Years ago, I immigrated to California with not much more than a prayer in my pocket and the promise of a new life awaiting me in the arms of a man I had fallen in love with. I was young. I was savvy. I was head over heels. I was either brave or crazy, or both.
I boarded a flight in Milan and landed halfway across the world in a beautiful and peculiar place I had long thought of as “exotic:” San Francisco. It was beautiful alright; quirky, too, but it also set off alarm bells in my head. I went from eating focaccia, touching the arms of people as I spoke with them, calling out ciao bello! across lively boulevards to navigating a land where bread came from gigantic supermarkets, people kept their distance, and strangers spoke up only if they were lost or homeless or worked in customer service.
At first it was fun, and also funny. With two people living inside of me (the Italian me, and the woman I was aching to become), I’d have entire conversations with myself. Like: “This food is awful! How can I possibly be expected to eat this stuff?” Or, “He is cute but I don’t have a clue what he’s saying!” I’d use my hands to ask for directions and the only one who seemed to understand me was my tail-wagging, doe-eyed dog, Luna. We were great friends, Luna and I. And hers was the only language I genuinely understood in California.
I moved into a house with six twenty-year old guys (one of them was my boyfriend, and he eventually became my husband) in suburban Silicon Valley. Mind you, even though I flew in from Milan, I am from Florence, where every district is a small city onto itself, with colorful local cafés, bakeries on every corner, and antique churches on each block. The suburbs left me dry-mouthed and starved for friendship, culture, and the rhythm of a cosmopolitan city.
The energy in Florence is contagious, thanks to the gregarious Italians who fill the street. We love to be around others and we thrive on a strong sense of community and belonging. There is a solid reason why Elizabeth Gilbert traveled to Italy to rediscover her appetite for sensory pleasures: A large part of our lives revolve around languid meals where we reconnect and recharge.
Not so in America. Even though I was in a pretty unusual, and, one could argue “socially-padded” situation, during the first few weeks of my new life in California I watched in amazement as my roommates spooned ravioli out of cans, dressed them with brothy sauces (also out of cans), and ate them COLD at 10:00 pm when they returned from work (they were all students but worked part-time after their classes). When I tried to make fun of them or crack a joke, all I could muster was a simple, stunned question like: “why?” To which they laughed and said something I couldn’t understand. Meanwhile, inside my head I had formulated twenty hilarious jokes, a couple of disgusting comments, and an essay I was planning to have published once I returned to Italy. The spoken/written word became the trophy I was determined to hold, and also my biggest challenge.
When a few months later the time came to get a job, I realized that mastering the English language was paramount to everything else. I had a prestigious position in Italy as a marketing manager, but I had to settle for becoming a customer service representative at a large semiconductor company. For months I shared an office with two obese women who ate Twinkies all day long and polluted every other sentence with the F word. I knew ten times what they knew but my impaired language skills reduced me to the level of a semi-capable person with an IQ of a nine- year-old.
What kept me going here in spite of my challenges was, in order of importance, the following:
the love I felt for my oh-so-apple-pie-American boyfriend
the fact that I could ALWAYS go back to Italy
the desire to explore new territories
and yes, the dog, whom I adored from the moment I saw her
Despite the list, which I kept on the forefront of my mind as I bustled my way through crowded supermarkets to find fresh produce, I knew I wouldn’t give up no matter what. I remember to this day wanting to say “No wonder!” (which in Italian is figurati and doesn’t’ translate in the least), and never being able to crack this kind of idiom until much later. I’d go to a bar and ask the guy at the entrance whether he wanted to see my AIUD (when I meant ID), or telling people that they were ducks (when I wanted to say turkey). These mistakes, which were thought of as either endearing or confusing by others, went on, and on, and on.
One day, tired of being less than what I was, I began taking classes at a junior college. Not in English As A Second Language, but in English as in “I am from here and I am taking the toughest courses that are offered.” Almost every night I bid goodbye to my boyfriend and his roommates and headed to school. Two years later, I obtained an Associate Degree (with Honors) in Literature. I also found a job that was comparable to my previous position in Italy, and soon became a top performer for a well-known high-tech organization. I was, as they say, On My Way.
The challenges of being in a foreign environment didn’t disappear overnight. I’d stare in wonderment as my roommates put on jersey shirts and headed out to play basketball at dinner time, when in Italy sitting across from one another at the table to eat took precedence over everything else. I felt the heat rise up on my face every time I opened my mouth and asked a question, my accent always giving me away. People would turn and stare, sometimes smiling, sometimes wondering (I knew what they were thinking!) where I’d come from and what an interesting accent I had. But being from Florence also gave me an advantage. All I had to do is to say the word, and I became their best friend at once.
And friends, I thought, I made easily. Some would call several of them “fair-weather friends,” a term that bewilders me to this day, and which presented me with one of the biggest hurdles I had to overcome when I immigrated to the US. What struck me a great deal was how casual and insincere relationships seemed to be. Someone would say: “I’ll see you Thursday.” But Thursday would arrive and this person would neither call nor show up. This is relatively unheard of in Italy: We show up where we say we’ll be; we call when we say we will. Here, it is often brushed off. It is No Big Deal. People would say they loved me, when I had met them only an hour before. The problem was that I believed them, and at first thought I had died and landed in a small section of heaven where everyone was kind and generous and loyal and great fun. With time, I came to recognize the difference between what was meaningful conversation and what was not.
During those first few years I cried. A lot. I cried knowing that I wouldn’t see my friend Graziella for who knows how long, that my mom was thousands of miles away, that my family members were living lives that had little to do with me, that I was conflicted about the choices I’d made. That I had, at long last, left the country that had brought me so much grief and yet so much joy.
My envy for tightly-knit cultures was acute at times. I yearned to be a part of the large Latino families that populated the Mission district, who gathered together to celebrate quinceaneras and Day of the Dead. I scoured the streets of San Francisco looking for Italians who might want to join me in creating a home away from home, but found only octogenarians whose parents hailed from Italy and who taught their children regional dialect I couldn’t understand. I searched for Italian restaurants that served authentic fare but came up short. I’d return to my roommates, deflated, and settle for boxed spaghetti with sauce from an aluminum can.
It’s been many years since I’ve visited the part of Silicon Valley I once lived in. For all I know, the house has been torn down, and a small Italian bakery that specializes in cappucinos is now in its place. But I do know that I’ve grown fond of this land I immigrated to as a young woman eager for adventure, knowledge, love, family. When I see canned ravioli at the grocery store, something in me stirs. Sometimes I pick up a can, as it reminds me of the difficulties I overcame when I came to the US. It also reminds me of the difficulties I overcame when I lived in Italy under harsh circumstances and was so desperate to get away that I found a way. To here, my adopted land, my beloved California, where I learned that the only true home is in our hearts.
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