What does it mean to be an Italian abroad?

The concept of nationality comes from that feeling that binds us to places, people, memories, the one made of tiny everyday gestures. This article is a personal reflection of what it is like to live abroad as an Italian.

Unapologetically Italian

What an Italian leaves behind when crossing over the threshold of another country is making sense of the complex concept of socializing. Each culture has a way it socializes so that it can be hospitable or alienating. I'm aware, for instance, that from an outsider's perspective, a group of Italians sitting at a cafe can be noisy, chatty, but behind this bursting extroversion lies a way of being Italian. Although we can't paint everyone with the same brush, there is no doubt that Italians are social beings whose daily life revolves around their relationships with other people.

For this reason, it is not uncommon for a casual meeting on the street to turn into a coffee date at the bar, for a meeting at work to continue to an aperitivo, or for a dinner invitation to arrive unexpectedly with just a couple of hours' notice.

Aperitivo time segmento
Aperitivo time

Socializing abroad

Having relationships with friends and family members raised in other countries too, personally, I see a difference in my social life in Italy compared to elsewhere: while I can make impromptu plans with my Italian friends, my catch-ups with Australian friends need to be scheduled well in advance. Sometimes I feel like I'm part of a tetris, squeezed between one appointment and another, losing a bit of that surprise factor and spontaneity I really enjoy. 

Taking a walk to get a gelato after dinner with the family is almost an institution in Italy. Every town, even the smallest village, has a trusted gelateria, where queues form on summer evenings. Children start playing hide-and-seek, while the adults engage in conversations that will go far beyond the last bit of gelato. When walking the streets of Melbourne, I often realize that I am the only one enjoying the slow perambulating pace of a passeggiata just for my own pleasure, without necessarily walking for a purpose, for instance, exercising or walking a dog.

Mercato Padova italian market
A typical Italian market, in Padova

The market as a meeting place

Another unmissable daily event for an Italian is the market: the place where people not only go to shop but also to exchange recipes, stories, gossip, invitations for a coffee, and curious people-watching moments. It is always the same market, and here you'll find friendly faces and sliced-on-the-spot prosciutto. There is no need to make plans with other people; we know that we will meet someone we were hoping to meet, someone we did not expect to find, or someone we would have preferred to avoid. People hardly ever leave the market without an opportunity to chatter. In my new home, I go to the very same market every week, but no one ever stops to make sure the potatoes I got are the right ones for my gnocchi or to add two onions as a reward for my loyalty.

And then there are the vasche on Sunday afternoon in Italy, when you leave the car at home and stroll happily along the main streets in the city center, window-shopping, warming up with a hot chocolate, and stopping to have a few words with anyone who provides a friendly smile.  This is a cultural event that many people wait for all week, because no matter how hard the week has been, it's a chance to feel part of something bigger than us, almost like a support network.

Being an Italian abroad can sometimes be isolating and daunting, but the most indicative sense of discovering what makes up our cultural baggage certainly comes from comparisons with other cultures. There's nothing that teaches us more about ourselves, our sense of cultural identity, our need to arrest judgment through humility to be able to see things from different perspectives. I realize that behind my observations, there is a whole cultural tradition as well as reasons for being and doing. There are many ways to enjoy the many flavors of a good gelato.