I have developed a strange greeting practise when in Australia. At the door of shops, bakers or butchers I call out ‘Buon Giorno!’ Guaranteed to get everyone’s attention, my odd salutation. Shop assistants and customers alike become still as stones and stare. Sometimes I catch myself before I call ‘Buon Giorno!’ and change the language. ‘Good Morning!’ or ‘Good Day!’ I call cheerily as I walk through the door. Not good enough. The sound of crickets still echo as I make my way to the counter. After my classic display of Expatriate Visiting Home Behaviour, I generally muster a bashful smile and pretend I meant to yell at them in a strange language all along. No biggie. Doesn’t everyone call out ‘Buon Giorno!’ or ‘Good Day!’when they walk into shops?
I only visit Australia once or twice a year. The rest of the time I’m here, in Florence, unconsciously and consciously absorbing everything about the Italian culture. In Italy you never, ever walk into a shop without greeting people. You don’t leave a shop without saying grazie and again, buon giorno. This salutation practise has knitted itself into my daily etiquette so that it’s enormously difficult to loose when I am home. It’s foreign cultural absorption and it doesn’t stop there. It seeps into lots of areas of my life. Apparently though, Expatriate Visiting Home Behaviour is not unusual. I am not the only person who suffers from it and it manifests itself in many ways.
One expatriate reader recently wrote to say how during her visit to Australia her son regularly responded to his grandmother with ‘si, si.’ The grandmother quite rightly thought her grandson was talking a lot about the sea.
I decided on my last visit home (I call Australia home and I call Italy home) to make a list of all the weird Expatriate Visiting Home Behaviour that I exhibited. There was no doubt in my mind that one day the loss of my own cultural norms and the absorption of new cultural norms would be included in a book.
That’s what writers do, no? Make notes and lists of what their characters will do and experience one day. Writers remember motives, deeds, causes, responses and reactions so that they can one day use them in a scene.
So, on with the story. The phenomenon of the Expatriate Visiting Home Behaviour struck me for the first time whilst in a café in Melbourne. The female barista (coffee maker) became really, really irritated with me when I lounged before the coffee machine and asked for a cappuccino.
‘Sit down,’ said the barista with a curt nod.
‘No it’s fine,’ I responded airily. ‘I’m in a bit of a hurry so I’ll just stand.’
‘No really, I’m fine, I’d rather stand.’
‘We will bring it to you. You have to sit down!’
Oops, forgot about that. Generally the whole world sits down for a coffee and sips it. It’s only here in Italy you stand, throw back your coffee, pay at the cashier, then leave.
That’s when I decided to start my list. Which would include the fact that I often feel like a stranger in my own country, for even though I have an Aussie accent, it’s clear I’m not quite sure of the way things work around here any more.
Another example of my Expatriate Visiting Home Behaviour was when I took my kids into an inner city pub for a drink of water. Doable in the UK, Ireland and Italy. Not, repeat NOT doable in Australia. I felt like such a fool, and an irresponsible mother.
Still, that’s what writers try to remember. Those times when you feel like an idiot are important. Because someone else out there has done something similar to you and they too have felt like an idiot. Writers write about things that resonate. Start your list. I’ll add to mine, no doubt, when I visit Australia in October. If you see a woman call out ‘Buon Giorno!’ when she walks into a shop, come and say hello.
PHOTO BY KAT EYE STUDIO