Reverse reverse culture shock
After four years Rome has become home, so when I return to my other home – England – I experience the occasional moment of reverse culture shock. Expecting to hear Italian, my brain shuts down when the man at the till in M&S speaks to me in rapid English. Used to the anarchy of driving and road-crossing in Rome, I dither on the side of the pavement in London. Forgetting just how cold the English summer can be, I shiver despite my multiple layers of clothes and tights, and wonder where I can buy an umbrella (no useful umbrella-men pop up in the street when it rains England).
I’ve just spent five weeks in England, mainly working at a summer school in Cambridge. I overcame my initial reverse culture shock and adjusted to a routine of canteen meals, long coach journeys, and shepherding large groups of teenagers through national treasures such as Warwick Castle, King’s College Chapel and Westfield.
I was ready to return to Rome. I’m always ready to return to Rome, craving sunshine and pasta after just a couple of days away. But I wasn’t prepared for the reverse reverse culture shock.
Culture shock was when I came to Rome for the very first time as a tourist and was overwhelmed by the heat, the traffic and the language barrier. Reverse culture shock was when I returned to England after a year of living in Rome and felt like a foreigner. Reverse reverse culture shock happened for the first time after four years of living in Rome when I stepped out of the plane and into an oven.
I’d spent the past month reading about heatwaves and droughts, listening to Valeriano complain about the heat during every Skype conversation, and seeing this kind of content on Facebook:
Yet somehow, sitting in my spider-filled room in Cambridge and watching the rain slide down the window, it just didn’t feel real to me.
I spent my first evening in Rome in a state of shock, opening up all the windows and shutters in my flat and wondering where all the air had gone. We have no air-conditioning, only fans that have little effect when the temperature hits 40 degrees. “Potremmo comprare un pinguino,” said Valeriano. Buy a penguin? Had the heat caused him to lose his mind already? But then I understood that he was referring to a Pinguino with a capital “P” – a kind of portable air-conditioning unit. Not an actual penguin.
The following morning a monstrous insect flew into our kitchen – a nightmarish cross between a dragonfly and a wasp – and we discovered a gecko living under the cooker. For a moment it felt like Rome had become another planet – a burning rock with no air, alien creatures emerging from the cracks.
I’m starting to adjust. The heat is intense, but it’s a little less humid today and I’m finding cheap solutions. The Pinguino is too expensive, but I can hang out in air-conditioned bars, supermarkets and restaurants, and plan emergency trips to the swimming pool or beach.
As much as possible, we avoid going out during the day, and live for the evening. Late at night we sit on the terrace, watching the stars, the planes, the shadow of a woman doing her ironing on a neighbouring terrace. Last night we waited for the full moon to cross a TV antennae and savoured the last tiny breath of wind before returning to the furnace of our bedroom to watch Pranzo di Ferragosto, the ultimate August-in-Rome film.
If you’re in Rome this summer, I hope you manage to stay cool. If you’re not in Rome and you’re thinking of visiting, I recommend waiting a bit. Here, we’re all dreaming of October, or – quite unexpectedly – missing the wind and rain on Southport Pier.