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Pausing for Pausa: A reflection on cultural dissonance

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by Lisa Hagen

It is the heat of the day. The sun sits high in the sky drying the laundry that perches out windows above the narrow cobblestone streets. The clock tower in the piazza chimes. It is 1:30 in the afternoon. A small dog pulls a women dressed in a bright orange blouse and leather sandals up the sloped streets that connect this old part of town with the new. An elderly gentleman saunters by, empty handed and what appears to be empty purposed. Approaching the closest grocer to replenish waning supplies of our favorites – parmesian reggiano, nectarines, proscuitto, and vino rosso – I find the doors locked, the store sitting in darkness. The sign reveals the hours of operation: closed from 1300-1645. It is pausa in Cagli, Italy.

Nine hours away, another scene wrestles. Blackberry phones vibrate on the hips of managers, executives, and physicians. Stock trades, real estate deals, and medical prescriptions are written while standing in lines for lattes at Starbucks, waiting for traffic lights to turn green or while watching a daughter’s piano recital. Teens text friends while driving to meet other friends. Multi-tasking is the name of the game and it’s high praise if we call someone efficient, organized or focused.

Time in Cagli proposes another viewpoint.

When I first arrived I was enamored by being transplanted into such a charming and quaint village. Everything about the place made me feel like I was living in a postcard — shuttered windows rising above narrow cobblestone streets and piazza fountains spraying water while motorized velos zip and zag around strolling pedestrians. My phone calls home boasted of the town’s visual appeal. Like other trips I had been on, I was enjoying the scenery.

Slowly, through the coursework sequence, I began to see similarities in this “new world” I was living in and my own. I began to see what I perceived to be “universal truths” about humans and their environment. A father walking with two small toddler aged children raised the volume and tone of his voice as they ran towards a speeding car. Quickly they returned to their father’s side for safety. Humans protect their young to survive the species, my mind interpreted.

Sitting in the piazza at dusk, groups of friends gathered and met to share gelato and café. Eye contact, hand gestures, and exuberant voices punctuated their talk. Ah yes, I recognized, humans need to be known, to be understood.

Yesterday, my observations made another turn. While interviewing 13 teens we had gathered for our story I certainly recognized many familiar adolescent behaviors. Teens in Cagli, like the teens I work with at home, are social creatures. They travel in pairs, groups, and at times even hordes. They laugh and joke with each other. They tease and giggle. They wear jeans and converse tennis shoes. They have cell phones and can’t wait to drive. Yes, lots of familiar terrain. But I also noticed some differences. Differences that I felt perhaps unearthed some cultural values that represented dissonance between my world and theirs.

Of the 13 teens we interviewed, only 3 thought they might go on to a University for education. In this group, only 2 thought they might leave Cagli and only one student had a family where both mother and father worked. When asked what they would change about Cagli, only 1 teen thought the town was too small and only 2 had ever traveled outside of the area.

What I realized is that even my questions represented a kind of cultural filter. Although we explored other issues like dating and curfews and getting to drive, I asked lots of questions about school, education, jobs, plans for the future. Now of course part of that bias comes from being a teacher, hopelessly wanting others to see value in learning, however dorky and overrated that is. But I also think it was part of a deeper bias about how we measure our worth in the United States. What we do for a living becomes a descriptor and simultaneously an evaluator of our value or worth in society. What we do is more important, in many ways, than who we are.

Raising a child who is multiply handicapped has helped me explore that cultural bias in more depth than most, I suppose. It has been one of the cruelest realities I have had to face. My son, Blake, will most likely never walk, talk, or eat, let alone read, run, or throw a football. In short, Blake, will never measure up. But spending the last twelve years inside his world, I have begun to see another way of thinking. Who we are can be so much more important than what we do.

Today I am thinking the Cagliese may have adapted this axiom too. Whether driven to it by economic reality or geographical isolation, I don’t know but I am beginning to see glimpses of what may be a significant cultural difference. Dr. Caputo suggests the cultural dissonance can be expressed by saying that Italians work to live rather than living to work. I am seeing evidence of that more and more each day.


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