An accidental Italian

This expat thing…I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. Kid number 2 was here this month, so it forced me to think about my two lives and weigh the one in New York and our few months a year up on this hilltop.

We’re aren’t here full-time, but we’re here in big enough chunks for it to feel routine. Still, it’s a leap, and I didn’t realize at the time how things would shake out. I started on second base compared to most Americans who move abroad. I grew up as a Sicilian kid living in the U.S. My father’s from Palermo, so as a kid I was surrounded by the language. My mom cooked Sicilian food more than half the time. I was always used to the Italian temperament: the different sense of personal space than Americans are used to, hearing two or three simultaneous conversations. I always felt like an interloper in the U.S.—of the place by birth, but somehow faking it.

Meet the family. That’s me on the left, with my nonna Maria. My grandfather’s to the right of her, and my father’s standing in between them. My mom and baby sister are on the right.

So coming here for a couple of months at a time wasn’t going to be too weird. My first experiences in Italy involved staying in the home of close relatives like my aunt and grandparents. I knew what shopping was like, I was used to how people live in Italy, and the food, even here in Umbria, in central Italy, is a lot like what I grew up on and what I’m used to.

There was one barrier; while I understood a fair amount of the language—and successfully hid that fact–I know that while I’m pretty fluent, I’ll never be taken for a native. I have an accent. I’d love to be able to take how I speak Italian and put it through a computer into English to see what the equivalent Italian person-speaks-English would be like. But I know that I’m missing some of the connective tissue of the language. I say “uh” when I’m thinking of a word mid-sentence instead of something that sounds like “erh” here in Umbria. Italian is more formal than American English; here we say “however” and “thus.” And word usage is more precise. There’s a difference between jealous and envious, and when a machine isn’t doing what it should do, it doesn’t function.

Daily life as a semi-resident is almost like learning to walk again. I’ve had help; we have friends here who don’t speak English, so it’s been a forced total immersion. But until the past couple of years, I felt like when I speak, it’s someone else. I’m really good at bending and twisting English to say what I want to say. I didn’t feel like that for a long time with my second tongue; I was happy to be able to communicate enough to do what I had to do, or to connect with a friend or my cousins in Palermo. A couple of years ago, though, I realized that my personality, for better or worse, was coming through. I can joke in Italian now; I’ve figured out how to be sarcastic. Irony is a hard thing and you have to express it differently than you do in English. You can used the same kind of words, but your intonation has to be a little different to convey it correctly. Otherwise you can get blank stares or you’ll find that you’ve insulted someone.

This all came together a few weeks ago when I was in a car crash. I was stopped, waiting to make a turn into a supermarket parking lot when a driver hit my car at a pretty high speed from behind. My first reaction was shock at what seemed like pure evil to me, at least for that instant. And then I felt like I was reduced to being a kid again. I didn’t know what to do, who to call, how to behave. The guy in the car behind me passed out after his airbags deployed. I was in shock, I think, and I couldn’t think straight even in English. I called my wife, and could barely get “I just had an accident” out to her.

Ouch! Or “aio!”

It’s good thing that we have friends nearby who came to help. A crowd gathered, too, and a couple of people calmed me down. One woman went into her house and brought out a bottle of water. Someone called the police and ambulance. They commiserated with me, and my friends helped me talk to the police. The EMTs in the ambulance were kind and checked me out while trying to figure out how the other guy was doing. The whole episode in short, kind of crystallized how far I need to go, and at the same time, what I like about living here. You’re never quite alone.

I guess I’ll always have a thing for my hometown of New York. Not the glitzy current city, which has turned into a kind of Disneyland for the One Percent. But taking the ferry and looking at the harbor, or a glance down a street still paved with cobblestones, the bones of old New York come through. There’s nothing like the sound of a foghorn on a zero-visibility day, or the crazy mashup of ethnicities and accents and foods, mostly found these days in the outer boroughs. And for that reason, I can’t just live in one place—seems like when I’m here, I look nostalgically at New York, and when New York drives me crazy, I think back to the hills around here.