Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Here at St. Clouds

Our time here is dwindling. In ten weeks we fly home. I am closing up shop: packing, shipping, throwing out, giving away (treadmill anyone?). I have spent much of this year pondering the bottomless question: how is life different on this side of the pond? It is hard to know exactly what I am trying to compare as my life changes were so confounded. North America to Europe? Canada to Italy? Quebec to Trieste? Big city to small city? Professional woman to stay-at-home mom?

I guess I feel I know enough of North American culture, having lived in 4 provinces, 1 state and visited over 30 states for work, to make a comparison between North America and the small piece of Italy in which we happen to live. I don't know how well the generalizations I have made about la vie quotidienne here port to other parts of Italy let alone other parts of Europe.

I find the pace of life here very slow. Whether this is a function of being in a small town (250,000), being a stay at home mom or a function of being in Italy or Europe, who knows? I don't have the frazzled sense that I had in Montreal, which FYI I miss!, nor do I have the sense that I need to be efficient and quick when dealing with people because otherwise I am wasting their precious time. How can one be efficient and quick when most interactions start with 3-5 minutes of baby admiration, followed by half a dozen questions about the baby before actually turning to the business at hand? The rhythm of the days has been hard to get used to with the 3-4 hour siesta in the middle of the day and on Sundays (and often Mondays) things just don't happen. Period.

Work-life balance actually seems to exist here. People do not define themselves by what they do. The perennial North American question "what do you do for a living?" rarely comes up here. Family time is precious. Precious to the point that people are rarely invited to the family home, it is a bit of a sacred place. People seem to socialize in restaurants, piazzas, bars, but invitations to dinner at home are rare and extended mostly to the extended family and very close friends.

Opportunity, on the whole, seems to be less. I do NOT have the sense that if you work hard enough you can be/do anything you want. I have the sense that if your family is important, and you know the right people and you work very hard you can rise to the level to which you were expected to rise. The economy seems to be much more service-based than in North America so there are simply fewer jobs available in high tech fields or innovation or research and development. I have met far more people here who work in bars, restaurants, hotels, stores, factories than anything else and I think that is simply a function of these jobs being the most numerous, by far.

Doing things right: in seeming contrast to the slower pace of life is the notion of doing things right. Hobbies are not undertaken casually here. There is a society for almost every pursuit no matter how esoteric and the sense that if one undertakes an activity it should be done rigorously. I have certainly seen this in the bureaucracy and ceremony surrounding even the most local of road race around here. 

Money is not spent frivolously here and my impression is that consumer debt is low. I have, on numerous occasions, been told by a sales or service person that the option/object/service I am considering is too expensive without even being told the price. On these occasions I did not interpret this as the salesperson thinking I was too shabbily dressed to possibly be able to afford the item in question but rather that no reasonable person of normal income would be irresponsible to enough to spend that shocking amount of money on that item. People do not tend to carry a balance on their credit card and typically loans are taken out only for the purchase of a home.

Leaving the nest: children do not leave the nest until quite late in Italy. The concept of going to a different city/province/region for university is largely unheard of due to the cost of housing and living. This tends to happen only if pursuing the education of one's choice is not possible in one's home town. Perhaps North Americans are so entrained to the idea of taking on debt for education that the additional burden of food and housing is not considered a barrier. Regardless the result is that Italians live at home typically until at least their mid-twenties often moving out when they get married. This, I feel, is quite different from the typical North American dorm/university apartment experience. 

The stereotype that Italians love babies is absolutely true. As far as I can tell, the social hierarchy here is: newborns, infants, toddlers, dogs, primary school children, all other children, all other people. I will certainly miss having my baby fawned over. When I walk into a restaurant/bus/other public place, I can see the anticipation on people's faces as they hope the baby will sit near them. In Montreal I see the dread on people's faces as they hope the baby will just go away.

After almost a year here I have grown to love and appreciate many aspects of life here. I have made far more friends than I expected to and feel fortunate that they were all so welcoming to me. I have achieved a higher level of Italian than I expected to (though it is still definitely cringe-worthy). Ultimately though I am a new-worlder at heart. I am sure I will miss our time here and look back on it with great nostalgia. I do wish we had more than 10 weeks left as there are so many beautiful places we have not explored but I will be ready to cross the pond and go home.


  1. You Italian hater. Is there a word for that like anti-semitist? Anyway, I love this post. It sounds like Denmark is really a half way point between Southern European culture and North American. I remember being weirded out by the slowness of things in Southern France, but I always figured they knew something about life I didn't. But despite admiring their slowness, I never adpated to it. But there is no siesta in France. That is something I'm sure would have driven me crazy. It was a really interestng post, anyway, and I regret that we won't get a chance to visit you in Trieste and experience it through your eyes. I'm just impressed that you mananged to learn Italian so much about their culture in such a short time, all the while knowing it was just temporary. Now I need to ask a dumb question: what is "St. Clouds"?

  2. though the pace of life here does seem slow, children do go to school on Saturdays, that was a shock!
    i actually do love it here, but as you say, i cannot seem to adjust. it feels like a fabulous adventure, not like home.
    st. clouds - not a dumb question. i recently read "The Cider House Rules" by John Irving (which, like all of his novels, is lingering persistently in my mind). One of the protagonists is a doctor running an orphanage named St. Clouds. He keeps a running diary throughout the book and one of his passions is comparing life "here in St Clouds" to "the rest of the world" which I thought was nicely symbolic of how his world is so cleanly divided into his little slice of it and the ROW (rest of the world). kind of an obscure reference for my own amusement, thanks for asking.

  3. Re: your question. I signed up for the Mankato Marathon here in Minnesota(Oct. 23). I'm already regretting it.

  4. I have actually read this post three times now, mostly because you haven't posted in a while, but also because it's full of interesting observations.

    Comparing Denmark to the US is a hobby of mine, so it's interesting to see Canada compared to Italy. You are probably aware of the idealization of Canada by many Europeans living in the US, and I have been guilty of that idealization myself. I was hoping for some uniquely Canadian properties, I guess.

    And I keep thinking that your Canada sounds like Denmark and your Italy sounds like the US.

    The baby fawning and slow pace of life both seem so American (ie. USA) to me. I think of grocery store lines and longwinded conversations; people paying with personal cheques and cash, while other people wait happily.

  5. FB - interesting that you find the US has a slow pace of life. I don`t think I have ever heard that opinion expressed before. I had not posted in awhile b/c I have been occupied with other things (as you can read about in my latest post) however one thing I wish I had added in this post was how incredibly un-energy efficient Canada and the US are compared to Europe. Now that I have spent a year in Europe I am completely aghast that we do not run cars on diesel in the US and Canada.

  6. Thanks for the bday wishes! Running is going well despite it being over 30 celcius and very humid (heat index 40 celcius or so), still managing my weekly mileage though often my legs feel very stiff and heavy. Midwife says it is due to increased blood volume. I'm wearing a belly support band that seems to help with the abdominal pain I was starting to get.