American Woman, Italian Man: Our Intercultural Relationship Experience

When my boyfriend and I, who I will refer to as “A”, first started dating, I had a hard time adjusting to the cultural norms of Italians in general. The family dynamics, the rules about coffee and food, how to dress, and how to act in public, and even how to speak to people were all things that were completely new to me and things I had to get used to.
One thing, specifically, that I couldn’t get over was the fact that I was dating a 31 year old man who still lived with his mother, shared a room with his 34 year old brother, and never had to cook for himself, do his own laundry, or even grocery shop! Really, that one took me awhile to get used to, and to be honest, as an American I still struggle with it. I kept thinking oh my god, if we were in America I’d be running for the hills; this would never happen! But, I had to remember that I was the one who chose to move to a different country and needed to be open minded. Plus, most places in the world believe families should live together until marriage, or even after marriage. In fact, Italians think it’s weird that we as a culture are so independent and can live so far away from our own families, like on another continent, for example, yet still say that we are close with our moms. Living in another city is far enough for them. How else would they’re laundry get done if they lived so far from mamma?

On the positive side, we loved how different we were and how much we were learning from each other. The difference of culture was fun and kept things interesting longer than in a standard same-culture relationship. Since I’m here living in Italy, I am learning so much more because I’m dating an Italian. It’s helped me a lot, even with something as seemingly simple as proper pronunciation in Italian. I’ve benefitted greatly thriving in this country from having him in my life, and I recognize that. His English has also improved, since that’s the main language we communicate in due to the fact that his English is better than my Italian. There are definitely pros to match the cons of our situation.

A is fascinated with learning about American culture from an American and used to constantly ask silly questions about what he’s seen in movies thinking it was true. “Do they really have crazy parties where everyone is drunk and doing stupid things all the time?!” A would ask. “Um, I mean, I guess, but not like every weekend, and definitely not in high school in the way you see it in the movies. That’s usually how it is in college.” I would respond. He also loves to make outdated references and thinks Homer Simpson is hilarious and the average American man and calls me Homer whenever I crave sweets.

He secretly wonders if I’m an alcoholic because I have 2-3 drinks during a late night out with friends, and that’s me keeping it classy. Most Florentine women don’t drink, and if they do, they have one. His friends always make comments, surprised about how much I [can] drink, simply because they’ve never seen a female drink more than one cocktail or glass of wine in one night. It’s not cool to get drunk in Italy. If I’d have known that, I would have picked a different country. I miss America sometimes. Wait, that sounds semi-alcoholic of me….or is it just American of me? I can’t tell the different anymore, so I’ll do what I want and take the judgey eyes from the snobby Italians, I don’t care.

Another thing that is different about dating an Italian is the relationship timeline. My god, was this one a shocker.  As our relationship continued, I learned more and more about the relationship standards and the normal steps a couple takes before marriage. I, admittedly, assumed that Italians were all about family, nosey in-laws, marriage, babies and all the other stereotypical traditions that come to mind when you think of Italians. But, boy, was I surprised to learn the reality. In my experience (Tuscany), it’s normal that couples date for long periods of time- I’m talking years in the double digits- before marriage. Hell, it’s even normal for them to live together and have a baby before ever even thinking of a wedding! That threw me for a loop seeing as how my assumptions were turned upside down. From what I’ve seen here, Italian men are marriage phobic and want to extend their relationship as along as possible before taking the plunge and saying “I do”, or whatever it is that they say in Italian wedding vows. I’ve even been told that living together is considered bigger than marriage because it’s a bigger life change than a ceremony and a legal bind. What?! So, in my mind that was immediately translated to ‘it’s a really big deal if they leave mamma’s house to live with another woman, so you better feel lucky if it happens’. Then, after a couple has been living together, marriage is the there’s the whole why-buy-the-cow-if-you-can-get-the-milk-for-free situation. Marriage just isn’t a priority like it used to be. Maybe it’s because of the economy and couples need two incomes nowadays to survive without worrying about more expenses like a wedding; or maybe because it’s really hard to get a divorce in this traditional, Catholic based country so they want to be extra sure they’re making the right choice. Either way, I was really surprised to learn that.

