Culture Shock


We’ve been back for three days, but sometimes, Italy seems like it never happened.  It’s like a book we read or a dream we had.  Time feels distorted.  I feel disconnected.  It’s as if half of me missed the connecting flight.  Sometimes I can picture the windows overlooking Via Mazzini or the green tiles in the bathroom or the handle on the refrigerator door; it’s all so vivid. I am there.  But it disappears quickly when I open my eyes.  Then there are phantom sounds.  Yesterday, I thought I heard an Italian police siren in the distance.  This morning I thought far-off church bells were ringing.  But usually, it’s just very, very quiet here.

A friend pointed out that culture shock is more acute when one returns home after a long trip.  I think I understand.  When we left for Italy, everything was disorienting and different.  We expected it, and the adjustment came gradually and unnoticed because our brains knew they had to learn how to function in new surroundings.  Then, when we came back to our old home, the familiarity registered instantly and subconsciously; these past few days, I defer to rote movements when turning on the kitchen burners or unlocking the door.  However, these little tasks can surprise me.  My hands are used to pushing the knobs of the stovetop before turning.  When that doesn’t work, I need a moment to catch up and make sense of it all.  My brain says “home” but my muscle memory says a different home.  And in that moment, the colors of our Perugia apartment surround me.  And my heart dips as I realize again that we are no longer there.  I’m surprised when the clerk bags my groceries for me or when pencils have erasers or when there is no hard  mineral residue in my pot of boiling water.

I’m trying to figure out how to bridge the chasm between the two lives.  I want to make the experience of our last year part of me.  I want to stay connected and remember everything, but I don’t know how.

I had two wonderful encounters at the grocery store today.  The first was with Sara.  When I called her name, we ran into each other’s arms.  It was emotional and a little loud.  It was happy and exciting and full of disbelief that here we were together after a year.  It felt really good.  Soon after, when I was in the dairy department, I overheard an older couple looking for pecorino cheese, and they were speaking Italian.  So I quickly jumped in.  I told them I had just returned from Italy.  I asked where they were from.  We talked about Sicily and Umbria.  I helped them find the right cheese.  Then I helped them find Italian rice and Italian flour.  We kept talking and talking.  Then we made a coffee date for next Monday at 10am!  They are my new friends.  When I walked out of the store, I was feeling alive and hopeful.

Lights, Penguins and Baby Jesuses

Perugia's Fontana Maggiore with the city's brightest Christmas tree

Perugia’s Fontana Maggiore with some holiday lights

We don’t have a Christmas tree (or any decorations for that matter).  The only sign of December inside our apartment is the freezing cold.  We bought two more blankets yesterday.

But outside, it’s beautiful. Every street in downtown Perugia is illuminated with big hanging lights.  Even on the most rainy and windy nights, we make time to take a walk.  It feels so festive and winter-wonderlandy.

A view down Corso Vanucci

One of the things I love most about Italy in December are the nativity scenes.  They are everywhere.  All the churches have one.  Many of the stores too.  Even the banks.  There seems to be no limit to how grand, gaudy, quirky, confusing, unique, extravagant, or detailed these displays are.

Tonight, Ray and I walked down to Sant’ Antonio Church to see for ourselves what Perugians call the best nativity scene in the city.  It was kind of a long walk from our apartment.  But as soon as we entered the back room of this church and saw the extravagant display, my throat constricted and I kind of felt like crying.  The nativity village was animated with sounds of thunder clapping, a fire crackling, a baby crying, and soft lullabies – all the sounds you might expect from that legendary night.  Then after several minutes, everything changed.  A rooster crowed and the “sun” rose.  The entire scene changed from night to day.  Many of the tiny figurines came to life.  A woman started baking bread.  A man cast a fishing line into the river.  And two friends started playing cards.  Ray and I stayed for three or four “days” continually finding more hidden details in the scene.

A small corner of the city's largest nativity scene at Sant' Antonio Abbate

A small, but important, corner of the nativity scene at Sant’ Antonio Abbate

A game of poker occurring simultaneously with the birth of Baby Jesus.

A game of poker occurring simultaneously with the birth of Baby Jesus. 

A woman baking bread in an oven that really flickered.

A woman baking bread in an oven with flames that really flicker.

As we left, the attendant thanked us for coming and encouraged us to return when the snow machine is working and the village gets a blizzard.

Another hallmark of a Perugian Christmas are the penguins that line the street on Via dei Priori.   These penguins are all designed on cardboard.  They stand alone or nestled in groups among window displays.  This “Invasion of Penguins” is based on a story about Perugia where all the citizens disappear as penguins fill the streets.  It’s cute and kind of fun to look for hidden penguins.  But today I talked with a shopkeeper on Via dei Priori who admitted to not liking the story because of its subtle racist undertones.  So I picked up a copy of the story to try and figure out what he’s talking about. I’ll let you know.

A few penguins at the bookstore.


Our Apartment in Perugia

We’ve been here almost three months.  And while we have no intention of staying a single day over one year, we do refer to this place as home.  When we visit another city for the weekend, we come home on Sunday.  When we pick up the boys from school, we come home for lunch.  And after an afternoon navigating the foreign, loud, confusing city below, we can always retreat to our apartment and feel like it’s ours.  It’s a good place.

But not perfect.

By now we’ve had time to get familiar with the nuances.  The good has only gotten better, and for the most part, the bad is just a big inconvenience. For anyone interested, here’s a little tour.

