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I Became American But I Remained Italian

After many years of trying to make a living in Boston, I returned to Italy in the summer of 1997. Having been away from Italy for over 25 years, I had asked myself, “Was life better in the United States or Italy? When in Italy, during a refreshing, breezy evening in Messina, in a restaurant along the sea in Torre Faro, I met an elderly man who had lived in New York. Out of the blue, we engaged in a friendly conversation, and I asked brazenly, “Era meglio in America o e’ meglio qui’ in Italia? “Was life better in America or is it better here in Italy?” Without hesitation and with great confidence, the older man replied, “L’America e’ meglio per lavorare, l’Italia e’ meglio per vivere!” “America is better for work; Italy is better to live in!”

In a way, that summative answer didn’t surprise me. But, in fact, it reflects my most profound impressions. In one way or another, the elderly man encouraged me to return often to Italy, not to work, but to live.

In fact, thinking about American ways and comparing them to standard Italian practices, I realized that, in the northeast United States, the circle of life often revolves around the job one performs during the day. Social gatherings are frequently associated with people you work with. Friendships are shaped through working collaborations. In contrast, in southern Italy, people return to their neighborhoods to share good times with their neighbors in their homes or neighborhood bars.

When I set foot in the United States in 1966, I concluded that it was imperative to assimilate American ways of life to be successful. It meant speaking English and acting and reacting in American ways. It was essential to commit with maximum effort and to maintain the most truthful simplicity: becoming like others and equal to everyone. It became a game where I had to accept and play by the governing rules if I wanted to participate and stay in the game. Inside me, however, I knew that I would always be affected by my upbringing in Italy.

I ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, wore my white shirt out of my pants, and did not react when someone called me out, saying, “Guinea, when are you going to learn to speak correct English?”

I acquired American ways playing baseball, basketball, and football. However, in the depths of my heart, I remained Italian. I read Italian books and newspapers and insisted on speaking Italian at home. I listened to Adriano Celentano’s songs and went to Federico Fellini’s showings.

Practicing these ways, my external life became more and more like that of a young American man, but my inner life remained cemented in my Italian spirit. My emotions were linked to the values that I had grown up with: loyalty for family, brotherly affection for friends, and immense love for priceless things: sunrise, sunset, sea glittering under the moon, and the smile of a girl I was infatuated with that I would never kiss.

I became American, but now more than ever, I go back to Italy, take a car, and drive around at full Italian speed. I dispose of my American clothing and return to being the carefree boy I was while growing up in Italy: a boy called Pasqualino who, when turning his head around to admire a butterfly flitting near him, banged his nose against a light pole.

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