Last night my husband and I engaged in a conversation about being Italian or American. John is California born and raised, a scientist who had never been abroad before meeting me (but, oh does he love to travel now!). I was born in Italy (and I speak flawless Italian), started traveling internationally when I was 9, and lived abroad and across cultures from the time I was a teenager. I am bilingual with easy access to other languages. My mother often says that she intended to make my brother and I citizens of the world–and she succeeded beyond her wildest dreams, since I now live in the US and my brother in the Netherlands. We are both married with “foreigners.” (Well, they aren’t so foreign to us!)
So now I see myself as American, and John says I am Italian. He means it as a compliment, and I take it as such, though I don’t feel Italian. I am different from most of my cousins back in Italy–who sometimes joke with good nature that “you playact as an American.” (“Tu vo fai l’Americana!”) When I meet Italians who have just been transplanted to the US and tell me their Italian stories, I understand them but my stories are different. I can advise someone on career moves in the US, I couldn’t tell them the first thing about what to do professionally in Italy. And on and on it goes.
Sometimes in Italy I feel like a Martian. Then again, I don’t belong totally in America either. I have lived in Texas where I called myself the Tuscan Texan. Now I move between New York, Florida and Italy with fluidity and a sense of not belonging to any place in particular. The beach in Florida is my happy place, but really so is my couch in New York city with a view of the East River. I have come to think that people can be provincial anywhere: someone who sees their place as the center and best of the Universe is provincial, even if that center of the universe happens to be a vibrant city like New York. (Lucky New Yorkers….their lens is bigger than say, those who think the center of the universe is Florence, Texas!)
I have met other people who feels the same way I do–they speak several languages, move across borders with ease, understand different ways of thinking. What we have talked about is the feeling of not belonging to a place. That, however, makes us more than tolerant of differences. We embrace others, we see strengths, we are curious and open. Meanness and racism truly puzzle us, though we have probably made our own mistakes (I still ask people where they are from…and I get asked all the time and I love that question! What an opener to a conversation! I don’t really have an answer!) In not belonging to one culture, we see the qualities of the humans we meet and we are curious about everyone! Sometimes our stories resonate and we make all sorts of friends.
Being a citizen of the world who straddles cultures is a good thing, even though the idea of not belonging is sometimes unsettling. But then, as my friend Beth Marie reminded me this morning, I am at home in my skin and with myself and the ones I love. I am privileged in so many ways, including the fact that I have citizenship and I feel welcomed here and in Italy and in Europe. Not belonging geographically to a place is a small price to pay for this feeling that the world is big and that we share a common humanity.