An Italian-Canadian Identity Crisis

saralogoC-4Canadian. Italian. Canadese. Italiana. Italo-canadese. Italian-Canadian.

Almost every day in my life here in Italy, I’m forced to explain my cultural identity. Sometimes I seem too foreign to be Italian. More often, I seem too Italian to be foreign. Sometimes people say I speak Italian too well to be a native English speaker. Sometimes – and this is my favourite – people marvel at my excellent English skills, of all things.

So what am I?

The Preamble

Growing up in Canada, my last name stuck out like a sore thumb. I mean, you can spot its Italian-ness a mile away: Mastroianni. I’ve had to spell it for people almost as many times as I’ve said it, and I’ve had to endure every butchered pronunciation of it you can think of, and then some.

But my first name is not typically Italian. At least, not the way it’s spelled. Sara (pronounced Sah-rah) exists in Italian, but Sarah (my name, pronounced Sair-uh) boggles the Italian mind. What is that h doing there, anyways? For Italians, it’s strange. For Canadians, not so much. In Italy, for simplicity’s sake, I go by Sarah, pronounced the Italian way, with the rolled r and all.

Just when you think the confusion’s over, people discover I have a middle name: Ashley. In Canada it’s quite normal to have one, two or even three middle names. In Italy, the fact that I have “two first names” but I only use one as an actual name, incites gear-mashing of biblical proportions in Italian cervelli (brains) because of the incomprehensibility totale of the situation.

So why did I end up with this disaster?

The blame lies squarely at the feet of my parents, of course.

I was born in Canada to a mainly Canadian Mom (with German and British heritage) and an Italian-born, Canadian-raised Dad. Hence the Canadian – Italian name.

Throughout my life growing up in Canada I identified quite a bit with my Italian side. Not that I didn’t identify with my Canadian side, no no. But I just have always felt Italian-Canadian, probably largely due to my last name.


The Crisis

As my more faithful readers know, this Italian-Canadian, who doesn’t have the right to Italian citizenship because her father had renounced his to become a Canadian before she was born, recently fought tooth-and-nail to get a visto and move to Italy. And eccomi. Here I am.

When one moves to another country, especially Italy, there’s an amazing amount of bureaucracy to go through to become a registered person in that country. And at every step along the way here, people have called my identity into question because somehow, I seem to boggle their minds.

I was fine before. Completely, totally fine. But all this questioning has brought about an Italian-Canadian crisi d’identità (identity crisis).

Take, for instance, my recent quest for an Italian carta d’identità (identity card – how fitting). I go to Siena’s Comune (City Hall, featured in this blog’s logo), and wait for my number to be called.

I eventually get an audience with the man in charge of identity cards. He asks for a piece of ID, so I give him my Canadian passport. A passport which people who are not Canadian citizens cannot possess. A passport in which it clearly states that I was born in Canada, and that my citizenship is Canadian.


Having thoroughly studied the information page, he proceeds to ask me, in Italian, the most natural series of questions that comes when one is handed a Canadian passport. He opens with a doozy:

“Signorina, you mean to tell me you’re Canadian?” he asks incredulously. “Canadian Canadian?”

“…Sì,” I reply, and look around to see if it was someone else’s Canadian-ness that was being called into question.

Just mine, apparently.

“You’re not an Italian citizen? Don’t have another passport around somewhere?” He gestures absently around his office and I wonder just how many other people’s imaginary second passports he thinks are lying around.

“No,” I shake my head.

“But your last name-?”

“My dad is Italian.”

“But he’s not Tuscan,” the guy counters quickly. “Mastroianni isn’t a Tuscan name. I mean, it’s a famous name, a nice name. But it’s not Tuscan.”

And he’s right – famous it is, Tuscan it’s not. In a country that thrives on campanilismo (allegiance to one’s own town bell tower) this is an identity-defining detail.

“No, my Dad’s ciociaro,” I respond, using the adjective for people who come from my Dad’s part of  Lazio.

“But you live here.” “Yes.” “In Siena.” “Yes.” “Not in Canada.” “No.” “And not in your dad’s town.” “No.” “In Siena.” “That’s why I’m applying for an identity card here.”

After hearing me utter a full sentence, his eyes snap open wide and he recoils in his chair.

“You speak Tuscan!” he exclaims. “Listen to that accent!” Suddenly, he’s suspicious. “How can that be?”

I smile, because I know it’s true. Italians –  Tuscans and non –  comment on my Tuscan accent all the time. While at first I couldn’t understand a word that came out of any Tuscan mouth, I view my unconscious adoption of the accent over the years as an accomplishment in my language learning journey. It makes me oddly proud.

