During my first days living at Sinagra, I noticed people had a strange way of treating me. It is as if I’m a novelty. I am a new plaything, a foreigner whom people regard with curiosity. I quickly became the subject of local gossip.
Walking out into the main square in town with my husband, I am greeted by many locals welcoming me to Sinagra. Well, not speaking directly to me; instead, they say everything to my husband, as they are convinced I don’t understand them. When explained, I understand they look at me and smile and ask the same questions: “How do you like it here? Where is better, here or America?”
After weeks of these kinds of exchanges, I grow weary of it all. Most of the people here have never been out of Sinagra, let alone Italy. So for them, all other parts of the world outside of Europe are known as America.
I don’t have the patience or the heart to explain I am Australian. They don’t have any idea about Australia. Anything outside of their town is foreign grouped together into an unknown conglomerate, which is ‘America.
It is poignant to realise how nearly every person in Sinagra has relatives who have migrated overseas. This has created a mythology about this unknown land called America, where people go and never return.
There is no distinction between Argentina, South Africa, Australia or Canada. In their collective imagination, these countries are all lumped together into one big unified concept. A mysterious landmass like a prehistoric Pangea, which in their collective imagination has come to signify all faraway lands.
The concern about whether Italy is better than America comes from the insecurity created after an entire generation of Sicily’s population left overseas after world war two. Seeing a foreigner coming back makes a naïve hope in the Sinagrese heart that perhaps the tides have turned, somehow life here has become better. I don’t answer. Not wanting to be sarcastic or rude to them, I just smile and say I’m happy wherever I find myself.
I slowly begin to understand people’s odd reactions to me. I joke about the silliest comments, but really I’ve never felt so much an outsider as in these first days. Coming out of my front door, I meet two elderly ladies sitting on their front steps talking; I nod and smile at them politely, locking my door and walking away.
I hear the end of their conversation: “They say there is some twenty-five years difference. The wife is a very young American girl who doesn’t speak Italian. He’s teaching her everything. It won’t last very long.”
They were gossiping about me. It was a little shocking to see the audacity of the two women’s conversation. These women thought I wouldn’t understand them. My husband is older than me, but twenty-five years is an exaggeration. In my own defence, I am twenty-five which I think is a decent age to be married. I speak Italian reasonably well. I know how to do most things, and I don’t appreciate their judgement.
I realise I couldn’t have made such a big move to such a different place without colliding head-on with this kind of reaction. So I put up with them and treat them as a passing phase.
I also tolerate the strange looks the locals give me when I speak to them. They furrow their brows as if they are struggling to make out what I’m saying. It is their way of concentrating and trying to decipher the unfamiliar accent of someone who is apparently a foreigner.
I never had problems in other parts of Italy. I’ve lived in Bologna and had no difficulty with people understanding me during my visits to Florence, Perugia and Venice. I secretly nickname this perplexed look the ‘Sinagrese frown,’ but in reality, I encounter it all over Sicily.