Archive for ‘language and culture’

December 5, 2012

anatomy of an argument – sweating the small stuff

27.03.2011 – Journal entry [btw, we’re fine]

Well yesterday started out ok then M. and I had a massive row at the supermarket, after we’d been running in the park, about something ridiculously trivial and I am still in a rage about it. It’s making me feel crazy. I have just tried to clear the air, but M. maintains he has nothing to say, he’s happy, he got up early this morning, he’s feeling a bit tired, but otherwise he’s fine. I am seething. I’m not sure why I am making such a big deal of this. He has nothing to say and I can’t bring myself to look at or speak to him.

I am convinced that M. was trying to pick a fight with me. He won’t admit it. He reckons I escalated it beyond the two-minute moan he was having about my having bought an unnecessary plastic bag at the supermarket, and beginning to expand on the theme about how wasteful I am and all the food I’ve ever bought which I haven’t eaten. Perhaps I did. But I could feel a cloud descending on me as he repeated variations on the theme over and over again.

It’s not as if he was paying. It’s not as if the plastic bag wouldn’t get used as a dustbin bag anyway. It’s not as if I’m never going to miscalculate the number of bags we need again, and will be penalized to the tune of 15c. And since I’m the one who does most of the shopping, and I prefer to have too many plastic bags than over-fill too few, plus I pay for the fucking stuff, I don’t see why I should have to listen to him droning on about it. So it feels like he was picking a fight.

So why did I take the bait? I was starting to feel resentful, thinking how happy I’d felt running around the park, how relaxed, how normally right now I’d be in a dreamy state of well-being and instead I’m being nagged, having my balls broken about something absolutely trivial. I kept thinking “don’t sweat the small stuff”, actually, I kept thinking “why does he have to sweat the small stuff”. Maybe if I’d been thinking the first thing, I’d have been better able to resist the temptation to explode, because that’s what I did in the end. I told him to shut up, SHUT UP, SHUT UP!!!! I think I might have missed the stage of politely asking him to change the subject. No, I didn’t. I could probably have been more polite or humourous about it, but I did ask him to change the subject.

Did I tell him he was right? He said something strange yesterday morning, that he was going to have to leave me because I always told him he was right. I often appease him, it’s the easiest way. He also said that it was because he was nearly always right, and I’d do better to just listen to him and do whatever he says. At the time this was a light-hearted conversation, but I wonder if there’s anything behind it.

Anyway, after I told him to SHUT UP, he didn’t, which ramped up my frustration, which was rapidly turning into rage, even further, and I doubled back on myself and took the parallel route home so I wouldn’t have to keep listening to him. Unfortunately I was the only one who had the keys, so he was waiting for me. We got home in silence, with me banging every door I could. He seemed calm and cheerful. It felt a bit sadistic.

This does remind me of rowing with mum. I think she believed this was what communication was about, this was how people were supposed to interact with each other, this was “being Italian”, being honest, being oneself, expressing one’s feelings. I would be the one having the amygdala hijack, and I’d feel completely drained and crazy afterwards.

It’s funny, M.’s always more likely to do this when people are coming over, especially if it’s D. He has been known to behave like a whiny pain in the arse with T. around as well, but less so.

What happened when we got back? It was quite late, so I started tidying up the house, clearing the table in the kitchen. M. started to go on about the plastic bags again, because, evidently, I hadn’t understood what he was trying to say. I started screaming at him to shut up, what was there not to understand that he’s pissed off because I bought a plastic bag we didn’t need, and how dare he break my balls about something so fucking trivial, about a 15c bag. How would he like it if I broke his balls in this way? I don’t break his balls so why the fuck does he think it’s alright to break mine. He denied he was breaking my balls, at which point I threw the folded-up table-cloth at him.

I went into the living room to try and cool off. I realized that wasn’t going to happen so I decided to have a shower. I’d just finished getting dressed when D. & A. arrived. There followed a fairly excruciating day of my pretending that everything was alright. M. was showing affection towards me, leaning against me at the table, but as soon as D. & A. went outside on the balcony for a smoke, he said, half jokingly, “I hate you, and I’m going to hate you until you apologise.” I couldn’t trust myself to speak. Before D & A came back, I hissed at him in the toilet that I was happy to apologise if he was. He announced that he had nothing to apologise for.

