Just Visiting

Young, ambitious, and armed with a respectable résumé – notwithstanding the smug confidence that comes from all of the aforementioned – I was about to embark on a defining leg of my career as a consultant for an aerospace company, which just happened to be located in the Eternal City. Whenever travelling before, I saw airports as nothing more than bland transit points. But now that opportunity had curled its beckoning finger and invited me to live in Rome, the airport became a holding place where my cultural identity see-sawed between two worlds.           

My parents accompanied me for a proper arrivederci. They took turns patting me on the shoulder in dutiful support, but their body language seemed tempered by an undercurrent of melancholy. Having once succumbed to a wave of immigration that carried them from their motherland to the shores of another country, they surely thought of how home roots can be deceptively weak and easily yield to tugging influences.

I felt my mother’s arms grip my waist in maternal protectiveness, then a slight tremble of separation anxiety, as she released me. It had always amused me to observe throngs of Italians seeing off their relatives at airports. Watching them wilt in weeping fits and clutching soggy handkerchiefs, you’d never guess that their loved ones were leaving on pleasure trips. Now, I feared my mother’s reaction! I succeeded in thwarting a public meltdown by reassuring her that my two-year sojourn would fly by – that I’d be back before she could say precipitevolissimevolmente. Feigning certainty, we both wondered if Rome might become my permanent residence. It certainly wouldn’t have been the first time an alluring city persuaded a visitor to toss aside status quo and adopt it over all that was familiar and predictable.

Rome left me so smitten each time I visited that I slid into a funk whenever I had to leave. It wouldn’t suffice to only drop in on the magnificent city that left me wobbly-kneed in all-consuming admiration and jibed with my core sense of being. I yearned to peel back the layers of touristic artifice and tap its anima. I loved Rome’s idiosyncrasies: elegant palm-lined streets recalling the glittering era of la dolce vita; piazzas serving as impromptu stages for casts of uninhibited characters; the Mediterranean sun’s peach glow softening the timeworn silhouettes of ancient landmarks; and the relentless ra-ta-ta tempo of metropolitan activity unfolding in surprising harmony. (The rhapsodies could go on and on.)

If this city had any faults, I couldn’t/wouldn’t see them. Like anyone head-over-heels ga-ga in love, I saw it as nothing short of the perfect, flawless match. Wishing to savour Rome beyond the limits of a typical vacation, I scrunched my eyes shut and pitched a penny over my shoulder into that burbling basin of yen, the Trevi Fountain – the whole time hoping that the Roman goddess, Fortuna, was spinning her wheel of fortune in my favour.

The coin toss proved to be a lucky investment, proffering a fortunate boon: the chance to experience Roma as my home, for a couple of years, at least. Admittedly, I didn’t know how long it would take to assimilate to the point where I could say that I actually “lived” there. Did I have license to call it casa mia from Day One or would I have to undergo some sort of initiation process, like those bizarre rituals that fraternity pledges must endure to prove their worthiness? The transition wouldn’t be so difficult, I naively thought. I’m the daughter of two Italians, speak Italian (to some comprehensible degree), and kind of look Italian. I have the requisite DNA. Will anyone know the difference?

I fantasized about living in a historic apartment, say in trendy Trastevere, graced with stratospherically high ceilings, veined marble corridors, lofty windows and, just for whimsy’s sake, a smattering of divine, drippy Murano chandeliers. Well, isn’t that the way all Italians live? Alas, my high expectations fizzled when reality defied delusion, and my first Roman abode turned out to be a single room in an austere pensione run by no-nonsense nuns enforcing a non-negotiable nine-o’clock curfew. Later on, I boarded with a girly octogenarian widow whose incurable addiction to TV game shows and effluvious floral perfume left me gasping for a place of my own. Dreaming of owning an address with a street name paying homage to a fallen emperor, I trawled the city for the elusive digs. They were all too far, too tiny, and too expensive.

Just as my high hopes were fading fast, serendipity touched me in a chance encounter at a gelateria with a once-ravishing/once-Bolognese/still-wealthy woman named Lala. As luck would have it, she owned a spare, never-used apartamentino. It didn’t take long for me to like Lala, not only because she called me Tesoro (Treasure), or Tay-ssshoro in her juicy Bolognese accent, but because she said we were both immigrants (after all, she had relocated from Bologna to Rome). It tickled me to be thought of as an immigrant – to have tabula rasa to become as Italianate as I wanted. Already, I could see my Italian doppelganger taking form, like a promising mound of clay atop a wildly whirling potter’s wheel – turning into something new.

