Cultural Differences: The Importance of Sex

This episode of Cultural Differences is going to have a lot less to do with differences I have observed between countries, but rather more to do with differences between those who were raised with a strong Christian heritage (though I am sure that it will apply to other religions as well), and those who were not.

In my family, I am by far the oldest of my generation. I have a good 6 years on my cousin, who is the second oldest. Although we are a small family, most of us only children and the sons/daughters of parents with few or no siblings, this year is proving to be a year of big changes.

Although I am the oldest at 29 years of age, I am soon to be the only unmarried person over 18 in my immediate family. While this does not bother me in the slightest, as I have lived with my boyfriend for nearly 10 years and we are perfectly happy, it did get me thinking about what motivates some people to get married as young as 19. There is one stark difference between me and most of those who are tying the knot this year: I am the only atheist on my mother’s side of the family, and most of my cousins do not believe in sex before marriage.

In the run up to the big day, I have seen my cousins posting several articles about not wanting to wait to spend the rest of their lives with their best friend. I cannot disagree with the sentiment of getting into a serious relationship when you are young, as I myself met my boyfriend when I was 19 and do not regret not being single in my 20s, but the articles they kept posting seemed to reduce their decision to a false dichotomy: either get married, or be single. What I did, have a serious relationship and live together without putting it down on paper, is never even proposed as a potential third option, I assume because it goes against their upbringing as good Christian girls.

I realized all of a sudden that, if you were to ask both myself and one of my cousins the question “is sex important?” we might both sincerely answer “Yes, very important” or “No, it is not important at all”, depending on the context of the conversation before the question is asked, and despite the fact that we have very different attitudes towards the importance of sex.

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German So Funny

When I was studying French in school, my teacher at the time warned the class about faux amis. Literally translated this means “false friends”, but what she was getting at is that there are some words that are similar in two different languages which might lead you to assume that they have the same meaning, while in fact they do not. The classic French – English example that she provided was the word magasin, which you might assume means magazine, whereas in reality it means shop. While this is a perfect example of what she meant by a faux amis, it was not a particularly humerous one.

It was not until I started learning German, however, that I found a language filled with hilarious faux amis in relation to English. I remember being puzzled over ads for apartments which kept refering to their living rooms as “gross [and] hell”, which actually means large and brightly lit. I burst into laughter at a shop window with the word “Schmuck” plastered across it, only to discover that it actually means “jewelry”. Also, make sure you don’t offer someone a present and call it a “gift”, as that actually means you are offering them poison. My favorite German – English example though is probably the way that the parking ticket machines and highway signs politely wish you a “Gute Fahrt!” as you go about your way.

That is not to say that the hilarious faux amis only go in one direction. Describing the thick mist you had to cross in the countryside will get you laughed at, as you are actually describing the thick bullshit you were slogging through. I also personally spent a whole 5 minutes repeatedly using the word “mushy” to a student in describing the consistency he needed to blend his worms down to, only to be informed by my sniggering colleague that “mushy” in German means “pussy”, and not the one of the feline variety. Credit to my student though, he did not so much as crack a smile during my entire monologue.

However, despite the numerous examples that I have already come across despite my novice grasp of German, I think that there is one German – Romanian faux amis that just might trump them all.

My boyfriend joined me a few months after I had moved to Germany. He arrived one night, exhausted from his trip, but decided to join me and my colleagues on a traditional Kneipentour, which is a sort of bar hop often done as a leaving party for students. The typical way to do this bar hop is to have one shot and one beer in each location, so of course everyone clinks glasses and cheers before drinking. The fact that there is also a German superstition that you must look people directly in the eye when you cheer with them, lest you wish risking 7 years bad sex, added an extra wrinkle of hilarity to this story.

This being Germany we were not saying “Cheers” when clinking glasses, but rather “Prost”. After three rounds of people staring into each other’s eyes and saying “Prost” over and over again, my boyfriend finally asked what that means in German.

“It means Cheers”, I said.

“Oh”, he replied. “I thought it might. In Romanian, Prost means asshole”.

That has got to be my favorite faux amis of all time, even with all of the English ones put together. Everyone roared with laughter, made a point of emphasising the word Prost throughout the evening, and made a mental note to not say it in random bars should they ever visit Romania. It could lead to… an awkward misunderstanding.

So, do you know of any other amusing faux amis? Do you think you can beat “Prost”?

