Fashionable English

Sometimes, well, Italy is an awkward fit for me. Actually most times, which is ok, as I am generally self-conscious in everyday life.

It is strange to think that someone genetically 100%  Italian would find life in Italy to be uncomfortable. I would be a sought-after show pony if there were a pedigree for Italian-ness. I once did a DNA test out of curiosity to see where my heritage was from, imagining a rich mixture of European genes, perhaps a little Spanish or even French.

It turns out I’m 90.6% Italian mostly southern Italian with a smattering of Sardinian and a slither of origins from Levantine, Egypt and Anatolian. The Levant is modern-day Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine. While Anatolia is a fertile peninsula above the eastern Mediterranean which comprises modern Turkey. But my genes are mostly all Italian.

As usual in life, we cannot assume that returninig to the motherland I would be welcomed with open arms because I am Italo Australian. Growing up in an Italian family in Australia doesn’t get you automatic acceptance into tight-knit Italian small-town communities.

While I look the part, as soon as I open my mouth, I’m immediately identified as a foreigner and treated with suspicion. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been snidely complimented on my quirky accent.

I can’t get a break from veiled racism, both here in Italy as a foreigner and in Anglo Saxon Australia as an Italian. It seems I can’t get a break from veiled or outright racism.

I always joke that I was condemned to be constantly spelling my surname and coaching people on how to pronounce it in Australia. Well, it turns out I still have to spell my name. Since my surname isn’t a local Sicilian one, no one knows what to do with the ‘Del’ part of Del Borrello, I often get mistaken for a Borello, with one ‘R’, but I’m quick to deny the connection. I’ve spent my whole adult life spelling it out to strip the prefix from my surname. I like being a Del Borrello; I even kept it after getting married.

So here I am, an eternal foreigner, a token ethnic in my professional life in Australia. I even had a university professor tell me I should have more confidence with my spoken English because I can speak it well. I was born and raised in Australia; my mother was a primary school teacher for many years, and my parents always spoke English to my brother and me.

Since both my parents tended to speak in their respective dialects, which were very different from the standard Italian (one Sicilian, the other from central Italy). Since neither could understand or speak the other’s dialect and avoid any confusion, it was agreed to speak only English at home. I did pick up a little bit of Sicilian from my Mum’s parents, but I didn’t speak much Italian.

I was 16 when I first visited Italy, and I never really began to study or learn Italian until I was at University. So the prospect of being mistaken as a non-native speaker was quite racist on the part of my professor. I didn’t think much of it at the time; I just thought she didn’t know what to say and went for the lazy answer. But in hindsight, it was a racist comment.

Whilst here in Italy, I don’t think the focus is necessarily on the fact I’m a foreigner but more on the fact that I haven’t been educated here. Italians are very formal and are terrible intellectual snobs. So if you cannot express yourself correctly in Italian or with the correct accent, you are looked down upon and belittled.

I know many well-educated Sicilians who were treated badly by northern Italian employers as there is a barrier between north and south. The south is poorer and is looked down upon.

Since I have a university degree from a non-European country, I am defined as an ‘extra communitaria’, which means my degree isn’t officially recognised. 

A few years ago, I thought I’d be able to put my name in the hat for a job in school administration in a recently opened ‘Concorso’ of job drafts in the public sector. The call for participants is open every few years, and you can get a certain level of points based on your experience and qualifications. The more experience points you have, the more chance you will be offered work. You can get points for freelance contract work, high school diploma, university degrees, specialised courses etc. 

After submitting my application with my Australian High school diploma and university degrees, I was promptly called in for questioning.

Since I was an extra communitaria the fellow in the office decided neither my university degree nor my high school diploma was valid for the public service. So my application was excluded. At this stage, I thought he could take his concorso and shove it where the sun don’t shine, I didn’t need it, and this all seemed like an excuse to exclude as many people as possible. This interaction confirmed my theory that the public service concorsi are an endless succession of fraudulent games.

Many perfectly qualified Italians wait for years to work as a teacher in schools because of technicalities and dodgy shuffling of the classification lists assigned according to the number of qualification points. Based on how many points you have accumulated, you are placed in a classification, and they are supposed to work their way down the list. Many of the lists have been blocked for years, and there is a constant shuffling up and down according to particular administrative rules and sus recommendations.

There’s a saying in Italian that describes someone in a catch 22 situation as someone who is ‘cornuto e mazziato,’ literally someone who is cuckolded and beaten over the head. Not only did I feel cheated upon by a corrupted system, but I didn’t need the extra hassle of being bashed over the head by a racist pen pusher too.

I’ve always thought these public service drafts useless anyway; people wait for decades to work as teachers, administrators, or even as cleaners in schools. It’s ridiculous. You have to wait until someone retires. So I never had much hope anyway.

The flipside of being a foreigner in Italy has come about with the current intellectual fashion of Italians to say their children are learning English from a native speaker.

Italians are hungry for nannies, au pairs and tutors for their children to learn to speak English.

So over the years, I have gone from being belittled for my accent to not even being considered for work as a cleaner in the public schools to being a sought after source of intellectual and social prowess.

Before Covid hit Italy, I had become quite a hot commodity in the local community. I was hired as an English expert to teach and write the curriculum for school projects in local schools. Parents would pay me to teach their children an introductory course in English. I went from nothing to a ‘cara Maestra’ or ‘collega’ in a few weeks.

I also had dozens of private students who were being forced by their parents to attend one on one lessons: so many bored and confused young kids and teenagers. 

It’s been a bizarre ride, that’s for sure. Things have slowed down for now, but I’m constantly amazed at the ups and downs of life as an unlikely foreigner in Italy.