Chapter 26 – Vignette
‘Washing faces, cleansing hearts’: Who am I?
Luisa Panichi is Australian-Italian, the daughter of an Italian-Australian father and an Australian mother. She was born in Melbourne in 1967 but has spent most of her adult life in Tuscany. In 1990 she graduated in Arts (BA) from Monash University; during her university years in Melbourne she worked for the Il Globo newspaper and was co-producer of the 3EA SBS youth radio program Giovane Giovane. She has been a Lettore di Lingua Straniera at the University of Pisa since 1991. Also a freelance consultant and lecturer for other universities in Europe, her research interests include Language Awareness, Computer Assisted Language Learning and Pedagogic Design. In 2004 she was nominated Honorary Secretary of the Association for Language Awareness, a UK registered charity for educational purposes. Her first English as a Foreign Language textbook was published in 2005 and in 2007 she graduated from the University of Pisa as Dottore Magistrale in Lingue e Letterature Straniere.
When I was invited to tell my Italian story as part of the ‘Australians in Italy’ symposium I asked myself ‘What is the relationship between the history of a nation and personal stories?’ Well, I decided to disregard the problem of nationhood, and focus on the theme of personal stories. As a language teacher, translator and educator, it came naturally to me to tackle this theme from a linguistic point of view. First of all, the English words ‘history’ and ‘story’ both translate into Italian as storia. As an English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teacher, one is often at great pains to have students to distinguish between the two. So, what is the difference – or, when does a story become history?
In the dictionaries one finds that, in English, history and story actually share the same root and are linked to the meaning of ‘see’ and to the words ‘wit’, ‘wise’ and ‘witness’. The main idea that emerges here appears to be that history and story are both accounts of what has been seen and, as such, become what one knows. So, I guess this means that my task is to tell you what I have seen and what I know based on that experience. But what is history, then; what do historians do? It would seem to me that historians are left with the messy business of tidying up the personal, highly subjective, accounts of the storyteller and of turning them into something that can be shared with others and passed on, somehow making them more objective or objectified in the process. In other words, it is the historian’s job to make sense of personal accounts within the framework of a collective body of knowledge or history.
My quest for identity
When people ask me what it means to be Australian rather than Italian, or Australian-Italian rather than Italian-Australian, I never know quite what to say. If the truth be known, I do not think of myself in any of these terms – I just think of myself as me. However, at the time I was thinking about my identity in relation to the ‘Australians in Italy’ symposium it happened that the Honourable Marcello Pera, President of the Italian Senate, delivered a speech at the opening of a conference in Rimini on 21 August 2005. Its title was Democrazia è libertà? In difesa dell’Occidente (‘Is democracy freedom? In defence of the West’).1 In this speech he discussed the need for the West, or more specifically Europe, to define its identity as a means of defence against the non-Western world; he depicted multiculturalism as a destructive entity and a threat to Italy’s traditional values. Of course Pera’s words did not go unnoticed in the political arena and many Italian politicians have taken a stance against his position. At a personal level, as an Italian, I felt utterly embarrassed, and as an Australian, or rather a non-European, I felt hurt. The words that attracted the most criticism appeared in Pera’s list of ‘causes for alarm’ in current European civilisation. He said that ‘In Europa si diffonde l’idea relativistica che tutte le culture hanno la stessa dignità etica, nessuna è migliore di un’altra, tutte sono buone e giuste’ (‘The relativistic concept that all cultures share the same ethical dignity, that none is better than another, that all are good and just, is becoming a commonplace in Europe’), adding that ‘In Europa si pratica il multiculturalismo come diritto di identità irriducibile di tutte le comunità, non importa se genera apartheid, risentimenti e terroristi di seconda generazione’ (‘Multiculturalism is practiced in Europe as an unassailable right for all communities to assert their identity, whether it generates apartheid, resentment or second-generation terrorists’). President Pera went on to say that ‘In Europa la popolazione diminuisce, si apre la porta all’immigrazione incontrollata, e si diventa meticci’ (‘In Europe the population is dwindling, we are opening our doors to uncontrolled immigration, and are becoming half-breeds’).
