A Bridge or a Hyphen

By Joanne Gillespie

A Bridge or a Hyphen

I belong to a group – it isn’t a club, and membership isn’t exclusive. We don’t meet regularly, but the entire group manages to meet about once every two months. Some of us also manage to meet outside those regular get-togethers. The only entry requirements are that you are a woman, not originally Italian, and that you live in one of the small towns found around Viterbo, the capital of the Tuscia region, an area north of Rome, Italy.

The group currently contains women representing six different countries. At a recent gathering, there were five different languages between us (six, if you count “American” and “New Zealand English” as being different). We notice it most when one of our group celebrates a birthday. Happy Birthday turns into an anthem to globalization, and picking out the different languages takes the sting out of getting another year older.

We have various reasons for being here, but for most of us, it’s AMORE. Ah, the romance. Our husbands and partners have roots which spread deep in this land built on history. When we look out our kitchen windows, we don’t see the chaos of Rome, with the Coliseum, the Vatican, the hustle and bustle. We don’t see Florence, with the art galleries, elegance and shopping. We don’t see Venice, with its canals and water taxis.

Instead, we may see the olive trees our husband’s great-great-great grandfather planted, or the vines which give us the wine we drink at lunch. We might see the cobble-stoned streets that once were the province of donkeys with panniers, and women who knew how to carry water jugs on their heads while their hands were occupied with knitting, as they walked to the fields.

Our group is close-knit, drawing support from each other as we work to become a part of our adopted community. As much as we try though, I think we still identify mostly with our home countries. We are American, Dutch, French, German, Irish and Kiwi (that’s a New Zealander, not the fruit or the bird). Each one of us stands with a foot in two countries, bridging two cultures, trying to fit into the Italian way of life while retaining our own customs. In doing this, however, we risk that our children become lost in the middle.

Those of us with children agree that settling here was easy until we had them. As all mothers know, having children changes everything, but when your children draw on two different cultures and languages, the change becomes more pronounced. Our children are not from here nor there. My American friend describes it as being the hyphen in between. Not American, not Italian, but the hyphen that divides American-Italian or, in my case, Kiwi-Italian.

My two little Kiwis were born here in Italy. They’ve grown up in this tiny village where my husband has his very deep roots. They enjoy the life we have here in a small town. They have room to run and play. They have olive trees growing in the back yard, a grandfather who works in the garden, providing a constant supply of fresh vegetables and a grandmother who keeps chickens.

I’ve taken the children back to New Zealand twice. There, they also have room to run and play. They have a grandfather who is a mechanic and a grandmother who teaches pre-school. They have friends who all speak English, a beach nearly on the front doorstep and another way of life open to them. My first-born, Emily, went to school there both times. The six-week experience changed her each time. She came back to Italy more confident in her spoken English, which transferred to more confidence in communicating in general. She was able to appreciate that knowing two languages is an advantage. Aware that doing things in a different way doesn’t mean it is wrong – just different. And aware that “different” is something to embrace and celebrate.

My son, Liam, reacted differently. He shed his Italian identity as soon as we hit the half way mark of the very long journey, entertaining the waiting passengers in Singapore’s Changi Airport by performing the Haka, the Maori war dance used to open any New Zealand international rugby match. The only time he seemed to miss the Italian culture was three days into our stay, when he asked, in a small voice designed to arouse pity, “Mummy, please can we have some normal food?” He meant pasta, of course. Lucky for him, in this modern world, food from every country can be found in any country, and we soon had pasta ready for him. It was even the same brand we eat in Italy.

The re-entry for him, however, was more difficult. He is only three, so his Italian was easily replaced by English while staying with Nana and Granddad. When we arrived back, he found that his beloved Nonna (grandmother) could no longer understand him, even though he could still understand her. Frustration ruled on both sides for a number of days before he clicked back into the correct language. He now has a very clear sense of what is “Kiwi” and what is “Italian,” which I doubt he’ll ever lose.

I know we’re not the first women to have immigrated. Our children are not the first to experience this crossover of cultures. And we’re not the first group of mothers who have to juggle this crossover for our children. However, more than ever before in this new age of globalization, it is important for us to raise them to appreciate and draw on the best parts of both their identities, and not let them dwell in the hyphen in between.

About this writer

  • Joanne Gillespie Joanne Gillespie iis originally from the seaside city of Nelson, New Zealand, but has lived in Italy since 2000. She loves crafts, including knitting and sewing, as well as writing.

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One Response to “A Bridge or a Hyphen”

  1. Kimberly Hazen says:

    Wow, well said. What a beautiful piece about women (and children) in the middle of two cultures.

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