Culture Shock

(August 2008)

Melanie and I have had an ongoing debate in our relationship. She contends the world is designed for taller people, and it is almost always an advantage to be taller. While I admit there are times when it’s good to be tall, I’ve argued that height can also be a disadvantage. My classic example has always been airplane seats. Melanie can stretch her legs and even sit cross-legged in her seat. I get to eat my knees. Here in Italy, I’ve got lots more evidence. Everything here is smaller, built centuries ago before refrigeration, proper nutrition and good medical care. I guess people got used to tight spaces and smaller things, and haven’t changed things much since.

The first example is the doorways. Most of the outside doors to buildings and apartments look big, but they are split in two, like the cupboard doors in your kitchen. That means I have to turn sideways to go through. And here in our first apartment in Florence, I have to duck to go through our bathroom door.

The streets are smaller, too. They were built for foot and horse traffic, not cars and scooters. The scooters, or motorini, rule the streets. Tiny cars fit into tiny parking spaces, almost always on only one side of the street, leaving a narrow space for traffic. All but the biggest streets are one way. Sidewalks, added after the advent of the automobile, look like an afterthought. They have no uniform width, and are often cluttered with locked up bicycles or parked cars and scooters hanging over them. Rarely can you walk side-by-side down the sidewalk, never if someone’s coming the other way. Usually I just walk behind Melanie or in the street. My ears are now quite good at distinguishing if a car is driving up behind me or just passing on a side street.

People are smaller, or at least much more slender than in the States. They walk everywhere, eat better (or at least less), don’t have nearly as much work stress, and don’t live in the body-building culture of America. Their bellies are smaller, but so are their muscles. It’s rare to see a yoked Italian dude (someone with large muscles, for the slang-impaired), but of course when you do, he’s showing off the guns.

But that’s not all. Chairs, beds, glasses, plates, pots, pans are all smaller. Shops and cafes sometimes only have one narrow aisle to walk down. (I almost knocked over a whole rack of glass spice bottles when I turned too quickly in one store.) Furniture is smaller, too. Many hotels or apartments advertising bedrooms for couples simply have pushed two double beds together. If it’s a bed that fits two people (about a full size), they call it a “French style” bed. I wonder why.

But the smallness of things is not the only change we’ve had to adjust to since we moved here. There is also the lack of vegetation. Several years ago, some friends of mine from Spain were planning a visit to the United States, and they asked me where they should go. They were thinking of visiting lots of different cities. I told them they should see places like New York and San Francisco, but to see something truly American they should visit our national parks. There is almost no wilderness left in Europe since it is so developed. They followed my advice, and were amazed at the beauty of our country.

Having just driven across our country and visited many national parks ourselves, the almost complete absence of vegetation here is difficult to get used to. Aside from a handful of parks scattered throughout, there is almost no attempt by the city planners here to incorporate green things in the city. In America we have lawns, gardens and trees lining the streets. Even malls have planters.

Here there is nothing. You may find a courageous resident trying to grow flowers in a window box, and as you leave the city center there is more of an attempt to green the streets, but not much.

There are the lucky moments as you walk through the narrow streets when you catch a glimpse of the rolling hills beyond and realize you are in Tuscany. The hills dotted with olive trees aren’t exactly wilderness, but they are green and beautiful. For now I’ll continue to get my green fix on my runs along the Arno, and remind myself that while I don’t get to paddle on the ocean or camp in the wilderness, I do still get to live in Florence.


Copyright Axel Schwarz


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