That being said, I’m still American and have my own set of values and ideas of how things should go in a relationship. I have lived with boyfriends in past serious relationships, but A has never lived with a girlfriend, so for him, it’s a big deal to leave home. Maybe I’m more lighthearted about it because I know it may or may not be a forever situation, but his attitude towards it seems different than mine; heavier. He brought up moving in together one day casually after dinner one night. He said it as if it was happening and was trying not to make it a big deal, but I could tell that for him, this was it. More important than a proposal, bigger than marriage, and more serious than moving in with your significant other in America seems to be. But the thing is, he didn’t even ask me. It was just decided, and in his mind, why would I say no? I’ve lived with all my other serious relationships, right? Well, just like marriage proposals in Italy (which are not an event or proper proposal like in the US), neither is asking someone to move in together. Italians like to keep it cool and a transition to living together is more their style than actually asking the other person and taking their relationship to the next level, apparently. So, that’s weird.

On the positive side, we have a lot of fun talking about our views about different things, even if we don’t agree. Italy is a religious and traditional country where the government is still influenced by the Pope. I, being from liberal Los Angeles where you can be whoever you are/want to be, oddball and all, am very open minded and accepting to different types of people. I believe in the equality of the races and sexes, and the equality of all sexual orientations, identities and everything in between. I believe that any loving, able family should be allowed to adopt children as well. From what I’ve seen here, coming out is a relatively new concept here in Italy and even then, it is not to the full extent. Some people even think it’s a fashion fad to come out as a gay male, since a lot of men in the fashion industry are homosexual. I really couldn’t believe my ears when I heard that many people think it’s “fashionable” to be a gay man. Needless to say, there are some things that are completely culturally different and I can’t change that, but I do try my best to educate the Italians I know about gay culture. We disagree about these types of things and sometimes I question our relationship because of our difference of opinions about those topics, but I have to remember that we come from completely different parts of the world.

We also tend to deal with people differently when we have a problem. For example, we are both nice people and treat others the way we would like to be treated, but here in Florence where there tend to be more snobby people than not, I have a hard time keeping my inner bitch under wraps. I can’t stand people who are rude and short with someone for no reason. I immediately get defensive and dish it back, but A told me that sometimes my “American behavior” is too much for the situation. That makes me chuckle because he has no idea what my attitude problem really looks like when I can speak the same language as the person it’s aimed at. It is also ironic because Italians are infamous for arguing passionately, then act like nothing ever happened. This is something I found to be culturally true. They have no problem raising their voices at people and speaking their minds, then getting over it just as fast as it started. I can get with that.

Maybe I embarrass him sometimes by not understanding social norms, social cues, or things that are rude in their culture, but I feel like it’s more or less similar to the US. Last week we were at a bar (coffee shop) where there was a beautiful coffee roaster behind the barista on display since the place roasted its own coffee. Being a curious coffee lover, I wanted him to ask the barista who roasts the coffee to ask a few questions about how it works. He completely dismissed me, simply saying “It’s not nice to ask”. I didn’t understand and proceeded to ask why, and he just sipped his cappuccino smugly and acted like he didn’t hear me. I was so irritated, and when we left he was actually upset with me like I did something wrong! In the end, we realized it was handled in the wrong way and we were both misunderstood. The miscommunication was something that could have been avoided if he used it as a teaching moment and had simply said, “In Italy, it is considered rude to ask people about how they operate their business because it seems intrusive”. But no, he just ignored me. He treated me like a child with an idiotic question that he ignored instead of helping. “What if she spoke English and understood? I didn’t want to talk about it in front of her. It’s not nice. She also seemed like she didn’t want to talk, so I didn’t want to bother her.” Italians in the service industry are not friendly like in the US. They don’t work for tips, and their attitude shows it. They do their job, and that’s it. Things like that irritate me beyond all belief. The social norms here are followed like they’re a commandment from God himself. Don’t stray, don’t stand out. I have a hard time with that one.

Overall, though, my experiences have been great. Our relationship is exciting, I learn something new everyday, and the language barrier makes for some hilarious misunderstandings that have us aching with laughter most of the time. I feel there is a deeper level of trust since we rely on each other so much more than couples of the same culture. I admit, maybe I rely on him more than he relies on me since I am living in his country, but when we’re in America, he leans on me the same way, so it ends up being equal. It forces us to grow together and learn from and with each other, which makes for a stronger bond in our relationship. We are forced to communicate clearer and be more patient with each other, which all long term relationships seem to need after some time.

Dating someone from another culture will always have its difficulties, but if you can accept the other person for who they are and understand where they come from, you can have a rich and full relationship constantly learning and trying new things with someone from a different culture. If you are lucky enough to experience dating someone from another culture, take advantage of the learning opportunity and be open to learning about where they come from. You will be happy you did, whether it works out or not, you will have a deeper understanding of a culture outside your own.

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