What It’s Like to be a Second-Generation Italian
I grew up second-generation Italian. This means I am just removed enough from my heritage to feel like I can’t claim it without being a fraud – an uncouth Australian girl trying to assert some culture by announcing she’s Italian. But just close enough so that when, as a child, my friends heard my grandfather was born in Italy, the word “wog” came rolling off their naïve tongues.
I’m in Prato, Tuscany, buying a copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy. It feels right, for a girl who loves Italy and wants to soak up as much beautiful and chaotic culture as she can. The cashier is a smiley young man who stands out, vibrant against the rows of dusty bookshelves. I take out a few crumpled euro to pay, and exercise my somewhat rusty Italian. “I studied this at university,” I tell him in Italian, cringing at my Aussie twang. “I want to read it again while I’m in Italy.”
He laughs. Not maliciously, but it crushes my hopes of owning my heritage and conversing with locals like it’s no big deal. “You try to speak Italian, no? I speak English signorina, no worry!”
My face must be as red as the Napoli sauce on the gnocchi I devoured at lunchtime. Try to speak Italian? I’ve spent my life struggling through the process of learning Italian. I’ve learned articles, possessives, superlatives and comparatives. I’ve spent an inordinate chunk of time repeating verb conjugations on a loop in my head. I’ve recited Dante poems for hours on end in order to improve my pronunciation, and spent more time deciphering their meaning. And now it all seems pointless as a grinning young Italian brushes me off. I may as well not be Italian at all.
I vividly remember the first time I unwittingly said “wog” to my mother as a child, repeating what a girl had said to me at school.
“Mum, am I a wog?”
She visibly flinched. She impressed on me that I shouldn’t use the word, but didn’t explain herself. I didn’t truly understand why until years afterwards. Since then, she’s told me stories about children at her school making fun of her salami sandwich lunches, and the fact that her father grew basil in their yard.
Despite this complex relationship with my heritage, I’ve always felt a pull towards the Italian culture. I want to unlock whatever secret place inside of me feels like Italy will complete me. I don’t want to stand on the sidelines. In an ideal world, Italian me would be amazing. I’d be talkative and funny. I’d wear red lipstick on Mondays and let my hair grow curly and free. I wouldn’t give a fuck what people thought. Instead, Italian me appears to be a bumbling idiot who blushes easily and is intimidated out of bookshops by harmless cashiers.
I’ve been here for one week out of the six I’m spending here – I’m taking a short literature course, and then spending a month with my cousins in southern Italy. We have plans to drink Campari and relax on the beach. I’ve spent most of my time here so far cavorting with loud foreigners, drinking red wine, taking group selfies while eating gelato, and ogling Michelangelo’s David (no shame). I’ve seen Botticelli’s Venus, strolled along the Arno river and bought a T-shirt that says “I heart Pope Francesco” (ironically, because of course religion is a crock).
Tonight, the students from the literature class are on a rooftop terrace as the sun sets. The cheap chianti we’ve been drinking for hours is starting to burn the back of my throat, but I’m enjoying the haze it’s created in my mind. The bougainvillea tendrils waft in the wind as I laugh at one of the girls who hates red wine but drinks it anyway, grimace and grin meeting on her face. There’s a guy swirling wine around his glass and speaking in an affected British accent about E.M Forster’s A Room With a View.
While I’m having fun with these ridiculous characters getting drunk on reds and each other’s company, I don’t feel a part of Italy. I feel disconnected from the language, the history, and the people. Drinking cheap shitty booze with loud tourists on a picturesque rooftop terrace isn’t helping me discover the Italian me. It’s making me feel like more of an outsider. Like a spectator to a sport that I’m actually quite good at.
I’m scared of discovering who I am in Italian. What if I’m shit? What if I’m an idiot? What if I say something so ridiculously stupid and I don’t realise it until every Italian on the planet has been told not to associate with me? There is something about expressing yourself in a second language that opens up a world of possibilities that is at once exhilarating and profoundly terrifying, and I can’t wrap my head around it. The chianti is making me pretentious and now I don’t know who I am in either English or Italian. I need to go to bed. I make my excuses and wander through the dark but comforting streets to the tiny room that is home for the next while and fall onto my mattress, resolving to try not to overthink everything tomorrow. To try to live in one moment and be satisfied.
The next morning, it’s sweltering hot, my head is aching and I need strong coffee and something greasy to settle my stomach. I go for a walk alone – I need to not be surrounded by tourists even though I am one; I need to not be surrounded by chatty young 20-somethings even though I am one. I’m tired of over-thinking. Maybe it’s the hangover or that I might still be a bit drunk, but today is the day I need to get the fuck over myself and have a conversation in Italian. Find out who I am. Discover that second and as of yet secret identity. Let the Italians laugh if they want. I have to do this.
While wandering around on my own I smell pizza. With eggplant. Total satisfaction in a finite moment is only ever within arm’s reach when I’m eating pizza. Nothing compares. My body follows my nose and I step into a small bakery set on the corner of the street I’m staying on. The mustachioed rotund man behind the counter flashes a crooked smile at me.
This is my moment. “Buongiorno signore, Lei comè sta oggi? Un espresso e un pezzo di questa, per favore.” I point out the mouth-wateringly delicious looking slice.
He’s cheerful and willing to chat.
“You’re visiting, yes?” he asks in rumbly Italian. Too many old Italian men talking at once in those gravelly tones and you’ve definitely got an earthquake risk on your hands. “You’re from Florence, yes?”
My grin almost splits my face in two. I’m still hungover and headachey and nervous about how I come across in Italian, but now I’m equally ecstatic about the whole process.
“No, I’m from Australia. But I am Italian.”
And for the first time, that sentence doesn’t feel like I’m trying to be someone I’m not.
Cover by Evy Jacobs