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Anxieties of Otherness

Expatriate Life in Italy

Village in the Tuscia region of Italy
Village in the Tuscia region of Italy.

7:45  on a Monday morning finds me waiting for the bus in the square outside the medieval gateway of a village in Central Italy, where I live part of the week. Waiting with me are cleaning ladies, farmhands, workmen, and a few older locals on their way to town. I make a point of saying good morning. Some reply; others don’t, but they all know who I am: La straniera. One of a handful of foreigners who have moved into their territory, buying up old houses nobody wanted at prices nobody local would pay. Attitudes towards foreigners, especially Americans, are always in flux in a village like this one, where the word itself “straniero”  is interpreted  in the narrowest sense. Even people from the village a mile down the road are considered as “outsiders.” That being the case, there is nothing I can do except wear this status with a smile. As an expat American,  I am and will always be, an outsider here, although I have been living here for ten years, and for half that time, have been the owner of a house in the old village.

A house in the village
A house in the village.

Across from the bus stop, a fountain splashes. The fountain was put there only a few months ago, replacing an implausible but “simpatico” Easter Island statue. That statue had been a gift to the village from Easter Island sculptors who had been invited here to demonstrate their sculpting technique, for, due to some curious coincidence in geological time, Easter Island and this village in Tuscia are both built on bedrock of the exact same volcanic stone. The statue was carved here from local stone by a family of Rapanui carvers. Initially, it was seen as a goodwill ambassador, linking this landlocked village with a remote Pacific island, connecting two peoples whose livelihoods depended on stone.

For eighteen years it stood outside the city gate. Children and tourists loved it; the local priest, perhaps  disapproving of its pagan associations, did not. Over a decade, the openness to what it represented—a people of a different race, religion, and culture—gave way to suspicions. After years of grumbling, “That thing has nothing to do with us,” it was moved out of town. Its banishment makes me remember I am a guest here and could at any time receive similar treatment.  Recent problems: unchecked immigration, unemployment, economic crisis have caused people to shut up their doors—both physically and metaphorically. Even here now there are burglaries. The local people and politicians have no doubt: the culprits are “foreigners.”  

A group of men outside the café  are staring  at me. A woman, fiftyish, in a masculine hat, who carries a brief case, goes to work by bus, but comes back in a taxi, I must be an amusing spectacle, if not an outright provocation. Here few women work outside the home  and unemployment is rife. What right have I,  a foreigner, to have a job and what’s more – a job requiring a  brief case rather than a broom and apron? Only  penniless “nobodies” take the bus; everyone else drives to work; on the other hand, travelling by taxi is to their parsimonious minds, not only an unthinkable extravagance, but almost a sin. Between these two extremes, it is hard for them to place me, even though rain or shine, for the last ten years, they have seen me here at the bus stop, every Monday and Friday  morning from September till June.  

I know I am observed when I walk through the village. People note what I wear and what I buy and how much money I spend or don’t spend at the local shops. People note who I talk to on the street, especially if I speak to someone of the opposite sex. When friends come for dinner, when a workman comes for a repair, when my husband and I argue, there will be someone listening, or watching with nose pressed to the glass. The first thing I see in the morning when I open my door is my neighbor, leaning out her kitchen window, smoking the first cigarette of the day and peering into my kitchen. It’s up to me to say “good morning” first, before she ducks her head back inside. It is not that we have been singled out. It is the way of life here, the way of life in a village where everyone is related by blood or marriage to everybody else, except, of course, for “the outsiders.” 

Negotiating these social relationships is one of the challenges of expat life. The other big challenge when your status changes from prolonged tourist to immigrant is living in another language twenty-four hours a day at work, at home, in your leisure time, and in emergencies. It has taken me years to reach the point where I can express myself in Italian in any situation comfortably, intimate or formal. It was tough at first: being a writer, being able to express myself in my native language articulately on any subject but deprived of this capacity in a country where I did not have the same control of the language. I felt that I ought to have the same command of Italian, and that if I didn’t I was a failure. I try to remember this now when teaching English to university students. That sense of inferiority is a self-inflicted handicap you have to let go of.

I still make mistakes and get tongue tied, and when I open my mouth to speak to a stranger, in a shop where they don’t know me, in an office, I sometimes still elicit a certain response in the person I address, which may vary from a slight frown to a scrunching up of their features, belying their anxiety. Other expats have told me they have experienced the same thing. This frown may vanish as the conversation continues, or it may linger. I sometimes wonder if  this response is triggered by something I am projecting  because I am shy about talking to strangers or worried about being understood.  And when someone “foreign-looking”  stops me on the street to ask me something, do I also unconsciously frame my face in this way? I do at times wear a “street face” I catch myself in—a hard “don’t mess with me” look I adopt when I have to walk alone in an area where I sense a threat. Yet I know how crushing it can be to see such an expression reflected in a stranger’s face simply because you asked him or her a question.

