Expat Advice: Culture Shock in
Aug 22, 2018
An expat talks about living in Perugia, Italy where locals aren't glued to their cell phones and family values are important. He also talks about the challenges of learning the language, obtaining a drivers license and more.
What is the name of the city or town that you are reporting on?
Did you receive any cross-cultural training for your move abroad? If yes, was it before or after the move?
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If they speak another language in your new country, do you speak the language? If yes, did you learn the language before you moved or while abroad? If no, are you planning to learn the language?
No, I speak very little Italian. I rely on my wife who is nearly completely fluent. I also use Google Translate and know a few words.
Were you worried or concerned about culture shock before you moved abroad?
Not really. We lived in Uruguay prior to Italy, and many things are similar in the two cultures, such as stores shutting down in the afternoon and close family ties.
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How significant was the culture shock you experienced when you moved abroad?
The first time, in Uruguay, it was significant especially regarding housing standards and business deals. In Italy, the "shock" is not as great but there is a constant learning curve in terms of getting things done. Buying a registering a car for example. Banking. Buying a house. Taxes. All of these normal daily routines are literally foreign.
Expats often talk about going through the "stages of culture shock." Examples include the honeymoon phase, the irritation-to-anger stage, the rejection of the culture stage, and the cultural adjustment phase. Do you feel like you went through these or any other stages as you settled into the new culture?
There is a honeymoon phase. In Italy, the beauty and charm is ubiquitous. It is captivating. Then, there can be (and this happened to me) some jarring encounters with people who seek to take advantage and exploit. After this, the sheer magnitude of what it would take to integrate and become familiar with this culture takes shape. Then, finally, it all loops back to "purpose and meaning." What exactly am I doing here, and in life in general? What am I contributing? What gives me meaning? These larger questions always come to the fore after a while. Meaning and fulfillment cannot come from a beautiful view and leisure. Connections with others are important, and difficult in a new land.
What, if any, were some of the changes you noticed in yourself that might have been caused by culture shock? These might include things such as anger, depression, anxiety, increased eating or drinking, frustration, homesickness, etc.
The changes accentuated the need for me to take care of myself. This includes exercise and good nutrition. But also daily meditation, connecting with people from the States regularly via Skype, and working actively to reduce the inner noise and expectations that can lead to depression. Basically, the "reset" has been healthy. You cannot stay still. You will regress or evolve. And landing in a new culture can be a healthy disruption that provides an ideal opportunity for renewal.
What are some things you appreciate most about the new culture?
People in general, just walking around town, are not glued to their cell phones. People relate with one another. I often encounter Americans and sense a defensive posture, an guardedness. Italians are very welcoming and effusive. The social fabric are stronger. They have "family values" here. I also like not understanding the language well, It gives my brain a rest. If English is spoken all around me, I can't help but tune in and make judgments and get caught up in other's drama. Here, languages flow around me without my mind giving it meaning. I feel more free here, and less bombarded with media frenzy.
What are the most challenging aspects of the new culture?
The language. This is THE biggest barrier. Conducting business and getting things done is very confusing. Obtaining a valid Italian driving license is a huge, monumental task that may be beyond my grasp. And, things are legitimately confusing because each region can do things a bit differently. It's hard to find out procedures and how to deal with things because you end up with different answers.
Did you "commit" any embarrassing or humorous cultural blunders? If you did and you'd like to share them, please do tell!
I'm sure I have, but ignorance is bliss. A time or two I haven't know if I was in the men's or women's bathroom because there isn't a standard way of designating them.
Do you have any advice or thoughts about culture shock you would like to share?
There's an inner journey and an outer journey. Living in a foreign country means that the "operating system" in your brain that worked in the States is now wildly unhelpful. So survival requires opening up to the vast universe of the unknown. This leads to change, to transformation, and learning to be comfortable in the midst of ambiguity. It's healthy, but it can feel unsettling.
On the Italy Expat Forum
Why France or Why Italy
Those of you who have been following my posts know that, unlike most of you, my intention has not been to look for a place to settle down. My wife and I, since retirement, have wanted to explore the places that we just touched upon when we were younger and on limited vacations. We went to places and visited the tourist sites and did the tourist things but I was always more interested in what the people that lived there did. We are doing an extended sampling of life in those places.
Since 2015, when we first packed our two suitcases and got rid of everything else, we have been in Palermo, Brittany and now Chianti. While we were in Palermo we took a 5 month road trip through western Europe staying for a week or four in various places as far north as the Netherlands.
