Recently, an acquaintance told me that I don’t look “Canadian.” In all fairness, the person who said it to me was not Canadian, and I think it was meant as a compliment. Still, it made me reflect on my cultural identity (as opposed to my national identity), and it made me realize how fluid and dynamic it can be. It’s a funny thing, spending most of your life immersed in your family’s Italianità, and then having the fact that you don’t seem terribly “Canadian” pointed out to you by a relative stranger. What’s even odder is visiting Italy and realizing that you are, in fact, a bit of a stranger – even a foreigner – to the language and the culture.
When I was a kid, I often had to explain to my classmates why my last name was so long and “strange”; why my first name, Cristina, had no letter “h”; why I didn’t have grandmas and grandpas, but nonni (my maternal grandparents) and nanni (my paternal grandparents). I got used to explaining why my lunch sandwiches had mortadella instead of baloney. For years, I didn’t know the English word for some of the most common household items, like mappina (dialect for tea towel) or comò (dresser). I didn’t know what drip coffee was until I was at least twelve or thirteen years old (just espresso, thanks). My sisters and I used to ask our parents why we had supper so late – we often ate at eight or nine in the evening, rather than the typical five of six o’clock. My father’s reply was flippant: “It’s ‘cause we’re Italian!”
Of course, my own childhood experience was certainly not as polarized as those of my parents who arrived as immigrant children back in 1956 and 1964 with their families. Nonetheless, that cultural heritage is a large part of my identity. I even have Italian citizenship.
And so, when I visited Italy by myself a few years ago, I did not naïvely expect to mesh perfectly with Italian culture, but I also didn’t expect to feel the swell of Canadianness that came to define my identity in Italy. More often than not, the disconnect I felt was because of language which, unsurprisingly, was a huge part of my experience. I had been to Italy twice before: once when I was three for a wedding, and then when I was thirteen with my parents, who were toying the idea of moving our family there for a year. Setting out on a backpacking trip to Italy in the fall of my twenty-fifth birthday was an entirely different experience. Touring on my own, without my family, was monumental.
For me, that trip drew the connection between Italy and my family into sharp contrast. The trip filled in cultural blanks that I had been grappling with, and I suddenly had a frame of reference for people and places that I had only previously heard of. It also sharpened my personal connection to Italy, changing it from an abstract ideal into a concrete experience. Although I had been there before, my memories were fuzzy, especially those of Calabria (which I hadn’t seen since I was three). And yet, I felt like some part of me recognized where I was. The mountains near my mother’s town made sense to me, as did the olive groves and dry heat of my father’s village. Even the sounds of their dialects reflected the physical geography of where they had come from – the lilt of my mother’s dialect was like the gentle slope of the hills and mountains.
As a child, I was fluent in Italian and chatted easily with each set of grandparents, but that skill began to fade when I started French immersion in school. My Italian gradually converted into French and now, years later, much of that French is gone too. I find myself speaking an odd mix of both languages instead. In Switzerland, where French and Italian are official languages, this worked out well for me. But in Italy, I felt trapped by my lack of fluency and was too shy to engage anyone in conversation.
In Venice, I stayed with my aunt, who insisted we speak only in Italian; it was her way of encouraging me to practice. Much to her amusement, I stubbornly replied in English. Still, I was immersed, inundated, with nothing but Italian everywhere I turned. Only when I was alone, making small purchases at the tabaccheria or a café, did I make bashful attempts at speaking the language. Purchasing a train ticket was a particular challenge. My aunt had gone off to run a small errand, leaving me in line at the train station. When it was my turn, I greeted the clerk on the other side with my Canadian-inflected Italian and received a barely restrained eye roll and suppressed sigh. The conversation was awkward. I was obviously a foreigner, and it wasn’t worth his time to speak to me.