Is it too much to ask that he shows some basic consideration of my feelings, like if I’m clearly about to erupt with fury to stop doing whatever it is he’s doing which is presumably provoking it, reasonable or not? Apparently it’s too much to ask. I really feel like I’m dealing with Sheldon here, but am I being a bit Sheldon-like?

November 26, 2012

Autumn, doing its thing

26.11.2012 – a rainy Monday in Milan, on my way to work, a rare opportunity to see leaves on the ground before the park keepers clean up the ‘mess’

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November 23, 2012

the house mum grew up in


November 22, 2012

a good way to start the day

23.03.11 Wednesday

Signs of Spring: yesterday morning, my taxi driver, about 79, practically wolf-whistled at me when he picked me up. He said, ‘what a beautiful nordic woman. Where are you from?’ I told him I was English. At one point he said I had ‘the body of a thiry-year-old’ – obviously not the face, then (I had been up since 4.45 am) – I think that made me laugh out loud with embarrassment, although I was pleased as well. He asked if I had trouble with ‘latin lovers’ – I think he said this in English. I said no, I should have added, not any more. I’ve been thinking recently, admitting to myself that I like living in Italy because I still stand out in a crowd, whereas in England I look the same as anybody else.

November 13, 2012

Italian leave-taking rituals

20.10.12 journal while in Morgex

I can think of only two aspects of living in Italy that I find intolerable: Italian TV, and Italian leave-taking rituals, which take between 20-30 minutes during which everyone seems to talk to each another more than they have done all evening. Objectively this is quite a sweet ritual, left over from the days when Northern Italians were care-free individuals who took siestas and weren’t slaves to schedules like the rest of Northern Europe. In practice, I get horrifically bored and it’s just not that practical in Milan in winter to stand around nattering for twenty minutes in the freezing cold outside the nice warm restaurant you’ve just vacated. Me I’m all for god’s sake, you’ve just spent ALL EVENING with these people, let’s GO, for fuck’s sake!

Fabrizio made me laugh the other day when we were talking about national communication styles, and said that whenever Lucia had to tell him something she “began in the Paleolithic era,” confirming that Italians like to give exhaustive amounts of detail when exchanging information. English communication is much more about “need to know,” which I’ve always felt I was on the wrong end of, deemed “not necessary to tell,” “Not required to know.”

November 10, 2012

communication, Italian-style

Journal 11.02.12

Communication in M.’s family: everyone engages in a kind of stream-of-consciousness commentary on what they’re doing, what they’ve done,  what they’re going to do, and constantly judges and comments on each other – all of this simultaneously, so they are often talking over each other. I think this is what dad meant by “Italian” communication.

It used to drive dad crazy, when, at the dinner table in Italy, he’d just have finished telling a story, and my grandfather, who’d been talking to my uncle, would say, “Who? What did they do?” and expect dad to start all over again. Then when he’d finish telling it again, my uncle, who’d been talking to my mother would say, “Who? What did they do?” This would go on, until every member of the family was sure they’d heard the story.

Dad dismissed this as crazy and chaotic, with no-one ever listening to each other but when it works, a lot of information is exchanged very effectively. It can also become pathologically critical, competitive and “invasivo” – the Italian  for ‘invasive’, a term that’s used for behaviour as well as for surgery.

In my English-dominant-culture family, communication was very top-down, i.e. dad-down, one-on-one, and there wasn’t very much of it. English children should be seen and not heard. Italian children need to be emitting a high-piched racket all the time so their mothers can always tell where they are.

November 6, 2012

non-verbal communication breakdown

20.10.12 – journal in Morgex

Is my frustration with being talked at for hours another symptom of my misanthropy/ undiagnosed Asperger’s or is M.’s family really annoying? I assume that if I’m sitting there reading, or typing on my computer that this will be taken as a strong signal that I don’t want to be disturbed. This is obviously one of my remaining British pre-conceptions, as reading is considered vaguely anti-social over here, and of course you’d prefer real human interaction to that.  Still, I have not yet worked out how to extricate myself from my mother-in-law’s hour-long monologues about stuff she must remember she’s told me before. Sometimes I see it as a kind of payment for the hospitality and affection she has always extended towards me.