During our stays in various places I developed opinions about those places. Some of them strong opinions. Likes and dislikes, which I have written about before. So the question why Italy over France? Or the other ay around? I love both. For many reasons I prefer one over the other but each takes that role. But it is the negatives that are more important. Palermo is a beautiful city with an incredibly rich history full of people that have great pride in their home city. But those people, not all, are blind to the filth and chaos and animal abuse and third world traffic, which they are the cause of the above. And then there is the heat. Especially the heat.
Brittany has fewer negatives. Minor negatives. The winter weather is mild but a bit damp and the summers are cool (which I do not consider a negative). The people are kind and friendly but my lack of ability to speak French makes interactions with the Bretons difficult. The French bureaucracy, as bad as the french say it is, is nothing compared to the Italian system, especially the Sicilian version, where the remnants of nepotism and favoritism are still lurking in the shadows.
It is now Chianti's turn. Other than the common language and the common coffee culture, there is little common between Sicily and Tuscany. And there is little common between Brittany and Chianti. And that is the point of exploring. To find those differences and commonalties. I love the French food (farmers) markets. They know how to do it. Italy does not, or rather, they have different needs and their markets reflect that. French markets are all about the quality and variety of the freshest foods. The Italian markets are more focused on cheap clothing and home goods with the food part of the market taking a lesser role and the foods available at those stalls being not much better than what is available in stores. I miss the French markets although the larger, permanent markets, like the Central Market in Florence are decent.
We are planning a year in Chianti. After that we don't know yet. We had planned on staying a full year in Saint Pierre Quiberon, Brittany, but the house we were renting had issues. Although it had beautiful views and it was 75 feet from the waters edge, it was a house on four floors with bathrooms on the first floor. My knees could not take anymore. The house, even though it was on four floors was actually too small for us. The house has a very small footprint. But other homes close to the water were just not available. They were either all owned by people who used them as vacation homes or they were only available seasonally at high costs. I was not interested in the interior of Brittany since it was very much like upstate New York where we came from. And my wife wanted to go back to Italy where she could at least understand some of the conversations.
So there is a possibility, since Alice does speak some German, that next year it may be a German speaking country. Austria maybe. We'll see.
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I, after a wonderful time in Brittany, will be returning to Italy in late summer. This time to Chianti. Part of returning is the required bank business. I had an Italian account when I was in Sicily. Which I closed and replaced with a French account. Now I need to go back to an Italian account? There must be and is a better way. I looked at a few internet banks, including N26. What kept me from going with them is the simple matter of their not allowing direct deposits from the USA. It turns out that Transferwise is now licensed in most US states, I think 48 of them, which means they will setup a direct deposit system. Additionally using them, when they hold your money as a bank, makes the process of transferring money from your account to somebody else's in Europe simple, fast and cheap. I just paid a rent deposit to my future landlord in 24 hours and at a minimal cost and at a better exchange rate. I have not yet setup direct deposit, keeping my Schwab account. What I had to do is transfer money to Transferwise using my debit card. That took less than a minute.
I bring all this up because I think it simplifies finances as an expat. All the services needed, iban number, routing number, currency exchange, debit card is all available in one place and usable anywhere in Europe, in the states and many other countries. And they speak English and answer the phone when you call. It's a breath of fresh air compared to dealing with the Italian banks.
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Beware UniCredit Banca
Until recently if I used a UniCredit ATM with my US based ATM/Debit card, I was assessed a surcharge — maybe €2. These surcharges are still relatively rare here in Italy. I don’t ordinarily use this ATM but I was a block away trying to complete a transaction and unexpectedly needed €200. For convenience sake I was ready to pay the surcharge. However, no surcharge was disclosed. Instead I was notified of “today’s exchange rate”. I never saw this before and was initially confused. Eager to get back to my pending commercial transaction, I accepted the disclosure only to realize that UniCredit exchanged my €200 to USD at a markup of 3%. That €200 withdrawal cost me €6 — much more than a surcharge of €2. I wasn’t given an option to decline their money conversion trick. It was take it of leave it. So, let’s hope this isn’t a trend — identifying people using foreign cards upon whom to foist very unfavorable exchange rates at ATMs that ordinarily offer good rates of exchange. My US bank reverses ATM surcharges, but this wasn’t a surcharge. The transaction was delivered to my US bank in USD after UniCredit pocketed €6. It wasn’t much to pay for the learning experience, but I will be vigilant going forward. An aside: EBay plays the same game. Opt out of these money conversions. Let your ATM or credit card issuer convert the currency to dollars. It is nearly always the best consumer rate available to consumers.
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