Cultural Differences: Carnival Celebrations

Yesterday was the last day of Carnival, and so Christians around the world are getting over their celebrations and starting their fast for Ash Wednesday. I have lived in 3 different Christian-majority countries in my life, and one thing I noticed is how very differently Carnival is celebrated across the world.

Generally speaking, the purpose of Carnival is twofold: First it’s to get the partying and gluttony out of your system before embarking on the restrictive and pious period of Lent, and the second is to have a period of time in which societal norms are challenged and broken, if only for a short period of time. However, the way that different cultures do this varies dramatically.

In Italy, Carnival is mostly a children’s holiday. Kids dress up, throw colored paper confetti all over the place, and their parents accompany them though they hardly ever dress up themselves. There is also the saying a Carnevale ogni scherzo vale, which means at Carnival any joke goes, making Carnival a time for childish pranks similar to Halloween in the States. Carnival is so much a kid’s holiday that if you are an adult, dressed up and unaccompanied by children, people will look at you like the weird childless man lurking around the jungle gym.

The exception to this is Venice, where Carnival is very much an adult holiday. Originally, Carnival was the day that social stations were voided, as people were not recognized as a person but as a mask. They would address each other as Mister or Lady Mask, and once this suspension of societal norms was acknowledged by the other by responding in the same way, they could proceed to speak to each other in whichever direct or lewd way that they pleased. These days, on the Tuesday before Lent you will see some truly spectacular masks and breathtakingly elegant costumes, though the real parties are the ones that go on behind closed doors. While I have never been invited to a private Venetian Carnival party, the rumors of what goes on in one abound. Rules of prim societal conduct are suspended, children are not around, and everything from bawdy jokes to excessive drinking to cheating on spouses is supposedly tolerated and expected.

In Brazil, Carnival is also an openly sexual holiday. The skimpy Carnival costumes are famous across the world, but many people don’t know that it is also very common for complete strangers to kiss each other in the street. If you walk around Salvador during Carnival, for example, be prepared for people to come up to you and plant a nice smack on the lips. This is not considered cheating or an invitation to come to bed (though many might still take you up on it if you propose it), but rather an open celebration of joy. The sexual connotations of Carnival are also mirrored in Louisiana for Mardi Gras, which is famous for young people getting quite drunk and quite naked.

In Ireland there is no such thing as Carnival, but rather they refer to Mardi Gras as “Pancake Tuesday”, where everyone eats a whole lot of pancakes. The idea is that you use up all of the sweet things in your house by using them as pancake fillers, thus removing temptation from you home during Lent. This was by far the tamest kind of Carnival celebration that I have ever experienced.

In Germany, the situation is different still. While not all areas of Germany really celebrate Carnival, it is certainly a very big deal in Nordrhein Westfalen, and most famously in Cologne. Here, both adults and children dress up and celebrate Carnival, and adults will often even show up to their office jobs dressed as everything and anything, from giant pink bunnies and Disney characters to dictators. I was surprised to find that, when in Cologne for the Carnival Monday, the parade threw candy into the almost exclusively adult crowd, which fought ferociously over the candy scattered amongst them. I discovered that, if you want to keep a single piece of that candy for yourself, be prepared to use your elbows.

The breaking down of societal norms in this part of Germany has much less to do with open sexuality, and far more to do with political commentary. If you are a man in Cologne on the Thursday of Carnival, make sure that you are not wearing a tie, unless you appreciate groups of angry German women brandishing scissors to chase you down and cut it off. Thursday is the Women’s day, as a rebellion against a male-dominated society. On this Thursday many women will take the day off work, hold women-only parades, storm and take over offices of the city hall and yes, cut off men’s ties as a symbol of rebelling against male oppression.

The political tone of German Carnival celebrations is also evident in the floats that are used during the parades. Two such floats in Düsseldorf made headlines around the world, as it was quite a harsh take on the current American political climate.

I would say NSFW… but then again it was shown on the news. Let’s say, NSFW in the States, perhaps.

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Cultural Differences: Beware Friday the 17th!

“Um… Crys… I think you mean Friday the 13th” I can already hear many of you whispering under your breath. Funnily enough no, I don’t mean Friday the 13th. I am aware that in the vast majority of Western countries 13 is the unlucky number, and Friday the 13th is an “unlucky” day. In a bizarre twist on the usual superstition, however, Italians believe that 17 is an unlucky number, and therefore Friday the 17th is the day to watch out for. It is also the 17th row that is missing from old Alitalia planes, the number 17 that no one will have on their jerseys, and the number 17 that was retired from Formula 1 after Jules Bianchi crashed his number 17 car and died on… Friday the 17th of July 2015.

