When you are perplexed after seeing a five-year-old boy buying the family breakfast at the supermarket by himself, when the pieces of pineapple on your pizza suddenly horrify you, when the fact that you will find toilet paper even in the most remote mountain cabin overwhelms you with joy, you are in the cultural limbo.
There comes the time for every expat who has decided to live in fantastic and weird Italy when you return to the homeland for a holiday and find that something’s just not right anymore.
Yes, the lack of personal space and the fact that you can feel all kinds of strangers’ body parts pressed up against you in Roman public transport still freaks you out. That Italians feel the need to peel every single fruit drives you insane. And while you try to adjust to these unusual things, you will still never be wholly Italian. Yet, you are somehow lingering in a cultural limbo where the balance between what is home and what is weird shifts and you find yourself suddenly missing the plenty that is antipasto, primo and secondo and wondering how these Swiss maniacs manage to stay alive eating an entire bowl of cheese for their Christmas dinner.
You notice it when your relatives, living in a country where you can actually call the police when someone disturbs the peace and quiet of your idyllic suburban home, can’t stop going on about that one time when the neighbour’s son turned on his motocross bike and the noise could be heard for, uhm, minutes.
That’s when a stiff smile spreads across your face and you remember every other day in Rome when some poor person parked behind a doppia fila feels the need to honk for half an hour, annoying the entire neighbourhood, until the owner of the car blocking the one who wants to leave finally shows up and a loud yelling match escalates, disrupting peace for another 15 minutes, but the most disturbing thing is that you can't even complain about it because EVERYONE THINKS THIS IS NORMAL BEHAVIOUR.
It hits you when you pass by a supposedly Italian restaurant and read Spaghetti Bolognese on the menu and the little know-it-all voice in your head says that no Italian would ever write that on their menu because that is not what the dish is called. And while we are at it, Switzerland, Italians do not combine their pasta dishes with chicken. They hate it. It’s almost as offensive as pineapple on a pizza.
And it really starts to sink in when you are about to pay your shopping at the supermarket and behind you is a little boy no more than five years old, struggling to deposit his bread, milk and fruit juice at the check-out, a 20 franc note ready in his little hand, and you look around alarmed and think where the hell are the parents because in Italy, this scenario would be as impossible as putting parmesan cheese on your seafood pasta. But then you calm down because you remember that 25 years ago, that kid was you.
The cultural limbo is so vast, it can make it impossible for you to find yourself at ease in either world - the one you came from and the one you chose to move to. While you are angry about the malfunctioning of that scary place the Italians call their post office and are longing for some order, this same order completely unnerves you when you are driving through Zurich and the only thing that makes you relax is when you lay eyes on that one colourfully painted, occupied house of the local Hippie-community.
And while my sense for punctuality will never die and I believe Switzerland owes it to me that the bus arrives at the exact minute scheduled by the timetable, I forget that I can pay a three-franc chewing gum with a 100-franc note and no one is going to throw a tantrum about not having any change.
When you are still wondering whether you find it weird that everyone knows where their local nuclear bunker is, you know, just in case a nuclear war breaks out over night in neutral Switzerland, you know it’s cultural limbo at work.