Tuesday, October 4, 2011

In praise of October 4th, St. Francis and Interculturality

photo source

Exactly eight glorious years ago I landed at the Chicago O’Hare airport with a bunch of generally incorrect ideas about the transition from the sweet rolling hills of Transylvania to the vast flatland of the American Midwest. When the plane took off from Bucharest I was sure of two things: first that I’m going to die and second that I’ll never find such a nice, sympathetic fellow traveler to reassure me that I’m going to live, as the one in the seat on my right.

Until the very moment of the taking off, life was all about talking and juggling official papers and selling things and preparing the move and laughing and crying. Then the plane engines did their business and, all of a sudden, I was really heading toward that magic faraway land everybody seems to be talking about, even today.

The day was long and exciting. I remember like it was yesterday how I saw for the first time the lights of downtown Chicago. I am in America, I kept telling myself, but everything still had an aura of unreality. The first thing that shocked me was the carelessness with which the immigration officer tore open the envelope with my official papers, the exactly same envelope which I have guarded for months with my life. I barely had time to regroup and I went to rescue my luggage from the belt and en route I saw a pile of dilapidated suitcases which made me start developing a new understanding of what diversity might also encompass.

Now if you allow me a moment of nostalgia for those gone with the wind times when you were allowed to travel internationally with 64 kilos of stuff, I would be very grateful.

Then came the unmatched sensation of being a passenger in a car flying on interstate I-90. Moving from a two-lane road in the morning to a ten-lane behemoth in the evening was a bit of a cultural shock, let me tell you. I’ve laughed hard for three years thinking that I was expected to drive with the speed of light on that oversized road. Little did I know at that time about all the intricacies and delights of the above mentioned cultural shock.

There wasn’t that much guidance available at that point, no psychological cushioning of any kind. Do this, do that, buy your carpet from here, buy your car from there and good night and good luck. Before I knew what’s happening I became an accountant and there is a strong suspicion that I will still be one for a while.

On the night of my arrival, after I reached my temporary destination, I formed two lasting impressions. First was the somehow unexpected sensation given by the innumerable black trash cans overflowing on people’s porches, because at exactly that moment the waste management guys wisely decided to go on strike. Second, after I got upstairs, was the unbearably pleasant smell of fresh bread, made with that technological marvel which is the bread machine. You don’t have to know anything, only to put in some flour, water, salt and yeast, in the order recommended by the manufacturer, and there you are, baking your very own home made bread and killing all neighbors comprised within a circle with a generous diameter.

After all that jazz I slept like a log and when I woke up in the morning I was met by the colors of the Indian summer so I hurried to a payphone operated by coins and I reported back home that Chicago is beautiful and I love my new life.

I know I’ve changed a lot in these years and sometimes I have serious difficulties fishing deep down for the old Amalia. Sometimes I miss her, sometimes I don’t miss her that much and I entertain the illusion that the Amalia I’m dealing with today is a better version of my old self. Or, if not entirely better, at least somehow wiser. (Note: on my visit to Romania this summer I was surprised to find myself missing my car, my interstate and my how are you)

There are two more things to share with you who are here now by free will or by google mistake.

First is the fact that, although I was completely unaware at that time, October 4, the day I came to America, is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, born in 1182 to a family of luxurious fabrics merchant couple and expected to become himself a successful merchant. Instead, he decided to join the second crusade and on his first night out he had a vision that the Lord was sending him back. He turned away from war to peace and waited for a further sign from God. He then had a second vision in which God told him to repair His church. Francis mission was to help rebuild the whole faith. Although today I have a few reservations regarding church as an institution, seeing the faith more like an inner and only sometimes outer endeavor, with feelings you don’t necessarily have to boast loudly about, I like the story of St Francis and I find it inspirational. I’ve also discovered an interesting book about Saint Francis written by Nikos Kazantzakis, the author largely celebrated for Zorba the Greek. What St. Francis essentially teaches us is: find time to pray, try to reduce the amount of noise you make and,
at least once a week, walk to admire God's creations

Second is the fact that I started gaining more and more understanding about the expatriation process, which can approach you smoothly, caressing your head, or which can hit you hard between the eyes, depending on your personality, circumstances, due preparation, motivation, adaptability and other factors that sound like they are taken from a chapter in a textbook. But I find the subject more and more interesting every day. I even discovered a blog the other day which deals with the issues of expatriation and intercultural communication and I have it now in my “We have something in common" section:


Just to give you an idea, the stages of intercultural sensitivity, as per Milton Bennett, university professor, expert in the intercultural field, are: denial, defense, minimization, acceptance, adaptation and, praised be God, integration, if you want to integrate, that is.

So, between St. Francis of Assisi and Milton Bennett, PhD, October 4, 2003 remains the day when, partially without knowing what I was doing, I changed my life.