Growing up in the United States, I was always “the Italian one” in my group of friends. This was a huge stretch – I’m only half Italian, and my grandmother’s cookbook contains about as many nods to Betty Crocker as it does to the homeland. My grandparents never taught me any of the language, insisting that although it had been a part of their childhoods, they weren’t fluent enough to pass it along.
Still, I have an Italian last name that’s about as common in Italy as “Smith” is in the United States. As a kid, I ate more tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil than my peers, and I could stay in the sun for hours without burning – a pretty impressive party trick that I’ll probably be sitting in a doctor’s office regretting twenty years from now. I knew a few nasty hand gestures, and I knew which slurs were supposed to offend me. Every Easter, my grandfather, who in photographs of his youth looked exactly like a young Robert De Niro, flicked holy water-soaked palm fronds at us. Sometimes he sang in Italian. He had strong opinions about what Martin Scorsese was doing to “our image.”
Flour barrels from the bakery my great-grandfather opened when he barely knew English still sit on my grandmother’s front steps, and the sea chest he used to carry his life across the Atlantic a hundred years ago sits in my parents’ living room. I have a faint scar from the time I caught my leg running too close to its jagged metal braces.
I was always proud of all of this, and the immigrant experience felt fresh to my family.
Living in Europe threatens my already-tenuous cultural identity. Here, I’m not much more Italian than Honey Boo Boo. I have an Italian roommate who doesn’t understand my pronunciation of “bruschetta,” and looked shocked when I told her where my ancestors were from because nothing about me reminded her of home. The basic Italian phrases I’ve taught myself sound as smooth coming out of my mouth as screws do in a blender, and although people I meet here in France don’t usually guess that I’m American, they don’t guess that I’m Italian, either.
I’m only “Italian” in America. The cultural idiosyncrasies that set me apart from many of my childhood and college friends might have been European in origin, but have been warped almost beyond recognition by all of their years in the American melting pot.
Visiting Torino last week, something happened that perfectly highlighted this melty cultural messiness, so common to the American experience. Checking into my hotel, I gave the mild-mannered concierge my last name. I said it the way I’ve always said it, my American accent flattening the Italian bounciness into two short syllables, feeling too self-conscious to pronounce it otherwise. The man scanned his list once, twice, and his forehead creased as he prepared to tell me I had no reservation. He asked for my passport so that he could see how the troublesome name was spelled, and I handed it over sheepishly, knowing where the confusion lay: I had pronounced my own name incorrectly. Sure enough, when he saw “Russo,” he blinked, jerked his head back, and apologized. “Oh! Ru-sso! I thought you said something else,” he said, and immediately found my name on his list.
“Sorry for my American accent,” I said.