Although I have Italian citizenship, I am also an extracomunitaria, a non-European citizen, someone from beyond the borders. I suddenly realised that as an Australian I am also perceived as a non-European outsider; in any event I have been perceived as such by a president of the Italian Senate. And it would seem that President Pera has been concerned that someone such as myself might contaminate the pure Italian bloodlines. I am certainly no historian, but does not Italy have at least a 5000 year history of multiculturalism? Was not the Italian peninsula inhabited by different peoples who brought with them different cultures, not to mention different languages? Have not recent scientific discoveries proved that there is no such thing as ‘pure’ blood, that we are all of mixed blood? And is not Italy the home of campanilismo – local community pride and ancient rivalry between bordering cities, such as Pisa and Lucca, Florence and Siena? Over the last 20 years, Tuscany, for example, has adopted a fierce protectionist policy for its local products. More broadly, the label DOC (Denominazione di origine controllata) and DOP (Denominazione di origine protetta) displayed on wine, olive oil and other produce proclaims that the culture producing certain foodstuffs is only to be found in a particular and limited geographical area. In Tuscany alone there are hundreds of different food-making cultures. How many different cultures in the broader sense are there in all of Italy? What about the Italian social clubs in Australia; the Veneto club, the Apulia Social Club and so forth? Are these not indicative of a strong sense among ‘Italians’ of distinct local cultures and regional diversity? But I am grateful to President Pera for raising these questions because his speech gave me the opportunity for reflection. Indeed, I think it fair to say that identity becomes something we feel we need to talk about when we are confronted with ideas and speech with which we strongly disagree – inevitably we are led to position ourselves in relation to what has been said.
On the road to Australasia and belonging to the land
One of the most frequent questions I am asked as an Australian in Italy is ‘What do I miss about Australia?’ Surprisingly for some, what I miss most about Australia is its proximity to Asia. When people ask me about Australia, I talk about Asia. I miss the smells, the colours, the sounds and the shapes of Asia. When I board that plane in Rome, with so many other people heading East, I feel a pang of homesickness and I know that I am heading to Australia, to Australia in Asia. I thus define myself as an Australasian person and I can do so, I believe, because I come from a country where multiculturalism is an inclusive – not an exclusive – reality, and identity is a concept that flourishes in a state of fluidity; a concept that has ‘fuzzy edges’. It is forever changing, never static.
The realisation of my Asian dimension helps me deal with another aspect of my identity: jetlag, or the state in which my brain becomes disassociated from my body whenever I travel to Australia. For as long as I was limited to thinking about Australia as ‘a European accident in the Pacific’, my brain was unable to fathom the physical and cultural distance between Italy and Australia. Until recently I could never understand how one could fly over all those different cultures, effectively ignore them, open the door of the airplane and be catapulted, unchanged and unscathed, into an imperfect replica of Britain. Now that I have mentally placed Australia in Asia, I am able to see the countries I fly over as a natural progression towards my point of arrival rather than some exotic distraction. I trust that my newly acquired mental landscape will have a positive influence on my biological clock as well.
One’s geographical location is a profoundly significant aspect of identity and a sense of belonging. The Italians are real maestri, masters, when it comes to connecting with the land (la mia terra), or when asserting their right to identify with the land (il territorio). For many years, as an Australian living in Italy, I felt that I had no right to establish a connection with the land; that one just cannot belong to something to which one has no title. At the same time, when I travelled back to Australia, I felt that because I was not really ‘living’ in that country, I had no rights there, either. I had been dispossessed. However, one day one of my Italian aunties, who lives in the United Kingdom, told me a story:
When our family was forced to move to this area [Versilia, on the Tuscan coast] during the war to get away from the bombing in La Spezia, we all felt like we were outsiders, we were seen as those ‘who come from the city’. One day as I was walking through one of the many age-old pine forests (a pineta) I shuddered and felt a sense of peace overpower me. I didn’t understand what had happened to me at the time and put my experience down to the natural beauty and peacefulness of the forest itself. Only much later on did I learn that that very pineta had once, many centuries ago, belonged to our family and that what I had experienced was the land reclaiming me.
