14 March 2006


Born in Canada to an immigrant mother (from Rome, Italy at age 18) and an Italo-Canadian father, mine is the experience of many a Canadian--that is, a continual pull between two cultures, sets of customs, value systems and two heartlands. Unlike those Italians who immigrate later in life, or continue to surround themselves with people of their own cultural background, my mother has more and more defined herself as a Canadian, and has more and more left behind fond memories of her country of origin. When I was a kid in grade school however, my mom was still distinctly (in my mind, and in my understanding of others' perceptions) "Italian," as was I, and several aspects of my life were affected by this--my dark skin and hair, my tomato sandwiches for school lunches, my nonna and nonno, my large family and related get- togethers, an entire set of relatives residing in Italy, my parents' strict rules, my dad's strong and silent demeanor, my mom's accent, pasta as a staple food, homemade pizza nights, etc, etc. While this all sounds like fun and games--and some of it was, like the trips to Italy, the tons of cousins to play with, the pizza--as a kid attending a school founded in Germany with few 'minorities' in the student body (the Waldorf school), I felt like an outsider myself.

Now, I'm sure there are as many reasons to be made to feel like an outsider in this world as there are people in it, but I have wanted to comment on the 'culture' issue for some time now, as it is what spurred me to take a long trip to Italy in the first place. After a childhood where I had resented being Italian, as a teenager I mostly ignored it, except in cases where it might have helped, of which there weren't that many since I was a little bit of a hippy and identified with a diverse crowd of literature- lovers and artsy types...

A few years after breaking off a 3- year high school relationship, attending university in Toronto and more than a little bit lost, the idea became lodged in my head that I lacked a true heartland, a place yes, but more of an emotional and psychological locale where I felt at home. I think I only truly understood the nature of my longing after I arrived in Italy, where despite the stereotypes and assumptions (some of which my mother had even cautioned me with), I felt more free than I ever had.

I now know better than to get carried away in the opposite direction by neglecting or critiquing my other homeland Canada, because growing up here has shaped me and nurtured my growth. What I found in Italy though--besides family who I get to see only rarely, and a husband (though that's another story altogether!)--are a people who I feel naturally comfortable among; it's as if those incongruent aspects of my childhood suddenly made sense, and the person I have grown into has discernible roots. Because of the homogeneity of the Italian populace, there is not the same racial or cultural tension that we in Canada are used to living with on a daily basis, and I experienced a new feeling of belonging. I attempted to capitalize on this feeling to the largest degree possible, and found I was easily able to achieve looking and feeling Italian, that is, until I opened my mouth and spoke! Even then, the language I did know I tried to produce with as accurate an accent as possible, though I'm sure I was deluding myself...

There is something about the Italian landscape that I feel myself drawn to, and traveling by train from Rome to Sicily along the coast line, I walked down the aisles to reach the last car and was mesmerized by the passing vistas quickly disappearing behind me. I was enchanted and filled with a strange longing to know a different life every time we passed through small towns and I glanced up at the balconies of apartments, the clothes lines with fresh laundry flapping, the cliffs, the golden light and the lapping of the sea. And then we reached Sicily. The land of Sicily that I feel is my own is a palette of colours- golden yellows and oranges and deep and dark greens and blues. In August the fields are burnt and crackle with the heat, the sea offers respite, as does the deepest night and the arcing mountains and hills. Somehow, and this probably sounds too lyrical to be true, but it is true--the mysteries and emotions and hollows within me are echoed in the wilds of the Sicilian landscape. I felt this like a stone dropping, thudding quietly inside, and I feel it when we go there now. The wild joy I feel at simply taking a ride through the country to replenish my in- laws' water supply is indescribable. Skin dry and golden, barefoot, hair jumping out the car windows, I felt that I found a heartland.

Nothing is ever that simple though. I was born into this cultural duality and that is how I will die too--but now I believe that it is a blessing, with its own hardships. Two cultures, heartlands, languages, origins will always allow for a wider point of view than just one, and the love of learning, of language and of reading that I inherited in the English tradition, will be pushed to futher plains with the acquisition of a new language.

Funny how I know that sitting on a great divide is where I will always remain, even when we move. Though I could use my own mom as an example of someone who integrated almost seamlessly into a new culture, she lacks an important aspect of her life, which is her family. Antonio and I will inevitably lack part of our families, either here or there, and that just comes with the territory. Since I do not want to live with regrets because the sky is too wide and will always remind you of them on those misty days, I would like to live in Italy and raise our children there. Many things conspire to stand in the way between my heartland and I, but I trust that some divinity has my life in her hands, and will transplant us when the time comes!


Blogger Immigrant in Canada said...

An immigrant and a mother of three kids, I get worried about my children's ethnic identity. They are Malaysians and now live in Canada. I am concerned one day they might hate me for uprooting them from their home country

5:44 PM  
Blogger Kristina said...

I don't think it's an issue of hating the parent(s) that uprooted you--rather I think parents need to make an effort to cultivate familial and cultural traditions from both the old and the new countries so that kids feel comfortable with both. I think a really good way to do that is with language--ensuring kids are bilingual connects them to their country of origin in a very vital way. It is more a struggle for me to learn Italian now than it might have been when I was a child.

9:07 AM  
Anonymous Barbara said...

Brilliant post Katrina. As a teenager I was friends with the only Italian girl in our school. I loved to visit her house but I was petrified of her father. Looking back now I guess I was not used to the Italian way rather than anything about him. At 6 years of age I was desperately in love with my Aunts Italian husband, who now loves to tease me about jumping into his bed as I did back then.

4:14 PM  
Blogger Kristina said...

Thanks Barbara! In all honesty, I was a bit scared of my dad back then too, even though there were many good times with him--reading all of the Heidi books together, chapter by chapter, eating a huge bowl of popcorn while watching Treasure Island, playing boardgames, etc., etc.. He wasn't really typical in some ways, but when it came to discipline, he was. I think for my dad, who wasn't born in Italy but was raised by a newly immigrated Sicilian dad, the experience of growing up with two cultures was probably more exaggerated than my own. Funny that just like him, I married someone from Italy! I wonder what this means.... It must be something in our blood that is calling us home!

9:06 AM  
Anonymous Ivonne said...


What an incredible post! So often my friends and I have discussed the fact that as first-generation Canadians, we've grown up straddling two worlds. Your reference to a divide hits so close to home.

I particularly identified with your description of being tied to Italy, even though you were raised in Canada.

It's funny because whenever I go to Italy, I feel this longing to know and experience everything about my roots.

Well-written, Kristina!

12:17 AM  

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