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By Damion Michaels

Every year around New Year's time, I think of my first few months of living in Naples, Italy. At the time, I was not yet 21 years old and although I thought myself to be worldly and much older than my years, culture shock was getting the better of me.

I arrived in Italy in August and through a chance meeting, I landed a beautiful (and furnished) apartment overlooking the bay of Naples, a telephone, electricity, and a genuinely smart and beautiful crowd of Italian friends. Someone neglected to tell me that apartments are impossible to come by, especially furnished; that telephones take around eighteen months to get; and electricity is easy to get as long as you had a couple of month's patience. As for the Italian friends, from day one I learned that all one needed to do was to ask for directions on the street and they were likely to receive an invitation to dinner. What, me worry? I am the worldly guy. This is normal, right?

The only thing I worried about was the language. I did not speak Italian. But my new friends were determined to teach me and constantly dragged me to every social function imaginable. So I learned Italian by watching reruns of Star Trek and Loveboat with an Italian dictionary, pen and pad nearby, and socializing with my Italian friends who spoke very little English. By holiday's time, I had this "living abroad thing" down to a science because I spoke conversational Italian with little effort. What, me worry? I can handle anything. Day in and day out, I learned new things about Italian culture. But nothing prepared me for the holidays.

When the holidays arrived, I had no place to celebrate Chanukah. This meant that I would celebrate my holidays the Italian Catholic way. I had a wonderful Christmas with an Italian family, that practically adopted me as one of their own, and I experienced first hand the graciousness and love of the Italian people. They even found a menorah and we lit candles (forget which day it was)---all of them. It was a wonderful evening and I was emotionally overwhelmed at the affection afforded me. I thought that this was one cultural difference I could easily warm to. But this is normal for me, right? I am the worldly guy.

The rest of the week was a barrage of holiday parties and strange little customs. All were in good fun. I was told that on New Year's Eve to not park my car on the street and be ready for dinner at 10:00 pm. Did I mention that dinner plans usually started at 9:00 pm anyway? What, me worry?

On, New Year's Eve, my friends arrived to my apartment promptly at 10:00 pm. We walked around the corner to a beautiful little restaurant called the "Il Cottone Club" or the Cotton Club. We had a spectacular meal, wonderful conversation and more wine than I care to admit---but hey, we were walking remember. I learned that the remainder of our evening involved coffee afterwards and then a trip to a jazz club. My culture shock was disappearing more with each passing minute.

I left the restaurant with a wonderful feeling. Anxious for more conversation over coffee, our group settled at the sidewalk tables at the little Café behind my apartment. I noticed that the streets were eerily quiet and devoid of parked cars or traffic. Someone announced the time and the crowd agreed in unison to something that I did not understand. We all ordered our coffee and conversation picked up where it was left off in the restaurant. This was the life, I told myself. Just then some shouted "Due minuti". "Two minutes?" I wondered aloud.

Without interrupting conversation, the group picked up their coffees, cigarettes and purses, and they all casually moved to the archway of the Café. I then heard the familiar count down to a New Year's Eve. "Tre, due, uno, Buon Felice Anno" rang out. And kisses and hugs broke out all around. I stepped out of the archway to give a friend a hug on the other side of the crowd. In a flash, I was grabbed by my collar and yanked into the archway. Still trying to determine if I had broken some Italian custom on New Year's Eve, I heard an amazingly loud crash behind me. I turned to see a television that saw its last good day when the Honeymooner reruns were on (and only a few months old). I heard more crashes and looked down the street to see every imaginable old item in pulverized piles. It was apparent that the old adage, "Out with the old, in with the new" was a literal expression in Italian culture.

Well, hello culture shock! What the hell is this? My friends assured me that this was normal and it was evident because conversation truly went on uninterrupted. We proceeded to the jazz club that evening and it was the most amazing New Year's Eve I ever had. What, me worry? I had this "living abroad thing" down right? Are you crazy? Every day for the remainder of the four years I lived there, I constantly lived in fear of being crushed by an appliance older than I was.

So much for being worldly.

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