Being ‘foreign’: Italians and coffee, Danes and rye bread

TonVallenAward-kleinMartha Sif Karrebæk has recently been announced as the winner of the 2013 Ton Vallen award.  This is an annual award for papers written by new researchers  on sociolinguistic and educational issues in multicultural societies which we at Multilingual Matters are proud to support.  In this article Martha takes us on a tour from coffee in Rome to rye bread in Denmark to introduce us to the themes of her research.

I recently passed some days in Rome with my husband and two children. We had brought a guidebook (Lonely Planet, 2012) to enrich and facilitate our visit, and we spent much time studying the authors’ advice on all thinkable matters. As it is customary, the book included sections devoted to “Eating” and “Drinking & Nightlife” and in the latter the topic of coffee was explored. I quote from this:

“For Romans, coffee punctuates and marks the process of the day, from the morning and mid-morning cappuccino, to the afternoon espresso pick-me-up, or summertime granita with cream. To do as the Romans do, you have to be precise about your coffee needs… [here follows a longish paragraph on the different varieties of coffee and their names caffè, caffè macchiato, caffè all’american etc.]. Then, of course, there’s the cappuccino… Italians drink cappuccino only during the morning and never after meals; to order it after 11am would be, well, foreign.”

The quote presents Romans as having similar and very specific coffee practices, and that the variety of coffee one chooses is defined by the time of the day and of the year (at least). You can easily become recognizable as a tourist – or ‘foreign’ relative to the Romans – if you do not adhere to this specified order. It is clearly one of the goals of the guidebook to educate tourists, or ‘foreigners’, to be able to “do as the Romans do” (evidenced by the many repetitions of the phrase “do it the Roman way / do as the Romans do”, moreover the book had several sections on etiquette). Thus, we were supposed to take the advice into account. Also, the small “well” inserted between commas (to order cappuccino in the afternoon would be, “well, foreign”) indicates that the self-identification as ‘foreign’ is undesirable. In fact, when you do not observe the norm for coffee ordering, it becomes a transgression of a moral order. You show yourself not to be interested to blend in, to integrate – or should I say: to assimilate?

Food (including drinks and beverages) and food practices are culturally specific, and they can be used to define who is, and who is not, part of a social community. Phrased differently, they can be said to ‘index’ cultural and social belonging and identity. Such practices are created and re-created all the time, and they are taught to children and newcomers both explicitly, through manuals such as my guidebook, or through parental advice, and implicitly as demonstrations of normal behaviour in the everyday routines. A community is always defined relative to other communities, and therefore food and food practices can also be used to show who is not regarded as part of the community. Guests, or ‘visiting outsiders’, are often treated with distrust; they are potentially disruptive of the social community. In order to overcome the suspiciousness, guests should demonstrate how they respect and observe the cultural norms of the host community.

Now, of course, this is a very simplified description. Yet it is relevant both to my recent experiences on the trip to Rome and to my fieldwork in an urban school in Copenhagen. As I have reported in the academic paper “What’s in your lunch-box?”, in this school the lunch-boxes of children with an immigrant background were taken to index their and their families’ attitude to Danish society and their educational potential in general. Bread became a proxy for something more important, namely national belonging, national fidelity and solidarity. It was treated as obligatory that the children brought the traditional variety of bread rye bread for lunch. This obligatory status was disguised as part of a health discourse. “Rye bread is healthy, white bread isn’t.” As it is unthinkable these days to refuse to obey advice given in the name of health (the health discourse is pervasive, intrusive and of a moral character) children were forced to bring and eat rye bread, no matter whether they liked it or not, and regardless of the fact that there are many other ways to compose a healthy lunch. Moreover, the children were put in very difficult situations as they mediated between their home where rye bread was not necessarily consumed and where other food items may have been attributed with higher value than rye bread, and school, where teachers were very explicit about their parents’ lack of competence when they did not observe the rye bread order. The children were left to find their own way to navigate between the school and the home as different normative centres of authority.

My family and I are good-mannered people so we refrained from ordering cappuccino after 11 AM – as we were told to – in Rome. Yet, despite this highly conscious work on ‘integrating’ we still managed to transgress some of the food cultural norms. It turned out that it was highly unexpected that we order espresso (caffè) as well as caffè macchiato (instead of at least latte macchiato) and even granita (a sort of sherbet made on a very strong espresso) for our 12 year old son, who drinks coffee with more pleasure than his mother. We were asked, again and again, if this was really what we intended to order; the probably well-meaning waiters tried to convince us that it wasn’t, it couldn’t be. When the coffee eventually was served, the waiter would put it on the table in front of the child with a very inquisitive facial expression, gazing at him, then at his mother, who had insisted on this beverage. We certainly felt that we had failed to demonstrate good or appropriate parenthood. Of course, there may be other interpretations. It may be the case that we just didn’t demonstrate to be the habitual tourists – which would be somehow a success as we really made an effort not be touristic at all. However, in that case I would have expected some comments or reactions that were supportive of our choice, yet, we never received that. No smiles or other approving responses. In the urban school where I did fieldwork, the children were never explicitly told that rye bread was only obligatory for lunch. In the morning you could choose to eat other things, even white bread (although oats with milk was placed higher in the breakfast hierarchy). Neither were they told that possible breakfast items did not include, e.g., lasagne. This was learned gradually in the classroom, in public, while being on display.

To conclude, it is very hard to learn to observe cultural norms unfamiliar to you even when you try to. Many norms tend to be implicit rather than explicit. I haven’t touched upon the consequences of the social transgressions that you then end up doing. For us, in Rome, the social repercussions were minimal, but the children in the classroom suffered a daily marginalization. Their social transgressions had much more serious possibly long-term effects.

So, remember not to drink caffè when you are under 12 in Rome, and not to eat white bread for lunch, and lasagne for breakfast, when in Denmark. Because then you show yourself to be, well, foreign.

Martha Sif Karrebæk

Martha’s page at the University of Copenhagen can be found here.

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