The Italy Years

Living in Italy FAQ: Italian vs. Italian-American

Cappuccino Loves Italy
Every Monday I’ll be adding a new post to our “Living in Italy FAQ” series. With a new baby in Casa Hash and very little time for personalized email responses, I’m answering the questions we get asked most often and archiving them on the site for future reference. Enjoy!

QUESTION: What has surprised you most about Italians?

This is a question we get alot via email and in person when we meet new expats for the first time. The answer for me isn’t so much about Italians themselves, but instead how different Italian-Americans and Italians really are. We Italian-Americans love to call ourselves Italian, but the fact is that the two cultures are very, very different. I don’t mean that as a good or bad thing for either group, but it is definitely true. I was caught off-guard initially by it.

When you think about it, it’s crazy that a subset of people identify so strongly with a foreign culture they actually know very little about. Even though I grew up in a very Italian-American family, we didn’t speak Italian around the house and never visited the homeland. I grew up in a heavily Italian-American area and I would say this is the same for most people that I knew. We all always identified as Italian though, even though we were all typically 2-3 generations removed from a real connection to Italy.

I’ll never forget a time in college when I wrote a travel essay about Venice that wasn’t entirely positive. One of my classmates said she read it out loud to her Italian roommate who was offended by it. I asked, “Where in Italy is she from, Venice?” and she said “New Jersey.” I asked if she spoke Italian. She said, “No.”  I asked if she had ever been to Venice or Italy. The answer was also “No.” I’m not making fun of this girl, just relaying a story that shows how strongly we Italian-Americans identify with this country…even though many families haven’t been back in generations.

There are of course similarities that these two groups share that haven’t been lost with the generations: a focus on family and a love of food. But, there are so many intangible and unexplainable differences. I think a lot of Italian-American tourists come to visit expecting to fit right in and it doesn’t necessarily happen. In my experience Italian-Americans are very warm and welcoming from the start; most Italians are harder nuts to crack. Both cultures treat you like family, however, once you get to know them.

Would fellow expats agree with me? Please weigh in! The difference may be sharper to me because I live in Florence (which I would consider a more reserved city), as opposed to somewhere further south.

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  • Reply
    November 28, 2012 at 7:54 pm

    I see/hear this constantly and the dialogue is always a variation of the same thing, just as you described it. I'm an Italian-American as well, but I can't recall if I was ever shocked to learned that I wasn't really "Italian." Honestly, I think that the first time I stepped off the plane in Rome I realized that I was in a different place which bore no resemblance to the old neighborhood back home.
    Whenever this discussion comes up, I'm always reminded of a quote by Oscar Wilde. (I'll paraphrase since he was talking about Irish-Americans): "Italian-Americans have about as much in common with Italians as African-Americans have in common with Africans." I think that sums it up about right.

  • Reply
    November 28, 2012 at 8:31 pm

    I definitely agree with you, Kate! I actually had a hard time adjusting to living in Italy when I first started studying at age 20, because I felt so "Italian" but started to realize just how far from "Italian" I actually was in my experience. Then, of course, there's the regionalism that screws up all of that reasoning. For instance, great grandparents came from Napoli, Sicily, and Calabria but I spent most of my time living in Tuscany, specifically Florence and Siena. I visited with my distant family on my very first trip when I could barely speak Italian and it was such a disaster! Nothing felt familiar until this past summer when I traveled with some friends and my Tuscan boyfriend to Puglia, just outside Bari. The food we ate was so similar to the food that I was used to eating in my family and in the end I was understanding just as much as my boyfriend when our hosts were speaking in dialect, if not more! But now that I've spent so much of my young 20s in Italy and applying for my dual citizenship (thanks to the help from your guide!), I'm all messed up about what I am!

  • Reply
    November 28, 2012 at 10:05 pm

    I had to laugh out loud at this post – I was literally having this very conversation with my husband over the weekend after watching a TV marathon of The Godfather on Thanksgiving. It is SO TRUE!

