Things my Sicilian boyfriend and I fight about

Well, all right, not fight about. But they definitely baffle us. Welcome to the heady world of the cross-cultural relationship.

Item one: food

photo50
Cornish pasties FTW!

He’s Italian; I’m English. You may be chuckling right now, thinking that you’ve already guessed what the problem is. You’d be wrong. This Englishwoman can cook. And that Italian man is a staunch convert to the delights of Cornish pasties and sticky toffee pudding. (Maybe not so much Marmite, but a good 50% of Brits don’t like it either, so we’ll let that one go.) No, it’s not that English food is disgusting and Italian food is sent from heaven, as many would have you believe, but just that we have very different expectations of what constitutes a square meal.

A potted history of my eating habits: My mum’s early education in food was from my German-Jewish by birth, Surrey-raised grandmother. Mum then went on to train at a Cordon Bleu school and to work as an in-house caterer for a posh City investment bank. My dad, meanwhile, spent his early years in Malaya, before returning to English boarding school life. My culinary education has therefore been wide-ranging. I learnt to love strong tastes like pumpernickel, kümmel and curry from a very early age. Pizza and pasta appeared rarely on the table; meat and two veg (heavy on the veg side of things) was the more usual order of the day. If I drank a hot drink, it would be tea, and it would be scalding hot; the same goes for food. I’m not as fanatical as my mother, who heats all her plates, but I still prefer my hot food to be hot, rather than lukewarm.

Davide's idea of torture when we first met
Davide’s idea of torture when we first met

Compare this with Davide’s childhood foods, which were Sicilian, and nothing but. Until he met me he’d eaten (sub-standard) Mexican a handful of times, and had never tried Indian, Thai, Chinese or Japanese food. Mild spices had him gasping for air and glugging down litres of water. His dream meal was (actually, still is …) Catanese scacciata: broccoli, tuma cheese and black olives cooked down until soft and chunky, and sandwiched in between two thick layers of pizza dough before being sliced into 8-inch squares. Coffee is his hot drink of choice, but he has to let it sit for ten minutes before he can drink it. Hot foods get cut up into bitesized chunks and spread out around the plate to cool before being blown on vigorously, just to make extra sure. In fact, on more than one occasion when I’ve served lasagne or moussaka, which retain nuclear levels of heat for unfeasibly long lengths of time, I’ve finished eating before he’s even started.

In the past two years, we’ve come to compromises over many things: he’s more of a chili fanatic than I am nowadays, chucking peperoncino flakes over everything and requesting Tex-Mex over every other type of cuisine, and I can’t function without coffee every morning. I don’t think we’re ever going to be able to agree on the other’s unconditional love for tea or scacciata, though.

Item two: cultural references

What do you mean, you don't get the cultural reference?!
What do you mean, you don’t get the cultural reference?!

Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Holding Out for a Hero’ is playing on the radio. Davide turns it up. “Do you know this song, amore?” I snort ironically. “Do I know this song? Of COURSE I know this song!” He looks at me oddly. “Why ‘of course’?” I remind myself for the millionth time that we grew up in (a) different countries and (b) different decades.

Davide turns on the overhead light in the bedroom. I dive under the covers, squeaking, “Brigh’light! Brigh’light!” I know he’s seen Gremlins and loves it, so am confused when he doesn’t get the reference. All becomes clear when I remember that I’ve forgotten the vital fact that foreign language films are universally dubbed into Italian here.

Item three: layers and language

Language is an obvious hurdle in a cross-cultural relationship. It has more levels to it than just words, though. Vocabulary is the very tip of the iceberg. Factor in things such as local dialects and phrasing along with differing cultural norms and there are myriad opportunities for misunderstanding.

Welcome to my world ...
Welcome to my world …

I grew up in a cold house which was expensive to heat. Entreaties to my dad to put the heating on would be met with a quick retort to “put another jumper on”. Layering, to me, is a way of life. Davide, on the other hand, works on a ‘what you see is what you get’ basis. In the summer, he wears shirts or printed t-shirts; in the winter, jumpers over plain, short-sleeved t-shirts which he regards as vests. If we go to a crowded restaurant in winter, he swelters, unwilling to remove his jumper and expose either his arms or his ‘underwear’.

A while ago, Davide needed a new jacket for hiking in the mountains, so off we headed to Decathlon. He was on a limited budget, and I suggested buying something lightweight and waterproof which he could layer over the top of a fleece or hoodie. He, however, was set on buying an (admittedly gert lush) insulated jacket. My reasoning that the lightweight one would see more use in a country that only has three months of cold weather fell on deaf ears: the insulated jacket was bought.