Two carpenters are staying here to do various jobs around the house. The two of them on Friday had been up since 4.00 am, and were only released from company at 10.30 p.m. Yesterday we had dinner downstairs, and G. & L. were holding forth until nearly 11.00. The older guy didn’t seem to mind, the younger guy, like me, seemed desperate for some peace and quiet. Finally, I put my jacket on and started giving very hard-to-miss leaving signals, and ended up waiting for 10 minutes outside for the others to come up and let me in. The younger guy, kept disappearing for a smoke and to make phonecalls. The older guy excused his rude behavior, saying he’s a bit “rozzo” – uncouth. God, what does that make me?

November 4, 2012

first world problems: 3 haikus about living in Milan



Drink up, pay up and

Leave. Milanese cafés don’t

Like you to linger.


My cappuccino,

Tepid, just as it should be.

But, please, in winter?


Lindt, I can’t find your

Caramel à la Pointe de

Sel in Italy

October 26, 2012

turns out I’m right to be scared of cows

26.10.12 Thursday

I read somewhere that in the UK there’s a surprising number of cow-related deaths every year. They may look cow-like, docile, but their horns are harder than bull’s horns, I seem to remember reading somewhere else, and they weigh A LOT. The heaviest class of fighting cow on Sunday weighed around 600-800 kilos. The 600 kilo ones were the meanest.

I am not going to check the above facts, in case I’m wrong, and the reality is disappointing. Like with ostrich milk.

Oh, it turns out I wasn’t imaginging things.

October 25, 2012

the battle of the mean girls

More details about the fighting cows. That their moo is closer to a roar than a moo. And what is it with all that rubbing their face in the dirt? There’s the usual pawing the ground you see in bull-fighting, but here there’s also this vigorous and prolonged rubbing of both sides of the face in the dust they’ve just been kicking up. The first time I saw it, I thought the cow might have a bad case of conjunctivitis. Now I think it might be more like those pre-fighting rituals where you daub your face with dirt to look scarier. Or it could be the cows saying “This is my  turf, this is where I’m  going to go sleepy-byes tonight.”

In terms of violence, it’s nice that no-one wants them to injure themselves or each other, and you certainly don’t see the leaping around typically associated with broncos at the rodeo, but, according to Christina, they do, occasionally, lose a horn. They fight by horn-butting each other, and their owners often put plaster of Paris on the horns to protect them.  And I actually saw, during at a couple of the constests on Saturday, when two cows had locked horns, one of them getting enough leverage to lift the other completely off the ground by the head . It was quite startling. Also, I’m pretty sure they were often going for each others’ eyes, the bitches. The cows.

M. was laughing at one point at a cow who seemed to be using her tail like a windscreen-wiper to spread the shit that was coming out from her behind in all directions – including all over her backside. It was hard to tell whether it was voluntary or involuntary, but as a “get off my turf” tactic the cowshit-spreading strategy looked pretty good.

October 23, 2012

the 25-year-old shepherdess and her herd of fighting cows


20.10.12 Morgex

Our neighbor, Cristina, was in the field, looking after her cows, brown and white ones and black “queens”, the aggressive breed that competes in the Bataille des Reines. She explained that they couldn’t be left alone as the black ones were constantly escaping and getting into fights. The black cows fight each other, terrorise the milder-mannered brown and white cows, and the younger black cows gang up on the older queens, and they spend all day fighting and injuring each other. One of the black cows had a big, fly-covered scratch, not quite a gash, on her side, from a reigning queen making sure she knew who was boss. Cristina explained that they are all pregnant, and aren’t allowed to fight in the competitions unless they are.

One of the herding dogs was patently terrified of the cows. The oldest one, Cherie, was lying semi-immersed in a puddle. And the other, the most sprightly, would zoom off barking its head off every time a crow flew overhead. This one would also get upset and run over barking at any black cows that started pawing the ground and looking like they were getting ready to fight.

Cristina kept us there for about 45 minutes, obviously grateful the company. One of the brown cows gave her hand a vigorous licking with her dark tongue, very much like a dog. They nuzzled her like dogs too. The queen that’s fighting in Aosta tomorrow wasn’t in the field as she was being kept in the barn in case she eats too much and goes over her weight class tomorrow. I feel like becoming a vegetarian again. How can you eat things you feel such affection for, as Cristina obviously does?

