The Return, Part III: The (Italian) Hangover

I like California, I do. But over a month after coming back to the Bay Area, I’m still on an Italian hangover. I miss it all – the vibrant greens of the rolling countryside, the nonconformity of architectural design, the feel of walking up hills steeped in history. Sometimes, I even miss waiting for yet another train, or quickly wearing out new boots on the sanpietrini. I vividly recall the sweet, delicate crispness of aragostine and the potency of homemade limoncello. The flavors, the sights, the smells, the sounds…they all contribute to the irreplaceable experience that is Italy.

I often spout arbitrary phrases in Italian, and I don’t think that’s going to change. Friends and coworkers may not always understand what I’m saying, but that’s ok; merely sounding out the Italian vowels gives me some sense of connection. (Get used to it, people!)

Should I recondition myself to give hugs as way of greeting? I’m reacquainting myself with the American culture of hugs and handshakes rather than baciare*. By default, I do the Italian two-cheek kiss. I grew up Filipino, however, with the one-cheek kiss. Any way you look at it, it sometimes gets tricky when I’m of a different mindset than whomever I happen to be with. Do I come in for a hug? A single, right-side kiss? A dual kiss that starts on the left side, a là the Romans? Does someone from this side of the cultural divide need time to get used to air kisses? Maybe we should just keep it simple and stick to a high-five. Better yet, let’s keep it even simpler and wave goodbye as we turn on our heels. Awkward.

I’m re-observing (or perhaps un-observing) the absence of unyielding eye contact. When Italians are engrossed in conversation, the eye contact can get intense…even between two straight men. It’s just a cultural thing. If I looked at everyone with such laser-focus here, each person in a group of 10 would think I was in love with him or her. Ok, maybe 8 out of 10 people would. The 8th person would get uncomfortable, and the 9th person might commit me to an asylum.

On a similar note, Italians don’t have the concept of “personal space” the way Americans do. Actually, this applies to a number of countries outside the U.S., but let’s stay on track. I’ve divided most of my time away between two very affectionate cultures; let’s hope that doesn’t get me into too much trouble here.

It’s simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar being back. I feel like I’m in an in-between ether. What culture do I presently relate to more? Is California still for me? On one hand, I’m the assertive Silicon Valley workaholic who strives toward that elusive, “ideal” life. On the other hand, I’m the Guamanian/Filipina/Italian who’s happy to saunter along with a Hafa Adai / idly watch the rising sun / savoring my gelato on a warm summer night by the water. I’ve been on both sides of the extremes and am now finding that middle balance where I comfortably, happily, exist.

I’m still me – just a version who’s…softer? A version who’s learned to slow down and stop to smell the roses. Yeah, it’s a cliché, but I haven’t yet figured out how to describe Caroline 2.0. I think she’s still working out the kinks. And yes, I did just refer to myself in the third person.

This isn’t so different from any of the other times I’ve returned from Italy in the sense that I sit in my nostalgia for an extended period. Only this time, a part of me sits calmly in her Italian apron, knowing she’ll be back soon and often.

 

*The word “baciare” means “to kiss,” but it’s more than that. It’s the act of greeting each other with a cheek to cheek (on both sides) as hello and goodbye. Depending on the person, this may be more than two kisses, or the kisses may be lip to cheek rather than cheek to cheek, or the kisses may come with a hug.