Throughout my childhood, I lived and breathed Italian. Every Christmas, my mother rolled deli meats, placed them on platters as big as snow saucers, toppled them over with peppers, olives, water mozzarella, and called it antipasto. In the summer she’d mash boiled potatoes to a cream, knead them with flour and eggs, shape them into little dumplings, and call them gnocchi. I was a true Italian, I thought. My mother’s vocabulary and cooking expertise confirmed that for me at an early age.
My first day in Florence felt like I was coming home. Every man I saw with a hooked nose, olive skin, and crocodile Gucci boots looked like a brother of mine, an uncle, someone from an old brown photograph my mother had tucked in her closet. The old women’s bodies I saw were like my grandmother’s—soggy necks, abundant chests, hunched backs and wobbly walks. Was this home? My flat forehead and almond eyes suggested that it could have been, but my American citizenship and months of Berlitz language training suggested otherwise.
One particular night, I took the four hour Trenitalia from Rome to Florence. The seats were dark blue, and I felt their rough, fabric balls through my nylon dress. Blisters lined the arches of my feet, and my ankles were sore from walking the cobblestone without a map. A low murmur of others’ voices in the cabin sang to me as I watched the warm orange lights from the buildings pass the windows like glowing tadpoles. I held my tired head up with the palm of my hand. My hollow stomach snarled at me, and my eyes burned each time I closed them longer than a blink. I propped my legs up on the stained seat cushions facing me, my Rome-dipped shoes touching the fabric balls. I fell asleep.
“Che schivo!” I cracked my stiff eyes and looked up to see a tiny man wearing a dark blue conductor hat just above me. He pointed to my feet, waved his hands in my face, then pointed to my feet again. His fast Italian words filtered into my brain, and I squinted my eyes, trying to understand every word. How disgusting, he said. Dirty American, he said. I quickly removed my feet from the seat in front of me. Scanning the cabin to see what kind of attention this was drawing, I saw a woman with long brown hair from the next seat down stretching her neck around to watch. She spoke to the small man, nodding her head. She looked at me straight-lipped and waved her hands when she spoke.
“Me despiace!” I looked at the man and apologized, but he continued to yell. “Me despiace!” I apologized again, with all of the energy I could collect in that exhausted moment. I thought of Grandpa Tony—he would be so ashamed of me right now. The small, angry man handed me a pink slip with €7.50 written on the line at the bottom. I couldn’t decipher the entirety of the little yellow paper, but I understood that they were asking for the remainder of my trip money.
“Fee to clean.” The man pointed to the yellow carbon copy like he was practicing Morse Code in mid-air. “Che schivo.” He snatched the shaking money from my hands. I’ve wronged the people, I thought.
Throughout my entire stay in Italy, I had tried so hard to be accepted by these people—I imitated native speakers when asking for a cone of chocolate or pistachio gelato, I wore fancy sun dresses from Dillard’s and Khol’s instead of tropical tourist shirts and khaki shorts, and I even purchased a paintbrush from a local artisan to make my brushstrokes look more Italian. I tried so hard to be accepted by these people who I knew I was a product of—their blood ran in mine. But to them, I was just a dirty American.
I stayed awake, with my feet planted on the floor, the rest of the ride to Florence.
Now, when my mom pronounces Riccotta the way she always has, I correct her. When she calls my dad a stoonad, I tell her that I asked a native what it meant, and he didn’t know. When she says that’s how the real Italians do it, I ask her how she knows. The truth is I can never be a native Italian—the people will always know; I will always know. What I am is found within some paradigm of Italy and Ellis Island, New York. Somewhere, between those two places, I belong. Somewhere, between those two places, is home.