Transform Culture Shock into a Cultural Adventure

Studying Abroad? If you’ve decided to pursue international university studies, it’s likely that one of your objectives is to gain an appreciation of the new culture in which you will interact. For some, the shock of culture absorption may be overwhelming. It’s natural and common for any traveler to experience a bit of anxiety in exploring the unknown, but the key for any study abroad student is to transform that culture shock into a cultural adventure!

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Embrace the New and Unusual

In many cases, the country in which you’ve chosen to study will be vastly dissimilar from the one in which you’re accustomed. One may experience differences in language, RomaVeneziaCortona2011Uno 098cuisine, mode of transportation, style of dress, music, and a host of other concepts. The important thing to remember: diversity is the reason you chose to study abroad in that particular country. So, embrace the new and the unusual, get your fingers sticky with it. Before long, what feels strange will become familiar.FullSizeRender (4)

 

Ride the Emotional Wave

The mix of emotions you experience may include loss, fatigue, stress, anxiety, and confusion. Some degree of culture shock is inevitable, and the range of emotions at any given time typically transition through four stages:cropped-402px-bocca_della_verita.jpg

  1. the honeymoon stage
  2. the frustration phase
  3. the depression/isolation stage, and
  4. the adjustment and acceptance phase

Awareness of these stages may help alleviate the issue, and may provide a smoother path to the final stage. As long as one lives the cultural transition fully, rather than resists this normal phenomenon, the experience will feel much more positive, much sooner.

Remember, what you will learn and make your own will soon become a part of you, a worldliness to your character that you will always carry with you. Embrace the adventure, and you may learn to speak a new language. You might add an entire play list of ethnic music that comforts or drives you. You might enhance your wardrobe with a style of dress you might never have considered. Hopping onto a subway, or biking, may even become your primary mode of transport when you return home, a practice you might have never tried had you not been exposed to it elsewhere. The novelty of the adventure will soon become your reality, and you’ll reap the lifelong benefits of embracing it.

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Know Before You Go, and Ease into the Adventure

Learn the language now, and later. Sign up for local, short-term language immersion classes, or longer-term classroom study to enhance conversation in your host country. There are also a number of home computer programs, like Rosetta Stone, and apps, like Duolingo, Babel and iTranslate, that will assist preparation for the trip, and aid assimilation once arrived.

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Learn the culture, and use it before you go. Practice cooking the local fare or visit restaurants that serves that country’s cuisine. Listen to the host country’s popular music. Live stream the host country’s popular TV shows. Research the lesser known historic and artistic gems, and become well versed in the popular ones before arrival. Involvement and practice of the host country’s customs and practical life before you go will better your chances of achieving a higher comfort level, sooner, once you arrive.

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Chat on-line with study abroad students who’ve been through the process and have studied or are studying in the host country, for advice that might range from packing, traveling, and coping with homesickness, all the way to ideas for places to eat, visit, or shop. There are many public on-line forums where international students gather and provide advice, as well as private group chats among those students traveling through a school community.

When you Get There, Achieve a Balance

When you get there, where the goal is to embrace the adventure, it’s also important to stay true to one’s self.

  • Try new cuisine on a regular basis, but when you’re feeling blue, offset it with a visit to your favorite fast-food chain or cook up something that you’d normally fix at home.
  • Pick up a local trinket or don clothing that reflects the local custom, but take some time to revel in the items you bring from home, like photos, a teddy bear, or a favorite sweater.
  • Attend music performances that typically reside outside your genre, but keep your favorite tunes plugged in on your way to class.RomaVeneziaCortona2011Uno 215
  • Learn to bike ride through traffic or hillsides, but walk or grab a taxi when the mood moves you.
  • Join a club or volunteer to become a part of the society around you, but feel free to kick back with a newspaper about home.

In other words, when most of the day or evening is spent tackling something brand new and outside your comfort zone, be sure to balance the challenge with a taste of home – your transition will be smoother and less intimidating. You’ll be more likely to look forward to the next challenge, rather than resist it if you allow yourself an occasional taste of your own culture.

