Our first encounter was at a student orientation meeting in a university class, in the Southern English city of Brighton. When I asked him where he was from, he said to me with a grin “I’m Italian.”
With a name like Martino, I believed him.
Turned out he’s half Italian (the other half is German), and he was born in…you guessed it…Germany and he was raised in…you guessed it…Germany. But from the time that he was labelled as an Italian on the school playground, till his annual visits to his father’s hometown in Sicily, he has and still does identify very strongly as an Italian. Years later, when I teased him about not telling me the whole truth, he replied “when I meet a girl I like, I’m always an Italian.”
Within a few months of getting to know him, and meeting his family, I realized just how Italian, he and his family were. They all spoke fluent Italian, my German mother-in-law worked for the Italian consulate and therefore spoke even better Italian than my Italian father-in-law, and they cooked 99% Italian food at home. I soon realized I would be marrying into a very Italian household. This brought forth many insights into Italian culture, language, history, customs and people, which I have slowly observed over the past 13 years. And now that we are busy raising our own two children, as expats living in Dubai, we find ourselves trying to keep our Italian roots and heritage alive.
“Campanilismo”: The Italian Sense of Identity
The first thing I learned was that as an Italian, your sense of local identity is very strongly tied to the little town or city or province that you come from. As an expat, who has a very fluid concept of home, I realized Italians know exactly where they come from and they carry that place around with them for life. My father-in-law despite living in Germany for majority of his life, still maintains his ties to his hometown of Niscemi in Sicily. Even though he left Sicily over 40 years ago, and only goes back once a year to visit, if you ask him where he’s from he replies in a heartbeat “I’m a Niscemese first, a Sicilian second, and an Italian third.”
This sense of local identity is closely tied into the Italian concept of “campanilismo”, which translates to loyalty to your local bell-tower and means maintaining your links to your village or town. As a result my husband has strong links to this little town, which is so small, you can’t even find it on a map, as my father tried unsuccessfully to do! My first visit to meet our Italian family involved a 10 day stay in Niscemi and Sicily and today, both I and our 2 children are registered as Italian citizens, hailing from the tiny little town of Niscemi. Our Italian roots and heritage thus continue to flow in one long, uninterrupted stream from this place, and from the neighbouring town of Caltagirone, where to my delight we discovered a street named after our family name: Via Ottimofiore!
The Importance of La Famiglia:
It is safe to say that the family is by far the most important social, economic and organizational unit in Italian culture. I realized this first hand when Italian relatives who I had never met, sent in beautiful wedding gifts and cards for our wedding in Germany. When I asked my husband who had sent us this exquisite, handmade, porcelain 12 piece dining set, he replied “my father’s cousin’s daughter and her twin brother.” When we took our first trip to Sicily as a married couple, I was stunned to hear that the first dinner invitation had come from my husband’s father’s sister’s husband’s sister! Stunned but pleasantly surprised and happy, because maintaining close family ties is something that was similar in my Pakistani culture, where we keep in touch with our second cousins and know their children’s names and ages too!
And just like that, there I was – part of this incredibly big, beautiful, hospitable, friendly, loud, Italian family – who invite you for an espresso and then make sure you stay for lunch and dinner and a passegiata (a walk around the local piazza) after dinner. The first Italian words I learnt to say were at the dining table, where I would insist “sono sazia” (I’m full!) while a not-so-convinced Italian aunt would be ready to serve me another round of mouth-watering tagliatelle ai funghi on my plate. I was also ecstatic to eat at the family restaurant in Milan, a trattoria called Ottimofiore after our family name. The ties of food to family seemed so strong and somehow connected all of us from different generations.
