Migrants and “imaginary homelands”

There is a vast difference between identity and citizenship, namely the socio-cultural group to which we belong and the nationality written on our documents. And when we think about emigrants / immigrants, things will get even more complicated, because it is hard to hold just one flag and maybe the reality that welcomes them, as hospitable as can be and as they try to comply with it, shows how different they are. Moreover, it happens that what we call “home” rejects us, and than we do not have the certainty to be in the right place, anywhere.

Emotions take over and create a scenario of distant lands. Everything about what once was called home turns to mind, and the stories and reports told by the family are being idealized. There are people who dream to come back, those who will never return. However, the point – and the greatest frustration, perhaps – is that you do not belong to any place; you do not recognize yourself neither in the native nor in the host communities. A new identity will rise, one historic will be recycled, and a new one will be invented.

Just as Miguel Mellino argued about Salman Rusdhie’s novel “Midnight’s Children”: the homeland has been built through the imagination, it has become artificial and contingent, an “imaginary homeland.”

The separation from homeland

I met two women on a bus, one cloudy day, here in Melbourne. One Sicilian and Calabrian the other, immigrants after the War, they both had a pronounced southern accent recognizable even when they spoke English. “Minha pátria è minha língua” wrote Luís de Camões. The homeland lies in the language, he says, but that is not true for them: they have chosen Australia as their homeland, the place to which they have dedicated their lives and in which await death. In fact, they admitted me that they would never move back and live in Italy no longer. Every now and then, they travel back but they feel completely out of place, they do not have the habits of their (former) fellow citizens and do not tolerate certain behaviours, such as people talking and gossiping too much and their mentality, which is too restricted in both the women’s opinion.

Thinking about their quotes, I reminded of some men I met in Naples two years ago. One of them – who grew up in Giuliano di Napoli if I remember correctly, and then moved to Parma where he has been living for over 50years – participated in one of the many debates risen on the metro of Naples. The discussion was about the differences between North and South of Italy, and how the Emilia-Romagna is one of the most “developed” and best served regions in Italy. While I was trying to destroy this idyllic imaginary of my region, the man intervened saying that he settled into and is very satisfied with the quality of life in the Emilian province. He then admitted that he would never be able to move back to Naples: too much confusion, everything is so complicated that you have to fight also for little matters, and you cannot trust anyone. He likes to return to his fatherland in order to meet his relatives and friends, but he cannot withstand for more than a week.

Similarly, a military man on his forties who gave me a ride with Blablacar from Naples to Forli – he then headed for the barrack of Trieste – reported the same feeling of detachment. He likes to go to Naples, gets his fill of fresh mozzarella, sfogliatelle, his mom’s omelettes of macaroni, and meeting up with friends. However, he argued, just for few days. Then he does not resist, he cannot stand for that world which is so familiar but, at the same time, it no longer belongs to him. He does not tune with the Neapolitan mentality: the art of manipulating people and situations, as well as the fact that there is no certainty, they are no longer within his reach.

So everyone returns in order to “matar a saudade” (appease the longing, say the Portuguese-speaking), to fill up with the beautiful and pleasant things that remains in the native city or village, and then head back the place that has been chosen as “home”. Nevertheless, the culture is different, the ways of socializing diverge, and you are not able to express some thoughts because the only channel would be your dialect, but the new community could not understand it. Then, you take a few days off and the most convenient mean of transport, and return to the roots. You leave and return; you leave and go back again and again. Almost always.

This idyllic place that can not be home

Actually, who gave me the inspiration to write this article is a man I knew in the selection for a job. He defines himself Greek (indeed, Hellene is the correct term!), he keeps in his heart the white-blue flag, and his fatherland and fellow citizens are what is most perfect on earth. However, when he was just six months an accident occurred: his parents decided to move to Australia, where he grew up among the prejudices committed by a different culture. In this way, the Australian discrimination produced prejudice in this second-generation immigrant as well.

