Tuesday, 6 October 2009


I'd like to throw a quick question out to any expat readers. There are a few posters around Florence advertising language classes with the slogan 'chi parla due lingue vive due vite', meaning 'people who speak two languages live two lives'. Am I the only one to find this a disturbing concept?

I often have the nagging feeling that when I speak Italian, I'm not quite the same person as when I speak my native English. And just to be perfectly clear, I don't actually enjoy feeling of there being two people in my head. There's not that much room in there as it is.

The Italian-speaking me is, well, a bit more Italian. I yell at people who cut me up on my bike, I talk to strangers on the bus, I chat to the fruit and veg man about the different ways of cooking pumpkin (it's his favourite vegetable too). The English-speaking me, on the other hand, is all please, thank you, yes sir, yes sir, three-bags-full. Would you mind terribly if I inconvenienced you - I'm really awfully sorry - but could I trouble you to move your shopping trolley off my foot? Terribly sorry to be such a bother. Thank you. Sorry. Etc, etc.

Nonetheless, I behave differently here than I would in England because (and I know how ridiculously pathetic this sounds) the English me is nervous of not knowing how things work and of making a fool of myself. Brutta figura may be a quintessentially Italian concept, but I seem to live permanently in its shadow. I can't seem to shake off this round peg/square hole feeling.

I recently signed up at my local swimming pool, which I had been putting off for about two years for fear of being different. Will I be the only one who doesn't take a dressing gown into the pool area? (yes) Do they all chat and shout and laugh together naked in the showers? (yes) Do I look completely stupid in my swimming cap? (oh yes). I now have to contend not only with helmet-hair, but also goggle-eyes in the morning. Beautiful. The thing is that despite being different and foreign and thinking way, way too much about this stuff, the swimming pool is great. I don't know why I waited so long to join.

Next year will be my 10th year in Italy and the Italian me is finally and inevitably starting to get some ideas about supplanting* the English me. My other half (my other 'other half'?) has heard me talking in my sleep in Italian, which is both bizarrely discomforing and wonderful. What still throws me completely off kilter is if I end up randomly having to speak Italian in England. Or, as happened at a Brit/It wedding I went to recently, I speak Italian all night to Italian friends while surrounded by English people who are round pegs like me, but complete strangers. That kind of situation can lead to some seriously confusing schizophrenic feelings.


* As this is absolutely the first time I've ever used the verb 'to supplant' I looked it up and found the following definition: To usurp the place of, especially through intrigue or underhanded tactics, which sounds like just the sort of thing the Italian me would try to do.

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