.

My preferred web searches always include such topics as historical figures, Italian cities, travel routes and the British singer Morrissey. Which is why in any conversation, at any time, I may reference Isabella Sforza’s contributions during her reign of Ostuni in the 16th century or quote the lyrics, “Let the old dreams die, let the wrong ones go…” when we discuss your breakup.

Today’s web search of “When should you consider yourself fluent in a foreign language?” lead me to an article by Jhumpa Lahiri for the New York Times titled Teach Yourself Italian, Finding a New Voice.

It was not Mrs. Lahairi’s prolonged quest and admirable devotion to master the Italian language that enthralled me and propelled me to continue reading. It was her insights into her move to Rome,

“And there are many other obstacles, small but annoying. We don’t know where to take the recycling, how to buy a subway and bus pass, where the bus stops are. Everything has to be learned from zero. When we ask for help from three Romans, each of the three gives a different answer. I feel unnerved, often crushed. In spite of my great enthusiasm for living in Rome, everything seems impossible, indecipherable, impenetrable.”

I laughed aloud for every conflicting answer to a seemingly straight-forward question I had ever asked an Italian. These are the types of experiences one confronts everywhere when moving abroad – everything is unusual, non-practiced, bizarre and yet, in every ounce of its unexpectedness is why we seek other cultures in the first place. The thrill of learning and adapting into a new society.

Flashbacks to my first year as a resident of the Eternal City surfaced immediately. I was angry and frustrated at everything. I rolled my eyes daily, cried weekly and swore a monthly allegiance to return to America on the next flight. But then, slowly, almost with a timed practicality, before I had any more time to reject the country I had chosen to try and build my life in, the comfort and routine settled in. If you do something long enough, even if it is peculiar and unfamiliar, it becomes your safe place, your cherished environment.

This past Spring when I returned to Italy, I embraced these disturbances. I went with the flow. I waited for buses that never came patiently. I let little old grumpy women cut in line without protest. I stopped trying to fight for the manner in which I was raised, as an American, with different cultural values and ways of being, and took every bewildering moment for what it was worth.

I found myself yearning for those exact things that I swore off in the beginning of my journey all those years ago. I desired the discomfort, the strategy it took to maneuver through Italy with grace and feeling as if I belonged.

This lesson is something I practice and lightly voice when traveling with a new group. Travel isn’t supposed to be 100% comfortable when it comes to embracing “the way they do things” vs “the way we do things”. It’s meant to intellectually challenge. It’s meant to change us. It has to change us. It should take routine things we have done since our childhoods and give us new approaches, new views.

And while at home, in the urban belly of my own culture, I am still not okay with old ladies cutting in line.

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