Language. Mobility. Environment.

Roman days – or ‘to be out of element’.

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.

Identity, by Megan Elizabethh (https://www.flickr.com/photos/megan_elizabethh/)

Identity, by Megan Elizabethh (https://www.flickr.com/photos/megan_elizabethh/)

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.

Multilingualism , , , , , ,

Invisible cities.

The paradox of tourism lies behind the secretive re-conceptualisation of a place’s identity, bound to the exclusive perspective of who is visiting. Each of us approaches space differently, and each of us shares a specific relationship with those places where our life unfolds. Airports, for example, mean both arrivals and departures, reconciliations and goodbyes. Each traveller looks at the airport from their own perspective, so as each member of the staff relates to the spaces inside the airport differently from one another.

CartolinaTourism corresponds to an avalanche of identities projected onto a single place, visited by people who carry with them the most interesting stories. And tourism challenges also identities and compels them to conform to a pre-given standard that wants to sell before it wants to live. What happens then to the local spirit, the identity projected by those who work there, live there, eat there every day? What hides behind the flawless façade that the industry of tourism has framed in a photoshopped postcard?

Every time you step in a new city, you are entering a multi-layered dimension in which different varieties of the same city occupy the same geographical space. The eye must be trained to spot the multitude of signs that call for this concealed co-existence. And these signs will tell you the true stories of the city, those who cannot be found in guidebooks and airline companies’ magazines. Take Rome, for example. The eternal city, the dawn of civilisation: Colosseum, Piazza Navona, the Ara Pacis, Trevi Fountain. This is the timeless idea of Rome, carved in its ancient walls. But it does not portray faithfully what Rome is today.

I think I have ended up in the most controversial, multi-faceted and enigmatic city in Europe. There is so much to explore one could spend a lifetime and still that would not be enough to grasp the immensity of Rome. An immensity that is replicated in a variety of copies and sub-copies of reality unfolding as ‘invisible cities’ piled up on one another. The cat shelter in Largo Argentina, right in the middle of ancient Roman ruins; the 500 hundred women painted in San Lorenzo, and Termini station – which is a magic, labyrinthine portal to everywhere in the world.

Cats among old Roman ruins.

Cats among old Roman ruins.

The 500 women in San Lorenzo.

The 500 women in San Lorenzo.

Termini Train Station.

Termini Train Station.

“Travelling must be considered as a continuation of life, rather than an interruption. The contrast between ugly and beautiful, majestic monuments and old warehouses falling apart, is what encompasses a form of beauty that is closer to reality”.

I am on the tram now, on my way home. The people looking at each other with resignation – because we all look like canned sardines in the most miserable-looking tram I have ever seen in my life – are recounting the true story of one of the most visited cities in the world. They teach me that the expectations publicised in tourist guides are fake masks, because they sell an incomplete image of Rome, of the world, of life. No one really wants to visit the aseptic room of a hospital. Travelling must be considered as a continuation of life, rather than an interruption. The contrast between ugly and beautiful, majestic monuments and old warehouses falling apart, is what encompasses a form of beauty that is closer to reality. Rome is a metaphor of life, and this realisation is a gift I will keep with me every time I am outside, looking up and admiring the stripes of blue sky between the Roman stunning palazzi and those ugly apartment blocks.

Italy under the magnifying glass , , , , , , , , , , , , ,