“Yeah, but does the place have real Italian food? I mean, is it authentic in your opinion?” my friend asked when I told her about this new restaurant that was opening in our home town. Since moving to Italy in 2009, I’d been deemed the Great Authenticator by people back home regarding anything related to Italy. No, chicken alfredo is not “Italian.” Yes, I suppose being romantic might be an Italian thing depending on your definition of “romantic.” No, bbq chicken pizza is not really a thing. Yes, real people drive scooters in Italy.
Where Italy is concerned, the struggle to pin down what is “authentic” versus what isn’t can be a full time job. Pretty much everything is up for debate and not even Italians can really agree on what makes something Italian or not.
“Prada isn’t Italian anymore, they have Chinese workers in their factories,” my hairstylist said to the old lady with the hot pink lipstick sitting next to me. If a foreign national touches it, it’s no longer authentic, and it’s probably contaminated with icky “otherness.”
Since the olive trees got some kind of nasty plague last year a large amount of the olive oil in Italy was actually shipped in from Greece. “Not real oil!” My husband said. I turned, “Damn, well, what about that Salami? I hear that the pig was actually half british on the sow’s side. A real whore if you ask me.”
A soccer coach in Italy was recently put in the doghouse for accidentally saying that “there were too many colored players,” on a team, ruining the authenticity of Italian soccer. Similarly, the same New York Times article noted, Mario Balotelli “has endured racism from Italian fans for years,” despite being a star player, and Italian, and “Some supporters of the national team have chanted, “There is no such thing as a black Italian!”
Looks play a big role when categorizing a true Italian. A northerner is actually German according to certain southerners, a southerner is really greek, or spanish, or arabian according to some folks in the North.
Even in the US there is a distinctive idea of what Italian looks like. “Well, he can’t be really Italian, he’s blonde,” someone said of a guy from Brescia I unfortunately dated over a decade ago (long before I met my husband). When we think Italian, we think of a full head of messy espresso hair, a thick hairy chest, a tan, and five o’clock shadow. In this case, my husband, is authentic. Yes, my friends, my husband is the real deal.
It gets even more interesting when you bring up people who identify as Italian through relatives. Italian-Americans? Hell No. “If they grew up in the US they are American, not Italian, end of story,” an old man once told me when I told him that my friend was “half-Italian.” Expats? “They can pretend all they want but they’ll never really understand what it means to be Italian to your bones. Can’t they get their own culture? What’s wrong with theirs?” a Florentine professor of mine once said. I understand the concept of relating to a place through birthright, I do have an immigrant Persian father and I grew up with influences of his culture, often brainwashed with his extreme ethnocentrism. In case any of you were wondering, on any given day, our people invented a lot of shit. Math, osmosis, all of it. You’re welcome. This idea of being “part,” of any culture isn’t accepted everywhere, I’ve learned.
Speaking of parents, Dolce & Gabbana have had a lot to say about authenticity lately and how all these gay people are having “fake” babies. According to a interview in Panorama, translated by The Telegraph, the former lovers said that children born from IVF are “synthetic,” essentially labeling these children as the “polyester” of the infant world. I wonder what that even means? How does one have a synthetic baby? Sometimes it’s hard to understand assholes.
“We oppose gay adoptions. The only family is the traditional one. … No chemical offsprings and rented uterus: Life has a natural flow, there are things that should not be changed.”
“You are born to a mother and a father — or at least that’s how it should be,” Dolce said. “I call children of chemistry, synthetic children. Rented uterus, semen chosen from a catalog.”
Gabbana concurred, adding, “The family is not a fad. In it there is a supernatural sense of belonging.”
For a long time, not even Italians wanted to be Italian.
Italy, before unification in 1861, was made up of multiple kingdoms. Every kingdom had been invaded a billion times, weaving various ethnicities (we all know how rapey invasions in the old days used to be), languages, and customs throughout. Every region has a different cuisine, and multiple regional languages are still spoken, and there are a number of dialects within those regional languages.
One of the problems that Italy had in WWI was that the Italian soldiers identified more with their region than their country and therefore, understandably, didn’t feel too inclined to die for her causes. The government has long used media, newspapers, television, to enforce the national language and national identity.
While it didn’t work during WWI, there seems to be no greater cause for unification than the extra foreignness of someone who is not only from another region but is also from another country.
“We’re not Italian, we’re neapolitan,” my mother-in-law will remind me (as if I need a reminder). Unless they’re talking about me. “We’re Italian, we do things like this,” she’ll motion, “Not like you AMERICANA!”
If a country with different languages, different ethnic backgrounds, different cuisine, and different cultures, can somehow come together and unite as one based on absolutely nothing in common whatsoever, surely there is some room for the foreign-born folk and the polyester babies? What is actually authentically Italian? Who is Italian?
On a very optimistic day when I think “Italy,” I think beauty, strength, simplicity and glamour, kindness, openness, and brilliant minds. In an ideal world these are the things that make someone authentic. I think it exists, beyond birthright, nationalism, sexual orientation, and color.
“Authenticity starts in the heart.” -Brain D’Angelo
- Georgette of Girl in Florence
- Pete of Englishman in Italy – “How Authentic an Italian are you?”
- Rick of Rick’s Rome: “The Authentic Italian Culture Debate”
- Maria of Married to Italy: The fear of the fake: What “authenticity” means to a foreigner in a strange land
- Gina of The Florence Diaries
- Andrea of Sex, Lies, And Nutella
- Rochelle: Unwilling Expat
Italy Roundtable members:
- Melanie – Everything Is Authentic
- Jessica – Where is this “authentic Italy” everyone’s looking for?
- Gloria – The odd woman out’s view on “authentic Italy”
- Rebecca – Italy Roundtable: Finocchi Rifatti al Pomodoro
- Alexandra – Art and Travel: the authenticity of seeing art in person
- Kate – On being authenticated
- Michelle – Living Authentically: How Italy Forced the Issue
Have something to share on authenticity in Italy? Use the hashtag #COSItaly to join the conversation!