Sunday, January 24, 2010

Control, Comfort, Competency, Confirmation. . .Bliss at Yellow House

    There is snow on the distant mountaintops, my winter veggies are planted, and life begins again in Umbria. We've been gone two months, hardly enough time to experience culture shock on our return. Still, living in the country in central Italy is a stark contrast to daily life in Fairhope, Alabama, USA and every time we shift continents it take a little while to re-adjust.

    In my work in cross cultural relations, I often point out the four vital elements everyone needs to feel at home: Control, Comfort, Competency and Confirmation. Do I really need to experience these to fit back into life on Palombaro ridge?

    Ah, the control issue.  It's natural to feel a loss of control when you first arrive in a new place. After all, you don't know how to find your way, and you can't be certain you'll ever get where you want to go. Coming home to Umbria, I wonder if it's time to cede control to Il Magnifico, the Italian in the family, who has settled in front of the TV to watch Roma play Lazio at soccer, earphones cutting off communication with the non-electronic outside world. I decide to share power: I will turn up the heat and he can bring in the firewood.

     Comfort comes with the familiar.  Jetlagged, I crawl into bed, turn on the heating pad, snuggle up in flannel sheets and fall into a deep sleep. For others, acculturation may mean learning to eat without worrying about the taste or ingredients, going into a shop expecting what you will find there, hearing the difference between an ambulance and a police siren and knowing how to plan your travel from one side of town to another. For me, Umbria means the silence of the countryside, the comfort of lying undisturbed in my cocoon, with a hint of woodsmoke in the winter air.

     I explain competence to uneasy students this way:  in a new and foreign setting, you will feel competent when you know how to solve simple problems, such as paying a bill, getting telephone service, finding the emergency room if you need it, even buying an aspirin. In Umbria, competence means I left behind clean towels in the linen closet, longlife milk in the cupboard, a fresh box of cereal, pasta, and plenty of coffee. We can hole up here all weekend without leaving the house. Bliss.

     We can lose our sense of confirmation during culture shock because there are no cheerleaders to applaud us for learning new skills, such as getting on the right bus or figuring out a washing machine with instructions in a new language. During this time we don't feel love from our usual support system and that can lead to loneliness. 

    No problem here. Winona leapt into my arms the instant we opened the door, meowing, nuzzling, black cat hairs flying through the air. In the last 24 hours she has provided confirmation by clinging to one or the other of us like a baby possum, leaving only to open the door to go outside to check the perimeter, something she has greatly missed while we were gone. (Yes, we have a cat who can open doors). We wandered into the kitchen, vaguely wondering about lunch, and found a note, "Look in frig." There was a big pot of homemade vegetable soup left for us by friends whose thoughtfulness was warming confirmation of our support system.

    Control, Comfort, Competency and Confirmation -- the four vital elements of acculturation. Add a fifth: very happy to be home.
   Copyright Sharri Whiting 2010



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