Monday night Leif and I had an aperitivo with his Swedish group of friends for Swedish National Day. This is the same group of people who gathered at IKEA for their Santa Lucia celebration and meet several times a year to just get together and speak their mother tongue and compare notes on life here in Italy. It is one of many ex-pat groups from many different countries here in Florence.
I have to admit, it was nice for me to sit in a crowd of people who look like me. Blonde, blue/green eyes, fair skin and a language far removed from Italian. Leif tells me that all the sounds that are used in Italian are also used in Swedish, but I have a hard time hearing anything familiar in the language. Except that if I stop trying to pick out words and listen instead to the sounds I hear Minnesota voices. Yes, Fargo, but also from the Iron Range and Benton County (where I am from) and southern Minnesota. Certain words and phrases take their inflection directly from some ancestral Scandinavian. There just aren’t enough first generation Scandinavian immigrants around anymore for us to hear the similarity. I don’t feel that the Muppet’s Swedish Chef is an appropriate example of the Scandinavian accent.
When they stood up to sing the Swedish National Anthem I realized that they have something I don’t. We may look the same, but I don’t have a group of friends like this. The people I spend most of my time with are not Americans. In fact, I only know about three Americans here and I only see them occasionally. I am surrounded by Italians and Swedes. Most of Leif’s friends are cyclists and Italians. Makes sense, he has been here for nearly seven years. My best friend here is Swedish. I know that she is reaching out to me first and foremost because she and her husband love and respect Leif and want him to be happy. She also understands what it is like to move here and to feel a little strange and lost. She is the person, besides Leif, that I spend the most time with. I am hoping that I prove to be the kind of friend that she will enjoy doing things with.
I think every country has a measure or two in their national anthem that is either too difficult to sing or everyone forgets the words. Americans struggle to reach the high notes when they get to “the rockets red glare” and I think that recent years have shown us that the words must be difficult if pop singers can’t remember them for one performance at the Super Bowl or the World Series. The Swedish group had its’ moment too, when somewhere in the middle they sort of looked sheepishly at each other while kind of humming and la-la-laing their way through one section. I watched them and thought “I don’t have anyone to comfortably share that kind of discomfort with here in Florence.”
I have purposely not sought out any American ex-pat groups or individuals here. I know that I can sometimes be lazy, and if I have a ready made group of friends who speak my language and know the ropes here I know that I won’t try as hard to learn the language, the customs and the little important things like how and where to buy matches, how to buy a train ticket and read the timetables (and then of course how to ask someone in a Trenitalia jacket if this train goes where I want to go, never trust a timetable), and a thousand other little details that are important if I am going to live here. \
It’s possible that somewhere down the road I am going to want and need the familiarity of conversation with someone who speaks American English with all its idioms and shortcuts or that I will need Americans to help me find that one creature comfort that will ease my loneliness. But so far I have found comfort in my love and in the friends I have made here. Not the same kind of comfort I might have sought in Minnesota, but the kind that will help me become the Italian version of Michele. The one who buys her fruits and veggies every morning at the outdoor market. The one who sleeps in and stays up late. The one who is learning to love wine and pasta and Italian bread. The one who walks around the city and draws every day, just because she can. The one who will continue to pretend she is Swedish and go to the Swedish group parties, which are probably way more fun than the American ones anyway.