Canadian. Italian. Canadese. Italiana. Italo-canadese. Italian-Canadian.
Almost every day in my life here in Italy, I’m forced to explain my cultural identity. Sometimes I seem too foreign to be Italian. More often, I seem too Italian to be foreign. Sometimes people say I speak Italian too well to be a native English speaker. Sometimes – and this is my favourite – people marvel at my excellent English skills, of all things.
So what am I?
Growing up in Canada, my last name stuck out like a sore thumb. I mean, you can spot its Italian-ness a mile away: Mastroianni. I’ve had to spell it for people almost as many times as I’ve said it, and I’ve had to endure every butchered pronunciation of it you can think of, and then some.
But my first name is not typically Italian. At least, not the way it’s spelled. Sara (pronounced Sah-rah) exists in Italian, but Sarah (my name, pronounced Sair-uh) boggles the Italian mind. What is that h doing there, anyways? For Italians, it’s strange. For Canadians, not so much. In Italy, for simplicity’s sake, I go by Sarah, pronounced the Italian way, with the rolled r and all.
Just when you think the confusion’s over, people discover I have a middle name: Ashley. In Canada it’s quite normal to have one, two or even three middle names. In Italy, the fact that I have “two first names” but I only use one as an actual name, incites gear-mashing of biblical proportions in Italian cervelli (brains) because of the incomprehensibility totale of the situation.
So why did I end up with this disaster?
The blame lies squarely at the feet of my parents, of course.
I was born in Canada to a mainly Canadian Mom (with German and British heritage) and an Italian-born, Canadian-raised Dad. Hence the Canadian – Italian name.
Throughout my life growing up in Canada I identified quite a bit with my Italian side. Not that I didn’t identify with my Canadian side, no no. But I just have always felt Italian-Canadian, probably largely due to my last name.
As my more faithful readers know, this Italian-Canadian, who doesn’t have the right to Italian citizenship because her father had renounced his to become a Canadian before she was born, recently fought tooth-and-nail to get a visto and move to Italy. And eccomi. Here I am.
When one moves to another country, especially Italy, there’s an amazing amount of bureaucracy to go through to become a registered person in that country. And at every step along the way here, people have called my identity into question because somehow, I seem to boggle their minds.
I was fine before. Completely, totally fine. But all this questioning has brought about an Italian-Canadian crisi d’identità (identity crisis).
Take, for instance, my recent quest for an Italian carta d’identità (identity card – how fitting). I go to Siena’s Comune (City Hall, featured in this blog’s logo), and wait for my number to be called.
I eventually get an audience with the man in charge of identity cards. He asks for a piece of ID, so I give him my Canadian passport. A passport which people who are not Canadian citizens cannot possess. A passport in which it clearly states that I was born in Canada, and that my citizenship is Canadian.
Having thoroughly studied the information page, he proceeds to ask me, in Italian, the most natural series of questions that comes when one is handed a Canadian passport. He opens with a doozy:
“Signorina, you mean to tell me you’re Canadian?” he asks incredulously. “Canadian Canadian?”
“…Sì,” I reply, and look around to see if it was someone else’s Canadian-ness that was being called into question.
Just mine, apparently.
“You’re not an Italian citizen? Don’t have another passport around somewhere?” He gestures absently around his office and I wonder just how many other people’s imaginary second passports he thinks are lying around.
“No,” I shake my head.
“But your last name-?”
“My dad is Italian.”
“But he’s not Tuscan,” the guy counters quickly. “Mastroianni isn’t a Tuscan name. I mean, it’s a famous name, a nice name. But it’s not Tuscan.”
And he’s right – famous it is, Tuscan it’s not. In a country that thrives on campanilismo (allegiance to one’s own town bell tower) this is an identity-defining detail.
“No, my Dad’s ciociaro,” I respond, using the adjective for people who come from my Dad’s part of Lazio.
“But you live here.” “Yes.” “In Siena.” “Yes.” “Not in Canada.” “No.” “And not in your dad’s town.” “No.” “In Siena.” “That’s why I’m applying for an identity card here.”
After hearing me utter a full sentence, his eyes snap open wide and he recoils in his chair.
“You speak Tuscan!” he exclaims. “Listen to that accent!” Suddenly, he’s suspicious. “How can that be?”
I smile, because I know it’s true. Italians – Tuscans and non – comment on my Tuscan accent all the time. While at first I couldn’t understand a word that came out of any Tuscan mouth, I view my unconscious adoption of the accent over the years as an accomplishment in my language learning journey. It makes me oddly proud.
And since this guy, keeper of the identity cards, has obviously made it his mission to thoroughly vet me, given all the seemingly incongruous details I’m feeding him, he sits back in his chair looking smug, as if he’s somehow tripped me up with his questions. With a grand sweep of his hand, he invites me to continue my likely story.
When I shrug, he forges ahead with the intensity of a lawyer during a cross-examination.
“You have a heavier Tuscan accent than me and I’m Chiantigiano. From Chianti. A real Tuscan. You must have moved here a long time ago,” he surmises, satisfied that he’s solved the mystery that is Sarah Ashley Mastroianni: Canadian citizen, Tuscan talker with Ciociaro origins.
“No, actually. I’ve come to Siena every year for the past six, but I’ve only really been living here since June.” I let that hang for a second, then I add, “that’s why I need the identity card.”
“Are you here to study?” “No, I work.”
“Nooo, dai.” Come on. He draws out his words in the theatrical way typical of Italian speakers and starts to laugh. The ice has broken, now he’s getting a kick out of this conversation.
“A Ciociara-Canadian who speaks Tuscan like you and who’s come from Canada with all the jobs, to Italy with no jobs, to work… Non esiste!” (That doesn’t exist!)
I laugh and smile, “And yet here I am, asking you gentilmente (kindly) for an identity card.”
“Of course, of course.” He smiles and busies himself with my passport and various papers on the desk in front of him. He taps away at his keyboard for a minute before he looks up and asks me the question of all questions.
His voice brings me back from la-la land and I raise an eyebrow in response, having not quite caught what he asked.
He rephrases. “Altezza?” Height?
“175 centimetres,” I respond.
A slow smile spreads across his face. “Ahhh, ecco! There it is.”
“There what is?” I ask, playing along, even though I know from previous experience exactly what’s coming.
“Signorina, I can give you an identity card that says you live in Siena, and you can talk like you talk, but you’re much too tall to be Tuscan.”