Get by with a Little Help from Your Friends and Family

Don’t underestimate the power of companionship. Whether you seek the tutelage of a professor, the commonality of a roommate with a similar background, or even a brand new group of classmates, it’s important to stay connected. Share your experiences, and you just might learn a few things. Also, meeting locals is a great way to immerse in the culture, and they may end up friends in which to visit or correspond long after you’ve returned home, or otherwise contacts in which to network should you extend your stay.IMG_3202 (2)

Finally, stay in touch with those back home. They will boost your morale, and keep you grounded during those times when you’re a little tired of spreading your wings. Upon return, sharing your adventure will be more meaningful if others have stayed abreast of your ongoing activity while you’re away.IMG_2070

 

All in all, international studies provides many benefits, including exposure to an entirely different culture. Often times, culture shock may hinder a student’s opportunity to fully appreciate all that their host country has to offer. Live it fully, don’t resist the mix of emotions. Learning to transform culture shock into a “cultural adventure” will ensure that you will benefit most from this rewarding experience.ToscanaUno 261

Author Gina Fava studied abroad in Rome, Italy during college. Much of her suspense thriller,  THE SCULPTOR, is based on her “cultural adventure.” The mysterious serial killer in her story is entirely fictional, or so she says. Learn more at www.GinaFava.com.

 

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THE MODERN HEROINE: A Mystery Writers Panel

 

How will Gina Fava’s fierce female characters,

ANA MALIA from THE RACE,

and MARA SILVESTRI from THE SCULPTOR,

factor into a  panel discussion with mystery writers involving

“the modern heroine”

JOIN US

May 3, Wednesday, 6:30 p.m.
Mystery Writers Panel: “The Modern Heroine”
Gina Fava, Sharon Healy-Yang, Judith Copek
Friends of the Swansea Library
First Christian Congregational Church
1113 GAR Highway, Swansea, MA

And we’ll be selling and signing copies of all our novels!

Passionate Italians and Hand Gestures

My friends can see me talking from a mile away, even with my back turned. I’m the one with my hands gesticulating in the air, sometimes with elegant precision as I speak on my cell phone, sometimes with wild abandon as I’m ordering a sandwich. That’s because I was raised in an Italian household. Italians are typically expressive, passionate, and animated when communicating with others. It’s a demonstration of engagement and interest. Have you ever seen an Italian converse with his or her hands in their pockets? Never happens.

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Italians, young and old, male or female, gesture naturally. Whether they’re busy licking a gelato, smoking a cigarette, or zipping a manual-shift car around a hilltop town, Italians are quite adept at pairing any activity with vivid hand gestures when engaged in conversation. Writing letters must drive most Italians crazy, as expression is limited. I regularly use emoticons when dashing off an email or posting on social media, because sometimes words are just not enough, and it’s the closest I can get to gesturing.  😉

Most people shake hands, but Italians typically grasp the other’s arm at the same time. Eye contact is important to them, and so is close personal contact. In fact, once a relationship is established, even if an acquaintance, a kiss on both cheeks upon greeting is the norm. Public displays of affection among Italians are prevalent, both among couples and families. Sons and daughters are equally apt to hug and kiss their parents as a sign of respect and affection, and strolling arm and arm through Italian towns as an expression of companionship is practiced by neighbors and friends as much as by Italian couples, who typically prefer a lip lock and tight embrace as further acknowledgement of their mutual affinity.

