Antonio Tabucchi, a wonderful Italian writer who lives in Portugal, was recently asked, in a provocative tone, which country did he consider his home. His answer was “My country is my language”. A beautiful and simple statement but also a bit of a cop out.Or maybe I was piqued because my language, my mother tongue, these days doesn’t seem to belong to me anymore.
When I first moved to England, some kind relative introduced me to an old Italian couple who had been living in London for 30 years. I remember a few dinners with them and my astonishment at the approximation of a language they spoke and didn’t feel comfortable in. How does it happen? I wondered. Well, it’s happening to me and I am actually wondering how.
Somewhat alarmed at the number of times my brain shuffles the index cards looking for the right Italian word to match the English one that has easily come out of my mouth, I have been making the effort to speak my birth language more often than the once a week phone calls to my best friend and my mother. So, here I am, at an Italian book club.
The Book Club is one of those American traditions that we Europeans find somewhat deranged. If we read a book, we will discuss it with a friend or two, will recommend it and then we will be on our away. In the States, circles of people, mainly women, organized through networks of friends, bookstores or libraries, get together once a month to talk about the book they picked the month before after argumentative debate (or Oprah’s suggestion). Some books even have questions at the very end to facilitate debates. Before attending the Italian book club, I participated in a couple of others over the years, in an effort, this time, to assimilate and I always found that the women I was meeting didn’t have anything particularly interesting to contribute and the whole thing was an excuse to get together and eat that other American tradition, the potluck. Maybe I was unlucky.
My Italian cohorts provided me with an altogether different experience: rowdy, slightly intimidating to the non mother tongue in the group, as Italians have no qualms about quarreling in public settings (we call it debating) or telling each other our point of view sucks (we call it constructive criticism). And then it all ends with a glass of wine. It was during this post discussion co-mingling that a lovely gentleman approached me wishing to compliment me on my pronunciation “For an American, you speak Italian so well”. His outstanding blue eyes and my manners prevented me from pouring the glass of water I was holding over his salt and pepper hair (and the impeccable jacket he was wearing). “I am actually from Bologna”, I muttered, utterly humiliated.
I am beginning to think that my full immersion in the culture I inhabit has done me a disservice. I don’t know who I am anymore – not American enough to even wanting to apply for citizenship, as if I am scared of renouncing roots that are becoming remote. And not Italian enough to speak the language of Dante the eloquent way I used to. I have become a hybrid without the luxury of being able to say that my country is my language.