A shopkeeper I know in the village sometimes puts her fingers in her ears and wags her head from side to side to show tourists who have strayed into her shop that she can’t understand them when they try to ask for cheese or bread in English. That absurd gesture  devastates, frustrates, or angers  the receiver. It’s hard to remember that it  is borne of her fear of difference, of otherness,  an  ancestral fear we all carry with us, a self-chosen burden.

The bus arrives; we all climb on. The ride to town reminds me why I love this place. Rolling hills dotted with sheep, ancient oaks, vineyards, a swatch of  bright yellow—a field of mustard plants abloom in late winter; and a niche in a grotto with candles guttering before a rough icon of the Virgin. This is the old Italy, the quaint Italy, tradition-bound, where every old house and tower, cypress tree  and winding gravel road are woven into a harmonious whole. Beyond those hills lies Bolsena Lake, and ridge after ridge of Etruscan tombs carved in cliffs and steeped in legends. It was this atmosphere, this spirit of place that inspired my first novel, The Etruscan, and now my more recent one, Signatures in Stone. And it is these very people riding with me on the bus, watching me from the corner of their eye, and the generations before them, who have made it that way, who have coaxed the fruits from the land and preserved its unmatched beauty. Travel writer Lawrence Durrell once said that people are an expression of their landscape. My fellow passengers are as  hardy, rough, suspicious, as their remote Etruscan ancestors probably were, not only with outsiders, but also with each other, as I have learned to keep in mind.

A little story will illustrate this point. In return for a small favor, a neighbor invited me to drop by  last week so that she could give me some fresh eggs.  Here it is customary to make gifts of eggs as a gesture of good-neighborliness. Around seven p.m. I went to her house, just around the corner. The narrow cobbled street was deserted; the streetlights weren’t on and there was no one about.  Answering the door, she whisked me inside by the elbow. “Come in quickly. Otherwise they’ll see us,” she warned. Inside,  the woodstove was lit. There was an intense smell of chestnut pudding steaming on the stove. “They’ll be watching. They’ll be wanting some too, if they see me giving you some,” she said as she wrapped up the eggs in a sheaf of newspaper. I was only inside five minutes before she ushered me out again, with my packet tucked well out of sight. I was startled to see in a dimly lit window across the street, a face peeking out from behind a lace curtain: a long nose and two bright eyes had been observing the scene. The face retreated as I stared back. For the owner of that face, imagining what transaction had just taken  place in the kitchen across the street was probably better than  watching television.

Today the bus crowd is livelier than usual, almost like  a mobile club house  or a town hall, with everyone joining in the conversation. They are talking about the U.S. elections. Naturally, they all identify with the underdog, the dark horse, Obama. “Let’s hope he can solve all the problems. The war. The economy.” one woman says wistfully. I smile and nod. As we trundle past the banished Easter Island statue, I reflect that this victory, which has given hope to so many,  perhaps depended partly upon one thing. Maybe enough people have begun to learn that “otherness” is just an illusion we can easily discard.

For More Information

Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy needs no introduction as a celebration of  expat life in rural Tuscany, but there are other  memoirs about life in Italy which give a more comprehensive picture of the struggles involved in integrating oneself into Italian culture.

Noteworthy are: poet Wallis Wilde-Menozzi’s Mother Tongue: An American Life in Italy ( Northpoint Press,1997)  which includes attentive observations of Italian society, history, and politics while showing how these greater themes affect intimate and daily life and Desiring Italy: Women Writers Celebrate the Passions of a Country and Culture (Ballantine, 1997) edited  by Susan Cahill, an anthology of fiction and essays by women writers dealing with the expat experience.

A more recent anthology of women’s memoirs is Italy, A Love Story: Women Write About the Italian Experience (Seal Press, 2005)  edited by Camille Cusumano. 

Two indispensable web resources for people contemplating a move to Italy are: The English Yellow Pages (www.insidersabroad.com) and Expats in Italy, (www.expatsinitaly.com)—both informative sites with  forums devoted to all aspects of expatriate life. 

Among the many English  webzines about life in Italy, two  highly recommended are Wanted in Rome (www.wantedinrome.com),  with a classified section covering housing, jobs, and updates on cultural events and The American, (www.theamericanmag.com)  founded and edited by American journalist Christopher P. Winner, featuring  politics, culture, food,  travel, and daily life.