March 10, 2004  
Volume 97, Issue 83  

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An Italian heritage moment

Give it to her straight
Lori Mastronardi

A&E Editor

“Are you Greek?” “Lebanese?” “Italian?”

My distinct Mediterranean look often garners the question of my background. Apparently, people don’t always recognize my Italian traits at first; however, once my last name is uttered, any uncertainty immediately vanishes.

So, yes, I am Italian — 100 per cent in fact. I’ve always envied people who rolled off a list like “I’m one-eighth Irish, half French on my mother’s side, part Dutch, with some Russian mixed in.”

I could merely reply, “My mom’s Italian. My dad’s Italian. My grandparents are all Italian, too.”

Upon sharing this information, I’m inevitably faced with the question of whether or not I can speak the language. This question makes me very uncomfortable: I bow my head, avert my eyes and shamefully reveal that I cannot.

And what happens when an Italian girl can’t communicate with other Italians? She is generally labelled a “fake Italian” (or “fake I-Tai,” for short) by friends and strangers alike. My Nonno tried to teach my brother, sister and I, but the only words I can remember are insults like “no chervelo,” “fate putsa” and “porka.” As well as the standard curse words, which have pervaded the vocabulary of non-Italians, so this doesn’t put me ahead.

I feel guilty that I’m unable to communicate with my grandparents. When my Nonna melds English and Italian, I can get by. However, when the conversation morphs into full-out Italian, my older sister translates, while my grandmother shakes her head at me, my brother and my sister: “you no understand, you no understand, and you — you understand a little bit, but not too much.”

However, one thing I do understand and appreciate is quality Italian cooking — honestly, nothing beats my Nonna’s homemade pasta. She and my mother ensure I stay warm during the cold winter months by sending me so many Tupperware’s of pasta sauce that I’ve rented out an extra freezer.

When visiting my grandparents, they lure me into eating helping after helping of food — a single serving will never suffice. Rather, if you insist you are full (since you likely ate lunch three minutes prior to the offering), my Nonna’s encouraging expression will immediately change into a hurt, guilt-inducing one.

When you reject Nonna’s food, she will say one of two things: “What? You no like my food?” or “Don’t worry, this won’t-a make-a you fat.” After 21 years, I’ve finally realized the trick is to ensure there is always food on your plate, eat slowly and speak as much as possible.

My Nonno, on the other hand, would not mind if I decided to lay off the carbs. When my ultra-slim sister and I stopped by for a visit, he glanced from my sister to me and said — this really happened — “either you a tropa skinny or you a tropa fat.”

Despite my lack of prowess with the language and inability to resist a homemade meal, I am proud of my ethnic background. Because, after all, although I’m proud to be Canadian, I won’t ever forget my roots.



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