On Being Italian / by Rachel Nordgren


Well, I know I said in this post that my next several blog installments would be sharing the story of where I've been in the past year and a half. However, let's be honest: it's a lot of heavy stuff. So, I've decided to mix in some lighter fare. This is so that neither you or I get overwhelmed with the weight of grief and brokenness that much of my life has embodied in the last 18 months.

Much of life is a tension between the heavy and the light, yes?

I think the good Lord saw fit to only make me 1/4 Italian, because He knew I might burn the world down if I was anything more. The taciturn German and reserved English blood that also flows through my veins does just enough to counteract the passion and fire of that 1/4 of Italian that I don't get into trouble too often.

"Too often" being the operative (and perhaps generous) term.

One time, Hans and I were in an IKEA in Chicago, heading down an escalator in the middle of the store. This particular IKEA was four octagon-shaped floors stacked on top of one another, like donuts, with the center completely open. Echoing off the walls of that atrium were the resounding, pointed, impassioned, white-hot words of an outraged Italian woman. She was unleashing a thunderstorm on her decidedly standoffish husband, hand gestures striking the air around her like lightning, the beauty of the Italian language being wielded as a force of nature.

I can only assume that she had just discovered her husband had taken a lover, or that he disagreed with her taste in table lamps. One of the two.

"See?" I leaned over to Hans and whispered, "That's what it would be like if I was full-blooded."

He slowly turned to me, stoic cornflower blue Swedish eyes wide with terror.

In college, I spent several semesters teaching a girls' Bible Study and quickly became notorious for my expressive hand gestures. Once, my girls challenged me to teach an entire lesson without talking with my hands. I sat on my metacarpals and stuttered through about two sentences before they wriggled free to make a dramatic point about the theological implications of Ephesians 2:4

My paternal grandmother was 100% Italian, and her family came to America on the boat sometime in the 1800's. Apparently, her grandmother refused to learn English after they arrived. Flat out refused. I remember my father telling me that story, and I remember laughing and saying, "Ah-ha! So, what you're telling me is that I come from a long line of stubborn Italian women?"

He let out a deep sigh and said that explained a lot.

After Hans and I moved in with my Dad, my husband occasionally witnessed the natural phenomenon known as two Italians getting in an argument. My Dad and I can duke it out with the best of them, flaring our tempers at each other like two indignant beta fish. Hans, whose unflappable German/Swedish demeanor had very little context for this sort of behavior until he met me, was pretty sure we'd get booted out on more than one occasion.

We weren't. Being Italian, our family foundations take a lot more than a shouting match to be shaken.

I cannot say with any truth or humility that one culture is better than another. That's egregious ethnocentrism and biased bigotry. My husband's stoical Swedishness may occasionally make my head ache from the centripetal force of my rolling eyes, but being married to him is also like having an anchor in the unpredictable seas of Italian emoting. To him, my appetite for resolving an argument as quickly as possible can occasionally read like I'm trying to pick a fight, but it means that nothing gets swept under the rug to fester in silence.

This, I think, is a tiny lesson in the importance of getting outside our cultural bubbles: we learn that our way is not the only way. We see the good and the beauty in the ways that other people live and love, and we respect that which we cannot fully comprehend. We strengthen our muscles of empathy and understanding and soul-modesty, and I think we become better human beings for the effort.

So, while being Italian is one of my favorite parts of myself - it's the tigers in my blood, the fire in my belly, the razor's edge on my wit - may it only lay claim to a portion of my life.

Let there be room enough left over for the girl who still has so much to learn.