sunday scribblings: masks

Prompt #60: Masks

Adjusting to life in a foreign country can be difficult on many levels from bureaucracy to figuring out where to do all of your daily shopping–bread at the panetteria (bakery), pork chops at the macelleria (butcher shop), perfume at the profumeria (perfume shop), Blistex at the farmacia (pharmacy), shampoo at the tabaccheria (tobacco shop)–of course!

But nothing can compare to the entirely unexpected feeling that I had lost a big part of my sparkling wit personality somewhere over the Atlantic, a phenomenon I’ve also mentioned here and here.

Now please don’t think I’m saying that you should never move to a foreign country without knowing the language. I did it, and obviously I’ve survived. Of course it’s more of a challenge, and I can only talk of my own experience, but not speaking Italian fluently at first isn’t too much of a problem because you can still get along fine in most instances. And keep in mind that I’m in the south where there are very few English speakers.

That said, I did feel a negative effect in social and personal situations–I found myself concentrating so hard on the basics of what was being said that I never got the joke; let’s not debate the Italian sense of humor right now, but I’ll note that our differences there were/are also a factor.

What I’m talking about are the nuances of a language. For my entire life on the other side of the pond, I took for granted that I could effortlessly make others smile or laugh with a few well-crafted, well-timed words. That I always had a response. That I was never left tongue-tied and wondering what would’ve been a good comeback.

Yes, I’ve had moments of “what I wish I had said” like everyone does, but here, they became the norm; when it takes hours to fully comprehend the two most important lines of a conversation, a witty retort on the spot isn’t very likely.

And so for a long time, I felt like I was wearing a mask–and worst of all, it was one that I didn’t choose for myself. People saw me as shy, quiet, perhaps uncomfortable in social situations, and to an extent, I can certainly be all of those things, but not to the degree that they would have thought.

I was just trying so hard to follow the action that my real personality was below layers and layers of verb conjugations, idioms, and obscure (to me) cultural references.

Did I hide behind the straniera mask sometimes too? Absolutely. I’ll admit that many times it was just easier to say “non capisco” (I don’t understand) than really participate. I’m human, and I get tired of paying attention.

To. Every. Single. Word. For. Hours. On. End.

And when social situations become work, well, not surprisingly, they just aren’t fun anymore. So occasionally I put up my mask, and we inevitably ended the evening with a pity party, just the two of us. But for me, this was an essential part of my growth process here, as I needed to hit rock bottom, so to speak, in order to throw off the mask.

Getting a better grasp of Italian has definitely helped me feel more like myself again, but confidence and courage have played even bigger roles. After many frustrating evenings out with Italians, I reached back to when I began college, when I started out fresh, knowing no one, and when it seemed like some of my peers were speaking a different language (turned out they were, and it was something along the lines of Spoiledbratese).

At some point, I realized that I was going to have to do here what I did there; I was going to have to be a Nike commercial, and just do it.

And to paraphrase Robert Frost: I have, and that has made all the difference.

No matter where you are, you have to be willing to get out there, make mistakes (and learn from them), be yourself, and not care if you don’t fit with preconceived notions of whatever it is “they” think you should be. And most of all, you have to be willing to rip off that mask (whether you put it there or not) because it’s hiding the real, wonderful you that the world deserves to know.

Besides, being hidden gets kind of boring.

And boy do I love when I make P laugh.


[tags]sunday scribblings, masks, culture shock, learning a language[/tags]

38 Beans of Wisdom to “sunday scribblings: masks”
  1. Shelby

    super post!

    take care and happy Sunday:)

  2. nyc/caribbean ragazza

    È vero.

    I would say something more meaniful but can’t remember how to say it in Italian.

  3. Texas Espresso

    That was a great post! my husband has had to deal with that living here in the States and I know it is a source of frustration for him. I never got that until one of his friends explained to me that in Italian he is a very eloquent speaker so it is very frustrating for him to get out all he wants to say in English. Even after 6 yrs he still doesnt get many of the nuances (ie sarcasm) of our language. I know it will be the same for me in Italy.

    Im so glad you made this post – I don’t think people on the whole fully comprehend that and are too quick to judge those who don’t speak their native language.

  4. Shan

    Great post!

  5. Self Taught Artist

    this is a good reminder for me to read, not to forget that foreigners here in america have personalities and wit but clearly aren’t able to share that as easily when they can barely communicate!
    sounds like its been a huge challenge for you. thought provoking post!

  6. jennifer

    How I relate- especially about the Nike commercial comment. I spent my early years in Italy stammering and not remembering how I liked to dress… basically not remembering who I was half of the time. Maybe that’s when the imposter Jenny managed to take hold!
    Years later when I returned to my hometown and went into a bakery and ordered a cappucino, the girl behind the counter said to me, “Where are you from? You’re definitely not from around here!” I literally grew up a couple blocks away…
    This was the same trip that found me on a flight with a group of Florentines traveling to Florida, who when they heard me speak Italian said, “Quella Γ¨ sicuramente Bergamasca!”
    Made me wonder who the heck I really was!