Lala’s apartment soon became mine, but I wasn’t allowed to sign for it, due to some de-facto administrative red tape. So, Lala instructed me to tell the janitor and any curious neighbours (and there were plenty of them) that I was her niece from Canada – la canadese – using her space while visiting Rome. “But Lala,” I reminded her, “I’m not visiting; I’m living here.” My pristine flat was located in an area commonly described as the “New Rome.” This Mussolini-spun quarter came as a surprise, as I thought the city was all old – downright crumbly and ancient, in fact. In contrast to characteristic neighbourhoods marked by single-file streets squeezed between ornate patina-encrusted buildings, mine was uniformly sterile with wide-open boulevards and stylized buildings boasting modern architecture. While not as Baroque as I had envisioned, my apartment offered some indispensible North-American-like commodities which, in practical-minded retrospect, this North American couldn’t have survived without. Though the frills – like a hand-painted armoire flaunting flirty tasselled keys; a swank modern chaise; and Chiclet-sized bathroom tiles in pearly porcelain – were all distinctly Italian.

Most of my new colleagues were born in the capital. Some bragged about their Roman ancestry going back five generations, making them veri romani (or very Roman?). Regardless of how ancient their roots, they all seemed cut from the same Merino cloth to my unaccustomed eyes. As similar as they were, they were strikingly unlike me. They sounded different: Among themselves, they snipped tail-end vowels from words and spoke in a more casual and drawn-out way than I did, sputtering s-t-a-c-c-a-t-o textbook Italian. They looked different: The women had swarthy cheeks, heavy-lidded eyes rimmed with inky liner, and mandatory long-long hair. They moved differently: Their hands always seemed to land confidently in the right place, even after participating in intense rounds of gesticulation. Mine preferred to cower in self-consciousness at my sides or remain interlocked behind my back and, unlike their Italian counterparts, resisted the urge to illustrate any spoken words.

The company cafeteria – the epicentre for people-watching and gossip-trading – was where to see who was sporting the obligatory of-the-moment designer label, who was lunching with whom (and possibly doing more than that), and which peons were permitted friendly proximity to executives and other company VIPs (pronounced veeps by Italians). Ragazze, showing off glistening weekend tans and a dress code more come-hither than corporate-staid, jockeyed for the attentions of cologne-doused ragazzi preening in super-trim tailored suits. Sizing up each other’s, um, notable attributes through side glances only, they never stooped to admit obvious interest through full-frontal eye contact. And yet, with all the truly attention-worthy distractions, when I walked in – chatter ceased, forkfuls of linguine stopped inches short of anticipatory mouths, breadsticks snapped in half, and whispers swirled around me. “There is la canadese,” they’d say.

Darn. If only I could blend in. “Don’t try,” a helpful co-worker advised me. “You’ll never be Italian. It’s a birthright.” My new camouflage gear couldn’t even fool them: an on-trend Fendi purse, a shorter/tighter skirt (so what if it was crumpled, it was pure linen), and a tousled un-parted hairdo instead of the prim-banged coif in which I had made my Roman debut. Why can’t I just be Italian? For the loving sake of pizza, I not only have a Canadian passport, but an Italian one, too!

Whatever modest advances I’d made in morphing into a vera italiana were quashed, after announcing to a group of lunching colleagues that I was awakened the night before by the roar of tuna. (I mistakenly called thunder tonno, instead of tuono.) Without trying, la canadese had them all in stitches, laughing in that Italian sing-song ah!-ah!-ah! manner of theirs. Consequently, my attempts at total immersion became increasingly fervent. Not a habitual coffee drinker, I braced myself for inevitable caffeine jitters and joined my co-workers in the ceremonial drinking of a post-lunch espresso. One afternoon, any lingering nonbelievers’ doubts were confirmed, when I ordered a cappuccino – a faux pas, I learned, as a cappuccino is strictly intended as a breakfast beverage. It was the accumulation of small cultural misdemeanours, such as this one, that made me realize that my Italian veneer was thinner than I’d thought.

“It’s an identity crisis,” my Italian friend’s husband proclaimed, when she told him about my difficulty in merging my Canadianism with their Italian culture. It was clear to him that I was more than Canadian, but not Italian enough. His analysis jolted me back to my youth, growing up in a predominantly English-Canadian neighbourhood, where the school teachers had difficulty pronouncing my last name during roll call: Dee-Vee-tah. It’s simple. Why don’t they get it? I recalled how, spurred by humiliation, I’d hide my brown paper lunch bags from school mates, since mine were polka-dotted by telltale ethnic oil stains from typical panini fillings like rapini and leftover meatballs. And now, I’m not Italian enough?! Haven’t I already suffered my due share of cultural angst and ostracism?