Last Friday was a Friday the 17th, and the various Italians I work with mentioned it in some passing, humorous way. This made me think about why, exactly, 17 is “unlucky” in Italian culture. Why 13 is supposedly unlucky is relatively easy, as it stems from Christian mythology. The story goes that there were 13 people at the last supper, and the “13th” person was Judas, who went on to betray Christ. It is also supposed that Jesus died on a Friday, and so Friday the 13th is an especially unlucky day.

Given the origin of this superstition you would think that Italy, a deeply Catholic country and home of the Vatican, would also hold to a superstition of Christian origin. So, I asked myself, is it a Mediterranean thing that predates Christianity? A few questions to my Greek and Spanish colleagues revealed that their cultures too have 13 as the unlucky number. As far as I can tell, Italy is the only country in which 17 takes this special position. So, why is that?

Google here I come.

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Cultural Differences: Fatta la Regola, Trovato L’Inganno

I have talked about the cultural differences regarding following rules many times on this blog, as it is one of the most famous cultural stereotypes that Italy has. I talked about things like jaywalking, being flexible, speed limits, and telling on your peers. Today’s post is somewhat in the same vein, and is a perfect example of an old Italian adage used to describe Italy’s most famous cultural characteristic:

Fatta la regola, trovato l’inganno

Which means: The rule is made, the way around it is found.

This loose relationship with the rules is considered by many to be both Italy’s downfall and its genius. It is at the heart of why a country with so much tourism and such a large economy could get so complicated and pear-shaped. This post is not going to be about big ideas as to how to fix a broken country, but rather is it a small, simple and elegant example of how true that adage is when describing the Italian culture.

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The Foreign Reaction

As the news of a Donald Trump Presidency sinks in, I am watching my family, friends and colleagues react to the news. The first reaction was just a blanket shock all-round. No one actually believed it would happen. They joked about it, the could-you-imagined about it, they you-never-knowed about it, but no one actually truly thought it would happen. I was the one that gave the possibility of a Trump Presidency the most credence and even I didn’t think it was going to happen, I was playing more of a Devil’s Advocate than anything else. Then it did. There was a general nervous laughter, and then the true reactions started to come out.

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Cultural Differences: How We Wedding

I’ve made it back from Ireland after an amazing time, plenty of travel and my first ever grown up wedding. Getting prepared for this wedding without making a total fool out of myself was interesting, as weddings around the world go down in very, very different ways. I found myself asking everyone I knew about the typical wedding in their countries, and trying to piece together common threads.

For example, do you give gifts, or cash, or both? Is it considered weird to give cash if you’re not a close relative, like it is at a birthday? In Greece the answer is yes, no cash in hand unless you’re an uncle, the couple will usually provide a bank account for any monetary gifts. In the States the answer is don’t just give cash, that’s a bit tacky, give a nice present along with it at least. In Italy the answer is hell no, and don’t go cluttering the couple up with useless presents they don’t need, just give them more cash.

What does one wear at a wedding? We can all agree on no white dresses, but is black also frowned upon? What about the length? In some places, anything above the knee is tacky. In others, no such modesty is expected outside of the church. And what about the men? In Romania, the answer is white shirt and black pants. Elsewhere, any dress shirt will suffice. For some, a tie is absolutely necessary, for others, not so much.

And how long do weddings normally last, seeing as we have to decide whether to take the 1:20AM or 4:20AM bus back? In Italy, they are usually late afternoon weddings which will most likely end around 11PM or midnight. In Romania and Greece, it is inconceivable that the party ends before 6AM. So, which is the Irish more likely to be?

In the end, there were only three things that all the cultures I questioned seemed to agree on: no white dresses, you should show up early rather than late, and you will eat far too much, so don’t wear anything that’s overly tight.

So we set off, not eating a thing, and took a nice early bus across the country which was to get us there a good 45 minutes early, time for me to change, fix myself up, and watch the bride and groom arrive.

Only the bus meandered, and brought us there a good hour late, so finding me getting changed in the bus toilet, trying desperately not to touch anything as I banged off the sides with the jolting. We scamper up to the wedding and luckily find the bride and groom still greeting guests in the foyer, phew we’re not that late, and so we sit at a random table and wait for the party to start.

