Unreal Italian

I have always been fascinated by Italian-somethings (Americans, Australians, Argentinians or German: we come in many flavours), ever since I met them first in Australia at the age of 19. I’ve also always been intrigued by the way Italians are represented in Hollywood movies and I have a weak spot for Italian-American musicians. Being an amateur anthropologist I’ve also looked into Italian-American studies, and followed the various Italian-American associations’ opinions over the representation of Italians in the media. Obviously my angle of observation is very different: I was born in the “Old country”, in a family with deep roots in Sicily who relocated to Rome in search of a better life. I grew up in a big city surrounded by immigrants from other regions (mostly the south), so my exposure to folk culture was limited and sparse. I remember some songs, some Feste Popolari and some bits of Sicilian folklore through my family, but no one sung me lullabies in dialect, I never took part in a folk event and growing up I spoke the modern version of roman slang, which was already no longer a dialect but really just a strong accent. I remember being aware that there were local traditions in different places, but I mostly associated them to food (and especially sweets), different for each occasion. I looked forward particularly to San Giuseppe, in march, because of the Fried Bignè filled with custard.

One of the captivating (and sometimes funny) aspects of the whole Italian-something view of the world is the mythologization of the Old Country. It’s not just in the Sopranos: most Italian-Americans have a very precise yet somewhat imaginary notion of what Italy is, and what being Italian actually means. Partly comes for the Italian Pride, the predictable reaction to an environment crowded with other communities but slightly odd for us: national pride is not our favourite sport unless we’re abroad – or unless actual sports are involved. Part of it comes from the second half of Italian-American: there is a whole imaginary Italy in American supermarkets, in the architecture of buildings or malls and in many cooking shows (spoiler: Pasta Alfredo does not exist). And some of it comes from a startling and heartbreaking aspect of migration: you are forced to leave the place you were born in and love because there is no future there, but as soon as you arrive to your new home you start to miss it, understandably remembering only the good, wholesome, different aspects and never the reasons that made you leave. This is probably why immigrants (of all types and times) are generally more “conservative”. Case in point: when in 1979 I walked into an Italian-Australian bar in Sydney and identified myself as Italian they looked baffled and made comments: “Italian men don’t wear earrings”. Certainly not when they left in the ’40s. Unsurprisingly many second generation Italian-Americans are much more aware of traditions than me because they were often raised in time capsules, cultural nuclei where reproducing the educational approach of their fathers also meant keeping a tradition alive. I remember watching the first scene of the 1978 film Saturday Night Fever (dinner with Tony Manero’s family) and thinking that it looked like the ’50s, not the present. We Italians don’t ever really reflect on our identity, we have no reason to. We’re just Italians, that’s how we’ve been since forever. We’re generally very conservative, especially when it comes to other cultures contaminating ours, for example in cuisine or music. When Rock’n’roll became popular in the ’60s we had a huge controversy on whether Little Richard (or one of his many Italian imitators) could be considered a singer; still today the brand name for Italian music in the world is sadly Andrea Bocelli. There have been several attempts to introduce the healthier Tempura style frying in Italian recipes, none of which was successful. Photos of pineapple on pizza still cause discomfort among the general population.

Being a sound person I’ve always wondered about my sonic heritage, partly because of a conversation I’ve had many years ago with an American guy who asked me what it was like to grow up in a country with “culture” (as opposed to the US, in his view): traditions, folklore, cooking etc. I’ve been replying to that question in my mind for a long time, here’s what I came up with. I grew up with a single mother, a journalist and not exactly a natural born chef. She could make some dishes but she didn’t really like it (neither did my grandma), and unless there were guests we usually ate frozen, simple, fast cooking food, somewhat healthy but absolutely unsexy. Although she insisted that I go to church, get my first communion and even briefly be an altar boy, my home was not really a religious one and I don’t remember anyone in my family praying or going to mass (with the exception of Easter mass, mandatory if you hoped to go to heaven). I was briefly exposed to Folklore in the late ’60s for political reasons: there was a brief left Folk revival in Italy too, and you could catch Rosa Balistreri (sublime Sicilian folksinger) live on television. But my most important early musical memories have nothing to do with Italy. The first sound I remember, the equivalent of a lullaby in my childhood, is Go Tell it on the Mountain sung by Mahalia Jackson, coming from my mother’s record player. This song startled me and put me in a state of bliss, it sounded like a benevolent aunt singing me good things (I had no idea about the lyrics), and the power of her voice was, and remains, reassuring and comforting. Most of my other early sonic memories are a blurred mix of Italian Pop music until i found Little Richard and his version of Land of a Thousand Dances. I was seven and I could not imagine anything more exciting – I still don’t. Then came the Beach Boys, the Beatles and the rest of that decade’s music. But my imprint, the sounds that evoke my childhood, the voices of my Folklore are Mahalia and Richard.

Does this make me less Italian? Probably yes: my grandfather grew up in tribal Sicily, his life was regulated by traditions and by the time he was seven (1893) he probably only knew folk songs, rhymes and chants. And maybe, if he had moved his family to America, he would have felt an obligation to transmit and preserve this heritage to his children and grandchildren. But my grandpa was no singer and I don’t remember anyone in my family listening to music. In fact one of the reasons I believe they moved to a big city far away was also to escape tradition, which is not just ancient popular wisdom and good food but also a cultural prison. Moreover in the past 80 years the country has evolved: men wear earrings, some are openly gay, we eat fast food of the American variety, we make Techno and so on. But still in the mind of many non Italians in Europe and elsewhere, and in fiction (series, movies, etc.) we’re all still supposed to be catholic, jealous and especially good cooks: I can’t count the times I’ve been asked to make pasta while being abroad, and sometimes I did just to prove a point: not all Italians can cook. In fact if you knew me you’d realise I don’t fit almost any of the Italian stereotypes: I dislike elaborate food, I don’t drink wine (except on special occasions, but I like whisky), I play the Blues, long meals bore me to tears, I drink filter coffee in a mug in the morning and often lunch with a PB sandwich. I have a small family, I grew up surrounded by strong, independent working women and have no children. I’m not religious, I’d rather listen to African traditional music than Italian and my favourite writer is William Burroughs. Moreover I loved the Sopranos: finally an Italian man that sees a shrink (still pretty rare over here, mafiosi or otherwise) or hangs out in a queer bar (very uncommon 20 years ago). I didn’t mind the stereotypes: most of them were true, such as the reaction to Starbucks, identical in the Sopranos and in Milan 20 years later.

Reading the Italian-American literature (or watching the movies) and meeting many second and third generation is often very interesting and always food for thought for a number of reasons, last but not least that, due to the several waves of immigration into Italy since the late 70s, our society is facing many of the same issues that American society had to deal with in the past (with major differences, the biggest being that we’re not a country that was founded by immigrants). Unfortunately we don’t seem to remember the time when we migrated to other countries (and have been subjected to horrible racism in Europe and elsewhere), so we’re making the same mistakes. But this is mainly a very interesting cultural journey, and some questions keep returning: who is the real Italian? What does it mean to be Italian? Could it be that a people’s identity can only be defined from the outside? If so, shouldn’t we Italians have a closer relationship with our cousins all over the globe? And what does all this means for the identity of the new Italians, people from Africa, India or the Philippines who migrate to Italy today?

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