‘To be out of element’ is an idiomatic phrase that conveys a sense of estrangement from a situation, a conversation, a determined environment. In simpler words, it’s that unpleasant feeling that you don’t fit in or belong.
This is the price to pay when you decide to be an exchange student in your native country – and if I have to be honest, I was more than prepared to see those frowns and bewildered faces people usually pull after I tell them my story. However, there is something I have found myself totally unprepared for. Many people have taken up the habit to associate my odd and unsettling situation with an automatically acquired foreignness. As I live and study in the UK, as I am in Rome for one year only as an exchange student, they assume that I am now ‘a foreigner’, I’m ‘English’, because, apparently, I speak like a foreigner, too (so I’ve been told). ‘You have an accent’, they say. My t’s have turned Anglo-Saxon, my intonation in questions goes up the English way, I say shorts, hobby, budget (all words that have entered Italian vocabulary) the British way, even if they come up in a conversation in Italian.
Some people may call it pretentiousness; others may call it an urge to estrange the self. And I somehow understand the last point. I reckon that my foreign-accent acquisition was an accelerated process on which I have worked painstakingly, nourished by a great desire to start everything up anew. But you can’t erase your past, nor can you pretend you have a different story. You end up in a limbo, between past and present. You were so eager to fit in the new society that you have detached yourself from the previous one too soon and you now belong to neither of them.
This is more or less what I am experiencing at the moment in Rome. I am Italian and act like one most of the times, but suddenly turn something else when it’s somehow convenient not to understand/speak Italian, and I have never felt as English as in these circumstances. Or I miss step-motherland, and build around me the illusion that I can recreate that particular dimension here in Italy.
That’s my sin: I always end up identifying myself with a specific ‘us’ in the wrong place. This identity chameleonism does not help my mental sanity either, and it also affects my relationship with others. It is very true that we are always someone else, depending on who’s looking at us. But before analysing how others see me, I still need to figure out what and where I want to be myself. Starting, for instance, from the language I want to use when I think and dream.