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