And since this guy, keeper of the identity cards, has obviously made it his mission to thoroughly vet me, given all the seemingly incongruous details I’m feeding him, he sits back in his chair looking smug, as if he’s somehow tripped me up with his questions. With a grand sweep of his hand, he invites me to continue my likely story.

When I shrug, he forges ahead with the intensity of a lawyer during a cross-examination.


“You have a heavier Tuscan accent than me and I’m Chiantigiano. From Chianti. A real Tuscan. You must have moved here a long time ago,” he surmises, satisfied that he’s solved the mystery that is Sarah Ashley Mastroianni: Canadian citizen, Tuscan talker with Ciociaro origins.

“No, actually. I’ve come to Siena every year for the past six, but I’ve only really been living here since June.” I let that hang for a second, then I add, “that’s why I need the identity card.”

“Are you here to study?” “No, I work.”

“Nooo, dai.” Come on. He draws out his words in the theatrical way typical of Italian speakers and starts to laugh. The ice has broken, now he’s getting a kick out of this conversation.

“A Ciociara-Canadian who speaks Tuscan like you and who’s come from Canada with all the jobs, to Italy with no jobs, to workNon esiste!” (That doesn’t exist!)

I laugh and smile, “And yet here I am, asking you gentilmente (kindly) for an identity card.”

“Of course, of course.” He smiles and busies himself with my passport and various papers on the desk in front of him. He taps away at his keyboard for a minute before he looks up and asks me the question of all questions.


His voice brings me back from la-la land and I raise an eyebrow in response, having not quite caught what he asked.

He rephrases. “Altezza?” Height?

“175 centimetres,” I respond.

A slow smile spreads across his face. “Ahhh, ecco! There it is.”

“There what is?” I ask, playing along, even though I know from previous experience exactly what’s coming.

“Signorina, I can give you an identity card that says you live in Siena, and you can talk like you talk, but you’re much too tall to be Tuscan.”

11 thoughts on “An Italian-Canadian Identity Crisis

  1. I can identify. Try having the last name of Pugliese and hear everyone and their brother mangle the “gli” . If I ever want to — and I don’t know what it would take — but both my parents are Italian and never renounced their citizenship and I am a naturalized citizen of the US. I was 20 when I became a citizen and at that time you couldn’t have dual citizenship 😦 i still speak in the Triestine dialect. I would love to go back to Italy. Perhaps some day.

  2. Impressive story molto interesante, I am from México and have friends that have come to live here from abroad as is very entertaining hear about their experience in overall.
    Muchas felicidades, esperó hayas conseguido la nacionalidad.

  3. like your blog – I lived in Amalfi, where I raised two children and have written the book (now have to decide ‘self-publish’ or look for an agent?). I hopefully have conveyed the difficulties of being not only foreign, but a female foreign – plus a lot that seemed very funny, because of my sense of humour. Also, how wonderful the people can be, as well as how long it can take to understand their attitudes. Overall, I absolutely loved it – had always felt I was meant to live in Italy and Amalfi was it!!
    My problem with the language was not Italian, but dialect. Have you heard the Napolitan dialect? Not easy as there are no recognisable roots (it comes from Catalan).
    will enjoy reading you.

  4. I am 181cm and my name is Andrea and I am a woman! I am the source of much consternation especially when in the deep south of Italy. I am stared at continually and there is lots of heading shaking and lightly veiled discussion about me. 🙂 Sometimes the young ones will start speaking to me in German before they try English thinking i must be German or Dutch.

  5. I love how you replayed this conversation, I could see it all unfolding before me. Too funny!

    A middle name in Italy is like…a vanity plate for a car. Italy doesn’t have either, and in the countries where they’re used, neither really “counts.”
    i.e.: In the US I filled out forms with my first and last name, and no one called my middle one into question. Like a vanity plate is just there for decoration.

  6. That’s too funny! Italians I’ve met never fail to express surprise that someone can have an Italian name, but not be from Italy or speak Italian (all of my great-grandparents on my dad’s side emigrated to the U.S., settled in Boston’s Italian-American community. My grandparents, growing up in that community, went to school together and eventually married each other – producing my “100% Italian” dad, who nonetheless doesn’t speak a word of the language). “But you know, your name is Italian, right?” “Yes, yes, I know, I know.” I think the typical Italian may not be aware just how much Italian immigration to North America took place in the early 20th century (Americans take this knowledge for granted, “the great migration” is standard U.S. history textbook fare. But I can see how it might not seem to be such a significant event for the countries those immigrants left). Funny thing is, I always *thought* I took after the Italian side of my family – until I visited Italy, where I’ve never felt so American in my life.

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