And that’s when we realize there is no food at this wedding, beyond a tiny plate of canapes near the welcome prosecco, and cake. We pretended to go for a cigarette, and scoffed down a sneaky burger in the hotel pub instead. We popped back in having missed cake, but at least with something in our bellies to absorb the alcohol which, incidentally, you do have to pay for at Irish weddings, so good thing we saw someone do just that before walking away from the hotel bar and making someone chase after us!

In the end we had a great time, chatting and dancing and drinking until our 4:20AM bus. It looks like Irish weddings are somewhere in between the Italian and Romanian ones, which suited us just fine. We managed to not make total fools of ourselves, they were delighted we came, and our cash gift seems to have erred strongly on the side of generous rather than meager, which is the best kind of mistake to make.

So, where does your culture stand on things like black dresses, cash gifts, late night partying, free booze, overstuffing with food, and fun traditions? Let’s make this comments section the how-to-wedding guide across the world, so that the next time you go to a wedding in a different country, you have a reference guide!

Cultural Differences: Italian Linguistic Diversity

Many people do not know how culturally diverse Italy actually is. By that, I do not mean that there cultures from all around the world living there in large numbers, but rather than Italian culture itself is a misnomer. It has only been 150 years since the country was unified, and the differences between the different regions are still staggering. Even when it comes to food, there is not a single dish that is native to the entire country, not even the most globally famous like pasta or pizza. This cultural diversity is most evident in the various languages, dialects and sub-dialects spoken to this day, which have been studied and put together in this language map.

 

While this map is in Italian, you can see from a mere glance that there are so many different languages and dialects spoken that they had to repeat color palates and add labels simply to represent them all. Not only do you have the various regional dialects, some of which on their own reasonably qualify as completely separate languages (Sardinian, for instance, is said by many to be closer to Catalan than it is to Italian), but you also see a big pink chunk of German, spots of orange Slovenian, yellow Occitan, pale yellow Croatian and red Albanian scattered throughout the country. For a country of its size, the language variation is impressive.

This map partially represents why Italy is a country so divided, despite its political unification 150 years ago. A person from Sicily can seem as foreign to a Venetian as a person from a completely different country, and often that can also bring with it hostility, wariness, or simple frank curiosity. This also means that, when visiting Italy, there is no one place you can go to “truly experience Italy”, because there is no such thing as a unique Italian experience. Venice is a completely different world from Trentino, from Tuscany, from Rome, from Puglia, or Sicily. I was just as much a tourist in Taormina as I was in Barcellona, because political unity means nothing in the face of culture.

I tell you this partially because I find it interesting, but also to visually represent the complexity of Italian culture. While I love to give people holiday tips and travel advice, know that I can be as completely ignorant of parts of my own country as anyone else who has never visited it. On the other hand, I kind of like being able to be a tourist in my own country, and I hope to have the opportunity to visit more of it.

Right now, Puglia is on the top of my list of priorities. But that’s only because I’ve already visited Sicily, and it was glorious.

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Cultural Differences: The Pride in Rebellion

I come from a long line of left wingers and political dissenters, on both the Italian and the American sides of my family. My American ancestors were were part of the Underground Railroad which helped slaves make their way to Canada, my mother’s aunt was very vocal during the Civil Rights Era, and my own mother was as anti-Vietnam war as it was possible to be. My mother loves to talk about this, to the point in which I’m pretty sure she’s exaggerating. The fact of the matter is, she takes pride in being on the right side of history. She’s not the only one, you see can see many American public figures playing up their part in the political dissent that wound up making history. There is a satisfaction in being able to say that my family and I were not sheep. We did not buy into the propaganda of the day, or the lazy mindset of the politically uninformed, we took the unpopular but ultimately morally correct position!

The way that my Italian family discusses these things, however, is worlds apart.

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Cultural Differences: If You Expect It, You Get It

I came across this video on facebook today, and it reminded me of one of the first cultural differences I noticed as a child visiting the United States. It has to do with “kids menus” in restaurants, and how they are extremely unhealthy.

 

For most people, the fact that 97% of kid’s menus found in restaurants do not meet nutritional requirements will come as no surprise. Who really thinks that a diet of grilled cheese and chicken nuggets is enough to raise a healthy child? However, the counter argument to that is most people do not eat at restaurants every day. It’s supposed to be a treat, a once in a while type of thing, and so why not have a menu with things that kids most love to eat?

This post is not about the fact that kids menus are unhealthy. This post is about the expectation that children are picky eaters, and how that influences what they will and will not eat.

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