Saturday, June 27, 2015

Anxiety and Cultural “Sins”

by Luke Batty
I read several articles and travel threads on appropriate behavior and mannerisms. This exposure has helped me little. Many behavioral patterns are specific to regions, towns, and even neighborhoods in Italy. This is most visible in slang terms that change from place to place. Nevertheless, after reading these materials, I was paranoid that I would do something wrong and be seen as a rude American. This seems to be a common belief amongst the students travelling. In a foreign environment, our self-monitoring increases. We see ourselves as guests in a stranger’s home. This creates a competition of hospitality. Students want to seem educated and privy to the local ways; locals want to accommodate and share with the students. My pronunciation has been corrected by different bartenders and shop owners but never in a derogatory way.

Tonight, the folk maestro Dario helped me improve my pasta forking technique (for the uninitiated, stick fork in noodles, roll clockwise). He also complimented another student’s use of the “scarpetta,” wiping the bowl with a piece of bread. She was afraid she was being called out for impolite behavior and we reaffirmed that she was actually doing the right thing.

No one is expected to be perfect when they’re in an unfamiliar place. We can learn by watching and being corrected but everyone’s previous experiences will provide different knowledge. For example, I may not be a great pasta forker but I do use my silverware in the European way (fork in left hand, tines down). My grandmother taught me to eat this way because it actually saved a relative’s life. My dad’s Uncle Johnny was a waist-gunner on a B-17. His plane was shot down three times over the course of WWII. In 1944, he was shot down over occupied France and hid with other stranded American GI’s with the French Resistance. Johnny was a Cajun duck hunter. He and others from the bayou were recruited because they knew French and had experience shooting flying targets. While stuck in France, the group of Americans went to the café. The Gestapo came, looked around, picked out every American except Johnny, and arrested them. Johnny hid in plain sight because unlike the other Americans, Cajun Johnny ate with the fork in the left hand, tines down.

I don’t expect to use any travel knowledge in a survival situation. But there is a value in adapting alternate methods to eating, drinking, and socializing from different cultures. We have to accept we’ll make mistakes-like saying “good night” at a prudishly early 9pm- and rely on the hospitality of our international hosts. On the Santiago de Compostela, reliable albuergues and hostels are a modern addition. Up until the late 20th century, pilgrims had to rely on the hospitality of locals to shelter and feed them between Roncesvalles and Santiago. When we travel through someone’s homeland and engage the culture, we must be humble and grateful. We’ll make mistakes but we should never refuse opportunities to apply what we learn. Cagli has been remarkably courteous for me. While the teachers have led fantastic modules, the most memorable lessons on Italian cultures were Cagliesi sharing with me.