    I too have dual American/Italian citizenship and have been fascinated by how different Italians are from those who call themselves Italian-Americans.
    In fact, I CANNOT believe how fiercely a certain close relative of mine (I can't type who for fear of extreme guilt!) calls herself an Italian-American, yet she was born in the US, doesn't speak Italian (her parents did) and has never even stepped foot on Italian soil! This lovely lady seeks out any and all "Italian" things (olive oil made in Italy, Italian designer handbags, Italian "good luck" charms – the list goes on and on) yet is so far removed from actual Italian culture.

    Why is this – it totally boggles my mind! Why do some cling so strongly to a culture they really have no connection with?

    Great post, thank you!

  • Reply
    November 29, 2012 at 7:51 am

    I've definitely experienced many different sides… I think it all depends on where, when, who you meet… forming your first impressions of living in Italy. I find that being in a small town differs greatly from living in a bigger city where perhaps the locals have a certain impression of tourists. The Italian-Americans I know from California are nothing like the Italians I've met here in Tuscany!

  • Reply
    November 29, 2012 at 10:16 am

    Insightful post. I agree. Although I grew up in a predominately Umbrian-American region (in fact, one of the few, if only in the 'States) and we ate many of the same traditional foods passed on from that region, living in Tuscany hasn't been much different for me, at least food-wise. However, people growing up on "spaghetti and meatballs" and "Sunday gravy" seem to have a real shock when they don't find these things on the menu in Florence or Venice…lol. Back home in my area, too, tough, there are people who consider themselves "Italian" but will drink a cappuccino at all hours, assume 'Alfredo sauce' is authentic, etc and yes, think The Godfather is the 'true Italian way.' (even if it does closely parallel the Sicilian lifestyle, only the film is a lot tamer than the dark side of the wonderful isola) I also really dislike that the 'Guido' subculture is assumed to be THE Italian culture by many Americans. The 'tamarri' qui are just another sub-culture like our Guidos. I've heard a few American tourists loudly say "eh, paesan!" to a Florentine and I cringed. Many Italian-Americans are unaware that each region of Italy is so different in terms of culture, food, way of speaking, dress etc…. I find many just assume everyone is like "back home" on Arthur Ave, for example.
    This post also reminds me of a conversation I overheard at the Rome airport by a group on new study abroad students. One girl was complaining the 'Italians changed her name" and that 'everyone here is pronouncing it wrong". She had an Italian surname, and of course, in Rome they were saying it correctly….but, I digress.

  • Reply
    November 29, 2012 at 5:26 pm

    Great post Kate! Yes I completely agree. While taking linguistics at University I realized quickly that linguistic-relativity is how we really conceptualize our world/culture. If you grow up in an Italian family and speak Italian everyday you'll have more of a connection with Italy than and Italian American who doesn't speak the language at all. Through language is how we view our world. So as you learn and become more proficient in the Italian language, you'll begin to view your world through Italian goggles rather than American goggles.

  • Reply
    December 2, 2012 at 10:41 am

    Such an interesting post and an interesting question! I agree that there are so many differences between Italian culture and Italian American culture; I actually wrote an essay about this phenomenon once saying that they have simply become two different entities. Italian Americans, when they speak Italian, usually talk dialect, while Tuscan has pretty much permeated the peninsula. I think the daily actions and how Italians/Italian Americans carry out their daily lives is the biggest difference. There are so many small habits eating standing up, cookies for breakfast, cutting in line, talking loudly on the street that just wouldn't work well in America. On one hand, it's obvious that they're different cultures and different countries, but I think the extent of the difference is surprising for Americans (especially Italian Americans) when they first come to Italy.

    I'm currently on my year abroad living with an Italian family in Pavia and, I have to say, what has surprised me the most is how traditional the family structure is here. The mother really does do everything and the kids really are coddled. It's always more surprising to me when stereotypes are upheld as opposed to when they aren't true!

    Looking forward to more posts like this, they definitely give you something to think about! 🙂

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    Italy Expat Blog - 2012 Year in Review - La Vita e' Bella Blog
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