  7. Lisa Milton

    I didn’t realize you came to Italy without being fluent in the language (I am still rather new to your blog). I am so impressed. It makes me want to stretch myself more…

  8. Susan

    So, after reading your 2nd 100 things about me, I see now where your German-American heritage comes from. I am Pennsylvania Dutch on my mother’s side. We used to go to the Kutztown Fair every summer as a child. The very first recipe I ever posted on my blog was for Rosina Pie. Thanks for visiting me. I’ll be stopping back here again.

  9. J.Doe

    Great post. I agree post 100 percent.
    after arriving in Italy I felt so lonely, but of course with time it diminishes (but never went away for me so I’m glad I met so many English speakers in Italy)

  10. Milva

    Excellent post. It made me remember the moment years ago when I realized that my parents were not the same people in their homeland as they were in America. In Italy they expressed themselves so freely, they were more outgoing, more “themselves.” It’s a shame that Americans will probably never see that side of their personalities due to the language barrier.

  11. Paolo


    I wonder all the time when – or if ever – I will get my comic timing in Italian. True, my current stage is “trying not to sound like a retard,” but I practise as much as I can, and take classes from a bunch of fast-talking veneti, and try to follow Beppe Grillo videos on YouTube.

    I wonder, though… am I destined to be the – gasp! – straight man?

    Buona domenica.

  12. MIchelle

    what a wonderful post. moving to italy must have been a wonderful experience and I will have to come back and read some archives to see what took you there. I took Italian classes for 6 years long ago in HS and College and non parlo italiano bene LOL!


  13. Mary

    I know exactly how you feel. I’ve been here a little over a year now and I had someone tell me the other day that I’ve changed since I came here. That I have a better personality now. I explained that I haven’t changed, I can just express myself now.

  14. Regina Clare Jane

    Oh gosh- I am so happy to have read this today! Bravo to you, Sognatrice!
    This was the best line of all…
    “And most of all, you have to be willing to rip off that mask (whether you put it there or not) because it’s hiding the real, wonderful you that the world deserves to know.”
    You’re right! The world does deserve to know just how wonderful we all are!
    Thank you for the reminder!

  15. Sharon

    Very interesting and wise post.

  16. Deb G

    I really like what you have to say here. I had two great grandmothers whose first languages weren’t English. My Italian great-grandmother really never seemed to have a sense of humor. Maybe this is why? Funnily enough, I never realized until I was an adult that my French-Canadian grandmother didn’t learn English until she was in her 20’s.

  17. Amber

    Hi! Great, interesting post! I have never thought of this before. how it would be to not have humor, because of language. And it makes me think of all the Mexican people in California and how it must be like that for the many who do not speak English. When I was working as a school counselor, many of my students parents did not speak English– mostly the women, who seemed to be kept at home or in jobs where it was not forced on them. It always seemed so sexist, like a way of controlling them. But then this is a whole other part of it! What you miss out on by not having the words, that I never thought of. It must feel very lonely.

    But I am so going to read through your blog now. Because your journey sounds like an amazing leap of faith!


  18. Red

    So interesting! I work in a language disorders field and this was right up my alley. Thanks for sharing.

  19. Frances

    A good portion of my day is spent cracking wise. I grew up in a household where Italian was spoken, but since my grandma understood English perfectly I spoke only in English to her and she in Italian to me. If I had to try and translate one of my wise cracks into Italian I would split in two fron the stress.

    And thanks for your lovely comment – having someone like you read my blog regularly just makes it all worthwhile!
    Ciao Bella

  20. Sara

    So did P propose before or after the first time you made him laugh? And was the first time you made him laugh on purpose?

  21. gautami tripathy

    In another country, our mask gets fixed in more way than one.

    Enjoyed your post.

  22. sognatrice

    Thank you all for your comments, especially those that have linked this to your own experiences regardless of which side of the language barrier you’re on. Ah, and a special thanks to everyone who said they’d be reading more of the blog πŸ˜‰

    And now for some more directed responses:

    TexasEspresso, your situation is interesting because your hubby has already felt the pinch, so to speak; hopefully this will make your transition easier. How excited are you?!

    Self Taught Artist, I have to say that I have felt more empathy in many ways with immigrants to America since moving here–you begin to realize just how, well, foreign everything must be to them.