Americans are known to gesture on occasion, such as a flipped bird (raised middle finger) during rush hour traffic, or pressed thumbs and knuckles in the shape of a heart from a mother to her child on the school bus, or the peace sign from a graduate accepting his diploma, among others. But here are a few Italian gestures you may or may not be aware of:

  • To gesture “Come here,” instead of beckoning with an index finger, an Italian sweeps an entire arm downward.
  • That beckoning index finger might signal a romantic enticement in both cultures. But in Italian culture, one might also do the same to signal that he or she wishes to convey something very important to another.
  • Index fingers pressed against the thumbs with a slight waggle of both hands means an exasperated “What do you want from me?”
  • The index finger twisted into the cheek means something is good, lovely, or tasty.
  • Tapping one’s wrist means “Hurry up.”
  • Two open hands stands for “What’s happening here?”
  • Waggling two hands pressed together as if in fervent prayer begs the question, “What do you want me to do about it?”
  • The backside of one’s fingers brushing the chin is a classic blow off, as in “Who gives a flying fig?”
  • My grandfather used to pat his throat, and say “gola, gola,” meaning that he had chocolate candy or decadent cookies to share. And my nana would simply throw her arms wide, demonstrating the need for a grandchild’s hug.

No matter the exuberant gesture, signal, facial or bodily indication, of which there are hundreds, Italians use them to enhance communication in an uninhibited, liberating way. Take it or leave it, we’re just letting you know how passionate we are on a subject.

SIENA’S PALIO: THRILLING TRADITION, COMPETITION, & PRIDE

Imagine that your hometown team will be competing in the biggest sporting event of the year, as it does every year, right in the center of town. Pack the venue with over 50,000 spectators, both local and international, all there to see your team participate. Now bring on all the fanfare and hoopla in the days leading up to the main event, including an open-air feast and a ritual blessing of the key player. Now imagine that this monumental sporting event lasts just seventy-five seconds…

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For the people of Siena, Italy, this fantasy is a reality. Considered Italy’s most famous annual sporting event, Palio is a horse race that combines pageantry, competition, and civic pride. The Tuscan hillside town of Siena fans out from the central, shell-shaped Piazza del Campo town square, where the race is run. It extends outward, through the maze of cobblestone alleyways, stone houses, shops, and smaller piazze. Siena is divided into seventeen contrade, akin to the boroughs of Manhattan, in which neighborhoods aspire to a passionate regionalism based on centuries old tradition. Since the Middle Ages, ten of the contrade vie one another for bragging rights achieved by a victory in a bare-back horse race that’s one lap around the piazza. The first horse to cross the finish line, with or without the rider, wins.

The race, held twice a year on July 2 and August 16, is preceded by as much pomp and circumstance as the post-race victory parties. Participants and spectators have been brought to their knees over a loss, or a win. Every stage is critical, from the initial presentation of the horses, to the “tratta” in which the horses and jockeys are matched. It continues with the five preliminary runs, to the final rehearsal dinner, to the blessing of the horse and jockey inside the contrada’s parish church, and finally to the race.

Palio July 1981

I attended my first Palio with my dad when I was ten years old. With my Aquila scarf wrapped securely around my shoulders, I cheered parade flagbearers marching down the ancient cobblestone streets while my gelato ran down my arm. We watched a trial run. Serious business, as men in suits converged to hash out the players’ worth, similar to a football draft, only with horses. My favorite part was the pre-race dinner. I couldn’t believe that with all the eating, the drinking, the singing, and the cheering, they had yet to run the race! Though we missed the main race, I’d experienced something truly memorable.

Palio Aug 1995

Years later, my husband, Jamie, and I made it to the big event. We packed into Piazza del Campo with my cousins in early morning…and waited. For hours beneath the August sun, the piazza filled with spectators, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, or peering out from hotel windows overlooking the track. Fans from competing contrade would argue, laugh, make bets, and proudly wave their flags’ colors. At dusk, the tension was palpable. The crowds roared as the horses cantered into the piazza. The tradition of centuries past, and the competitive spirit roiling between the contrade, and the anxiety built up over days of preparation all came down to a race lasting just over a minute. In one mad dash around the track, colors blazed past us in a blur. Men, women, and children shouted and chanted the names of their contrada. Cameras flashed. Hoof-beaten dust flew into the humid Sienese twilight. I don’t remember who won. But I bet it was Aquila.

