Straddling the Cultural Hyphen

I went for a walk with my nonno one day. I must have been eight or nine. He kept repeating the same word over and over again as we hunted in nooks and crevices. Wash-a-room. Wash-a-room. I couldn’t understand why we had left my grandparents home, containing two full bathrooms, in search for an alternate washroom. It was only after some time and by the power of observation that I realized that my nonno was actually hunting for mushrooms. Wild mushrooms. He was foraging, and I’d almost missed it. 

This is what happens in the gap between Italian and Canadian. Language gets lost. I’ve tried all my life to keep one foot on either side of the hyphen, standing proudly as a first-generation Canadian, yet not wanting to do disservice to my thoroughly Italian roots. But things tend to get a little mixed up in the hyphen. 

Growing up, whenever my dad would come home I’d say Hi!, and he would reply with “Chipolla, no aglio.” Onion, not garlic. Chi-po-la, no hai-li-o. It was his favourite inter-lingual play on words, and pretty much sums everything up. The juggling, the limbo, the living in both worlds. It’s like how most people swear in their mother tongue, but I swear in Italian; or how as a kid I knew my mom was really mad if I heard her swear in English. Everything is just a little mixed up. 

And it makes me sad, that hyphen. Because there is so much meat to the old-school Italian culture that I don’t want to see lost. My dad’s stories of post-war Italy, having nothing but an army blanket on his bed to keep him warm. Or how his first time intoxicated he was seven years old, playing with a friend in the cantina on a summer day, taking sips from the spout of the wine barrel whenever they were thirsty. Eventually they fell asleep on top of the wine barrel, forgetting to shut the spout, and emptying Nonno’s entire supply of wine in the process. My nonna’s homemade pasta, and her biscotti and latte before bed. My mom’s lasagna—my version of comfort food, which has already been lost in the hyphen between me and my kids. 

My kids, Italian-Scottish-Cornish-Ontarian-Quebecer-Anglo-Gaspesian-Montrealer-Canadian, are so riddled with hyphens that they are effectively now just simply, Canadian. Canadian, in three generations. Three generations to remove lasagna as a comfort food (my son doesn’t even like pasta at all, something I refuse to speak about openly), to no longer refer to veal cutlets as fettine, to refer to wine as alcohol rather than just another beverage belonging with every meal, to live in a house without two kitchens and a cantina. Three generations, and I know my kids’ kids won’t refer to their aunt and uncle as Zia and Zio, that I will be the last Nonna down our line. Three generations of hyphens forming a stepladder up our family tree, a stepladder that carried our family across an ocean and between continents, but that with each step our ancestral memories grow a little fuzzier, our traditions get a little less traditional, and we forget what things were supposed to mean, and so make up new meanings for the future generations. 

 I think of my nonna. On the day she gave birth to my mother she was on the family farm in Italy. She turned to my nonno and said, “I think the baby is coming today,” to which he replied, “So get everything ready then meet me in the fields, there’s work to do.” So, she prepared the bedroom for a home delivery, then went outside to work the fields. The fields are exactly where she went into labour. And I think, looking into her newest daughter’s eyes, did she ever consider it a possibility that this daughter’s daughter would barely be able to carry on a conversation in Italian at all? My phone calls with my nonna always went something like this:

Ciao, Nonna.

Ciao, Maria.

Come stai?


That being about the part where she would begin to take pity on me. 

But I also can’t help but think, as I put some weight on my right foot, that there’s something kind of fun about the mix. In the same way that everyone loves a mutt, we get to choose the best of all worlds. I know way more couples in my generation that are culturally mixed than not, and their kids are mutts like mine are, and I think that’s fun, too. Because on one side of my hyphen, culture was not a choice, and on the other, it is. And whereas with my Italian family I am often more concerned with what is culturally acceptable or not acceptable, with my kids we focus more on the choices they make as individuals. 

I can’t help but wonder whether the more hyphens there are, the more choices that will arise. We had to lose a sense of culture in order to build a new one, close a door to open a window and all that. Because ultimately, we will never remember more than three generations that precede us, such is life’s way of forcing us to focus on the present. But we do get to choose what traits get carried over the hyphens and up each new rung of the ladder.

Let it be the food, please, let it be the food. 



Published by mtg

A woman. A mother. A wife. A writer. This is me.

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