Thursday, December 4

Being Foreign

The teacher greeted me in front of all the other parents like this:
“ Aah, Mamma of Skye, you can’t read can you?”
I looked at her and so did everyone else, “excuse me?” I said, hoping that I had heard wrong.

“You, being a straniera (foreigner), cannot read, is that right?”
“I’m sorry, “ I said, trying to stay calm and polite, “but I don’t quite get what you mean. Read? As in words…books? Why would I not be able to read because I am ‘foreign’?
“Oh, well I don’t mean to offend, but I just presumed that you wouldn’t know how to read in Italian.” She started to look flustered. I could have happily bashed her on the head her at that point.

“Of course I can bloody well read you stupid cow,” I wanted to say. I didn’t though. I took a deep breath and said, “I can speak, read and write in Italian. I may have an accent, I may make mistakes, I may be a straniera but that does not make me ignorant."

I could have said sooo much more.

She reminded me of the Neopolitans that arrive en-masse in the summer, swarming onto the pier in all their cheap flashy finery. Sometimes they would drift over to ask where they should eat, or where a free beach was. As soon as I started replying they would interrupt me with the annoyingly incredulous, "Ma, sei straniera!" (But, you are foreign!").

I would ignore that, and carry on with my directions to them, but they would be perturbed, thrown by the fact that I wasn't 'one of them' and ask all sorts of questions.

"You are foreign aren't you?"
"what's that got to do with the directions I am giving you'"
"'re a straniera!"
"yes" (sigh)
"You live in Italy?"
"aah, but you don't speak Italian do you"
"What do you think I am speaking!! (bigger sigh)

Once after a ten minute conversation with one of these Neopolitans about life, love and Italy, she suddenly broke off the conversation saying, "Aaah, but I forget, you are a straniera, you don't understand me...YOU..NO...SPEEK...ITALY...OK!"
And she walked off.

I argued with Carlo about this 'straniera' phenomenom. He said it is perfectly normal to believe that 'foreigners' cannot read in languages not their own. I suppose it all boils down to how long one has actually been a 'straniera'.


  1. Nell said
    Dear Signorina Straniero, The masestra needs a lesson in Manners and when to stop putting her big foot in her mouth. If she had thought clearly she'd realize she was conversing in Italian to you and you were in turn responding. The light was on but no one was home in her head.Good for you for not loosing you temper. I would the next time if addressed in that manner respond with je suis non comprende vou.That will really throw her.

  2. How bizarre! What a bitchy cow! I WOULD have blown my top.
    Well done you anyway - I do love your blog.

  3. wow. how very annoying. they're not worth your wrath anyway!

  4. People are peculiar aren't they?

  5. Uhm... I guess it might depend on how you learned the language and how weird its pronunciation rules are. I suppose you could learn a language through immersion only, by listening and imitating and talking but not ever through text books, and if it is a language with super tricky spelling and pronunciation so that you couldn't figure out how a word was spelt simply by hearing it.... in that case, you *could* theoretically know how to speak a language without being able to read and write in it. I tend to do it the other way around, knowing how to read and write but having major talk problems.

    After all those years in Italy you'd have to be pretty darn ignorant to not have learned how to read.

  6. ooh, another one: If you had come from a country that uses another alphabet, script signs instead of letters.... then you wouldn't be able to read in Italian because you wouldn't know what the letters meant. But English isn't exactly Chinese.

  7. The strange things that happen to you never seem to end. I hope you asked her if she ould read English!

  8. I've had that so many times, people asking me directions or bus time routes and as soon as I open my mouth they think I cannot possibly know bus routes or directions becasue I was not born here. DUUHHHHH!!!! Thick or what?!

  9. It sounds like the phone call I got from a temporary employment agency looking for my husband.
    I answered the phone and spoke in Italian but because of my accent the caller decided I didn't know Italian because I was a straniera. No language tests or anything, just an assumption that I didn't know Italian even if at that point I was living in Italy almost for 4 years and had no problems speaking or reading Italian. UGH
    Glad I moved back to the US where noone EVER assumed my now foreign, Italian huband doesn't know English because he has an accent.

  10. I've had this conversation sooo many times. I particularly love it when the person you're talking to pauses mid conversation and says (in Italian) "but you don't speak Italian, do you?" What the f--- do you think we've been speaking for the last 10 minutes, Urdu?

    Annika since Italian is spelled almost exactly as it is pronounced it would be a little odd to speak but not read the language!

  11. Well, you could actually be a foreigner, speak the language, but not be able to read or write. But then again, I don't understand their thinking with speaking Italian. Just because someone has an accent when speaking another language doesn't mean they don't speak it. Obviously you wouldn't be having the conversation if you didn't speak the language.

    That's really rude. Where did she come up with that conclusion? Just because she's monolingual, doesn't mean everyone else is. I'm surprised she even knows Italian. My boyfriend's friends who live down south (he now lives in the north) don't even speak Italian. They say it's too difficult.

    At least you don't have a "th" in your name. That would totally throw them off just like it did with my boyfriend's friends. They asked me how I spell my name and then said, what kind of name is THAT? I have concluded that they don't have manners and are ignorant.


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