Too English, Not Italian Enough

by Francesca Crisante, Italian and German:-

To state the painstakingly obvious: I never really considered what the word ‘foreign’ meant to me personally before living in another country. By foreign I intend a sense of ‘foreignness’ that goes beyond being a tourist with a camera, someone’s guest or a visitor. To try and vaguely grasp at what I mean: The kind of foreign where you’re trying to buy a coffee and even during the simplest of linguistic exchanges that you practised a dozen times in year nine German the cashier hones in on your accent with a “Aaha, so where are you from?”, followed by a “From London?” upon discovering that you’re from the UK. I use coffee in my example as asking for tea with cold milk in itself is enough to raise the waiter’s suspicions- in my experience it’s normally served either without milk, or with hot milk, and the tea bag almost always separately. I digress.

Like so many German words, the word ‘foreign’ is beautifully self-explanatory and practical: Ausländisch. It literally means ‘from another country’ (Ausland just means ‘abroad’). Hence Ausländisch in German doesn’t seem to have the same connotations of being ‘strange’ or ‘different’ as foreign occasionally does in English, depending on its use. Having said this, I am not a linguistics student. My knowledge of the etymology of German and English words goes as far as whatever I can remember of GCSE Latin five years ago.

I have to admit, there was a kind of glamour to being an ‘international student’ for the first time: getting to go to international events where other international students had brought international food, feeling so proud and smug that I was studying in another country and going to the supermarket and paying bills and doing stuff that real Germans did in real life. (I’ll stop with the italics now, you get the idea). But being British, living in Britain, I’d never had to think about how Britain was viewed from an outsider’s perspective. Now being ‘on the outside’ in Germany, if you will, it’s been quite entertaining to see various people’s thoughts and reflections with regard to my home country. Here are just a few:

“Du kommst aus England? Voll coooool. Ich liebe Sherlock und Doctor Who. Ich bin eigentlich so neidisch auf dich”. (A very sweet classmate of mine professing her love for the BBC and proclaiming her envy of me).

“Ach, du Engländerin” (My flatmate upon seeing me eat baked beans for the third time in a week. Arguably justified).

“Ihr wohnt auf einer Insel- ihr seht alle gleich aus” (My flatmate again, saying that we must all look the same because we live on an Island. I really hope that she was joking, but at the time I couldn’t tell if she was or wasn’t. Unable to muster an adequate response in German, I gave a constipated sort of cough).

“Typisch britisch!” (Aforementioned flatmate upon seeing my dinner of a jacket potato with cheese and ham. Also referring to another flatmate commenting on the fact that I was wearing ballet pumps in January. Apparently it’s very British to not wear socks…?)

There have probably been many more similar instances that I cannot recall of me either knowingly conforming to British stereotypes out of either sheer custom or deliberate self-irony, or me being rather bemused at people citing something as ‘typically’ British that I had never considered typically British before. I am very aware of the privilege that comes with being British- not only the fact that very many people speak English, but more importantly that very few of the stereotypes or ‘prejudices’ people have about Britain are harmful- and certainly none are conducive to the discrimination that people from other countries may receive in Germany. I can eat my baked beans and watch my BBC I-Player and it doesn’t really affect anything except perhaps my growing tendency towards staying at home in my pyjamas rather than being out ‘exploring Germany’ like the year abroad hype dictates. Living abroad in general is very conducive to reflections about what your nationality means and doesn’t mean to you, and whilst it may not be particularly fruitful to make generalised comparisons between the UK and Germany, it does make me realise what I particularly do and particularly don’t like about the UK.

So as if I didn’t have enough stimuli for pretentious, pompous-sounding reflection on national identity already (sorry if I’m boring you terribly at 737 words in), I began to notice people’s responses to finding out that I’m English are often focused on another country:

“Aber dein Name ist doch italienisch”.

Yes, my name is Italian. Yes, I have Italian family. Does that make me Italian? For some, yes. For me, not really. I’ll try to summarise this quickly:

My grandfather Edoardo (although he introduces himself with the anglicised version of his name) sells the farmland he has inherited in Abruzzo and uses it to buy a ticket to England, not knowing a word of English.

He brings his fiancé (my grandma, in case you didn’t guess) to England with him. They marry, work very hard (him in factories and hotels, her in kitchens and then nursing homes if I remember correctly) and have a family.

Now by blood, my father is Italian. But he’s the not the most Italian Italian you could imagine. (Well, this obviously depends of what your conception of Italian is. I’m just basing this on what one usually associates with Italy). He hates being in the sun almost as much as he hates onions, garlic (!!) and chives, drives with assiduous carefulness, employs the ‘proper’ style of handshake more often than the classic hug and slobbery kiss on both cheeks (it gets exhausting after having to kiss eight or nine great aunts and uncles in a row on family visits) and generally is quite lazy when it comes to speaking Italian (I’m probably just as good as him having never been taught it by family and learning it at school like everyone else). Having said that, he is adamant about pronouncing items on menus as they should be pronounced, whereas I feel like a twat if I ask for penne amatriciana (it’s simple but so good) with an extravagant flourish.