Like a good thriller, Palio’s suspense builds to a satisfying climax that resonates with fans until long after it ends. Want to live the thrill? Head to Palio. Want to read about it? My latest mystery novel, FORMULA, features Palio, and it’s coming soon!

Wicked Good Italian Dialects

A recent visit to my father’s hometown of Abbadia San Salvatore in Siena gave me interesting insight into the concept of dialect. Family had taken me to a local restaurant, and the cousins who’d since moved out of town ordered “una latina di Coca Cola” or a can of Coke. Those relatives who still resided in town similarly ordered Cokes, but pronounced it much differently, dropping the hard C sound entirely, instead asking for “O’a-Ola.” As any native Bostonian knows, dropping a letter (like an R) gives the English language a certain flair all its own, and certainly gives the listener an indication of your proud heritage.

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A map of Italian dialects (click on image for larger version – courtesy zingarate.com)

As a native of Buffalo, where the words “merry,” “Mary,” and “marry” are pronounced the same way, and where “pop” means “soda,” and the word “hot” and “cod” take on a nasally, back of the throat twang, it’s clear to me that my husband, Jamie, who hails from north of Boston, speaks differently. When he says the word “pattern,” I must rely on context to determine whether he’s saying “Patton,” “pattin’,” or “patent.” When I first met my husband’s mom at the Cape, she suggested, “Go put ya shahts on [for the beach],” I merely stared back at her, confounded. Jamie translated, “Gina, my mom’s asking you to change into your bathing suit,” so I smiled and nodded, and she and I have gotten along swimmingly since then. The same is likely true for many Bostonians and their extended families. Their backgrounds – whether they were born in Boston or in Italy, or whether residing in the North End or Braintree – determine their particular pronunciation, grammar, or vocabulary. But just like Nonna’s minestrone, it’s the variety of the flavors that makes the mixture so delightful!

The factors that typically influence the development of dialects in a region or country include: geographical location (people living in close proximity to each other, as well as people living in isolation from others); socio-economic conditions; complex colonial history; movement of ancestry; strong regional loyalties; and the cultural influence of nearby communities. In such regions or countries, a dialect that is commonly used in the media (as in entertainment and news programming,) may be very different from the dialect used in official government business, in schools curricula, and in everyday street language. For example, a Boston news anchor may articulate the English language differently than a meter reader in Quincy. Either way, they both get their points across, perhaps one more colorfully than the other.

There are two major groups of Italian dialects -Northern and Southern, divided by the Spezia-Remini line. The northern groups are either: a) based in Veneto and speak a Venetic dialect; or b) of the Gallo-Italic group that encompasses most of the rest of the region, and is influenced by Celtic speech. As for the rest of the boot, the most common Italian dialects include: Tuscan (most of Tuscany); Abruzzese, Pugliese, Umbrian (near Tuscany); Laziale, Central Marchigiano (in and around Rome); those common to the southern part of Italy (like Napolitano); or those indicative of the outermost regions of the south, including Calabrese, Apulian, and Sardinian dialects. The rich variety speaks to the turmoil that Italy endured on the way to its unification in 1861. Only an official republic since 1946, Italy’s cultural pride is highly regional to this day. Where the Tuscan dialect is considered the national language or the “lingua italiana,” perhaps because the area is considered the birthplace of Italian literature (as in Dante, Petrarca, and Boccaccio,) still, different regions proudly embrace the differences that distinguish their manner of speaking from others in their country, much like Bostonians.

There are many other countries with multiple dialects of the same language, including Spain (10 recognized dialects), India (400 languages, and an estimated 2000 dialects), Asia (Japan has dozens, and China has at least 200 dialects), and many more all over the world. Dialects add color and diversity to language, and infuse flavor into one’s culture. After all, wouldn’t you rather have a “wicked good” cannoli than just a good cannoli?

Going to the Movies, with Some Italian Flair

Ah, going to the movies…the big screen, the packed seats, the laughter and the tears from a great film, the whispers of “whodunit?,” the couples holding hands, and the wafting aroma of…marinara sauce?