Anyone could make the same mistake ...
Anyone could make the same mistake

The following weekend, out walking in the mizzle, Davide starts bemoaning the fact that his new jacket is too hot. Exasperated, I tell him that I’d told him so: “All you really needed was a lightweight one!” Now, I admit that I’m being snippy, but I’m unprepared for him to give as good as he gets and retort, “Actually, I need both.”

I’m gobsmacked. Have I heard correctly? Did he actually just use ‘actually’ at me? How dare he?! Furious, I step up my pace and march along the path, radiating spikes of pissed-off Englishness into the muggy air.

Five minutes pass, the silence broken only by stomping footfalls and pinched, huffy breathing, before Davide speaks again. “Have I said something wrong?” Turns out that he has no idea of the effect of using ‘actually’ against an English person who’s convinced they’re in the right in an argument.

I feel somewhat silly.

This post is my contribution to February’s Italy Roundtable, and this month, I’m excited to announce that we have a new member to welcome to the Table: Michelle Fabio of Bleeding Espresso. Don’t forget to check out her – and all the other ladies’ – thoughts on this month’s subject: Lost in Translation.

10945668_877918802228277_6794141516962125727_nJessica False Friends & A False Sense of Security
Gloria Senza parole…
Rebecca Lost in Translation: Lost at the Table
Alexandra The alphabet of impossible Italian translations
Melanie Lost in Translation: Ancient Stories in Art
Michelle Lost in Translation: Adventures in Sola-tude

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About Kate Bailward

Kate Bailward is a cat-loving, trifle-hating, maniac driver. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+
This entry was posted in Eating Like a Maniac, Italy Blogging Roundtable, Living Like a Maniac and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Things my Sicilian boyfriend and I fight about

  1. Pingback: Senza parole... » At Home in Tuscany

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  3. Pingback: Italy Roundtable: Lost at the Table | Brigolante Guest Apartments

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  6. CB says:

    Brilliant article – and highlights some of the key things between Nick and I, having been brought up completely differently! Living abroad for most of my childhood, I ate all sorts of food (although I cannot eat spicy food still!), whereas he was brought up on pies, roasts and potato for most meals. I don’t get many cultural references as we didn’t have UK tv, let alone a tv until I was 10 and we returned to the UK – and even then, we were limited to 2 hours of tv watching a day and not before 5pm!

  7. Oh my gosh, yes, the TV thing, too! D’s family have the telly on while eating, while I come from a family that’s only got one telly, and that’s in the sitting room. My dad even gets antsy about having the radio on in the background haha.

  8. Haha, yes these sound quite familiar indeed, but I have to ask…what’s the deal with actually?! I’m scared now that I’ve offended English friends! ;)
    Michelle | Bleeding Espresso´s last post ..Lost in Translation: Adventures in Sola-tude

  9. I have often found it challenging to have conversations with colleagues or friends who are too many years my junior, as the cultural references are already so dissimilar. And when I’ve had to explain my American cultural references to people from England, Italy, France, etc. I’m always left thinking that many of those traditions I take for granted & never question are really, really weird.

  10. Olivia K. says:

    Ugh. I am full of calamari, and the idea of schiacciata is making me rather queasy.

    Warming the plates is either a cultural (British) thing, or a generational thing: my Mum did it too. Whenever I put dinner on unwarmed plates and it’s gone cold by the time it reaches the table, I feel guilty!

    Growing up, at dinnertime it was my job to lay the table beforehand, and wipe the cork placemats (bearing John Constable paintings of countryside and churches) afterwards. The TV absolutely had to be OFF. In later years, when we had music channels on satellite, it was also my job to choose either the jazz or classical station. I remember only a handful of times when I successfully obtained permission to eat dinner in front of the telly.

    Now, the TV is on during dinner, and Jeff lets his dinner get even colder while he searches for something, anything, to watch, and I scold him like a mother. And again, feel guilty for doing something opposite to what I was taught, even though he, too, ate at table without TV as a child.

  11. Jay says:

    Attualmente = recently. Attuale = recent. Moda attuale (idiom) = fashionable.

    There may be a ‘falsi amici’ lurking here.

    Btw, I find even when I know about a falsi amici — the words still carry the false meaning. I still find it a bit jarring when they call me a ‘stranieri’.

