Thursday, March 27, 2008

If the Italian scooters won't kill you, the cold weather is sure to

When people ask me what nationality I am I always answer Australian. I emigrated to my wonderful country Australia when I was five years old, so I do consider myself a true blue Aussie and have not one but three pairs of thongs to prove this (Note here: thongs have a very different meaning in some languages and in this case, I refer to the ones you wear on your feet!).

But I also consider myself Polish which is where I was born and both my parents were born. I was brought up in a house with Polish customs, traditions and rituals, some which I still live by now in my adult life which are coming very handy in understanding Italian life.

When I was growing up, my polish father used to have a very frustrating answer to what I thought were very legitimate questions. The answer was always 'because that's the way it is'. My questions were often:

  • Why do I have to eat prune soup? (no, I'm not joking, it's an actual Polish dish)

  • Why can't I go to sleep with wet hair?

  • Why do I have to speak Polish at home?

  • Why can't I take a peanut butter sandwich to school instead of salami and gherkins?

  • Why do I have to drink hot milk with garlic when I'm sick? The Aussie kids just take an asprin.

In a Polish household some things are just the way they are and there is really no point in trying to change the system. It's been like that for decades and who am I to try to point out any flaws in it? I'm quickly learning this rule also applies in Italy. In Italy you do not drink cappucino after dinner, you do not order a Florentine steak well done and you do not serve pasta as a main dish. It's just the way it is.

In a Polish household, you are committing a grave sin if you walk into someones house with your shoes on or for that matter, walk around with bare feet in your own house. Are you not civilised enough to have heard of slippers? I must admit this one I have engrained into both myself and my Australian husband and I wear slippers in the house even in 40 degree Australian heat.

Another thing you must never do is drive with your car windows down. It's just 'not done' and will inevitably end in you getting sick the very next day or in extreme cases, immediately as soon as the wind enters your body. I was in a car with my Polish cousins who came to visit us in Australia. I put the car window down slightly to get some fresh air and they both loudly screamed 'Close the window, we'll catch a cold!'. It was 40 degrees outside but there was no reasoning with them.

Today I went walking to the mercato and I was reminded of this fear that Europeans have of 'catching a cold'. See, I walk around Florence all day long and I am a fast walker negotiating myself expertly between kissing lovers and slow walking tourist groups. I can't help it. I try to slow down and enjoy the beautiful city but inevitably end up power walking in my high heel boots wondering why I didn't wear the comfortable shoes that sit buried deep in the cupboard. Anyway, because of the fast pace of my walk, I always get really hot, no matter how cold it is outside.

Today the beautiful Tuscan sun was shining through my curtains and so I decided to wear jeans, boots and shock horror a 3/4 sleeve knit top. No less than three Italian women stopped me to ask me if I was cold (actually they didn't ask me, they told me I was cold) and starting shaking their heads at me like I was surely asking to be sick. And that was in the space of an hour long walk to the shops.

The lady at the market was the most dramatic and told me in no uncertain terms, that tomorrow I will be sick. The older lady that stopped me on the road used the words 'mamma mia' (usually reserved for grave occasions) and the hotel staff advised 'signora, you should wear a jacket, it is freddo (cold) today.' And I can bet that if my dad saw me wearing my outfit today, that would have made four people reminding me of my completely wrong choice of clothes and the illness that is now my fate for tomorrow. (It will be interesting to read this blog entry when I myself become a parent and my child wants to go out in the cold without a jacket. But for now I rebel and go sleeveless).

This also got me thinking about how different Australians are to Europeans in their outspoken opinions of one another to each other. I remember quite vividly my Polish cousin telling me that she did not like the outfit I was wearing because my thighs looked terribly big in the pants (damn those heavy pasta dishes!) An Australian would NEVER tell you this. They would notice your thighs but smile and say 'you look really great, have you lost weight?'

Another big cultural difference is the way Australians and Europeans address each other. Very rarely do Australians call someone Mister or Mrs. It's nearly always by their first name regardless of what their age is. To this day I find it very hard to call someone much older than me by their first name. Not that I would dare dream to do that in Italy. Even when I insist our apartment staff call me Monika, the next day they revert back to Signora (although my favourites call me Signorina which makes me feel young!).

So, today I walked through Italy with thoughts in English contemplating European culture. Tonight I will be cooking Polish chicken soup for my half Filipino, half Australian husband. To add to my wonderfully cultural day, I stumbled upon a bakery that sold pink frosty American style doughnuts which I couldn't resist buying three of. Everyday I keep reminding myself of just how lucky I am to be living this tremendously cultural experience in a city filled with surprises and strangers who worry for my health.

'Every age, every culture, every custom and every tradition has its own character, it's own weakness and it's own strength, it's beauties and cruelties....' (Herman Hesse 1946)

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