Growing up Italian or Not Fitting in.

I’m Italian.  And from the city.  Philadelphia, that is.  I grew up in an Italian neighborhood.  If you’re from New York, you understand. 

When I meet someone from Brooklyn or someone brought up in an Italian household, it’s understood.  How we grew up, our experiences, how we operate in the world.  No explanations needed.

When you grow up in the city, you have an edge.  You learn to be a little tough.  It helps with survival.

When you grow up Italian, you learn to talk over each other and listen to three different conversations at the same time.  I wouldn’t say it’s a gentle culture.  Passionate, loving, but not necessarily gentle.   Kind, giving, ferociously protective of our families.  Lots of wonderful qualities, not the least of which is good food and fabulous family gatherings.  But not placid, not meek.

Move to Maryland suburbs.  The land of vanilla people.  I don’t mean to insult anyone. It’s really more about me and my journey to fit into Maryland culture. This is a very educated area, a melting pot of cultures.  And I have found, as a whole, it is more cultivated that the city.

So I tried changing my speech patterns, removing the long “a” sounds.  I’ve tried rephrasing sentences in a more pleasing way, more tactful, more benign.  In the beginning I WANTED to leave behind my gritty city-ness.  I was determined to throw out my edge and become cultivated! 

In the end, I’ve assimilated some of this.  I still have to think about being tactful, still have to swallow my first reaction and wait for a calmer version.  Because I’m really a bottom line person.  I like to tell it like it is.  It saves time.  My friends think this is hysterical.  They wait for it.  A few of them want to be more like me.  Just put it out there.  And I want to be more like them, gentle, genteel.   

When I turned 50, became independent (i.e., divorced) and let my hair go natural (i.e.grey), I found myself just wanting to be me.  It has become so much work to try to fit in.  To try to be something that goes completely against my grain.  To explain myself to people who don’t understand me.  More than that, because they don’t understand my background, they judge me.  I am expected to behave a certain way in this culture.  And I feel gauche.

That’s why I love hanging around with my Italian friends.  And when I go back to Philly, I slip back into my beginnings.  I’m remarried now and my husband is on a learning curve.  He asks me why I’m yelling at him.  I tell him, “I’m not yelling.  I’m Italian!” 

I’ve come home, to me.

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