The English Emerges: My Cultural Identity

I never thought of myself as English before coming to Italy. It said as such on all my personal information, and it was the ‘British’ box I ticked when filling out forms and applications. But I never saw it as part of my identity. That is, until I moved away and discovered all the overlooked love I have more my homeland, and just how much a culture can make a person.
It is incredible how much difference a few hundred miles make to the norms of society, and while I do my best to adapt to the Italian way of life, sometimes my Englishness cannot help but emerge.  Of course, in true English fashion I keep quiet about it all – but that’s not to say I can’t publicise my thoughts online.

Italians do not understand queue forming.
It is a popular and well loved joke that us Brits love to queue, but I didn’t realise how passionate I was about the activity until I encountered the severe lack of it here in Italy. I was passing an ATM when I first encountered the disorder – a small crowd of people were gathered nearby, and I suddenly realised they were waiting their turns. Thankfully, politeness still pervades and they somehow remember their order. This is not to say that queueing is completely foreign to them: in areas where the perimeters encourage the act, such as aisles or corridors, things are generally more orderly. Some attempts are even made in more open or un-queue shaped areas, yet the results often unsettle me…horizontal queues, really, when there’s space for the vertical? Of course, proclaiming this feeling would probably result in some strange looks, since it appears to bother no one here.

The misconceptions about real British tea.
As with the queue passion, the world often associates the British with our love for tea drinking. It is such a popular stereotype that it has come up in conversation with nearly everyone I’ve met here: “you must like tea right?” “Do you miss British tea?” “Coffee? Wait, no, you prefer tea?” (it probably doesn’t help the stereotype that my answer to all of these questions is yes). Unfortunately, I’ve learnt the hard way that unless I know the person and their tea-making capabilities well, I shouldn’t accept the offer of reliving my homeland, since many Italians appear uneducated in the ways of a REAL cup of tea. Perhaps they have learnt through the representation of the Queen’s tea, and though I don’t drink a builder’s brew, I do prefer my tea to taste of something other than milk and water. Of course, even when prepared properly the flavour is never quite the same, having only the standard “English Breakfast Tea Bags” at my disposal (I often find the need to point out the error in this name, since tea is by no means just a breakfast drink, but for every occasion).

Being the only one outside when there isn’t sun.
While Northern Italy does suffer the same four seasons as Britain, I have found the people are far more reliant on sunny weather for enjoying the outdoors. For instance, provided it is not raining buckets or below freezing temperature, I nearly always spend part of the day outside with the toddler I care for – to the lake, park, castle, or simply for a walk around the centre. Yet other than two of my friends (also both foreign to Italy), I often find I am the only one to be doing so. The country lives for the sun, seemingly hibernating when it is not about. They don’t have the same secret love of rainy days, with their opportunities for both puddle jumping and grumbling about the weather (which we are actually enjoying simply for the conversation topic). Nor do they have the tolerance to get outside and enjoy the day anyway – I can’t imagine their horror at the majority of our music festivals, since drizzles would give them reason to cancel events.

Struggling to protect my personal bubble.
Though not a nation known for its affection, I hadn’t realised how cold us English are towards strangers, and how frightened we are to make bodily contact with anyone other than close friends and family. On my arrival to Italy I was greeted by the mother with a kiss on each cheek, as is custom here – yet I can’t remember the last time I kissed my own father. Thankfully, I have become close with my Italian family, and so feel comfortable with their affection. However, it still remains a different matter with strangers. I am always slightly shocked when kissing people who are barely acquaintances, and public transportation can be equally unsettling, with seat neighbours often not feeling the need to leave the customary gap, but being perfectly comfortable with our legs touching. My legs are my own property and don’t appreciate being rubbed up by a perfect stranger. Even in a cramped English bus, you will find most people determined to avoid bodily contact. Though I enjoy the generally warmer attitude here, I often crave the personal bubble I could create in England.

The lack of recognition toward social awkwardness.
This relates to all other Italian situations where I recognise my nationality, since I realise now it is a very English trait: Italians are either far more comfortable in general, or far better at hiding or overcoming their uncomfortableness than us English folk. The awkwardness of meeting a friend’s friends, of formal situations, of flirting, are simply not recognised. In fact, to be “awkward” simply doesn’t exist, with no literal translation. As noted in my Meaning of Home post, the closest relation is “scomodo”, meaning “uncomfortable”, but this just doesn’t quite capture the feeling us English have in so many social situations. Italian, it seems, are made for socialising, feeling very little if no self I consciousness – this culture has certainly helped improve my own confidence with people, yet often I still feel awkward in myself solely for the strangeness of the situation (being greeted by a stranger with kisses, for instance), and consequently crave the national understanding of this feeling that there is in England.

There are countless things I have grown to love about Italian culture, but there are also countless other things I have discovered about myself that are apparently very particular to the English culture. I am both cursed and blessed to always be the polite, slightly reserved, awkward English girl who loves her tea and queueing.

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