October 23, 2012

Cow gladiators – La Bataille des Reines, Aosta 21.10.12


October 18, 2012

how to horrify Italians

Journal 21.02.12

At lunch today, one of my students asked if it was true that when the English do the washing up, they wash the dishes, cutlery, glasses, pans in the same bowl of soapy, greasy water, and then don’t rinse them. I said it was. I explained that for Brits, ecology is more important than hygiene, which is what Italians are obsessed with, and that the Italian way of washing up would seem disgustingly wasteful to a Brit. Interesting what different connotations “disgusting” acquires in different languages. Another student recalled his ex German girlfriend getting very upset when he did the washing up and rinsed things. Apparently, the Germans wash the dishes with a soapy sponge under running water, but then don’t rinse. I think I probably do the washing up the German way. Rinsing on top of that seems like overkill.

Lucia also told us that she wears rubber gloves to load the machine. This is not wasteful, just ridiculous. She explained that that way she doesn’t have to touch the bits of food she has to scrape off the plates – with a piece of kitchen roll. I said that using kitchen roll to scrape food off the plates would be seen as appalingly decadent by Brits. She retorted that she wouldn’t be using a fresh piece, but a used piece. Stefano teased her saying that she would use a snotty used kleenex to clean the plates. I said that Brits probably wouldn’t think twice about doing that.

I remember the last time I went to Luxembourg – 4 or 5 years ago, when we stayed with Ann and Colin who would get terribly upset if you filled the kettle with more than what was required for the cup of tea you were making. In fact, if you weren’t making tea for more than one person, you probably shouldn’t bother. T. puts surplus boiled water from her kettle into a flask.

October 18, 2012

international begging strategies


On the metro this morning, there is a little old man in a padded waistcoat and trilby playing the recorder – if it can be called playing. It’s the same a-tonal sequence over and over again, the kind of sound that brings to mind Albanian goatherds, when they have finally lost their minds through the isolation. The sound is literally blocking my thought processes (he’s stopped now, so I can write this). He’s probably a gypsy, rather than an Albanian goatherd. I’m suspicious of Gypsies, not for the usual reasons, but because they are natural manipulators and hypnotists. Here in Italy when they play music as a pretext for begging, they don’t even attempt to play well or even tunefully. When you hand over money you are paying them to stop, move on, leave you alone. Gypsies don’t seem to have cottoned on to this strategy in France or the UK, where they play much more competently while begging on public transport.

For the last two days, there has been a spectacularly mutilated Gypsy doing the rounds on the metro, who walks on all fours, because his legs are hinged like a dog’s, with the knees facing the back. This looks like deliberate, Bombay-style mutilation, and I shan’t encourage it by giving them any money.

October 17, 2012

Rapunzel totally makes sense now

August 2011, Morgex.  M, L and N spent all afternoon measuring the dirt track that runs next to their property, and putting planks of wood the around the boundaries of their territory. They would never admit to this, but they were doing it in a really ostentatious way to deliberately piss off their neighbours. Later on, I witnessed our next door neighbour, Santo, deliberately knock one of the planks off the road while driving up to his parking spot.

Then, while L. was having a shower,  Massimo, Santo’s son-in-law, came out and asked G, if he could speak to L,, and ‘reminded’ her that the lawyer – whose? – had forbidden any more work on the road.

The boys have been having a testosterone-fuelled brag-fest this evening. L  is gloating to his sons how he’d seen his ex-friend, Ennio, driving his mother in his Vespa van up to their hut, his eyes “popping out with rage.” “I was pissing myself laughing,” L says.

They keep referring to the neighbours as “terroni”, a disparaging way of referring to Southern Italians. I have noticed that while Southerners sometimes refer to themselves as ‘terroni’, nobody ever calls Southerners ‘terroni’ to their faces. It’s not a word you ever hear on TV either – I think this word almost as taboo as ‘n****r’, but no Northerner will admit it.

All this arguing about, literally, a few square centimetres of land, has made me realize that the plot of Rapunzel, where the neighbour, who happens to be a witch, demands the couple’s first born child as a punishment for stealing lettuce from her garden,  is not so far-fetched after all.

October 17, 2012

notices, but chooses to ignore social cues

Journal  09.02.12

I asked M, after he told me off for not listening to him, if he’d noticed that I I’d been yawning my head off while he was talking at – not to – me, that at one point I’d rested my forehead on the table, that I’d been reading when he’d started talking, that I’d given plenty of non-verbal signals that I was feeling knackered after a day of listening to people and I didn’t feel like listening to him. I asked him if he understood non-verbal language. He said he notices and understands, but he doesn’t really care and chooses to ignore it.

October 16, 2012

cute mistakes Italians make


Chicken appliances

Thanks God!

“Hello” (when they mean goodbye)