As young people often do, I soon forgot about my aunty’s story and got on with my own life. As fate would have it, I ended up in Italy again and many years later found myself horseriding in the Pineta di San Rossore just outside Pisa. The Pineta di San Rossore is a Natural Heritage Park in Italy, and is what is left of the extensive pine tree woodland that once grew along the coast of Tuscany. Needless to say, I too experienced what my aunt had experienced 50 years before. But for me the significance of this experience lay in the new avenues it enabled me to explore. By establishing a spiritual relationship to the land in Italy, I felt I was finally ready to accept my Australian heritage as well. If it is true that you belong to the land and that the land does not belong to you, then I can never lose my connection with the Australian land because I am part of it spiritually and physically, even in absentia. Indeed, the land receives all and repels no-one. Land is multicultural.
Language isolation and loss
Another aspect of my identity that caused me much pain (especially in the pre-Internet years) was the lack of exposure not only to English but to the sounds of Australian English; I experienced a sense of losing my language. This state of isolation and perception of loss is, I am sure, something experienced by many who live in a foreign country or culture. In my case, the fact that I was bilingual, or what the linguists call ‘a balanced bilingual’ – a person equally proficient in all areas of both languages – was, in a way, to my disadvantage because I felt that both languages were competing for space in my brain rather than supporting each other.
Around the time I was experiencing what I would later refer to as ‘the peak of my language isolation’, I came across and read the book My Place by Sally Morgan (1987). My process of healing was triggered by my discovery of the quest for identity which was taking place within indigenous Australia at the time, and by the realisation that there were many ‘full title Australians’ who did not speak English. Very soon I came to the conclusion that English has nothing, or at least very little, to do with being and feeling Australian.
The last story I want to tell you concerns my experience as a Lettore di Lingua Straniera, a Foreign Language Lecturer, within the Italian university system. The term lettore literally means ‘reader’, and refers to the old custom in Italian universities of using a native speaker to provide students with authentic exposure to the sounds of the foreign language. For centuries lettori were like today’s tape recorders or radios. These days they carry out most of the foreign language teaching within the Italian university system. When I signed my first contract with the University of Pisa in 1991 as a Lettore di Lingua Straniera, the terms of the contract explicitly placed me among the native Italian university teaching staff, whilst stating that I was employed because I was qualified to teach my mother tongue; that is, English.
In 1994 the University of Pisa (as well many other universities in Italy) altered the contracts of Lettori di Lingua Straniera: we were left to carry out the same functions as listed in our previous contracts (teaching our mother tongue) but our job title was changed to Collaboratore ed Esperto Linguistico (Language Expert and Collaborator). As a result, we were placed outside the career system in which we had been operating – and our pay was reduced. In other words, the fact that we were native speakers of the foreign language we taught disqualified us from university tenure. Nevertheless, the court decision number 688/DS of the Civil Court of Padua dated 16 September 2005 states that the Lettori of the University of Padua are to be reinstated as members of that University’s academic and teaching community, and awards them a substantial pay rise and back-pay. This decision has given us good reason to believe that the tide will turn in Pisa, too.
As I await intellectual and professional rehabilitation in the Italian courts and in the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, I can say that colleagues from my country of origin, Australia, have on the occasion of this symposium given me the opportunity to further the process of personal, if not political, healing by providing me with a forum for the telling of a personal drama.
* * *
Oh, and one last thing. I was in such an emotional state this morning as I left the house that I forgot to wash my face. Yet now that I have been able to tell my story to an audience, and have experienced empathy face-to-face – human being to human being – washing my face is precisely what I feel like doing. And, believe it or not, I can do it for free!2
1 All quotations in Italian have been translated into English by the author.
2 The title and this closing paragraph refer to the Shared Responsibility Agreement of 2004 negotiated between the remote Aboriginal community of Mulan in Western Australia and the Australian Federal Government, by which the latter offered to provide funding for petrol bowsers in return for a community commitment to wash the faces of all children daily, and to adopt other health measures.
Morgan, Sally. 1987. My Place. Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press.
This chapter is from Australians in Italy: Contemporary Lives and Impressions, edited by Bill Kent, Ros Pesman and Cynthia Troup (Monash University Publishing: Clayton, Melbourne. 2010). For more information about this book, or to purchase print copies, please go to http://www.publishing.monash.edu/books/ai.html.