It’s not that strange, I don’t think…but while living in a foreign country (non-American) it is very difficult to be known as anything else but as being an “American.” No one cares where I find my identity or whom I feel I most identify with. As far as anyone is concerned, I’m “American” and that’s the end of it.
Also while living in this foreign country, I actually got to know what “American” actually meant…and it was truly embarrassing. Personally, having grown up in a secluded section of Brooklyn, I never knew what the people in the rest of country were like much less what people were like who lived outside of Brooklyn. There was Little Italy in Manhattan (everyone has heard of it, Mulberry Street…where the St. Gennaro Feast is every year)…and then there was Bensonhurst/Bay Ridge, Brooklyn where the old-timers I knew lived since they had come over from Italy…built their business, had their families, and protected them against the rest of the world.
My family and I existed in South Brooklyn, off the water that, if you crossed it, you’d end up in Staten Island and past that was the Jersey Shore (I’m sure you’ve all heard of that place too…thanks to that stupid reality show they put on TV). But the part of Brooklyn where I was from, no one just “passed” through. If you were there, it was because you lived there, grew up there, had a family there, went to school there and for many people, died there. It was self-contained and there was no reason to leave that part of Brooklyn if that was where you lived…just like there was no reason to go their unless it was where you belonged.
We had our own problems there…corrupt cops, politicians, school officials, gangs, fights, murders and everyone spoke one language…Italian. We had Italian bakeries and butcher shops and stores with Italian imports that made it so that no one had to leave the neighborhood…except if they were going to the Jersey Shore or Atlantic City for the weekend during the summer, or if they were rich, they’d fly to Miami for a long weekend to spend on the beach. But wherever you went, you were traveling in large groups back then, 10-15-20 people thick. Italians never did much alone. They were always known to have strength in numbers.
When I was in high school…college…I always had an itch to explore. I got my driver’s license and bought myself a car so that my friends and I could go out beyond the borders of Brooklyn, see what was out there. But it was so strange, everywhere we went, everyone could always tell that were the Italians from Brooklyn and they were either afraid of the trouble we may have been there to cause (which was never our intention) or they just didn’t like us (how we dressed/acted/talked, etc.). Whatever…is what I always said to that. Though it usually resulted in me not being able to make many friends from outside of my small area in Brooklyn.
While in my mid-late-20’s, I started working for a law firm that hired me to answer phones. I considered it to be a super lucky break for me…I had been a full-time bartender in Brooklyn for years at that point, where I had been making a lot of money…but I had always wanted a “career”…like a job that made me think or might use the college degree I had obtained from a small Catholic College in…you know it…Bklyn. I was always a super hard worker and a quick study…I learned so much while working for that law firm…all the things about how to manage businesses…legally…and I had friends for the first time who were not Italian (actual blondes that didn’t have to dye their hair!)…imagine that one!
At one point, I worked for a woman who suggested and supported my efforts when I decided to go back to school to get my Master’s in Business Mgmt. (By far the smartest decision of my life.) She always told me that while my looks may get me in the door, that degree would get me a seat at the table. I thought that was pretty cool.
The funny thing was, though, that I never really resonated with these people. None of them had a background like mine. Which I hadn’t understood…I had thought we were all the same. I didn’t know that they had actually promoted me out of my position as the receptionist to begin with just because the Senior Partners had grown embarrassed that someone with such a strong Brooklyn accent was fielding all of their calls. (I guess by the time I figured it out, it didn’t much matter anymore because eventually I did lose my accent…but had I known when I was only 25, it probably would have really hurt my feelings.)
I had been raised only by Italians, I had been taught to always speak my mind…not to care what people thought of me…and to stand up for what I believed in…so while at this law firm, my friends (or the people I would choose to spend my time with there) would tell me how brave they thought I was because I would always say what they had only had the nerve to think, but would never have said out loud. Strange…these people were smart and rich…why would they be scared to speak their minds? I didn’t understand that….what they had to be afraid of.
At one point, my mother grew very ill so I decided to move back to Brooklyn to better help her while she was sick, maybe be able to spend more time with her before she died. It was then that I was able to see what had happened to my old neighborhood. Understand that I didn’t leave my neighborhood, if anything, it left me. Many of the guys I had grown up with had been killed or been sent to jail. When I left Brooklyn, it was really because I had felt as though I had run out of friends. My “girl” friends had all gotten married and each year they would have another kid because that was what their mothers had always wanted…to be a grandmother!
My mother had been different, though…when I was young, she told me not to get married right out of high school…not to have children right away…that there was a world out there that I needed to discover. She always promoted my education and taught me how to look outside the box…not to settle for what was on the block or in the neighborhood. I had never complained about it, but she had certainly piqued my curiosity. So I hadn’t married right out of high school or college, but rather had put my traveling shoes on as early as when I was only 21 when I thought I was going to be a California girl…only to discover that everyone I met there had just wanted to live in NYC…so I went back. But my point is that my objective was always to make memories.
So I grew up and memories is what I’ve been making lots of. But what does that mean about identity? What is our identity? Isn’t that considered to be our origin? Well, if I thought back to my earliest memory, it would be me surrounded by a bunch of my fellow “paisanos” at a backyard BBQ while everyone screamed at each other in Italian, ate spaghetti and drank red wine while us children played in the mud…and this happened every Sunday! We might run to the bakery down the street for cannoli’s (Alba’s…those of you from Bklyn, know it as the BEST Italian bakery of all time) or to the butcher shop around the corner for braciole or fresh parmesan cheese to put into the tomato sauce…or the garden for fresh tomatoes and artichokes to stuff or chili peppers hanging in the kitchen and, of course, you can’t forget about the fig trees (which would need to be wrapped and buried during the winter to save them from freezing).
So identity? That’s my identity. That’s where I came from…where family was everything…where mothers wanted a house for their children to grow up in and good schools to attend so that they might find their way out of the neighborhood someday. My Grandfather (who I will always swear traded his life in for mine…long story for another blog post) was one of the kindest and most honest men I have ever known…born and raised in Italy where he became a tailor…skills he brought with him when he traveled to the U.S. and was able to use when he worked for the original Christian Dior…and who never really spoke any English until he died at the age of 86 years old in that simple row house he had bought to raise his children in…the same row house that my mother was also fortunate enough to die in 17 years later.
That’s where I find my identity…amongst simple, honest people who were so passionate about having been honest. My grandfather who would have given you the shirt off his back even if he didn’t have it to give. He never stole a dime from anyone…never had a dishonest thing to say about anything or anyone…and not someone that the U.S. could take credit for. He was not “American” like the tourists I met while working in Cozumel…not the people that my current country refers to as a gringo…those lazy, arrogant people who claim possession of a country that (if my memory serves me right) originally belonged to the Native Americans they all recently forgot about…Americans, who each have such a chip on their shoulder…like why should they have to work…after all, they’re American! No, my grandfather was Italian…and as far as I’m concerned, that must be what I am as well…and I don’t care what my passport or birth certificate says…that’s my origin!
I am so proud of being just like my grandfather in how hard I work everyday at whatever job I may have (from bartending to diving to teaching English to running/managing small businesses)…and I have never robbed anyone of anything…and I love people so passionately and with such naivety that it sometimes gets me into trouble…why? Because I believe that anyone in my life must be as honest as me…must love as passionately and purely as I do with no ulterior motives…just like my grandfather did.
So I guess tonight, I salute my grandfather who (God rest his sole), taught me about the person I want to be…how to be brave and strong and how to stand up for what I believe in…and how to love unconditionally…even if it results in a heartbreak…why? Because it’s the best way to be. I miss you Grandpa!