Upon hearing my Italian name, many people I’ve introduced myself to in Germany are either convinced that I’m Italian or seem slightly disappointed that I’m English and not Italian. The best is when someone says “Aaaah! Italiano!” and then stops abruptly because that’s the only word in Italian they know apart from pizza, pasta, or Ciao bella. The worst is when someone asks you about a word in Italian and expects you to be able to at least say something useful about it when in reality you’ve never heard of it. Having failed to translate ‘Ausstellung’ into Italian one time an acquaintance of mine says: “Oh, also du sprichst gar kein Italienisch?” (Oh, so you don’t speak any Italian at all?) Thus I am torn between feeling like a fraud for not being a ‘genuine’ Italian or trying to condense an explanation of how I am part, but not completely, Italian into a nugget-sized sentence that you can fit into an introductory conversation with someone without sounding either strange or egotistical for delving into your personal life so early on.

Take my landlord for instance. He collects wine, a lot of which is Italian. I am greeted by Campari and Aperol and Limoncello when I first venture into the liquor cabinet. He very enthusiastically informs me that he has bought pecorino (with his best attempt at an Italian accent), expecting me to be filled with joy and a sentimental rush of goodwill to someone who has reconnected me with my long lost homeland through the culinary medium. I see the packets of pink prosciutto Italiano in the fridge and wonder why he didn’t just buy ordinary ham since the brand he got is German anyway. He opens a bottle of wine at dinner, pauses emphatically and looks at me encouragingly: “Aus deiner Heimat” (from your home), pointing to the “Abruzzen” on the bottle. I don’t really know whether to burst out laughing or smile graciously, or feebly explain for what feels like the millionth time that whilst my family live in Abruzzo, it doesn’t really feel like home to me. It feels familiar, yes, but it’s impossible to call somewhere home that you’ve only stayed at for about a month at the longest stretch. I won’t delve into a discourse on regional identity in Italy; I have neither the time (there are twenty of them) nor, frankly, the knowledge- I don’t even know very much about Abruzzo beyond the fact that it has lots of countryside, beaches and mountains- oh, and Gran Sasso of course. And I only know about the mountains and beaches from visiting a couple of them with family a couple of times. Anyway. This happens on another occasion when I am introduced to a friend of his. Yet again, another bottle of wine is opened, and what do you know, it’s from Abruzzo!! She asks if I feel homesick for Abruzzo, but I can’t really understand her because after about four glasses my German skills are quite significantly incapacitated. So I make the fatal error of saying ‘ja’ and hoping for the best (which basically sums up my first month here), and then I have to go through the whole rigmarole of going over my mistake and dealing with the consequent disappointment that I’m not a real Italian.

And when it comes to being in German classes with ‘real’ Italians, I feel even less Italian, like I have been demoted to the ordinary English person. I know I’m not a true Italian when the conversation in class turns to pizza. The teacher, who also studies Italian, asks us where one can get a good pizza in Bonn. I’ll admit that I like the kind of almost-Italian food at ASK or Prezzo. Living in England I’m used to the unauthentic version of the product, whereas some Italians I know in Bonn haven’t dared order a pizza in Germany yet because they anticipate extreme disappointment. I mention one particular restaurant and am comforted slightly that the resident Italian student at least gives it a nonchalant shrug accompanied by a “Gut”, rather than complete disdain. Just as I’ve come to envy Germans for speaking such good German, I envy Italians for being able to speak without a foreign accent (although I’ve been told at least that whilst my accent is foreign, it’s not traceable to a particular country). When I try to chat to the barista in Italian at an espresso bar (because you know I am such a good year abroad student immersing myself in the German culture…) I get the impression she thinks I’m one of those who ‘just loves Italian culture’ and does a comfortable afternoon beginners Italian course so that one day they can go to Rome and order a pizza in Italian and feel like their life is complete and enthusiastically tell all their friends about it. (I’m not dissing. I’m just as much of a tourist in Italy as you are, to be honest).

So what conclusion have I reached from all my self-centred reflections in this piece, if any? I guess my aim wasn’t really to reach a conclusion, because things like countries and people and cultures don’t really fit into conveniently definable boxes that you can open and close at your leisure. I know that it’s not about being either Italian or not Italian, even if it feels that way sometimes, so I’ll content myself with the label ‘Part’ Italian and just have to accept the consequence of feeling Italian and English in Germany, feeling mostly English in England, and feeling very English in Italy. While it’s true that my year abroad would have been so much easier to organise if I had just studied one language, I’ve come to quite like this bizarre love-triangle out of three languages that don’t necessarily fit together that well. It’s true that a lot of German students have even asked me why I study German, and English students why I study two languages that are only spoken within their respective countries, but there’s something lovely about being to Skype your family in a language that connects you, and something nice about being able to appreciate another country not because of a biological connection to it, but just because you just like it for what it is.

Photos from Italy where Fran’s relatives live.

Sometimes there’s more to places than just their geographical location. See Katie Graham’s experience living in an area of Europe where borders have somewhat less importance in Crossing Borders.

Share this: