n his 1981 novel “The Comfort of Strangers” British novelist Ian McEwen distilled a crucial aspect of cross-cultural relationships in Italy, whether they end happily or not. When Mary meets the sinister Italian “Robert” she wants to know about his Canadian wife. But Robert parries the question. “It was impossible to explain that without first describing his sisters and his mother, and these in turn could be explained only in terms of his father,” writes McEwen.
To say that Italians entwine love affairs and family ties is an understatement. To say they like and pursue foreigners is another understatement. When the two sides do meet, a frequent occurrence, the consequences are rarely dull.
Since postwar Italy returned to the international limelight on the coat-tails of a film industry that peddled the fundamentally bittersweet notion of “La Dolce Vita,” tens of thousands of English-speakers — mostly from Anglo-Saxon and North American nations — have come here seeking culture, fun in the sun and mates. Brief vacations and student stays have often led to flings, enduring relationships and marriages.
When married Swedish actress and Hollywood icon Ingrid Bergman abandoned her family to take up with neorealist director Roberto Rossellini in 1949, deeply Catholic Italy was aghast. They wed in 1950 — the actress Isabella Rossellini is among their children — but divorced five years later.
With church influence diminished and moral outrage confined, cross-cultural relationships, no longer a novelty, flourish between both sexes. High-profile examples abound: The wife of the Italian defense minister, Antonio Martino, is American, as is the spouse of conservative journalist Giuliano Ferrara, feminist Anselma Dell’Olio. The former head of Italian state television, RAI, Lucia Annunziata, is married to a U.S. citizen, Daniel Williams, the Italy correspondent for The Washington Post.
As new ethnic groups have entered Italy, the breadth of cross-cultural relationships has branched out. Italy’s once-wary approach to stranieri, or foreigners, is rapidly waning.
But such newfound open-mindedness doesn’t alter enduring realities. Relationships that match possessive, tradition-loving Italians with free-spirited, independent Anglo-Saxons often produce a combustible mix of pleasure and misunderstanding, excitement and exasperation.
Law professor Rebecca Spitzmiller, a Cincinnati, Ohio native who is married to a Rome doctor, offers terse advice to foreign women. “Don’t even think about doing this unless your self-concept is strong,” says Spitzmiller, who is writing a book on cross-cultural relationships. “Have yourself in order. These relationships are fraught with potential landmines.”
The reason that such landmines exist, many interviews suggest, has less to do with mishandled affection than timeless distinctions in family culture and differences in emotional responses to universal values, including the work ethic, fidelity, personal crisis and child-rearing.
Take Margaret Russo, 27, who met her husband Francesco eight years ago, when she was on a University of Chicago junior year abroad program in Bologna. She’s from Orange County, California; he is from a small town, Mazaro del Vallo, near Palermo.
Ask Russo about Francesco’s attributes and the U.S. defense department teacher raves. “He has that Italian generosity, openness,” she says. “He has a lot of things that I don’t. He has the ability to relate to a lot of people. He can walk into a room and talk to a five-year-old and a 90-year-old grandmother.”
So why was Russo in tears, several years ago, after she first met Francesco’s Sicilian family? “It was so overwhelming,” she recalls. “People in your face, hugging you. I locked myself in a room and cried. I have to be completely honest. Only over the last two years have I felt very comfortable. Until then, I couldn’t be myself, or joke with them. They speak in dialect, and I didn’t understand what his mother was saying.”
While Russo’s words are spoken lovingly — her in-laws have since visited the United States — they evoke the need for extraordinary diligence and staying power among Anglo-Saxon women paired with Italian men.
“A positive thing [about intercultural relationships] is that you have to be more tolerant,” says Margaret Stenhouse, 62, who came to Italy when she was 20 from Crieff, Scotland. She married Antonio, from Calabria, in 1964. “You put up with things that you wouldn’t normally put up with. You need a good sense of humor,” she says, adding that it’s often easy “to make too many allowances because you are with someone who is different.”
Mary Jane Cryan, 62, a Lowell, Massachusetts native who also came to Italy at age 20, is blunter still. “With Italian husbands, you’re working for them,” she says. Her husband died in 1995, but she has since met a new Italian companion, Fulvio.
While generational differences naturally exist between those who matured in the 1960s and 1990s — Cryan recalls feeling ostracized like “an extracomunitario” at the beginning of her relationship — they are outweighed by uncanny similarities when it comes to the importance of flattery.
Says Stenhouse, remembering the early stages of her relationship: “Crieff, Scotland was very unsophisticated. I found myself in this glamorous dolce vita society. [Antonio] took me to glamorous restaurants. Every time he came to pick me up he had a different car, so I thought he was very rich. I discovered that they were the cars of his older brothers and that he was actually unemployed. It was all part of the bella figura. “
So was “the mentality of hunting for the foreign girl,” as Stenhouse puts it. That mentality, at least according to sociologist Francesco Alberoni, who writes on relationships in the daily Corriere della Sera, is connected to how slowly the European south has made contact with its more progressive northern half. “The gap in attitudes toward sex,” he writes, “made the foreign woman almost an obsession.”
