When you live in another culture you never know where exactly the boundary between behaving well and being discourteous lies. In Japanese culture burping is considered polite. In Egypt showing someone the sole of your shoe is extremely offensive. And in Croatia opening the refrigerator in someone else’s home is considered an invasion of privacy and one of the rudest things you can do.
One time, at the very beginning of my life in Croatia, my mother-in-law saw someone just open the refrigerator in Ray Romano’s home on the show Everybody Loves Raymond. My punica called to me from the living room and stated, er… sort of asked: How can that guy just open the refrigerator? I paused, trying to survey her intentions and wondering if this was a trick question. With… the door?
The Eleventh Commandment
I really didn’t understand what she was asking. She elaborated: In America, you can just go in to someone’s house and open their refrigerator? Just like that? I stood there for a minute. Um… yes? My response was met with a disconcerting head shake, that said ‘Tsk, tsk, tsk’ with each turn. For us… she didn’t finish the thought, but just looked up to the heavens as if opening another’s fridge was a sin so dire the offender would suffer divine retribution. THOU SHALT NOT OPEN THY NEIGHBOR’S FRIDGE!
Now I just thought this was my mother-in-law being a sensitive elder woman, but then I spoke with other people and there was a consensus that opening someone else’s refrigerator is quite rude, AND this the exact opposite of my American experience. In the US opening someone else’s refrigerator is one of the best testaments to the strength of their friendship.
The American way
After all, in America we have the Spanish expression Mi casa es su casa. My house is your house. And we mean that literally as don’t ask me to get you anything or do much for you because you can just do it, get it, and eat it yourself. Which, I guess can lead to a whole other level of rudeness in Croatia.
Among good friends, opening your friend’s refrigerator is just natural. At my best friend’s house I would often walk in, open the refrigerator, take out the bottle of soda that I knew would inevitably be there, pour myself a glass and then rummage through the pantry to see if there were any cookies, all while my friend and his parents were elsewhere in the house. I did this when I was 15, 25 and 30 years old.
It’s hard to navigate the norms of another culture. And as much as I like the customs of Croatian hospitality, I still love the ease that comes with American hosting and friendship. So, even as I try to be more Croatian, I’ll still let all of my friends open our refrigerator as much as they want. There probably won’t be much in there, unless, of course, punica is in town.