Strangers and False Friends

Straniera in a foreign land

Between Italian and English, some words appear to mean one thing when they actually mean something slightly different; they are called “false friends.” The word stranieri is an example. It appears that it could mean “strangers”—thus connoting danger or suspicion—but it actually means “foreigners.”

While some assess foreigners with suspicion, for other languages and customs can indeed appear strange, that’s hardly the spirit of the word. Inside that small degree of difference is a telling nuance; how do we look at people who are unlike us or strange in some way: is it with suspicion or curiosity?

The manner in which we interact with the strange says something about us—how comfortable we are in our own skin and how much room we’re willing to grant to others. It boils down to our level of trust and sense of ourselves. When we feel small or threatened, we’re less likely to embrace something or someone we don’t understand; when we approach a situation from a sense of mastery, we’re eager to share our enlightenment with others.

On Friday, a friend and I had the good fortune to find a table on the deck at Brave Horse (my third attempt to gain access to this new bar, ever-crowded with attractive Amazonians on the prowl.) He had just returned from Italy, so we naturally shared several collective sighs and knowing nods as he regaled me with tales. “What I don’t understand is, how can a place be that endearing yet so dysfunctional?”

We discussed The Economist’s special coverage on exactly this topic, a multi-part attempt to make sense of this quandry. All fiscal evidence of the county’s decline aside, we both agreed, as millions around the world do, that despite the conundrum of deep-seated dysfunction, Italy somehow still represents the pinnacle of beauty, happiness, love, pleasure, and contentment.

As both foreigners and strangers, we insist upon descending into Italy’s quaint villages for our vacations, intent upon soaking up satisfaction through our every pore—through our skin as we lay out on sunny beaches; in our noses as we inhale fresh basilico from the garden; in our ears as we hear words like allora, andiamo, buona sera, and paradiso; in our eyes as we look on aged cathedrals, fountains, and marble sculptures towering overhead; and on our tongues as we taste prosciutto, mozzarella di bufala, and homemade noodles so simple and flavorful that we question whether we’ve actually eaten Italian food before.

For people like me, who continue to return to this bower, always the straniera as much as I study and enact an Italian life at home, one must eventually question not only what it means to perpetually be the one thing that’s not like the others but to choose to be that which is other.

Our conversation drifted further into this topic when my friend blurted out, “Even here at home, I don’t think I’ve ever felt like I fit in, like I’ve got people. I’ve always felt apart. Do you know what I mean?”

In truth, I’ve felt like that most of life, only more so after the last five years of making life choices that, one after the other, are more and more divergent from those of my peers. I’ve learned not to share this feeling with just anyone, which is what made his spontaneous sputter that much more charming. It was clear he needed to say it out loud and hoped that, even if I couldn’t empathize, I might not judge him for admitting his self-named status as a freak.

In my own experience, I remember a desire to fix or “get over” this feeling of being apart, wondering when I’d wake to find that I was just like everyone else, that I fit in somewhere. Yesterday, sitting out in Counterbalance Park, flocks of girls passed me—some with long hair, cute sundresses and oversized sunglasses, others with their quotas of cute hand-held husband each, or clatches of skater grrls, sporty girls, geeky girls, or preppy girls—and I smiled at knowing that, somehow, I was like none of them.

Yet, for once, I didn’t care.

My travels over the years—especially to Italy—have helped me to come to terms with my own differentness. It’s one reason that I enjoy travel as much as I do: it’s okay to be different when one is a foreigner in a foreign land, whether it’s Pittsburgh or Paris. If one comes off as an odd duck, it’s expected if not excusable. It is perhaps one of the few situations in life when being different or strange is not only understood, but can be attractive—exotic, even.

Of course, what people in those places don’t realize is that our strangeness also extends to our home lives. Only when we travel do we allow ourselves to truly be who we really are, without censorship or regret.

The funny thing is, even when people like my friend and I get together and share our mutual sense of apartness, it’s not like the sensation goes away. We can come to a point of enjoying our status as other, but the feeling of the divide itself never really leaves us. I suppose the only real resolution is the moment at which we simply accept and celebrate this part of ourselves and stop trying to overcome or cure it. It’s not a defect, but who we are. As Tony said to me several times in Civita last year, there is no point in questioning Nature; “Nature IS.

In the daylighting of our apart-ness, my friend and I shared acceptance without pity, and quietly celebrated our eternal vantage point as foreigners amongst natives. There is value and beauty in this state; it’s the capacity to see a chipped vase and not despair at the flaw, but enjoy the place where the smooth glaze is interrupted by the chalky pottery underneath—a naked, porous reveal—without running for superglue or pitching it altogether.

I described the way that I hoped to bring that sense of myself home with me after last year’s Italian excursion; at this, my friend sniffed, “I’d like to, also, but do you really think that’s possible?”

Yesterday, as I put my feet up on one of the park’s yellow chairs, lolling like a lizard on a sunny rock, drinking an iced latte when I should have been doing chores, I thought it just might be possible to enjoy that familiar strangeness even here in Seattle, watching passersby like zoo animals, enjoying the knowledge that they are absolutely, totally, and in all ways completely unlike me.

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