Virginia, a young woman living in Rome who needs to learn English for her secretarial job in an international firm, was born and raised in Argentina. I was born and raised in the United States and have been earning my living for the last year-and-a-half here in Rome by giving private English lessons. We met when she called about studying English with me. Although you might think were very different, we feel we have more in common with each other than we have with some other people from our respective countries: were italo-straniere, and we decided to live in Rome for the rest of our lives because this is where we feel most at home.
Virginia and I have much more than blood in common with each other and with all italo-stranieri. We have an internalised Italian culture that we carry with us wherever we go. Although we must, and we do, adapt to new surroundings, although we leave home to change our future, we cannot change our past.
Virginia is a second-generation italo-straniera; her parents, emigrants from Calabria who went to Buenos Aires with their parents, raised her to be Italian. Im third generation; my fathers parents, from Naples, and my mothers parents, from Sicily, went to New York. After my mothers death when I was very young, my father took me and my brother to live with his Neapolitan mother, who raised me to be Italian.
Very small children live in families, not in countries. Virginia and I lived in similar families, just as we would have if we had been born and raised in Italy. We considered ourselves real Italians, the term we also use to describe Italians born and raised in Italy.
But because Virginia and I didnt grow up in Italy, when we left our Italian homes in our non-Italian countries, we found that some of the people outside didnt do things the way our family did.
I asked Virginia what differences she saw between her family and the non-Italians.
I remember that my mother never let me go to my friends houses when I was a child because she wanted the family to be all together at home. But this wasnt a problem for me because she always welcomed my friends to our house and my non-Italian friends were allowed by their parents to come. And then, my friends loved it at my house because they loved our food. My mother would make them pasta and broccoli, pasta and beans, all kinds of Italian dishes that they didnt have in their own homes.
We spoke the Calabrian dialect at home. The older people, as they got even older, forgot Spanish and remembered only the dialect, as if they were returning to their childhood. The non-Italians spoke only Spanish.
The coffee we drank at home was different from everyone elses coffee. We made our coffee in a mocha pot and it was too strong for the non-Italians. On Sunday we had the big family lunch at our grandparents house, something the non-Italians didnt do.
We celebrated Christmas on 24 December, starting dinner at 21.00 and eating until midnight, when we opened the presents. On New Years eve, we toasted the New Year at midnight Italian time.
Does she feel accepted in Rome as Italian, or does she feel that people consider her a foreigner? I feel accepted as Italian here. When I tell people Im from Argentina but my parents are from Calabria, they say, Oh, youre Calabrian.
Virginia is engaged to Enrico, a real Italian she met on vacation in Greece. Does Enrico see her as Italian? He sees me as Italian in everything I say and do, but there is also a certain little something in me that is exotic for him because I was born in Argentina and grew up there. He likes this exoticism.
Im going to teach my children everything about Argentina and everything about Italy, and they will grow up bilingual Italian and Spanish. I will always be grateful to my parents for giving me the Italian culture because now I can be at home on two continents.
What would she like Italians to understand about her as
The italo-stranieri are a wonderful visiting card for Italy because we have taken the culture and the food and the traditions of Italy all over the world, and have shown others that being Italian is a good thing. They should be grateful to us for this.
Virginias feelings are not only at home in my own heart but also in the hearts of Italian-Canadians and Italian-Australians that Ive met or corresponded with. Even Virginias emphasis on food when talking about our culture reminds me of a non-Italian Canadians comment about a book of poetry I had written: She mentions food on almost every page, he said, as though this were inappropriate. The response from the Italian-Canadian he was talking to was to mutter So? in a baffled tone.
Where do you draw the line between poetry and food, soul and body, italo and straniero? We, the italo-stranieri, by definition, dont draw that line.
Picture: Italo-Argentinian Virginia shares an internalised culture with other italo-stranieri brought up by Italian parents who emigrated.