Since Italian television began booming in the 1980s, dozens of foreign women, mostly American (Heather Parisi, Clarissa Burt and Carol Alt among them), were exhibited on television variety shows and in low-budget films, “as if they provided access to something more adventurous,” says Alberoni.
And the Italian male’s yearning for adventure, directed at foreign women, generally gets good reviews. “An Italian man flirts like other men breathe — regularly and naturally,” writes New Jersey-based Francesca Di Meglio on her Italian culture website italiansrus.com.
“[Italian men] think we’re more spontaneous, less false and calculating,” says Spitzmiller, 47, whose book is tentatively titled “Why You Should and How You Can Find Yourself an Italian Man.” “Italian women think about what you do, where you live. With foreign women, Italian men think that they don’t have to be someone, or be rich, that we’re charmed just by them.”
Spitzmiller, a university professor and a former vice president of Rome’s John Cabot University, advises women daunted by aggressive Italian men to unwind. “I tell them, ‘Relax. You are dealing with a different cultural scheme. It’s just really a game. Take it easy, enjoy it, and move on.'”
Though some women interviewed for this report declined to give their names, a disproportionate number indicated they were involved with or married to men from the Italian south. Foreign men, by comparison, seemed to have mates and spouses from throughout Italy.
Carolina Ferro, a 29-year-old social worker from Miami, has been living in Rome with Bruno Severino, also 29, from Bovalino, in Calabria, since last year. They met in August 2002 when Severino was in Miami to visit an American woman he had begun dating in Rome. Neither spoke the other’s language.
Many phone calls and emails later, Ferro decided to leave her job, house, car and family to join Severino in Italy. She’d found a companion, she says, and she did not want to let go. Moreover, she’s the product of a multiethnic marriage: her mother is Danish, her father Spanish; both are naturalized U.S. citizens.
This made it easier for Severino to persuade her to join him here, which she accepted only over time. “I’ve lived in Italy all my life,” he says. “We don’t have 3,000 different cultures like the United States does.”
What most divides the couple, says Ferro, is food and language — both common themes. “I had to concentrate on not mixing certain foods together. He wouldn’t eat a salad if I put it on the same plate as spaghetti,” she says.
Margaret Russo can sympathize. When she first sought to impress her then-boyfriend, “I made the biggest mistake that an American could make,” cooking pasta. “I decided to make some creamy mushroom concoction, and I believed this was the best meal I had ever cooked,” she says. “He just kind of looked at it.”
Winning the cooking battle, she decided, was a hopeless undertaking; the mushroom fiasco was “a scarring experience.” Now, Francesco Russo handles all the cooking duties. He also got a taste of American food, living with his wife for three and a half years in Chicago.
The issue of language, and dialect, is often more subtle.
Ferro admits that boyfriend Bruno annoys her when he switches into Calabrian dialect around friends. Bruno, in turn, is unhappy when Carolina speaks in English, which he does not understand, though he has studied it to please her. “He can express himself very easily in both dialect and Italian. But for me, I’m forced to express myself all the time in Italian, which is not as easy,” she explains.
The relationship between American writer Matt Baglio, 31, and his 35-year-old Italian wife Sara, changes the frame of reference, evidencing a modern relationship through Italian female eyes.
Matt Baglio was visiting friends in Ostia, outside Rome, when he met Sara, a public relations consultant for a dubbing company. Ready to give up on love, Sara was captivated by the strapping screenwriter from San Diego, California. “All of my girlfriends were already married and all the men that were left out there were young and immature,” she says. “It was amazing to meet this guy who knew how to treat a woman.”
The first time they met, at a beach club, they talked all night — Sara is fluent in English. Matt eventually left for Paris, but couldn’t resist calling Sara, who joined him at his next stop, Barcelona. “It was crazy but I felt I had nothing to lose,” she says. It was Matt’s maturity and independence that most attracted Sara, who attributes the maturity to culture: “By the time [American men are] 18 years old, they’re out of the house.”
Here, men twice that age still live with their parents or extended family, a fact that is not considered abnormal. In fact, the Swedish furniture chain IKEA recently pushed a nationwide advertising campaign with the words, in Italian, “Still living at home?”
Matt and Sara Baglio were married in May 2002, with Matt moving to Italy. “I like the slower pace of life that Italy gives me,” says Matt.
But the couple nonetheless faces occasionally cultural frustrations. At first, Matt was uncertain whether Sara’s parents were “talking, fighting or joking” because of their tone, he says. “As an American I’m very traditional, private, and a little colder. But her family is very open and very hot-blooded.”