This importance of family and food and eating together is an Italian tradition I have truly come to love, admire and follow in our daily lives. It doesn’t matter if we are living in Berlin, Copenhagen, Singapore or Dubai – every day for dinner I set our table the Italian way (using that 12 piece dining set!), the bowls for the primo piatto, and the flat plates for the secondo piatto and we eat together – Martino, myself and the kids. Sometimes the spaghetti lands on the floor courtesy my 1 year old son who loves to slurp it by hand, while my 4 year old daughter shows off how she can twirl hers with the fork.
We also love it, when our Italian family visits us here in Dubai, although I am now prepared for the fact that if they will arrive with two suitcases, one of them will be filled with food! Truffle oil, slabs of delicious parmigiano and bresaola and little chocolatini for the kids are a must. Food is just another way of showing love in our family, the Italian way.
Focusing on La Dolce Vita:
Possibly the biggest observation and insight I’ve gained from marrying into an Italian family is to acknowledge that life is full of pleasures; big and small and that it is our duty to enjoy the sweet things in life. This feeling is encapsulated in the phrase “la dolce vita” (the sweet life) and I finally understand why Italians believe in this philosophy and practise it, more so than anyone else.
In spite of belonging to the industrialized nations of Europe, Italy faces a huge number of problems. Corruption, inefficiencies, bureaucracy, tax evasion, a stagnating economy, a declining birth rate, and the mafia – the list is endless. When a lot of things around you are not working, the Italian mentality is to focus on the sweet things in life – the culture, beauty, art, music and food around you, that gives you pleasure.
I think “la dolce vita” is a true coping mechanism for many cynical Italians, who instead of getting upset about politics and the economy and other things they can’t control, choose to focus instead on the good things around them that they can control – like cooking that perfect al dente pasta or dressing to perfection. By focusing on and cultivating a good life full of pleasure, the Italian feels at least some control over their life. Perhaps this is why as Luigi Barzini wrote in his 1964 classic The Italians, many Italians are much more likely to tolerate a corrupt politician but could never tolerate a bad cook!
This idea to slow down and appreciate the pleasures in life was an alien concept to me, especially during all the years I lived, studied and worked in the United States. Working a 70 hour week usually left little time for enjoyment or travel of any kind. However, my marriage into an Italian family and culture have shown me just how important it is to acknowledge, appreciate and be grateful for all the little blessings in life. Nowadays as a mother to two rambunctious kids, and a busy daily life, I actively try to take some time out for myself, whether it is to write, to try out a new recipe or simply to end my day with a mug of green tea and a good book. It’s important to enjoy this sweet life and live each day to the fullest.
I don’t know what the future holds for us or where our expat adventures will take us next, but I do know that if possible, I would love to live in Italy and experience daily life there myself to learn more. My husband warns me that life in Italy is not all about wandering from piazza to piazza with a gelato in my hand, but it would be the perfect opportunity to learn better Italian and practise speaking it and exposing our children to their Italian culture and heritage as well.
I received my Italian citizenship after almost 7 years of marriage (I applied after 3, but it took a further 4 years and repeated efforts by various family members for the Italian bureaucracy to process my paperwork!) The day I said my oath (in Italian of course), my Italian family were with me and we all went out to one of Singapore’s finest Italian restaurants to celebrate. As my tiramisu arrived with a little Italian flag on top, I realized that I could sit here and complain and moan endlessly about how long and frustrating the entire process towards Italian citizenship had been, but I decided in true Italian fashion and in spirit of my newly acquired nationality, to focus instead on that first bite of smooth indulgence.
And I thought to myself it really is a very sweet life indeed.
About the Author:
Mariam is an eternal expat who 15 years, 7 countries and 3 continents later, is embarrassingly a seasoned expert at getting lost in every new city she calls home, and butchering words in every new foreign language she picks up along the way. She is the founder and writer of the blog And Then We Moved To (www.andthenwemovedto.com) and writes mostly about life as an expat, trying to raise her multilingual and multicultural children in her East-meets-West marriage and of course traveling the world. You can follow her on Facebook (www.facebook.com/andthenwemovedto) and on Instagram @andthenwemovedto.