So, first, the bad news... I've been with an Italian for almost five years and I'm ashamed to admit my language skills are still tipping towards sub-par. His family, all based in the lovely Tuscan town of Piombino, speak no English at all and, while my ear has improved visit over visit, I imagined that I would be much further along by now. Nevertheless, we have spent summers and a Christmas holiday together getting by on broken conversations.
The good news... I know I am not the only one sitting around a dinner table pulling the best I-have-no-idea-what-you're-saying-but-this-food-is-amazing face. My good friend Anne has a Lithuanian husband and has learned much about how to cope with being the only one in the room who can't communicate with words. As I am about to leave for the annual summer sojourn in Italy, we got to chatting survival and I have compiled her best strategies to thrive in a foreign environment.
Smile and nod. A lot.
"Even though you don't know what they're saying. You might come off as a little simpleminded, but it's better than coming off all cold and threatening. In my case there was much thigh squeezing and comments on the strength and fullness of my figure (I found out later), but I smiled and nodded my way through it. Five years later we still spend hypnotic amounts of time smiling and nodding at each other. However, amidst the physical assessments and the eating, there's a comfort in this very basic acknowledgment that we are in this together."
If you don't already know, find out about the cultural views on making eye contact.
"You don't want to be staring great granny down thinking you're bonding over a mutual love of her progeny when she's actually thinking you're a disrespectful tart who is waiting for her to keel over so you can assume the matriarchal throne. Eye contact means a lot in most cultures, be it in the making or avoiding, so you'll need very specific guidance on this one, and it's helpful if that happens before you arrive at the front door."
Eat everything that's offered to you and do it with abandon.
"I don't know of any culture on earth that won't appreciate you appreciating their food. Eat things you don't normally eat, while pushing yourself to the brink of fullness. Ask, if you've got a designated translator, about the food, the preparation and the customs. They will be watching your face, so don't fake it, throw yourself into it. The kids too (see photo below of Anne's son cooking with Baba)! There will be lots of time in the years to come to discuss the benefits of a vegan lifestyle, or ponder the use of additives, or question how pink pork should really be. For now, they are forming first impressions and you won't get another chance. One of my mantras in life is, start the way you want to end. In this case, you're starting with warmth and enthusiasm, which are a lot more important than expressing views of what constitutes a proper dinner."
Keep it light.
"The mimed version of 'why I'm against arctic drilling' is never going to play out well. I use a lot of thumbs up (I like!) and wrinkled nose (I don't like), or wrinkled nose and head tilt (I'm not sure about that, but not in any kind of committed way). Your political beliefs may or may not be aligned with theirs, but we all like to commiserate about the weather and people invariably want to know what you've been doing in the area they live in and love."
Show an interest in family history, family artifacts and family pictures.
"You never know what you might find out. I genuinely loved hearing the stories of my husband's great grandparents, and we ended up finding out a lot of things he didn't know because nobody had ever asked the questions I, with his help, asked. If you have kids, or might have kids, these visits are an incredible opportunity to gather genealogical history for your children. They will also, and I can only imagine this is universal, be pleased to see that you care enough about their son or daughter to spend time in the anecdotal and historical reaches of their family tree."
"Stay attuned to what kinds of things the family might like, need or want. The next time you come you'll likely bring a gift, and it needs to be a much more thoughtful one than you might have brought the first time. What kind of soap is there in the bathroom? Would they like teacups or olive oil? Something homemade, or fancy, or both? Your partner might say things like, "Oh we don't need to bring anything, it's fine". Please ignore because it's always a good thing to opt for a little gift that simply says, I thought of you and I wanted to show you that I care about getting along with you."
"There will be situations where things are going on around you that you don't understand - family catch-up time, questions about other people you may or may not know, general overviews of life since the person you're with was last there. Don't pull out your phone and start texting, or check your email. For now, you're on stage, and you need to stay plugged into the room around you. Look at the room, watch the interactions, see the person you love in the middle of the people who've loved them for longer than you have. There's a lot of information on display in these moments so be a detective and check it all out."
Remember that your partner is in the middle, and that's tough.
"He or she has to decide what to translate, and when. Should he tell you that granny appreciates your fat thighs in the best way possible? Should she translate the joke everyone's laughing at, even though it won't be funny to you? Going home as an adult is always a little complicated. There's always a little collision of the past and the present, and having to navigate those waters while also filtering and translating. Contextualizing for someone else is tiring and takes practice."
In the moment-to-moment, they might forget that you aren't following the conversation, or they might get caught up with friends and not want to stop to catch you up. You might feel left out or left behind.
This is the time to check in on any abandonment issues. It may have felt like the trip is all about you... you're the travelling exhibition, after all. Keep in mind it's actually a lot more about the other person frantically building bridges between a new life and an old life. They're going to need your moral support just as much, if not more, than you need theirs."
"It gets easier. In the first few visits you will feel exhausted by the newness, the foreign-ness, the complexity of not being able to unscramble one word from the next in a sentence. It's as lonely and tiring as it is rewarding and heart-warming. I can tell you it gets exponentially easier with every visit, and the slightly-more-comfortable place you get to is quickly re-established on the next visit. You could be perceived as anything from a novelty item to an outright threat, depending on all kinds of things that are out of your control. Try to keep a sense of humour and not let whatever comes your way knock you off your base. You will go back to your normal life and you will be the same couple you were when you left. Only with insight and added depth to the relationship.
Anne Samulevicius lives in Corsica and blogs at NextTimeNotes.com. She also contributed more great advice to my guidebook How To Make Big Moves: Relocate Without Losing Your Mind.
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