A trainer with three university degrees, Olga Plyaskina arrived in Italy for love. She is specialised in inter-cultural relations. This is a competence that would have been helpful to the midwife who assisted her in the operating room...

On 10th September last year, the Alitalia plane I was on – on a direct flight from Moscow to Rome – tilted on its side. Like a pearl diver before a difficult dive, it was preparing to go down towards the flickering lights of Fiumicino airport. From that day on, I would have to rebuild my life in Italy. I had turned a new page.

So, in 2006, I tried to assess my first year in Italy posing myself many questions about my experiences as a migrant. A Russian citizen, in 2003 I had won a scholarship to go to the United States on an exchange program called Fullbright. This was a prestigious academic achievement that enabled me to complete a Masters in Education Technology at the University of Atlanta. 

I had already lived in the US for a year when I was in highschool so I didn’t experience a cultural shock going back to live there. On the contrary, I soon met my future husband: an Italian civil servant posted in the US. Everything went very quickly and we decided to get married before the end of the year. 

So, having got my Masters, in 2005, I moved to Italy for love. I came from Eastern Europe, I knew the Anglo-Saxon world well but I knew nothing about Mediterranean culture.

I studied Italian like a maniac but I understood that wasn’t going to be enough. It was like being in the middle of the sea: the words I exchanged with the people around me hitting an invisible iceberg underwater. Back then, I didn’t even know that the iceberg metaphor is commonly used. 

It means that the events we observe on the surface have significant roots. We observe customs and traditions that are different from ours but we seldom dive into those dark, deep waters to understand why centuries of history have shaped us and them in this way. 

I could see that I needed to rewrite my personal history contextualising it within a broader story, which was still unknown to me. I had no one to guide me to the light, step by step. I wasn’t isolated in a physical sense, but the people around me were no psychologists or cultural intelligence consultants. Most of them had never even lived abroad. Although I was certain that with my two degrees, of which I was very proud, I could sail in unchartered waters, I felt like I was drowning day after day. Community networks in Lazio in 2005 were underdeveloped, even Facebook had only just started. Meanwhile, I tried to better understand the local accent (Aretino). I believe that God helps those who help themselves, not that everything is due. 

Reflecting on my experiences, and those of the migrant friends I have made over the years, I’ve noticed that, in Italy, the simple notion that immigration is a natural process and a common good in the longer term, is hardly understood. 

There is another more serious consideration: without immigrants many countries would not sustain economic growth. When we talk about attracting workers to Italy, most people refer to low-skilled workers. Et voilà…”extracomunitario” (i.e. non-EU) has become a new, derogatory, term. Of the different instances when I was treated as an “extracomunitaria”, I remember one in particular. When I was having a C-section to deliver my baby daughter, one of the midwives said: «Look, your baby bump has already gone down»; «well, the girl is only 28 years old»; «Ah, these girls come here and they get married real quick». The conversation got really animated. But I didn’t really feel like intervening. The operating theatre is not the best place to have a discussion….

Meanwhile, life went on. I had finally realised I could not work as a technology coordinator in any school in Italy as no such job even existed. I put my US Master back in the drawer and I took a third degree in Italy. I’ve read Dante in Italian, I have studied Jung’s psychology and European history. Then, I had a second child and I got my first job as a foreign language teacher. The Professional Women Association (PWA) in Rome created its first site. I was involved and I was so willing to help out. And my contribution was recognised in 2014. But then I needed to be careful not to spill the glass that was once empty. 

When we fly with any company, they keep reminding us to put our own oxygen mask on first before helping others. 

The sensation of breathing easily and so being able to help others came years after that flight from Moscow to Rome, about four years ago. 

I was working for a Spanish firm as an English tutor for over 600 clients from 11 different nationalities. Then, I realised I had developed the sensitivity to go well beyond communicating with the Anglo-Saxon and Mediterranean cultures. I had Sudanese, Kazakh and Hungarian clients for example. Getting to understand such different nationalities was enlightening. Gradually, I was completing the puzzle. But I felt it was a shame I couldn’t share my experiences with others. As a teacher, it came natural to me to start devising a programme aimed to sensitise university students about inter-cultural communication. 

I went to Berlin, where I obtained a certificate in the area of cultural intelligence. That’s what it’s called. It is simply our ability to relate to a person from a different culture, even professionally or generationally speaking, in order to achieve a common objective. 

It is about being aware of who we are, what we bring to the table and what we are prepared to accept from someone we don’t know. In other words, trying to live together in a civilised, urban way. 

I wish I’d known about this approach ten years ago…It would have certainly helped me save my time and my health on my way towards integration. And I am certain I am not alone. 

Cultural intelligence (CQ) also has a practical application. Understanding ‘the other’ is helpful to educate, reduce criminality, improve productivity and sales. Overall, I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that young people today need cultural intelligence to travel, study and work with foreigners in and outside Italy. 

I think it is a shame that the Italian business schools I have contacted don’t share this view. But the Project Management Institute and other State agencies have been more receptive to this issue. Having now moved to Munich for family reasons, I still keep very much in touch with Italy. In 2022 we will go back to Rome, and this time I can truly call it home. 

I hope things will change and perhaps one day a new Minister of home affairs in Italy will talk about the importance of CQ and will post their speech on Facebook, just like their counterpart in Singapore has done. Meanwhile, I continue to walk my talk. My two children are multi-lingual, I help foreign students to cope with cultural shock in Germany and I also work with Russian expats online. I will never tire of saying that different perspectives enrich our lives. We don’t necessarily have to share these, but in so doing we never turn our autopilot off. 

(traduzione di Costanza de Toma)

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