Ready, set, go: English this time round! Since I also really enjoy writing in English, I thought I’d treat you with one of my pieces that, dangerously enough, even Italians will be able to understand. Nevertheless, I know it’s safe since this article on expat life has already been featured in the PDF version of The Florentine, the English speaking news magazine in Florence, – and I’m still alive.
Enjoy and let me know what you think!
Expat: Outsider for life
The incurable state of difference
Living in Florence looking like anything but a Florentine isn’t always easy. Nearly all expats occasionally suffer from the fact that we stand out as different, and this can cause serious frustration: ‘I speak the language, I eat your food, I use the bidet; now accept me as one of yours!’ The hard truth is that this will never happen. We will always be ‘strangers,’ both in the literal sense of straniera and in the real sense: we just aren’t Italian, as hard as we try to be.
One of the hardest things to deal with is being mistaken for a tourist. Admittedly, this is a city overflowing with tourists, so the fact that even long-term expatriates are mistaken for short-term visitors is understandable. However, I wish we got some recognition for our experience with Italian culture, at times through hardship and perseverance. I would prefer to hear ‘ciao’ instead of ‘ai’ (Italian version of ‘hi’).
Some of us, because we look different, are assumed to be an easy catch for those on the prowl. In this case, knowing the language comes in very handy. One can dismiss the interested party with native fluency, as in ‘levati dalle palle’ (bugger off), and smile politely as if nothing ever happened. The abashed reaction is priceless.
As practically a member of the family, la famiglia is another barrier to fitting in. Besides the inside jokes and the stories about zio this and zia that, the very different approach to life can make a non-Italian feel pretty excluded. (The wonderful cooking skills that Italian women seem to be born with: a lost battle from the start. The attention to housekeeping: unsustainable. The love for their sons: unapproachable.) Also, for those who are becoming members of an Italian family, the first official visits dai suoi (to the in-laws) are all the more nerve-wracking due to not knowing the cultural rules: What is expected of me? Should I talk? Should I ask questions? Should I sit down? Should I offer to help with the cooking? Trial and error is the only option. (One lifeline: compliment la mamma on her cooking skills: points guaranteed.)
The positive side to being an outsider forever is the legitimate excuse it sometimes provides in awkward social situations: ‘Was I blunt? Sorry, I don’t speak Italian well enough’; ‘My joke wasn’t funny? I have a different sense of humour’; ‘Am I acting strange? Sorry, I’m a straniera!’But, of course, playing the foreigner card should never be done too often.
Of course, being different can also mean being seen as special. Expats are appreciated for our courage (‘You’re here by yourself? All alone?’), for our efforts (‘You speak Italian very well!’) and even for our alien appearance (‘Ciao bella!’)—some compensation for not fitting in.
Sophie Kruijsdijk is a flying Dutchwoman who has lost her heart to Florence and has spent the past four years trying to get it back. (No success yet.) She teaches English and writes in both English and Dutch. Check out her Dutch blog on her wondrous Florentine life: www.SoFlorence.com.
Download issue 198 of The Florentine here