The Joys of being a Foreigner

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Recently, as I’ve started doing some promotion for my thriller Zero Alternative, the one question I always get asked in interviews is a variation of: ‘You’re Italian – why do you live here (in London, at the moment), and why do you write in English?’

There are many answers to these simple questions but each of them only captures a slice of the truth, and every time several parallel reasons pop into my mind. So in this piece I’ll try to dig a little deeper to explore how my choices in the end often boil down to the delights of being a foreigner, an outsider, a man with no history who can step into a new country, a new job, a new circle of friends, and a new life.

I was born and grew up in a small town in Northern Italy but I left it early, before turning eighteen. Since then I’ve lived in several locations around the US, UK and Europe, and loved pretty much all of them. Because home, the small town in Italy, always felt… alien, in a way. I hated the idea, even as a youngster, that I could never really be my own person – I was always the son of, the cousin of, the nephew of… It felt as if anything that my family or friends had ever done (or I, in my short past) would forever have an impact on my own life and self, as if the conventions and habits and prejudices – good and bad – were more important than whatever I could hope to build in the future.

And then I left.

And suddenly a whole world opened up – I barely knew the language when I moved to the US, but it didn’t matter. Nobody knew ME, nobody had any expectations or guesses as to what I was and what I could be. They just took me at face value, liking or disliking whatever they saw of my personality and behaviour.

That’s probably why I never went back ‘home’. Because I liked the Luca Pesaro out there more, I liked his desire and thirst for knowledge, and the fact that he could pick his friends from scratch and they could grow together irrespective of their past.

Being a foreigner means having to focus on the future, because it’s the only thing that matters. And it also means being able to observe everything with a fresh perspective, since a lot of the stuff you see you’ve never encountered before. You don’t have an opinion on a foreign food, because you’ve never tried it just that way, and you can taste it all afresh.

You can’t have an opinion on cultures, not after you finally get to sample them in a fully immersive way, discussing issues with people with beliefs, upbringing, and different ways of looking at the world from the ones you are used to. It just scrambles your mind, and it’s a delight of new voices, an explosion of worldviews that can only make you a better person.

Every new street and corner and building and park is interesting, just because it’s… other. It doesn’t have to be a cathedral or a skyscraper – sometimes it’s the little views that hit you the most – and you only truly sample them as a foreigner. As a stranger in a strange land.

And then – especially if you, like me, enjoy reading and writing – there’s the greatest pleasure of them all: discovering the language of whatever place you happen to be in. Learning a new language in depth is a little like being able to see new colours, or hear new sounds. Even words that have a clear meaning often carry a slightly different, subtle flavour, and every time you pick up a new phrase it’s like discovering a sliver of beauty you’d never noticed before.

My mother-tongue Italian is, I’m told, a beautiful-sounding language. It might be true, but as a native you don’t really notice it. What you do notice though, especially as a writer, is that it’s not a language built for action, or speed. It’s well-suited to poetry, and sonnets flow faultlessly. But Hemingway suffers, in an Italian translation. And so does most commercial literature. While English, at least to me, feels fresh, and sharp, and flexible. It allows you to play with rhythm, and has one-liner descriptions that can be stunning in their directness and imagery. And this probably answers the second part of the question, or why do I write in English. (There’s also the small fact that my written Italian has become rubbish after twenty-five years or reading, working, and speaking English).

But the reality of it is that you only really learn a language by full-immersion, by living it and breathing it and eating it. And loving it.

Which you can only do as foreigner.

2 responses to “The Joys of being a Foreigner

  1. How fascinating. I love the ‘other’ element you describe so well, and ‘seeing’ a new language in terms of colour. Totally get the ‘home’ as alien. Same for me but for different reasons…

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