At the end of my stay in Venice, with a short sojourn to Bergamo in between, my aunt saw me off to Rome. Rome forced me out of my language shell a little more. I was grateful that my hosts were patient with me as I muddled through my shoddy Italian. Thanks to their fluent French and their bits and pieces of English, we were able cobble together some kind of conversation in the evenings. Language is key in Europe – everyone seems to speak at least two fluently. In Basel, Switzerland, I was taken to a house party where I marvelled at all the languages I was hearing under one roof: English, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Turkish, French, German, even Welsh. When I commented on this, someone cheekily replied, “But you’re Canadian! Surely all of your parties are like this.” I was ashamed to admit that I could barely speak French, let alone Italian.
Slowly and steadily, I grew more and more comfortable with the language. By the time I reached Bologna to stay with my cousin Davide, I felt relaxed enough to socialize with him and his roommates, none of whom spoke English. Although still far from being able to converse easily, the language was crawling back into my brain. I was not worrying as much about what was coming out of my mouth.
I was on my own again after Bologna; I headed to my mother’s hometown of Boiano, about an hour south of Rome by train. I stayed with my mother’s cousin Angelina, and aside from giving up hope at ever understanding my relatives’ dialect, I began to feel more at ease. One grey morning in Boiano, I wandered into the local bookshop and managed to find a paperback copy of Poesie by James Joyce. The book had the original English poem on one page with the Italian translation on the other. As I was paying for it, I began to chat with the shopkeeper, and when I gave him my grandparents’ names, he smiled. He said he remembered my father (from a more recent trip my parents had taken with my grandmother and youngest sister) coming in to use his fax machine.
Buoyed by this successful interaction and my renewed sense of connection, I bought a piece of pizza con funghi and sat down in the empty piazza to read my new book. Two plainclothes officers approached me, and asked me for the receipt for my food, which I didn’t have. In hindsight, I guess I looked suspicious – an unfamiliar face in a relatively small town sitting in an empty piazza on a weekday. To them, I was clearly from “away.” They took my name, and even though I was angry and upset, some part of me marvelled that for the first time in my life, I did not have to carefully spell out my last name. Despite my infuriating experience with the officers, I liked my time in Boiano. I visited my zio Pasquale, who was my nonna’s oldest brother, and I spent time with my cousins Michele and Maurizio. I loved the mountains that loomed over the town, and the way Zio Pasquale’s farm was nestled in at the base.
Soon I was on my way again, this time even further south to stay with my father’s cousin Lisa, in Sellia Marina, Calabria. I am a romantic when it comes to train travel. The train ride from Naples to Sellia Marina was one of my favourite moments of the whole trip. I was blown away by the attitude of the people I met. In contrast to other young travellers I had encountered, the people I came across on this train had a genuine sense of camaraderie. The train had been overbooked and we were spilling out of the compartment and into the corridor. A young man, who introduced himself as Salvatore, kindly helped me shove my pack on the luggage racks above the seats before I could even ask for his help. Another traveller told us that her mother had packed her far too much food to eat on the train, and asked if anyone else was hungry. She pulled out a white plastic bag and shared the panini inside it. The rest of us took the cue to pony up our own goodies – clementines, chocolate and other assorted snacks were added to the pool. Slowly, everyone started to relax. We began talking and I confessed that I was Canadian by birth and Italian by heritage. I remember that in that moment, it was a very strange idea to articulate. Up until then, I had been on my own or with family, and I hadn’t had to explain anything. My confession was met with surprise, which in turn, surprised me: I had assumed that I was always marked as a foreigner. Apparently, none of my travel companions had noticed.
When I returned to Rome after my time in Sellia Marina, my hosts complimented me on the vast improvement I made in my Italian. In this last leg of my journey, my problems with language seemed to fade away; I had adapted. For the most part, I spoke to my cousin Lisa and her family in some hybrid of Italian, French and English. I loved passing through Rome a second time because everything seemed so much easier: I recognized places, I remembered bus routes and train stations. If I were to go back tomorrow, I would know how to figure things out on my own. Even though I still struggle with my Italian, I am trying; a copy of Leonard Cohen’s poetry (in Italian, of course) is currently gracing my coffee table.
Cristina Pietropaolo recently completed her Master of Arts in folklore at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. A Toronto ex-pat, she currently researches and writes in Ottawa.
Originally published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 26.