Thursday, July 12, 2012

Being Italian

As I've mentioned, I grew up in an Italian-American household.  In the United States, this means that I am, to keep it simple, Italian.  The question "What are you?" or "Where are you from?" isn't odd because, as Americans, we are all from somewhere else (more or less, but we'll leave the poor Native Americans out of that discourse).  When someone asked me, "So, what are you?" Italian was the easy answer, and I thought little of it for most of my life.
My new wheels.  Does this make me Italian?
Living in Italy is another thing.  I'm American, clear and simple.  And for people who think Italian-American and Italian are the same thing, it's like saying the English and the Irish are the same.  Sure, their are cultural similarities that exist, primarily with food, most of it being heavy in Southern Italian and Sicilian tradition, but even the language has moved so far away from what is actually Italian, the argument can be made it's a independent culture in and of itself.  This was never more evident then the table from the town next to mine in New Jersey (small world) who sat down and promptly ordered "GALMAWD" with "RED SAWCE".  Now, I can translate this New York-Jersey-ese Italian into Calamari with tomato sauce, but it was amusing to the other Italian waiters.  In fact, once I told them how sfogliatelle, the delicious dessert pastry, was pronounced enthusiastically "SFWOYADELL", they refused to believe me.  As I chatted with the table from my home state, they seemed oblivious that their "fluent Italian", as the man claimed, was actually incomprehensible to anyone actually Italian - and not to lie, but for several years of my life, I thought the same thing.  "Look how Italian I am", I thought, eating my muzzarell.  Now, still just as proud of my heritage but more aware of it's dramatic differences from being actually Italian, I play the Italian-American game every day.
Carta D'Identita :)
I explain to countless tables that think I'm Italian that no, in fact, I'm American.  "Why are you here?  You have family here?"  Well, yes, I did at one point, but that didn't help me a lick.
"But I'm Italian too," chirped in an older woman one day.  "I'd love for my kids to come work here for the summer".  Do you have a passport?  No.  Do you speak Italian?  No.  Well, congratulations, ma'am, you are in the same boat as me.  All of the baked ziti in the world won't let you cut that line.  Unless you are one of the lucky and patient few, you have to work the system like everyone else if living here is what you have your sights set on.  For me, with a lawyer, a boyfriend, and many ties here, the process was beyond frustrating, but quick - and by quick I mean a year and 5 months, and I'm an official resident of Monterosso al Mare.
Dating an Italian from Liguria makes me aware every day of the incredible cultural differences in what is considered Italian, and even in Italy, from region to region, they vary like night and day.  The foods my grandmother cooked, that we ate on Sundays, are foods I talk about happily with one of our line cooks, from outside Naples, who also thinks the Ligurian style of making lasagna with bechamel is ridiculous.  Ridiculously good, as well, but a far cry from what I grew up with.
So, I'm content to have gone from being Christine, the Italian girl whose mom makes amazing pizza every Sunday and whose Gram's fried eggplant is known throughout the land, and instead to be Cristina, the American girl from New York (what is New Jersey?), who eats strange Thai food all the time and talks longingly about these strange bread called "bagels".

Maybe at one point I thought I was Italian, then American, then back to Italian-American again, and now that I have my Italian carta d'identita, the joke is that I'm Italian again.  Who knows?  If it's just documents that make a person belong to a culture, we'd have a very different world.  I'm Italian-American, regardless.  I have the longing for US Weekly and Advil to prove the American side, and I leave the house stubbornly with wet hair (a crime here in Italy.  Old women will yell at you).  But, I do have this incredible new bike Manuel got me to speed around town to prove the Italian part, as I've traded in my car in the US for Italy's preferred mode of transport.  I'm happily American, with a little bit of Italian thrown on top, like cheese on the spaghetti (but again, remember, never with fish).

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