“Italia! Oh Italia! Thou who hast the fatal gift of Beauty”: Byron’s tribute to il bel paese still rings true today. Italy’s magnetic charm has been attracting visitors for centuries and it is easy to see why. It is almost impossible not to fall in love with this seductive country, well-known for its scenic beauty, artistic treasures, food and wine, and iconic historical and cultural heritage.
Italy is full of surprises, contrasts and chaos; not least for those who are visiting for the first time. Many aspects of Italian life – ranging from eating times, ‘rules’ about drinking coffee, trying to cross the road, and dealing with unwanted attention – can be off-putting.
Culture shock can be defined as ‘emotional disorientation caused by continuously unexpected reactions to the new culture.’ Culture shock can manifest itself in various ways, including anxiety, depression, loneliness, migraines and lack of energy. It is described as having four stages: the Honeymoon Period, Crisis Period, Adaption Period and Stabilization Period. Psychologists say that all fours stages must be lived through in order to achieve intercultural competence.
Apart from being overwhelmed by the food and wine, musical language, natural beauty and lovely weather, the newcomer to Florence also risks being affected by ‘Stendhal Syndrome’; a psychosomatic condition that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness and even hallucinations after an individual has been exposed to an ‘overdose’ of beautiful art. Doctors at Santa Maria Nuova regularly admit tourists suffering from ‘mental imbalances’, often after visiting the Uffizi, which is considered a particularly ‘dangerous’ spot. One theory is that viewing so much culture can bring on feelings of anguish and insecurity.
On recovering from an overdose of art, beauty, ice cream and fine Chianti, reality starts to kick in. As the ‘romantic’ Honeymoon period comes to an end,negative aspects of Italian life will start to become more obvious. Feelings of anger and frustration are quite normal at this point. Nowhere is this more obvious than dealing with anything connected to any kind of documenti, work permits, banking or transactions at the post office. One will just have to get used to standing in queues for hours (make sure that you’re in the right one) before being practically ignored by a bored, power-crazed official with no concept of service. Bureaucracy is quite simply a nightmare. You need a significant amount of patience to deal with these situations, no matter how long you stay in Italy.
Once you get used to rude shop assistants, insane driving, triple parking, not drinking cappuccinos after dinner and shops closing after lunchtime, the Adaption period begins. After adjusting and adapting, it is normal to begin to feel at home. Learning Italian is a crucial step in fitting in and understanding the culture.
After going through culture shock, psychologists say that you develop greater empathy for your surroundings, are able to think in a new cultural frame, have greater cultural patience and develop a more critical mind to see through myths and prejudices.
As a foreigner living in Italy, you are allowed, or even expected to be different and even a little eccentric. In the words of American writer Erica Jong, “What is the fatal charm of Italy? What do we find here that can be found nowhere else? I believe it is a certain permission to be human, which other places, other countries, lost long ago.”