    Jennifer, yes, I have a feeling I’m heading toward not really being one of anyone…mah…suppose we’ll just have to be our (glorious) selves then! I completely hear you on remembering how you like to dress–that’s worthy of a whole other post. My mom recently sent me some of my old t-shirts and sneakers, and I’m *so* happy πŸ™‚

    Lisa, wow, that’s a wonderful compliment, thank you πŸ™‚

    Susan, I definitely have to look around your site more. My mom grew up in Reading and most of our relatives on that side are still in Berks County; we don’t make too many German-American/Pennsylvania Duthch dishes, though, so I’ll be printing out things for my mom from your place, I’m sure.

    JDoe, the English speakers definitely keep me sane–as does this blog!

    Milva, I first realized something was odd when one of the young women here pointed out to me how different I seem with English speakers, even if they had been perfect strangers moments before. Of course, part of that is because I don’t actually like that particular woman so she doesn’t often see the best side of me, but her point was taken πŸ˜‰

    Paolo, although there’s nothing wrong with the straight man (in fact, I rather enjoy them–hah!), you’re well on your way to comic genius. I saw your name on MyBlogLog. I get it.

    Michelle, hey, your name is Michelle too! I don’t think I realized that. I’ll be around your place more often as well πŸ™‚

    Mary, esatto e brava!

    Frances, warm fuzzies, warm fuzzies! Grazie πŸ˜‰

    Sara, luckily by the time I met, I was better at least in one on one situations; I’m sure he proposed *after* the first time I made him laugh, although I’m quite certain that at last that first time, he was laughing *at* me, not *with* me. In fact, it probably led to our first fight πŸ˜‰

    Thanks again to everyone who took the time to comment, especially first-timers; I have to check out your blogs now πŸ™‚

  23. Candace Dempsey

    I love this post. I have been studying Italian for years in the U.S. but it’s hard to learn with nobody to talk to. I feel frustrated when I talk to my Italian cousins because I feel very close to them but yet I can’t express my deepest feelings. One funny thing: They speak the Calabrese dialect & I cannot understand a word of it. It’s so different than standard Italian. so we’ve agreed that they can use it whenever they’re talking about something private that they’d rather I didn’t hear! Works great. They are also good about just letting me read a book instead of talk sometimes. The language barrier is so tiring at times, but I’m so glad I decided to cross it. Thanks for reminding me of that.

  24. Rebecca

    I remember feeling incredibly lonely when I first moved to the Netherlands because I could not understand a word of what was being said around me on the streets. I hadn’t realised just how we absorb words, even if they are not directed towards us.

  25. Crafty Green Poet

    I like your insights here! My IQ feels (is?) lower when I’m speaking Italian or German! I used to come over as very introverted in these two languages, but i have improved. I think foreign language masks can be the hardest to remove.

  26. Anonymous


    After another looong “weekend of weirdness” in Vienna, this post hits my nail’s head. And, Jennifer’s response about not remembering how she liked to dress – gah! – another hit! When you go back to the US for a visit, it will become abundantly clear how easy it gets to not fit in (or feel quite like your former/familiar self) anywhere.

    Great eye-opening post!

  27. alicia

    Great post πŸ™‚ I imagine being in that situation would make you feel as if you’ve lost a part of yourself, or had become someone you didn’t recognize. I’m glad you’re learning more! πŸ™‚

  28. sognatrice

    Candace, ah, the dialect! Yes, that definitely adds another dimension to the whole thing; well, when you’re visiting your cousins again, we’ll have to get together for some English!

    Rebecca, thank goodness we absorb words, otherwise I’d know a lot less Italian πŸ˜‰

    CGP, foreign language masks are tough because even when you really want to remove them, sometimes you just can’t. Patience is another key to all of this, obviously.

    Wunschdenker, welcome home (to Germany)! What you mentioned about going home is one of the reasons I’m really not pushing to do it, in fact…guess Tom Wolfe was onto something πŸ˜‰

    Alicia, looking back I suppose it let me get to know parts of myself I didn’t really know existed, and, oddly enough, now I’m probably even more extroverted in English just because it’s so great to be able to express myself completely as I wish πŸ˜‰

    Thanks for commenting πŸ™‚

  29. Cynthia Rae

    You hit the nail right on the head with this one! I know just how you feel. In America I am always talking to people I don’t know. I have a quick wit and I love to laugh and joke. That Cyndi doesn’t show up much in Italy. It is really hard to be funny when you are still learning the language. Plus, I am always afraid of saying something that in English is funny but in Italian is taken as being rude. People see me as this quiet shy person, which I am not really.

    As for being tired… after a few hours out with friends, it is hard to keep paying attention. I find that my mind start to wander (I take a trip to Cyndi world). It has gotten better since I first moved here, but it is still hard as well.

    I feel your pain. That is why we expats should stick together. We need to be funny (in English) every once in a while!