Contrary to maudlin stereotypes, the Romans didn’t always display the sort of bias-proof hospitability that travelogues claim they invariably extend to stranieri. In many instances, they could be bold, brash and boisterous, and quick to display the hyper-vigilant survival reflexes that a bustling big city forces one to develop. But, generally, they were not unfriendly toward me. My Roman co-workers were charmed by the hybrid creature with an Italian name, who understood many of their traditions, yet was different enough to be somewhat exotic. Employees from other departments would descend on my office, under the guise of hand-delivering a memo, just to take a closer peek at la canadese. Sitting at my desk, I felt like the accidental star of my own reality program, exposing the banality of my day to voyeuristic onlookers.

My uniqueness, albeit a private emotional burden, wasn’t always a practical obstacle as it allotted me some much-appreciated privileges. I never waited in the queue at the on-site bank, and was always ushered through the check-point for consultants in the morning. “Per cortesia, let la canadese through,” the security guard – a moonlighting, pony-tailed singer/guitarist – commanded between on-the-job guitar riffs. In a weird and wonderful way, my colleagues worshipped me as if I were some demi-goddess! They brought me gifts – most memorably, a kinky Neapolitan amulet, in the form of a top-hatted little hunchback with a red horn-shaped lower body, which I was to rub for luck (if I hadn’t been so spooked by it!). A company engineer, who obviously had a better grasp of formulas than poetry, wrote me a ballad in Romanglish. One verse went:

You have the beautiful Niagara Falls, Ammazza-oi, we have the ancient walls.

The gift bearers’ intentions were innocent enough: They wanted me to have Italian souvenirs, since they’d already surmised that I was only passing through. Amidst the endearing nuttiness of it all, I compared my passage of rites to that which my parents experienced when they were immigrants in a new country. While I was treated, for the most part, with genuine courtesy and the kind of fanfare usually reserved for someone of far greater importance, my parents were initially met with resentment and, worse, suspicion. My hosts weren’t threatened by me hanging my hat in their society. I was just visiting.

Along the cobblestone path to cultural awakening, I’d sometimes get my designer-stilettos trapped between the crevices, and stumble. But I’d always regain my footing. Moulting my touristy shell, I emerged as the master of my new quotidian domain. Gradually, I transitioned from sightseeing to living: I bought groceries at the ipermercato in lieu of the outdoor-market stalls; strutted past the coliseum with my mouth closed instead of open in awe; and learned which trattorie served ubiquitous pasta carbonara to shorts-clad travellers rather than in-the-know locals. My fashion sense got a tune-up and took on the studied nonchalance that the Italians invented (and all others imitate). And I became as adept as the next Romana at sniffing out a genuine Gucci logo from that wonky knockoff symbol resembling the number 69. At the pinnacle of my linguistic learning-curve, I dared to launch Roman curse words at disgruntled gypsy boys, cursing me – for life – after refusing to hand them any money. In many ways, I was like everybody else sharing that same orbit; although, I still hadn’t been granted membership to the coveted club which would affirm our kinship.

Two years raced by like a Ferrari at full throttle. Looking back, my Italian life-lesson taught me, mostly, to accept that I’m not Italian. There, I said it. While in Rome, I couldn’t help but compare my parents to those of my Italian friends and wonder if they’d been beamed down from different planets. They’re clearly of a different feather, as I am. I now grin at the irony of being wooed by the very country that my parents dismissed. And remarkably, I feel serene as a by-product of diaspora, taking solace in knowing that I can extrapolate the best from two worlds (and under critical circumstances, wriggle out of one and take up occupancy in the other). And, like my parents who are inextricably Italian, but have become distinct from their compatriots who remained in Italy; I, also, became just a tad different, after my stint in another country.

Back on home turf, with national pride intact and a better understanding of my heritage, I still feel giddily triumphant remembering the Customs official at the Rome airport, when I returned from a holiday. Waving his hands with the unflinching conviction of a carabiniere directing rush-hour fleets of Fiats and Vespas, he filed travel-weary passengers into waiting-lines. After throwing me the head-to-toe once-over, I heard him say to the tourists, “Per cortesia, let the Italian through.” I flicked my hair and strode by, tucking both my Italian and Canadian passports snugly into my Made-in-Italy travel bag.

Loretta Di Vita is a professional development consultant residing in Nuns’ Island, Quebec, with her husbandAntonio. She is writing a book on networking etiquette.

“Just Visiting” won First Prize in the 5th annual Accenti Magazine Writing Contest and was read by Ms. Di Vita at the Accenti Magazine Awards during the 12th Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival in April 2010.

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