I’ll start with the disadvantages

1.  The water.  One of the first things I noticed when we moved in, was a strange, filmy, white residue left in the pot after we boiled water.  And the tea always has the look of an oil slick floating around on top.  I thought the pot had some leftover toxins from the previous tenants, but after buying a new pot, I had the same problem.  So I Googled “white residue” which led me to “hard water” which led to “calcium and iron magnesium”.  It turns out this suspicious film is a result of all the mineral deposits.  Upon further investigation, I learned that we are getting a full day’s supply of calcium and magnesium just by drinking water from the facet!  So this actually might be a good thing.  But it’s gross.

left: the mineral deposits left over in the pot.      right: the sludgy look of tea made with a daily dose of calcium and magnesium.

2.  Old appliances that break or don’t work well.   Since we’ve moved in, we’ve had to replace the washing machine and the refrigerator.  We had to live without both for nearly four weeks.  Then last month we had to repair the hot water heater after two days of freezing, cold water.  And the intercom used to communicate with visitors when they arrive downstairs (and also open the door to our building) hasn’t worked for weeks, meaning one of us has a long hike every time a someone rings, which leads me to . . .

3.  Living on the sixth floor.  There is no elevator in our building.  We climb up and down 89 steps at least three times a day.  I never buy more than a day’s worth of groceries at a time, one reason being that it would be too heavy.  I dread the ascent after a weekend away with the extra weight of suitcases.  It’s tiring.  It’s sweaty.  But I think I’m getting stronger.

4.  The shower leaks and makes a puddle on the bathroom floor after each use.

5.  The toilets are really hard to flush.

6.  We have woodworms in all the antique furniture and wood shelves.  I’ve tried getting rid of them, but they seem to be very resilient.  They have burrowed themselves too deep in the wood for me to see, but they leave plenty of evidence with a brown, sawdusty powder all over.

7.  The bells.  Outside our bedroom window is the city bell tower.  It rings every hour.  It also rings every 15 minutes.   Matt did the math; that God forsaken bell rings 456 times a day.

I’m starting to detect a little whine in my voice, so I’m going to switch over to the benefits of this lovely place.

1.  The ceiling.  Above the living room is a bright fresco of a horn, a ribbon, and some holly branches.  Another ceiling has beautiful red stones mortared into it.  I love it.  When I look up, there is no doubt we are in Italy.

2.  The boys each have their own room.  This has been so nice, especially since there isn’t a back yard to play in or much space in the apartment to get away from each other.  When they need a break from the rest of the family, they now have their own place to be alone.

Tom’s room is decorated with football pictures he gets in the mail from friends back home.  (Those are all his school books stacked on the right.)

3.  The location.  No other detail about our life here makes as big a difference as this one.  We are in the middle of it all.  We are in the center of the center.  With the warm weather, we keep the windows open and can hear silverware and plates down below at Perugia’s most popular restaurant.  The boys can go downstairs and across the street to the best gelataria in town, and we can see them the whole time from our windows.  We are are less than five minutes by foot to the kids’ school.  From our dining room table, there is the frequent sound of street musicians.  Then there is the constant traffic of fashionably dressed Italians walking past down below.  We are surrounded with so much vibrancy and energy.  It feels great.

4.  The way our oven cooks potatoes.  This is weird, but every time I make roasted potatoes, they turn out perfectly.  I don’t even have to do anything except cut them up and pour salt and olive oil over them.   I don’t even know how hot the oven is because it’s in celsius.  I just turn it on the highest number and check on them every 10 minutes.  It’s amazing.

5.  The fireplace.  There’s a little fireplace built into the wall.  You can see it from the photo above.  It’s adorable, and I think it will be really cozy in the winter if we can find some place to buy wood.

6.  The postcard wall.  Every time we visit a new city, we add a postcard from that location to our kitchen wall.  As the postcards accumulate, the wall of this apartment record the highlights of our year.

6.  The photo wall.  Thank God the apartment came fully furnished.  The landlords have done a nice job decorating it.  Most of their paintings on the wall are fine, but we knew we would want something from home to make this place feel like ours.  So we brought pictures of all our friends and family and stuck them above the shelves in the entryway.  It looks fantastic.

7.  A place for Luke.   The top shelf is dedicated to Luke.  In addition, we packed the pink candle that we light in his memory.  And I brought the framed picture that our friend gave us on the five-year anniversary.  It’s called Flight of the Recently Departed.  We keep them together near the kitchen table.  They hold a space for Luke.  While we didn’t bring very many personal items for home, these were essential.  These pictures and objects of Luke’s might be the most important features of our apartment.

Day 2

a reenactment

No one is loving it yet.  I remind the boys (and Matt reminds me) that things will look up, and we need to be patient. We moved into our apartment yesterday morning.  It was very stuffy  and dusty.  But it’s a really pretty place,  I cleaned out the drawers and cupboards, Matt opened all the windows.  The boys unpacked.  Then we bought sheets and started a load of laundry.  At 1:00 we took a break for lunch.  The owner welcomed us to Perugia by waving the bill.  On the way back to the apartment, Matt decided to go shopping and take care of errands.  The boys and I said we’d see him back home in a few hours.

However, the nap we were looking for would not happen. As we entered, we saw to our horror that the floor was flooded. Our washing machine had broke and was gushing water throughout the house. I quickly ran to the third floor and switched off the water valve then ran back inside to assess the disaster. The bathroom and living room were submerged in ¼ inch of water.  This totally sucked. We filled three buckets with the flood waters, dragged the carpets outside to dry, and finally finished the clean up just in time for Matt’s return.