    Here’s a funny one for you. Sensitivo (psychic) v. Sensibile. For months, I was telling people that my wife is Sensitivo. They just politely nod and seem to take it in. On the other hand, maybe they could read my mind to know what I had actually intended…

  12. Hahaha! It’s more about the tone than anything else, Michelle. But especially if you’re contradicting something that someone’s said, if you get that tone it comes across as really arsey. Needless to say, D had no idea of these finer points, but was merely using a word that came to mind as appropriate (which, if I’m honest, he had probably picked up from his ever loving and also ever-so-slightly arsey girlfriend hahaha). Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa … ;)

  13. So true, Jessica! Culture clash definitely doesn’t just happen between those who speak different languages. As my friend commented at the top of this thread (hi, Caroline!), she and her husband also experience an element of culture clash – and they’re both English.

  14. Teehee! Those mats sound very similar to the ones that my parents still have, Liv, although they’ve updated from the old master pictures that we had as children to idyllic views of pretty English villages. My niece always insists on having the same one, of a view down to the sea in Devon.

    We don’t have a working TV in the rented flat where we’re living, so it’s been pretty easy to skirt round the issue of telly and mealtimes. When I moved in, the TV was in the kitchen, but when it started giving up the ghost I moved it into the spare bedroom. Job done. Let’s see what happens when we move into a new place – but now that we’re both used to chatting over the dinner table I think and hope it will be a pretty natural thing to keep things as they are. I’m a definite fan of the right tool for the right job – or the right room, as the case may be!

  15. Jay: sure, there are plenty of false friend situations that come up too, but on this occasion that wasn’t the case. He was actually (ha!) using ‘actually’ correctly in that situation) – what he didn’t know was the subtextual meaning to an English person, when used with a certain tone of voice. If it’s said with even the slightest hint of irritation, it comes across badly – condescending and confrontational. We English are masters of passive-aggression.

    The funniest example of a false friend that I’ve heard came from my old boss in Calabria. The first time she met her now-husband’s parents, they cooked her a special meal. She obviously rhapsodised about how wonderful all this food was, which was all well and good, and standing her in excellent stead with her future in-laws – until she said how amazing it was that it was all ‘senza preservativi’ … ;)

  16. Krista says:

    I’m laughing so hard reading this, Kate. :-) You could be describing me and my Aussie bloke. He was raised on food that I describe as “flavor optional”, while I grew up eating foods from all over. Slowly but surely we’re learning to find the good side of each other’s culinary background, but he still coughs and splutters and wheezes over anything remotely spicy. :-)
    Krista´s last post ..Books, Creativity, and Late Summer Salad

  17. Krista: D eats spicy things like a champ now, I have to say! Not so clever on the temperature hot side of things, but we’ll get there hehehe. He’s always willing to try new foods, though, which I love about him. He’s never yet turned his nose up at anything without tasting it first. Sushi and sashimi, alas, may be a lost cause, but given that his twin brother M is equally unimpressed, while M’s girlfriend is a fan, it may be that it’s one to save for a girls’ night out, while we leave the boys to their schiacciate ;)

  18. AmyEmilia says:

    Great post, Kate! My Tuscan and I fortunately agree on almost all foods, although I draw the line at polenta. That texture is just strange. Where we have the most difficulty is not culturally but in humor. He really doesn’t get any sly puns or witticisms, which are my favorite kind of humor. Might be a language issue but I’m inclined to believe it is more his very matter-of-fact personality, which doesn’t readily admit things beyond what he sees and touches. Which I love about him, but sometimes I miss banter! :)
    AmyEmilia´s last post ..Aba, Congo – December 12, 1945 Part Two

  19. Oh, polenta! D’s not at all a fan (polenta’s a northern Italian thing), so we rarely eat it. Just occasionally, in the depths of winter, it’s great at breakfast time, cooked with four times the volume of water to polenta, but it’s certainly not something that features regularly at our meals.

    Humour’s a really tricky one. Many have been the times that one of us has said something that we consider to be uproariously funny, and the other has just stared back in blank incomprehension. Hmmm – I can see this post developing into a series … ;)

    Thanks for dropping by!

  20. Oriana says:

    Hilarious. My boyfriend and I have the same sort of cultural clashes, I’m Sicilian and he’s from North Italy…
    Oriana´s last post ..[Guest post] Sicily’s Myths and Mysteries

  21. Seems like it can happen to anyone, Oriana!

  22. Pops says:

    Made me chuckle (and put on another jumper).

  23. Alison says:

    Great article! I can’t believe your boyfriend lets his coffee sit so long. I’m surprised my bf bothers with a tazzina at all and doesn’t just pour it right into his mouth!
    Alison´s last post ..On the Mozzarella (di Bufala) Trail

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