Tag Archives: cultural differences

Sheep in Parco Coletta, Turin

Notes from my extremely glamorous life

  • I went for a walk yesterday afternoon, along the Dora up to Parco Colletta. The sheep are out grazing there at the moment. Apparently there’s an arrangement where local farmers can graze their sheep in the park, which seems to me like an arrangement that is both extremely practical and extremely delightful. The sheep were completely unperturbed by nearby picnickers making the most of another unseasonably warm day.
  • The unseasonably warm weather means it’s still well and truly gelato season, which meant that I got to introduce my visiting friend H. to the joys of La Romana. She was impressed. She also got an introduction to panettone, which is starting to appear in the shops as Christmas approaches. This was less impressive. (“A hot cross bun in giant form,” which is fair enough.)
  • I don’t get so many full-scale cultural surprises these days — even when Italian people do something I think is a bit odd, I can usually fit it into my mental picture of what Italian culture is like. But this week I had a proper woah no that’s crazy moment, this time involving German culture.You see, apparently in Germany it’s common to use two separate single duvets on a double bed, so each person gets one to themselves.

    I guess if you’re German this is perfectly reasonable practice. It certainly seemed that way to my German friend S., who had casually mentioned a friend of hers being surprised by a shared duvet in Italy.

    But I’m pretty sure I’m not the only non-German to be really taken aback by the idea. Actually, I know I’m not the only one, because poor S. got bombarded with responses ranging from “No come on, you’re pulling my leg” through to, “Can you even be actually married if you don’t share a duvet with your spouse?!” (Along with some Australian side discussion of, “Wait, do you actually call it a duvet?” “No, it’s a doona, obviously.” “Ok good.”)

    And then some googling revealed a comment from a German guy who pointed out that separate blankets allow you to fart in bed more discretely, and the conversation went downhill from there…

Street art in Turin, Italy

Things I have witnessed since moving to Turin.

This afternoon, I’m leaving on a work trip to Lake Como (sometimes you have to make sacrifices for your career, you know?) so just a quick listicle type post for today.

Some of the more notable things I’ve seen in Turin:

  • The other day, 4 people in period costume were leaving Porta Nuova metro station the same time as me. One of the women was wearing a skirt with a bustle and she had to turn sideways to get through the fare gate. As I got to street level, I discovered they were part of a parade.
    Those skirts weren't designed with metro turnstiles in mind.

    Those skirts weren’t designed with metro turnstiles in mind.

    Continue reading

Cup of espresso

How I quit coffee… and why I’m un-quitting it

It’s a very First World Problem, isn’t it? “I love coffee so much… but I’m sure it’s not healthy to drink as much as I do… oh, but the coffee from the place near my work, it’s so good, how can I say no?” Or, “how can I do anything this morning until I’ve had my coffee?” she says, as she pours herself a double-shot from the coffee maker at work. (She says, she pours? Haha who am I kidding, I mean “I say, I pour”.) Continue reading

Anzac day: it’s complicated.

Dawn service gnangarra 03.jpg

Dawn service gnangarra 03” by Photographs by Gnangarra…commons.wikimedia.org. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 au via Wikimedia Commons.

Yesterday was Anzac day, and like most Australian public holidays it’s interesting to explain to people here. It seems the explanation has to either be very short, or very long. Continue reading

So apparently when I don’t need to write it comes automatically.

Most cafes in Turin are deeply traditional — fittings that have been lovingly maintained and never updated since the 1930s, carved dark wood and floral fabrics everywhere, seasonal window displays. Old ladies in fur coats having their morning cappuccino made just so, the way they’ve taken it every morning for the past 50 years. A few tables, mostly with couples or men reading the newspaper.


Photo: “Turin cafe” by Signe Karin CC BY

No laptops, obviously. Why would you mix your coffee break with your work?

I love the traditional cafes, even if I always feel underdressed compared to the staff in bowties and waistcoats. But sometimes you just need some free wifi and don’t mind if the coffee isn’t quite as good, which is how I ended up yesterday afternoon at exki, a chain of what I suppose you’d call ‘American style’ cafes. Ikea-style furniture, big open spaces, a children’s play area available.

It seems half of Torino goes there on a Saturday evening. The children playing in the toy kitchen were accompanied by their immaculately-dressed mother, wearing a black lace dress and high heels. A few tables over from me was a chap who I will generously assume was actually a professor but oh my goodness he so clearly also wanted to look like a professor I had a hard time not giggling. A cluster of students were sitting on bar stools around a high table, studying for exams. Outside it was raining and as people came they added their umbrellas to the pile at the door.

I sat there eating brownie, idly people watching with the background white noise of conversations going on around me, and I found myself compelled to write (this post, actually). It was a sort of sensory memory — something clicked and I was back in a very similar cafe in Glasgow, where I wrote the bulk my PhD thesis during early-morning cafe sessions, fuelled by americanos and interspersed with people-watching.

My thesis remains the longest thing I’ve ever written — I much prefer short-form blog posts! — and writing it taught me to write. Not necessarily with grace or style, but just the act of writing, of getting my thoughts firmed up and on a page whether I feel writerly or not.

And apparently it also taught my subconcious that if you’re in a cafe with a laptop, you should be writing. Well then.

Dinner flash mob in Turin

3 things I’ve learned in Italy

Before I moved to Italy, I imagined that after a couple of years, I’d be fluent in the language (ha!), I’d have learned to cook lots of amazing dishes (I had takeaway pizza for tea tonight), I’d understand Italian politics (ehhhh… maybe it’s beyond understanding?) and I’d be riding around on a Vespa (obviously I’d never seen traffic here).