Sara, who admits she’s both fiery and passionate, says she’s working on teaching Matt the Italian way. “When something bothers me, I yell and he knows I’m mad,” she says. “Matthew doesn’t yell.” When he does, she’s almost thrilled: “I feel like I gave him some blood.”
“We [as Americans] project,” notes Spitzmiller. “We sympathize; we don’t empathize.”
Yet even European men can run afoul of Italian habits. Irishman Fergal Dalton, 30, a physics researcher, has been dating Raffaela, a health and safety consultant from Rome, for two years. He met her at a choir practice, “a great place to meet girls,” he says, crediting a tip from his brother.
He recalls two occasions when his sense of the casual got him in trouble.
“Once, when I went out to dinner at her parents, we were eating salad,” he says. “You know it’s very difficult to eat salad with a fork. I just picked it up and ate it with my hands, and they were really shocked.” On another occasion, he wore shorts to the theatre “to be comfortable.” Bad choice. “She interpreted this as a mark of disrespect for her friends and the other people at the theater.”
American men in particular cite more complex differences, some of them where the cultural abuts the political.
Journalist Jeff Israely, 35, met Monica, 34, a statistician, while she was a visiting student at Stanford University seven years ago. They were married in Oakland, California in 1998 and now live in Rome with their two young children.
Israely admits he has struggled with the Italian language, which he’s learned mostly from his wife. “When tempers rise we find ourselves speaking in the other person’s language to make sure they understand,” he says. While Israely says he’s “becoming more Italianized every day,” he remains aware that there are “people from two different countries living in the same house.”
The September 11 attacks, however, created a temporary fissure between husband and wife. “We lived kind of separately,” he says, “Patriotism for a lot of Italians means some kind of Fascist nationalism. For Americans it can mean a lot of different things, and for me this was difficult to explain to my wife and other Italians. It was an emotional time, and we had trouble communicating in those months on that issue.”
Notes Spitzmiller: “We’re living in a very divisive time. Flag-waving to [Italians] is a danger signal. The outburst of flag-waving after September 11 brought this [response] out.”
But the divide can take a different form than disagreements over patriotism and nationalism.
Jim Ehrman, a 63-year-old retired American diplomat, from Madison, Wisconsin recalls coming to terms with the Italian tendency to sacrifice words for meaning. This hit home for Ehrman since his Italian wife, Silvana, also retired, was an interpreter.
“Italian goes on for long phrases and paragraphs,” says Ehrman. “At the end of a political discourse, you ask yourself, ‘What was the substance?’ These things even today drive me mad.”
But they didn’t deter Ehrman’s oldest son, Joel, 33, from marrying an Italian; or keep his 30-year-old daughter, Danielle, from dating the Italian man who has become her steady companion.
If politics and language can divide, children unite — a recurring theme.
Israely considers Monica an exemplary mother; in parenting, he says he “follows her lead.” As important, he considers Italy an excellent place to raise a child. “I have a feeling — maybe it’s an illusion — that everyone is keeping an eye on your kids; that in the park, if you turned away and your kid fell down, there would be 25 grandmothers calling it to your attention,” Israely says.
Phillip Pullella, 50, born in Calabria but raised in New York City, sees it the same way. He’s been married to Marilena, from Treviso, for nearly 25 years. The couple has a daughter, Carmen, who is 10. “There’s a lot to be said for the Italian way of raising a child,” says Pullella, who works for the British news agency Reuters in Rome. “Sometimes it can be overprotective. [Italians] are trying as hard as possible in a world moving ever faster to let kids be kids a little longer. It’s a noble thing to do. Do you really need to throw the Internet at a two-year-old instead of a four-year-old?”
Pullella’s experience with Marilena moves cross-cultural concerns laterally, where Italian families transplanted to America were forced to reckon with old prejudices. Born in Soriano, Calabria, Pullella had a hard time convincing his relatives — by then living in New York — that he’d fallen in love with Marilena. “I remember my uncle, when he found out that I was with someone from the North whom I was probably going to marry — in his goodness — asked me if I wanted a friend of his to do a background check on her family. I knew he meant well. When I told him, ‘No,’ he didn’t understand why.”
Once Pullella was in Italy, and married, the north-south distrust disappeared — for a reason: “Once people found out I was American everything was rosy.”
Dan Williams, 54, also has a 10-year-old daughter, Antonia. He met his wife, Lucia Annunziata, while the two were on assignment in Central America in 1983. They married five years later, while in Jerusalem.
Williams gets along well with the Annunziata family, from Sarno, near Naples. “They treat the head of the household well, and I am the nominal head of the household,” he says. “We’ve gone on holidays with our in-laws. I think that doesn’t happen very much in America.”
