Novelist Elizabeth Mac Donald writes for Culture about a case of mistaken cultural identity...
L'inglesina. The young English girl. That was my monniker for the first few years of my stay in Italy. And yes, I was young, but I definitely wasn’t English.
Picture this. It’s the mid-eighties. You’ve just arrived in Italy and have been introduced to a group of Italians; they’ve asked where you’re from and you’ve carefully specified you’re Irish. And then you overhear them enthusiastically referring to you among themselves as 'Quell’inglesina simpatica’ (That nice English girl).
Now, I realized even then that there was no malice in this. I spoke English, wasn’t American, so what else could I be? They were only trying to pay me a compliment by bumping me up from economy-class Irish to business-class English.
As an Irish person, I was always having to explain stuff. It was exhausting.
Northern Ireland only ever really figured in conversation when the word ‘bomb’ came up. Every time there was an atrocity, it was a nightmare. When the bombs went off they suddenly remembered that I was Irish and came to me for explanations. My English friends and colleagues encouraged this greatly. I can remember very uncomfortable conversations in mixed groups where the Italians would genuinely be trying to get a handle on the situation, while the English contingent affected as much bafflement as the Italians. After all, these barbarian occurrences were totally removed from the untainted reality of their Englishness. I felt a duty to step up to the plate and try to explain.
It was a thankless task.
At a certain point, it sank in that I was on a fool’s errand. The onus was not on me to try and bring some context to a situation that would otherwise be dismissed as an atavistic aberration. So I decided that when I was asked for an explanation as to why Northern Ireland was one of the sorry places on this earth, I would say, ‘Northern Ireland is British. You need to speak to one of my British colleagues.’ Usually, the conversation would peter out very soon after this.
Things began to change with Italia '90. It was the first time I felt the joy of being recognized as distinctly Irish.
There was also a part of me that envied the English the ease with which they could enter any situation in Italy and own it, no questions asked. As an Irish person, I was always having to explain stuff. It was exhausting.
Since the initial mortifying realisation that the Italians were supremely indifferent to what for the British and Irish were crucial distinctions, there has been a sea change. Things began to change with Italia ‘90. It was the first time I felt the joy of being recognized as distinctly Irish. Irish football fans notched up so many brownie points as they made their way around Italy from stadium to stadium, that the Italians finally latched on to the difference between the Irish and the English. There was indeed a stark contrast between the simpatia (affableness, likeability) they attributed to the Irish football fans and the more belligerent tone taken by the English.
The Italians are suckers for the simpatia factor, thanks to which my inglesina days were finally over.
A Matter of Interpretation by Elizabeth MacDonald is in bookshops now - read an extract here.