Nothing that is “Aussie” (despite the efficiency of the system) is acceptable. Only what it is authentically Greek – and, grace-granted to Italian and Yugoslavian: “Because we are similar” – is worthy of being appreciated and valued. Because “we” (referred to him and me as representatives of our cultures) enjoy life; we are honest towards each other and have a real sense of community and association; we do not focus merely on money and the exaltation of material wealth.

Nonetheless, this man has lived just two years of his life in Greece, excluding numerous trips to Kalamata, the city where he was born 30km away from Sparta. He ran a club on the island of Cephalonia and, he repeated constantly, his life there was like in heaven: a fabulous sea and the sun shone for most of the year; there were straight and sincere people who really know what having fun means; and you can have tasteful food cooked with devotion and offered with simplicity.

Why he did not stay, then? And why he does not come back, if he scorns Australia so much and dreams of his idyllic Greece? Because in 2010 he was wounded by the political and economic grip of the crisis that has plagued his country among many others. He then returned disappointed in Australia, but shortly after he received a call from a Greek woman who announced him that she would bear him a child. He bought her a one-way ticket to Melbourne, he married her and a few months ago he became a father for the second time. That is why there is no more chance, at least for now, to return to his beloved peninsula on the Mediterranean: at the moment, it is not a place to raise a family and provide for their children with what they need. If he had to provide only for himself, well, he told me, then perhaps we would never have known.

Identity among the second generation

Then there are those who know the culture of their origins through the stories, sometimes reported by the parents who have transmitted them the customs and values of their land; or they have learned it at immigrants’ school, in books, from movies and also on Facebook. (Yes, Facebook is also used to this!) Many of them visited at least once in their fatherland, some have even had a chance to travel with some frequency, thus tightening relations with their cousins and relatives, learning about the culture of origin, and perhaps their way of thinking and behaving. Yet there are those who never set foot in the country of their ancestors, and the identity to which they feel they belong is distorted comparing to reality.

I remember a story happened to me in Rio, a day when I stopped at a newsstand placed down the street where I was living. The owner – a middle-aged Brazilian man, descendants of Calabrians and father of three kids –, as soon as he heard my accent, inquired about my nationality. In hearing that I was Italian, he exploded in a euphoric narration: “I am Italian, although I grew up in Brazil!” He then told me he was not able to speak Italian, even if he could understand, as well as he had never been to Paola, the Calabrian sea town where his parents came from. “But I am a member of some groups on Facebook created by some citizens of Paola and I always keep up to date on what happens there!“, he told me with such a pride and a patriotism while he was showing me some of that groups on his smartphone.

Still, the claim that most surprised me, and that I think is “good to think” (cf. Claude Levi-Strauss) was: “Because you know, I strive hard to pass down to my children the Italian culture, just like my parents did with me. In fact, my 11-year-old son, when he sees and greets me, he is used to kiss my hand!” Confiding me that, the newsagent seemed to look for my complicity, as his eyes were telling me, “Exactly like you do in Italy, don’t you? We understand each other mate!”

However, I have to have reciprocated with an expression of doubt and perplexity: I was wondering that I had seen that gesture only on movies about the Mafia, and that even if it was once widespread in South Italy as a sign of respect for an older upper-class person, I would not have been sure that it was still in use. Over the years, I reported this story to many friends, from Campania and Calabria regions in particular, and they all said to me that, nowadays, the hand-kissing as a form of respect is a lost tradition. Maybe you can find it in some little town lost in the most remote Sicily, they all concluded, but no one is more certain.

Finally, the fact therefore that a man in Brazil teaches his son to kiss his hand “just like you do in Italy,” brought me to one conclusion: since the Italian culture arrived in Brazil a century ago, it has changed and mixed with other cultures; but it has been crystallized in the imagination of many immigrants as well. Some cultural traits, as the same they landed in the new country, they will be transmitted to new generations, hence creating a particular cultural diachrony.

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