Again, though, the common ground is the child. “The Italian view of children is healthy,” says Williams. “They like having them in restaurants. They are not so relentlessly bombarded with consumerism as they are in the United States.” Antonia, Williams stresses, “is growing up in Italy, but not as an expat. We’ve tried to make sure that she speaks Italian and English.”
Florence-based Casey Kelly, 42, met his wife Bianca, a university professor from the North, while she was vacationing in the United States. Their two daughters, aged 12 and 11, have always been educated in international schools. Casey and Bianca want them to get both sides of their parents’ heritage.
Kelly, an asset manager who lived for years in Singapore and Hong Kong, sees similarities between Italian and Asian traditions. In Asia, warm farewells and welcomes were normal — something that is repeated in Italy but is less ordinary in the United States. “[Americans] are more about independence, standing on your own two feet at an early age. You go to school, get a job, start your life. You make your own way into the world. We have summer jobs. We’re more transitory.”
Here, being footloose is hardly considered an asset. Leaving your village behind forever is rare, he says.
Even women’s views of themselves are unrelated to similar views in Anglo-Saxon nations, he says. “[Women here] are not afraid of their own femininity. They’re proud to be women. They’re not trying to be men. They are more than our equal.”
And while it’s safe to say foreign women have a tougher job fitting in than men in Italy, which remains a male-driven society, there are moments when differences unexpectedly and touchingly melt away.
Margaret Russo recalls her Sicilian mother-in-law’s first visit to America, which was also one of the first times she had ever boarded an airplane. Russo, who had once fretted about being accepted into her boyfriend, then husband’s, family, had to guide her in-laws as tourists — with unexpectedly charming results.
“We took them to all the American tourist traps – Disneyworld, Seaworld, Las Vegas, Knotts Berry Farm, Universal Studios. To see his Mom, a 4’8″ Sicilian woman in tennis shoes, pants and a baseball cap.” Margaret Russo pauses and smiles. “She went on Space Mountain.”
On another occasion, Russo noticed that Pietro, her independent-minded father-in-law, was “missing” in the morning. “He had walked down to Starbucks, and this is not a simple Starbucks. You have to order, and they call your name.” Pietro heard his name and got his morning coffee. Margaret, happily, held on to his son.
When living in a foreign country, cultural differences are often what make dating the other nation’s residents interesting and exciting. But what tempts and allures when a romance is blossoming can complicate and disrupt later on, as cultural misunderstandings create rifts too deep-rooted to resolve.
Foreigners “think they can come here and take the boy away from the family,” said Maria Teresa Fobert, a clinical psychologist based in Rome since 1984. “Italian families want to engulf the girl. Both of them reason within their own culture.”
In interviews with several Rome-based psychologists who have counseled bi-cultural couples and individuals in such relationships, the family loomed largest among typical problems individuals from different cultures face when getting together romantically, though the psychologists emphasized that every relationship is different, and general observations don’t always apply.
For the Sicilian-born Fobert, her marriage of 20 years to Donald Treat, a U.S. State Department official, has been a success, she says, because they both appreciated and understood the other’s culture. He “was in love with Italy,” Fobert said. “And I didn’t have to change much because I was nurtured in Anglo Saxon ways.”
The only problem was Treat’s family, who disapproved. But, as Fobert tells it, he chose his wife over his parents.
Fobert counsels her patients to compromise when differing world-views conflict and create tensions. She says women are more likely to assimilate into Italian life for love’s sake. “Generally it is the girl who changes a little bit,” she says.
Another Rome-based clinical psychologist, Simona Reichmann, agrees that foreigners, particularly Americans, sometimes struggle adjusting to the typically close-knit Italian families. “Women might feel a bit overwhelmed by the family,” she said, adding that these traditional familial relationships can also be a strong draw for foreigners coming from cultures that focus more on the individual.
But she says most of her patients — primarily American women in their 30s and 40s — complain of meeting men interested more in a short-term fling than a committed relationship. “They are meeting [Italian] men who are already married and looking to have affairs,” said Reichmann, 41, an American from Durham, North Carolina who moved to Italy with her Italian husband about four years ago. “Sometimes American women are viewed as someone to have a good time with.”
Wales-native Helen Hannick, a therapeutic counselor, argues the close relationship between Italian mother and son contributes to the problems foreign women face. “Italian men have a very strong bond with their mothers, which has a flipside — it can be suffocating. They fear having another woman that close,” she said. “So a woman can be pulled into the seduction of the Italian culture. But then she can come down with a crash when she realizes she’s married a momma’s boy.”
Hannick, however, emphasizes that all romantic relationships are difficult and work best when both individuals have a “healthy sense of self.”
“The problems are in the individuals, not in the cultural framework,” she said. “The reason, possibly, why things are more difficult when you move outside of your culture is you don’t have a shared history of culture,” she said.
— Bryan Keogh, Nicole Arriaga and John G. Pitonzo contributed to this report.