A Foreigner in my Own City

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I just got back from a walk around the neighborhood. We live in a pretty place—it’s the northeast tip of Staten Island, New York. The general zone, area code 10301, is like a triangle that includes the neighborhoods of St. George, Tompkinsville, Silver Lake, Randall Manor, New Brighton, and Grymes Hill. I was getting antsy, so I walked up the hill from our local commercial strip, Forest Avenue, and did the loop around the lake in Silver Lake Park.

I felt like a sightseer. It’s been awhile since I was around much in the daytimes. For the past few decades, I had a full-time editorial job in “the city,” or Manhattan, and when I had much free time I took a trip. But since I left the company that must not be named (a small, struggling “information” company), I’ve been getting reacquainted with the ‘hood.

I’ve also been getting to know the city of my birth a little better. When you’re spending 40 or so hours a week moving copy, there isn’t much time to enjoy what tourists come to see, and what ladies and gentlemen of leisure get to do. So I took a long subway ride up  to the new Second Avenue subway (three stops, four if you include the closed section of a stop already in use by another line, after a century of planning) and walked down Second Avenue, surveying the scars left by years of construction. That was on a weekday, and at the moment, I felt incredibly liberated. My ex-colleagues may have been sitting in their sad, library pod-like cubicles, but not me. In a way, then, I was a tourist in my own city.img_6866But I was, and have been, a tourist in another way. My father is an immigrant from Palermo, Sicily (Italy, if you insist), and I’m just beginning to realize what a profound effect his otherness has had on me over the years. Language, for one thing. I grew up used to hearing accents, some heavy, some not. I figured out that my father thinks in English, but it doesn’t always come out right. He’ll say, for example, that “you must cry the consequences.” I always thought that that phrase would make a great title for a country song.

Another way, and this is common to immigrants’ kids, is feeling like an outsider. My father (and even my mom, who was first-generation Sicilian-American) didn’t really know to to navigate in U.S. society. Part of that is cultural—Italians in general, and Sicilians especially, are notoriously tribal. Anything outside the family is viewed with suspicion and sometimes fear. But it’s also being in the early stages of acclimation to a new place. I pushed myself out of the nest a bit, but once out, it was alien turf.

So you get to react a couple of different ways. You can turn your back on it, refuting the old ways. You can be culturally bilingual, existing in the tribe, but adapting outside of it. My wife and I did some of that. Or, you can embrace a new version of the old country. And that’s pretty much what we did. I feel more at home in modern Italy than I do in most of the U.S. outside New York. Business conferences, in particular, turn me into an amateur anthropologist, looking at these alien beings for clues of what makes them what they are. “Do you realize you talk about Americans in the third person?” my Italian friend Federico once asked me.

I’m still trying to figure it out. I joke that Umbria is a kind of halfway house between Palermo and New York. It’s cleaner, more efficient, more civic-minded than Palermo, while still being Latin. So maybe I’ll work it out in this blog, while I share our adventures of living in two places, always comparing (but doing that less and less because we know where we want to be) and always feeling just a little out of place.

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