  30. LaurinainItalia

    I can not tell you how much I understand you. When I was studying abroad, in Urbino, the first few months I would get beyond frustrated when I was unable to translate a sarcastic remark or quick comeback. The problem was I wasn’t thinking in Italian, I was translating things in my head word for word, and that didn’t work. I felt like no one saw how I really was until I did, and it’s the best feeling when somehow you are able to translate your humor! Yay! Congrats!

  31. sognatrice

    Cyndi, the spacing out was/is always the hardest part for me. After a certain amount of time, I just didn’t/don’t care any more, although it’s nothing personal to the people there. It happens less frequently now, but if there’s wine involved, well, I’m getting older and tend to get sleepier and sleepier….

    Laura, yes, it’s a wonderful feeling when you’re not translating in your head, especially when it’s your sense of humor. I’m still not where I’m 100% “me” so to speak, but I figure I have a lifetime πŸ˜‰

  32. eLΓ­

    Thanks for this post… i stumbled upon it at the perfect moment and you have no idea how much i needed it on a day like today!
    Although I grew up in a bilingual home where Itanglish was the norm, I also came across a few barriers while in Italy.
    The whole mask thing sometimes was a useful tool for the times I’d rather just fly under the radar and pretend like I don’t understand what people are talking about… especially those who decide to blatantly say bad things about you (in front of you) in italian. Sometimes I let it slide. Other times – the look on their faces when I responded in perfect Italian…PRICELESS.

  33. Ally Bean

    be yourself, and not care if you don’t fit with preconceived notions of whatever it is “they” think you should be

    Such a good thought. I like how you came to that conclusion. I can only imagine the frustration/boredom of not knowing the native language of the country in which you live. Interesting take on the prompt.

  34. in the Alps

    Thanks for your post. It was just what I needed to read. It’s starting to get better but some days trying to express myself is absolutely exhausting. It’s not easy to feel like no one knows the real me here but it’s great to read your encouragement to take off the mask and let myself be accepted – faults, grammatical errors and all.

  35. sognatrice

    Eli, I’m glad you appreciated the post, and you’re right–it works both ways. Sometimes it’s so fun to catch someone when they think you haven’t understood!

    Ally, thanks for your kind words. Frustration and boredom were two definite results of not being able to communicate effectively, that’s for sure.

    In the Alps, thanks for visiting! I’m happy to know you can take away something from what I’ve gone through–have a little patience, and things will fall into place πŸ™‚

  36. IRENE

    To be honest with you, after trying for quite some time to fit in and be a natural, I am back into trying my “xenos” (foreign) mask. It works on several occasions, and , I find, saves some traits of my personality I wouldn’t want to lose. Perhaps that is why it is a mask , after all, because we may put it on and off whenever we feel like it! Now that I think about it, that is a good thing!

  37. sognatrice

    Irene, I completely agree about the mask, using it when you need it, especially to preserve parts of you that you don’t want to lose. Nice that we have this option, isn’t it?

  38. Carlo

    Reading your blog posts is always very rewarding, I need more time to read EVERYthing you keep blossoming out on bleedingespresso! plus the faceted responses and spinoffs.

    You and Candace remind me that I’ve very much felt the same, being an American who has had US schooling up to Junior Standing and lived the rest of his life in Italy. Being over sixty now, I lost pace with American social customs long ago, and no one except who has passed some time overseas knows how much of everyday language is knitted together with references to the media or to national short-lived happenings and colloquialisms. It’s a covert, relentless fourth-dimensional modeling of the language (not only through global shifting but also along time) that shows up only when we compare the way people who have been separated for many miles or years come to contact. Many Americans speaking the Italian of their grandparents are convinced they know Italian, but actually what they treasure from family memory are words or phrases in outdated century-old dialects from small hidden villages of the Sicilian, Calabrese or Abruzzi hinterland.

    Sometimes they painfully face the truth only during their first visit to Italy as tourists. A friend once told me about a couple he met close to St. Peter’s Square in Rome (most obviously tourists, the man was wearing bermudas in April) who asked him: “Shcoos, mister, unni pozz’accattari na medagghiett’ e sant’Antuoni?” And my English sounds sometimes outdated for the Americans I meet in Italy…

    See Carlo, this is why you need a blog…so many of us could learn from your experiences as you’ve surely been through it all by this point, and from such a unique perspective. Cultural references are *ridiculously* important in languages, and at least with the Internet now, we can keep up better with the changes across the pond (if we choose to), but still…extra challenge.

    Looking forward to our own blog posts on this topic πŸ™‚

Michelle KaminskyMichelle Kaminsky is an American attorney-turned-freelance writer who lived in her family's ancestral village in Calabria, Italy for 15 years. This blog is now archived. 

Calabria Guidebook

Calabria travel guide by Michelle Fabio



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