un bar de tapas
"There is nothing like an unfulfilled expectation to ruin your whole night," my friend said, as we walked out of a flamenco club in Seville, Spain. Our trip had been centered around this night: the traditional venue full of crowded, tiny tables, around which we would sit and watch the traditional wrinkle-torn guitarist play for the young, elegant dancer in the traditional, romantic dress.
Of course, the flamenco club did not live up to her vision. How could it? It was a case of Freudian over-determination. Although Lesley and I may have sat at a crowded table, or watched a wrinkled old man twang a guitar, still, the unfulfilled promise of the rest of her expectations ruined the entire experience.
When I began the long process of deciding where to study abroad, I wanted to vest myself in an entirely different culture from my own. I was primarily concerned with weather and location, and in fact my familiarity with the native languages of Spain, France, and Germany made them seem not more desirable, but instead rather provincial.
"So, why not Norway?" my mother asked. "Grandpa would be so happy."
Our brainstorming took months. We exhausted a long list of cities in various countries: Wales, foreign enough but too cold; Buenos Aires, too big and I was set on learning a new language; Paris, the same, and too cold; Beijing, my dad knocked off the list right away, along with South Africa and Istanbul; Greece, too foreign, and a bit too small.
"What about Italy?"
I was shocked we hadn't arrived at it sooner. Most of the country is south of mainland Europe, so there was the answer to my climate concern. And Italian, while foreign, was familiar enough that I thought I could pick it up quickly. And most of all, there was the romantic magnetism of Italia, the setting of so many poems, novels, movies I had read and seen. Florence was chosen quickly, for its central location, its famous history, and, if I had to be honest, because I was drawn by the promise of late, crazy nights with American girlfriends and dashing Italian men. Italia. Firenze. It seemed to choose itself.
The first hints of culture shock began quietly, the same way dreams seem to infiltrate my waking life: a fleeting sense of deja vu, abrupt feelings of delight or rancor, all coming or going in an instant. The cobblestone streets I found so charming my first week have turned into deathtraps as I hurry between classes. The old gypsy woman I used to smile at, enchanted by her resistance to modern ways of commerce and identification, has begun to recognize and accost me each time I pass her. The crowds of party-goers I romanticized before my arrival are nothing more than raucous, drunken American students, behaving exactly as we do in the states. And most lamentable of all, the crowds of tourists I used to scoff at, thinking myself far above their cameras, their backpacks, their tins of Pringles and cones of gelato (in February!), are now frequent, stinging reminders that I am a tourist. I will never fit in here, never belong, never pass myself off as an Italian.
Where is my Latin lover, who would hold my hand as we made our way through the Uffizi, explaining the details of the Renaissance paintings to me as I feigned ignorance? Where is the old proprietor I would befriend in his enoteca, who would teach me about wine and coffee and perhaps take me his Tuscan villa to sample his new vintage? The woman at the panetteria who would remember my name and my order, and perhaps throw in some bread for free, charmed by my failed attempts at Italian?
I have only recently begun to trust that these doubts are real, in their own way even tangible, and not mere passing whims brought on by bad weather, too little sleep, or a rude native. Would these doubts be any less persistent if I had gone somewhere a little more familiar, or at least somewhere I spoke the language? I don't think so. In my experience, culture shock lies in the discrepancy between our expectations and our realities. So then, perhaps it is not even culture shock, or at least not the same as the syndrome defined as "culture shock."
And the cure? The chimera of over-determination can be defeated by simply adjusting my expectations. I can remove from my mind the many impossible and exhausting possibilities (the red polka dot dress, the lacey black tablecloths, the sweet Spanish wine and dark lipstick), and focus rather on a probability (the guitarist's performance). In pursuing that probability, I might come across one or two of the old cliches, and be delighted. And isn't it better to delight in one or two impossibilities, rather than to dwell on unfulfilled expectations?