One of the pleasures of Italy is going to the movies. It’s an experience all its own. I love movies, and while studying in Rome in the 90’s, most weekends I’d frequent a movie house in the Trastevere neighborhood. “Il Pasquino” showed American movies, typically ones I’d already seen, but it was a great taste of home.

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My first time at Il Pasquino was the most memorable, because I had no idea just how different movie theaters in Italy are from those in America. My boyfriend at the time (now my husband, Jamie,) and I bought tickets at the entrance, and then we settled into our seats for a showing of Balla Coi Lupi (Dances with Wolves.) Typical screen, typical seats, and that’s where the similarities ended. While waiting for the projector to start rolling the reel (yes, I’m dating myself,) an elderly couple showed us their tickets and told us we were sitting in their seats. Assigned seats? Apparently, Italian cinemas are big on assigned seating at most movie theaters, to this day.
movie theaterAfter we cozied into our new seats, the movie rolled, and I can tell you, Kevin Costner never sounded so good. That’s because even though the movie was in English, Costner’s voice was dubbed over by an Italian voice actor, known as a doppiaggio. This dubbing practice is prevalent, even today, and Italian cinema and television prides itself on its voice actors, who usually follow the real actor’s movie journey throughout his or her career. A funny side note: it’s tricky making a movie featuring both DeNiro and Pacino as they’re both dubbed by the same voice actor. (So, if I plan to cast DeNiro and Pacino in movie versions of my novels, the same doppiaggio can dub both The Race and The Sculptor.)

Jamie and I soon got used to the Costner stand-in and enjoyed the movie. That is, until the smell of marinara wafting in from the lobby made our stomachs growl. We’d both seen the movie before, and we decided to wait until after a major scene to dash out to the lobby for a bite. But just as the character named “Stands with a Fist” so intimately shares conversation with her handsome male lead, the film stopped, mid-scene, with a frame that read “Intervallo” (intermission!) Then and now, Italians stop their movies mid-way, regardless of the artistic timing, and grant their patrons about five minutes of freedom to move about the theater or to chat with friends on their opinion of the film thus far.

marinara with red wineBut before Jamie and I could dash to the lobby to surmise the source of the aromatic sauce, a concessionaire toting a box strapped around his neck, similar to a sporting event, began selling bags of popcorn, chips, and soda. On subsequent visits to Il Pasquino, I did determine the root of Grandma’s exquisite sauce aroma – the lobby sold hot food too: arancini or suppli (breaded orange-size balls of rice and mozzarella, with marinara sauce for dipping,) as well as eggplant and zucchini fritters, among other delectable munchies. My father told me that when he was a kid, smoking was allowed in Italian cinemas. Also, standing room only was common for big releases because of the difficulty some theaters had with keeping track of tickets sold. Today, the overall experience remains the same in many Italian cinemas: assigned seating, dubbed voice actors, intermission, halftime concession, and diverse food offerings.

The interior of an Italian movie theater is similar to that of an American one. The difference lies in the exterior: Italian ones are usually smaller, more intimate, local one-screen playhouses in each community, whereas American movie
theaters are often times multi-screen mega-plexes. Italians seem to prefer the experience of the smaller playhouse, though “Cinecity” mega-plexes are sprouting in bigger cities up north. If you’re headed to Italy, here’s a great link for finding a cinema near you: http://www.cinematreasures.org/theaters/italy

I’ve experienced similar great experiences here in the states at local art houses and independent cinemas, intimate theaters that show current mainstream films as well as throwback-era gems, independent films, documentaries, and foreign classics. On a recent visit to my hometown of Buffalo, NY, I enjoyed an evening viewing of Life Is Beautiful, an Academy-award winning Italian film by Roberto Benigni, in the historic and recently renovated The North Park Theatre, a richly detailed single-screen theater with an Art Deco marquee and an ornate interior that exudes warmth and nostalgia, lending to the viewing experience. No matter your taste in film or the time of year, it’s always the perfect time to go to the movies…with or without the marinara.