But I’m not completely wasting my time, and here are three things I’ve learned:

1. How to appreciate traditional food.

Not always, I admit. My pizza this evening was from the place downstairs from me that is run by a Chinese family and sells pizza and Chinese food. (An obvious combination, right?) Definitely not generations of a family from Naples, each son learning from his father how to prove the dough and mix the tomato paste.

But I think it’s fair to say that in Italy, “This is just how my grandmother made it!” is high praise for food. I’m only exaggerating a bit when I say that food from the next town over is crazy foreign food that you might eat once a year at a food festival. There are special foods for not just Christmas and Easter but a whole bunch of saints days, as well as the seasons, and the idea of eating something at the wrong time of year is inconceivable.

Traditional doesn't mean "no fun" - this was a dinner-eating flash mob back in summer.

Traditional doesn’t mean “no fun” – this was a dinner-eating flash mob where everyone wore white, that I happend across back in summer.

All of which is quite novel for me. I’ve never quite worked out how to answer, “What dishes are typical to where you grew up?” which in Italy is a perfectly good get-to-know-you question, but in Australia makes no sense. And when I go back to Australia, I love that there are Mexican and Indonesian and Vietnamese and Thai restaurants all within walking distance of my parent’s place. But I’ve become quite taken by the idea of having a well-defined cuisine, that you’ve cooked and eaten so long that you understand it perfectly.

(Note that I’ve learned to like this idea, sadly I’m a long way off from being able to cook…)

2. How to interact with small children.

Confession time: I’m not naturally a children person.

If you’re a friend of mine and you have kids: your children are wonderful and I legitimately like them.

But I have a hard time thinking of anything to say to people about their babies other than, “yup, that sure is a baby.” Toddlers mostly remind me of tiny drunk people. Supposedly if you’re a woman, your hormones are meant to make you want babies. All my hormones have ever made me want is carbohydrates.

Before I moved to Italy, I mostly just ignored children, which is easy enough to do; they’re generally pretty low to the ground. But I got here, and everyone is nuts about kids. People strike up conversations with toddlers in the supermarket. Teenage boys (!) coo at babies on the bus. No-one has a problem with kids being around, even in museums and restaurants.

So I suddenly found myself in this environment where interacting with peoples’ kids is just a thing you do, like greeting shopkeepers or using your umbrella if it’s even a tiny bit rainy. And it turns out it’s a skill you can develop. (Unlike the umbrella usage, which I’ve never got the hang of. Holding an umbrella up takes effort, why bother when it’s just drizzly?)

Also, toddlers really are like tiny drunk people: you can keep them entertained with the stupidest things and you’ll get bored long before they do.

3. How to wait.

I got a good lesson in this one earlier this week. I’d received a bill for garbage collection services, and Tuesday, the day before it was due I went to the post office to pay it. I would have gone earlier, but the week before, I didn’t get around to it, and the Monday was a public holiday.

Turns out, everyone in Torino got the bill at the same time. And it’s payable only at the post office.

So I get to the post office, and I’ve got ticket number 190. They’re currently serving number 103. At a rate of about 1 per minute.

Yes, I really did spend 90 minutes waiting to spend 1 minute paying a bill.

I won’t say I enjoyed the experience, but it certainly taught me patience.

Giardini Reali, Turin, in autumn

Our weird cultural notions, or: Why does Zoe have a cold?

Autumn is slipping past and winter is rolling in; the cover photo of this post is from only a couple of weeks ago and already the trees have lost almost all those leaves.

Late autumn brings good things, like excuses for hot chocolate, and — for my American friends — Thanksgiving, the one American cultural tradition that doesn’t seem to have been imported by the rest of the world. Seriously — why not?? It’s a holiday where you eat yourself stupid and don’t have to go shopping for presents for everyone! ie: The best idea ever. To be fair, by definition I’ve only ever been to “friendsgiving”, which you do with people you choose, rather than as a rellie-bash, so that is probably giving me a rosy perspective on the whole thing.

Also, I didn’t really intend for this to be a post about Thanksgiving, but I feel I should put this on the record: Green bean casserole. Sounds like it would be gross, is actually delicious.

Back on the topic of autum — it also brings the dreaded cold and flu season, and I’ve spent a good chunk of the weekend moping around at home with a cough (which seems to be getting better, thankfully!). How did I catch a cold? Well, the culture I grew up in in Australia tells me it’s from being close to other people who had the virus already. But I’m in Italy now, and if I really want to culturally assimilate, I’m going to have to consider some other possibilities. Like — and these are all things I’ve heard, from people from around Europe:

  1. It was cold and/or wet outside.
  2. I went out with wet hair.
  3. I went to bed with wet hair.
  4. I wasn’t wearing a scarf.
  5. I wasn’t wearing a warm enough jacket.
  6. I was cycling and ended up getting too hot, and my sweat gave me a chill.
  7. I didn’t change out of wet clothes quickly enough after being caught in rain.
  8. Only relevant in summer, but possibly I was exposed to too much airconditioning.
  9. Or any airconditioning, really. Can’t be too careful.
  10. Maybe I sat on a cold surface too long.

Yes, I have been known to say to people, “have you heard of the germ theory of disease? It’s been quite fashionable since, oh, the 17th century.”

This is absolutely not to say “haha, those crazy Europeans with their weird cultural notions”. Partly because I have become a total convert to the scarf theory of cold and flu prevention. I am wearing a scarf right now and I swear it will make my cough go away faster, do not ask me how.

And partly because I have odd cultural notions of my own: alternating too much between hot and cold air will make you sick; drinking a slightly nasty concoction of lemon, garlic, honey and hot water will cure your cold; sugar in any form (except, somehow, the aforementioned honey) will make a sore throat worse; sitting on that cold floor will give you piles, for sure.

So I will wrap my scarf a bit tighter and make another cup of lemon-garlic-honey tea. And maybe not wash my hair until I have a chance to dry it properly — you never know…