Wednesday, April 2, 2008

where I am coming from

Marc Chagall ~ Solitude

"Life is either a daring adventure or nothing." -- Helen Keller

Do you ever think about who you really are when you walk out of the door in the morning? What is it that makes you that person? What is it that makes you fit in or stand out? That makes you feel like yourself? Or feel like an impostor? What is it that makes you feel comfortable? Authentic? Insecure? A phony? Like you belong? Like you don't?

What did you eat for breakfast and what are you wearing? Did you watch the news? Did you read a paper? What language did you hear and read these in? What language did you read in your favorite book as you fell asleep the night before? What language did you dream in? Where were you?

What is expected of you today? Will you be met with challenges or will you be bored? Will you understand what is being said to you, not just the words, but the meanings behind these words, meanings coming from afar and the passage of time? Will you know where to go? Will you know how to navigate? Will you find a friendly face, or will you find a stranger? Are you the stranger?

I started this blog as I left the life of an expat that I had lived for fifteen years. I still cannot comprehend that I was abroad for that long, and all the introspection in the world will never help me to understand what the impact of that time was on me. My life as an expat was a lot like being a child again, learning a language, a culture, the rules and unspoken rites of another country. I have written here before that in my early years in Italy, I was confused as to my own identity. I suddenly found myself ironing pillowcases and eating my salad at the end of a meal. I suddenly felt at a loss when trying to get dressed in the morning. I suddenly found myself in a world without my own language. Living without your language, the language of your parents and dreams and memories, is at first terrifying, bewildering and frustrating. In retrospect, it was one of the hardest things I have ever done, and I try to remember that as my husband struggles today. It was also one the greatest gifts I gave myself and my children.

My last post here received several comments about me generalizing Italian women. I really don't think that particular post had any generalizations in it, though I may have been guilty in the past of generalizing. What struck me about these comments were the same generalizations they contained, such as Italian women are.... as if all Italian women are (fill in the blank). Are all American women strong? Are all Italian women smart? Are are American women stupid? Are Italian women weak?

Living in Italy for so many years gave me ample opportunity to talk about my own country, since I was consistently asked that question- do you prefer Italy or America? I hated that question! How hard it that to answer? My experience living in Italy was uniquely mine, and had just as much to do with my own upbringing and disposition as it did the people around me. I strongly believe that the introspection born of living abroad has given me a clearer sense of who I am. Who I really am, regardless of the language I am speaking or the place where I am living. My need, or readiness, to leave Italy and change my life was rooted in my family and my own sense of urgency. Maybe I was incapable of staying in Italy, or anyplace at all, for that matter, for such a long time. And I was truly tired of feeling like a foreigner, which was a feeling that grew over time and went from gently knocking to banging down the door. As I stopped trying valiantly to fit in, I realized that my differentness was an innate part of who I was. In a certain sense, I think it is arrogant to even suggest that I could ever broaden or change anyone else's world at all, whether an American or Italian or Martian. We are our own pilots. We blaze our own trails and reap the fruit or pain of our decisions.

That's where I am coming from.


Darla Bruno said...

I'm really enjoying your blog. This was a nice post. I've often tried to articulate this to others, but no one gets that it is hard *even* when you're in Italy. You summed up the language frustration beautifully.

bleeding espresso said...

FWIW, I didn't find your last post to make generalizations either; the way I read it you were referring to a particular group of women that you were around all the time because you had to be. I agree with what you said about it being somehow easier to surround yourself with like-minded women in America...why is that? Well that might be worth exploring, but we can't escape the fact that all kinds of women (and people) exist in both countries and everywhere.

Speaking as someone who is also naturally, genetically rather introverted, finding those like-minded women is all the more difficult when the wives of my OH's friends, um, aren't. I've had luck, though, with the women I worked with at the local health clinic, so I know that if I'm willing to make the effort, they're there.

But that's just much am I willing to make the effort? And how much does *that* go against my basic character? How much am I actually changing myself just to make the effort? Is that something I *want* to do?

None of this is easy and we all have our individual roads, of course; I'm so grateful that you share your experiences over those 15 years. Thank you for continuing to help those of us going through the same things on a time delay ;)

Beatriz' suitcase contents said...

First, I want to tell you again how much I enjoy your blog. I am a frequent visitor, and I learn a lot from your point of view, even if I do not agree with you every-time. This is YOUR blog, and I am just a visitor.

I truly enjoyed your post today, and I have to say that I was making generalizations, and that was not the point. I just wanted to point out that our incursions as "foreigners" into unknown cultural idiosyncrasies are prevalent wherever you go.

Right at this moment, while writing this comment, I feel I could do a better job at it if I were using my first language... we carry this heavy baggage wherever we go.

Jennifer said...

This is a great post!

I make generalisations all the time. We all do. Cultures differ, groups of people differ, and I find that once we understand those differences (through generalisations and of course there are exceptions!) it is much easier to get by. For instance: Italians are very food- and meal-oriented. That's a big generalisation that once understood makes life here a lot easier.

I find it interesting that you think it's arrogant to change someone's world. My perspective is so different! I expect people to change mine. That's why I read your blog!! Your views are so different than mine. You have certainly helped me shape some of my ideas as an expat through your writing, which I have found to be incredibly intense and courageous.

cathouse teri said...

You're an earthy girl who has been made to travel. You go into a kind of shock when you land in a place. After a time, you start to settle in and absorb the surrounding influences. But it takes a bit of time before you can say, "This is where I belong."

You are a traveler who enjoys the places where your feet step. To love or to hate those places is outside of conceivability. They just are, and your feet are feeling them.

You are a lover of the body and soul of a place and its people. But you need your own body and soul to feel like it remains intact. It gets shaken up a bit when uprooted. It gets afraid to hold onto a thing that will make it feel stable again. Afraid that if it holds on to the gunwale, the ship might just go ahead and sink and where would that leave you?

You are where you are coming from and where you've been.

And you're beautiful, even when you have that uncertain look.

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

Your post really resonated with me. I have just moved to Italy. Trying to set up my life here by myself ( I did not move here with or for a man) in other language (one that I that I don't speak fluently yet), has been one of the most difficult things I have ever done.

That said I as a black american born to parents from the Caribbean, I'm the other in my county of birth. I have been dealing with cultural differences all my life and the Italian POV (yes am I generalizing ha) has much more in common with my parent's country then with my own.

Although I am still getting settled I do feel finally I am in a place where I can just be myself. I don't why it took this long but I'm glad I took the chance and moved.