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My "Immigrant” Experience in Italy

Right from the start, I should make one thing very clear: I have never actually been an immigrant. I was born in Canada, and while I’ve lived overseas twice now, it was always with the knowledge that I would be coming home to Canada. The first time, I moved to England, where I had family and friends, and already knew the culture and language. No problem.

My bags, complete with Museum luggage tags. My packing secret? Vacuum-sealing plastic bags, technology that newcomers to Pier 21 definitely didn’t have.

But the second time, I got a good sense of what many immigrants experience. From September to early December 2016, I had the chance of a lifetime. My husband was accepted for a visiting scientist position at a NATO facility in Italy, and I was able to go with him. What an opportunity! My three months in Italy made me consider the experiences of immigrants in Canada that we present here at the Museum. I have done a lot of thinking about the experiences immigrants have in Canada – I couldn’t do my job if I didn’t – but this was my first time actually feeling like a newcomer myself.

While we prepared to leave for Italy, it was impossible not to be reminded of the preparations so many immigrants make before coming to Canada. I read all I could find about our new city, La Spezia, and its area. I wrote lists, and more lists. (I may have had a list of lists at one point.) What would I need to bring with me? What could I afford to leave behind? I packed and re-packed my one suitcase and my one carry-on bag.

I was reminded of the packing challenge in the Canadian Immigration Hall: just like in that activity, I could only fit so many things in my bags, and had to make choices.

Clearly I have a few more choices to make.

While I’m glad I didn’t bring my tap shoes (I realized that if I managed to find a tap dance class, I wouldn’t be able to understand the instructions), I did regret leaving behind my running gear. La Spezia has a beautiful waterfront and every time I walked along it, I wished I were running instead.

La Spezia’s lovely harbour, near the cruise ship terminal.

On a clear day at La Spezia’s waterfront, you can see the Apuan Alps, where the famous Carrara marble is quarried.

I also thought of the culture-related questions we ask visitors to consider when they decorate and pack their mini-suitcases in our Collaboration Corner. I knew what material items of Canadian culture were going in my suitcase (maple-flavour chocolates!) but what non-material culture would be coming with me in my heart and mind? Could I even answer that question until my first day in Italy? Or might it take even longer?

Visitors’ suitcases in Collaboration Corner.

One answer to the non-material culture question was obvious from the start: language. English and French are my comfort zones. Thankfully, I took beginner Italian in high school and university, but how far would that get me? I started studying again, and used what little knowledge I had with Italian visitors to the museum so I could practice. I began to feel more confident, especially since I wasn’t starting from scratch like my husband was. Unfortunately, my confidence ended within those first few days in our new city.

Many contributors to our oral history collection discuss their experiences with language barriers in Canada, and a quotation from one story really resonates with me now:

“I just couldn’t open my mouth. I thought that everyone was concentrating on my mistakes.” - Mariya Lesiv

Although I could understand a fair amount of what went on around me, I was quickly and painfully aware that I stuck out as a foreigner. It was my first time being in a place where others didn’t speak either of my languages. I wanted to join my new community, make a good impression in my neighbourhood, but I couldn’t do that without good language skills.

Most people took my attempts at Italian in stride, carried on in a mix of English and Italian, and together we figured things out. One woman who worked at a shop in my neighbourhood was particularly wonderful with me. She always spoke to me slowly but kindly, and took her time explaining sales and coupons to me whenever I visited. She understood why I was so happy one day when I asked for a product and I could actually follow the instructions she gave me to find it. At the grocery store closest to our apartment, it was a different story. One cashier noticed I couldn’t keep up with the fast-paced daily small talk at the till, and she gave up trying to involve me in any way. Often she would not even greet me, which is very un-characteristic of Italians. I found the situation really demoralizing, especially since I shopped there almost daily!

I nicknamed it NeighbourCat.

It took time for me to notice other aspects of non-material culture I had brought with me. No matter how lovely and amazing a new place is, there will always be something perfectly ordinary that is confusing, hard to adjust to, or just plain weird – at least to someone who comes from somewhere else. For me, it was dogs. In La Spezia, they were everywhere. They were allowed into shops, inside the mall, onto buses and trains, even into grocery stores! And these weren’t service animals; they were all just ordinary pets. It was so normal for grocery stores to allow dogs that when I found one that didn’t, I just called that shop “No Dogs” instead of using its proper brand name. I like dogs, but to me it was weird that they were allowed at these different locations, since that doesn’t usually happen in Canada. I saw so many dogs in La Spezia that I didn’t bother taking any photos of them, but I did take a photo of the only cat I saw the whole time I lived there.

This one trivial thing made me wonder: what events or situations that I consider “normal” are truly strange to newcomers in Canada? If I had stayed longer in Italy, would my expectations change?

What if you were to become an immigrant, and left Canada for good? What material items would you pack in your actual suitcase? What non-material culture would come with you in your heart and mind? Are you an immigrant who actually made these decisions? We’d love to hear from you! Tweet your list of cultural items via Twitter with #Pier21Suitcase and share it with @Pier21 to contribute to our collection of digital suitcases.