December 9, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Marocchini, cinesi, me

By |2018-03-21T19:48:50+01:00February 27th, 2016|"In the Sticks"|
What does a stopped up ear have in common with being an outsider in Italy? Neither side hears the other.

he next person who gushes about being an expat gets an envelope full of anthrax courtesy of Poste Italiane and me. All the wine in the world and hilarious lost in translation stories can’t cover up the truth — it sucks.

As I write this, a nagging voice in my head just keeps saying: well, who the hell told you to move to Italy? Funny, it sounds exactly like the insufferable bespectacled student who asked that exact question earlier in the week.

We were talking about what expats miss the most. Traditional food was thrown around about 15 times. I think they meant local cuisine, but didn’t have the words. I’m not a great English teacher okay?

I was in the worst mood. My ear has been blocked for the better part of the week and since I live north of nowhere, the ear specialist won’t be in town for another two weeks. I had to wait an hour and take a number from the same ticket machine they use at your local supermarket to be told this.

Okay, I’m lying. The man at the clinic didn’t actually tell me. He assumed this pretty face was far beyond comprehending basic Italiano. So he told my father-in-law instead, who was there because otherwise he wouldn’t have seen me at all. He’s not my family doctor. He’s my father-in-law’s. My family doctor only comes to town twice a week for the sum total of three hours.

He then printed out and sign a pile of prescriptions for some hard-core pharmaceuticals at the behest my mother-in-law, who wasn’t even there! She even ordered her own gastroscopy, which Dr. Doctor agreed to without asking why she needed one. But that’s a story for another time.

Since I wasn’t in the mood to flatter anyone, I told my students that thing you miss the most is fitting in. I said this in Italian because they just stared at me when I spoke English. This particular bunch of students comes to English class to gossip in Italian. I tried.

Before my ear crisis, I was going to write a cutesy piece about how much fun it is to be an outsider. Then I realized that individuality is overrated.

It’s so easy to espouse the “unique” and “totally non-mainstream” line when you’re living in a big foreign city. That’s because there are thousands of other people who think the same rubbish.

Living in a small town in Tuscany is a different story. Diversity is a foreign concept. The word means nothing. And I am not referring to a misunderstanding over the subtleties of hipster and indie.

I live in another century. The only dark-skinned people locals have ever met are the ones that sell them things on the street and whom they collectively and derogatively call marocchini even though none of them have ever stepped foot in Morocco. The man who runs the local discount store is Asian, so going there means going to the cinesi.

I may be white, but I am just as much an outsider. Forget about good first impressions. Mine has already been made for me and comes out, “Are we sure this girl can understand Italian?”

Everyone around me prattles about much they’d love to visit Australia if only it wasn’t so far away, but the desire doesn’t keep them from resisting the only Australian in the village.

I am the girl who dresses strange, the one who dares to leave her fur-lined jacket and scarf at home when its 15 degrees Celsius outside, the woman who cooks weird food and wears heels instead of comfortable sneakers.

It may be far from the maddening racism that most other local immigrants endure, but the irony is impossible to ignore.

Fresh off the boat in 1960s Australia, my mother was teased mercilessly for her prosciutto sandwiches and wooden colored pencils. But unlike her, I cannot expect millions of other Australians to arrive in my Tuscan town to make our customs not just seem normal, but desirable.

I don’t expect my estrangement to go away. In the simplest terms, I miss my people. I miss being one of the 21 million, an utterly ordinary being who can say, do and eat what she likes without anyone batting an eyelid.

My biggest fear is that when I finally have children, when I finally have a handful of half-Australians to keep me company, they’ll abandon me. They will, like my mother, like the Romanian children I teach, turn their backs on their heritage.

They will do whatever it takes not to be an outsider. They will work at being Italian so that in the end they’re just like everyone else.

About the Author:

Australian writer Elisa Scarton wrote the column "In the Sticks" from 2014 through mid-2019.