Friday, January 11, 2013

Being Italian, the South-African Way

Our guest today is Estelle Jobson. Estelle has more than a dozen years of experience in book publishing as well as a master's degree in publishing from New York University, which she attended on a Fulbright. She has done just about everything you can do with a book, except eat it. Estelle, who is South African, speaks five languages and has lived in as many countries. She now lives Geneva, where she works in communications, writes, edits, and takes empowering naps. She is active in promoting women’s health. She wrote about wire word art in Cape Town for Novel Adventurers last January.

How did I, a born-and-bred South African, end up speaking, living, and becoming Italian? And how did I find my way to writing my first book, a travel narrative about cross-cultural immersion, set in Rome?

Way back when, via marriage to my (first and thankfully last) swarthy husband of Sicilian ancestry, I became eligible to acquire Italian citizenship. The Italian passport was a magical ‘Open Sesame!’ to the European Union. Almost every occasion I went through passport control on it, anywhere from Dublin to JFK, an uprooted Italian customs officer would bear down upon me, delighted to be meeting a fellow Italian. Invariably, he would ask why I had such an odd (non-Italian) last name, how many bambini I had (none) and where the Italian husband was? (Dismissed eventually, for shoddy performance.)

I was officially Italian. But I wasn’t, neither in heart nor blood. Yet I wasn’t cheating, was I? What kind of Italian speaks not a word of the language and cannot distinguish tagliatelle from tortellini? What a disgraceful specimen I was. And my ill-fitting, fake-Italian identity made me quite sheepish.

Some years passed and I fell into the company of another man, less swarthy but with a majestic Roman nose. Being a Florentine, he claimed to speak the best Italian of all, and he set about imparting to me invaluable lore, above and beyond his language: food, fashion, music, olive oil and the Houdini-like convolutions of Italian families. So when his job transferred him from South Africa back to Rome, we moved there together. It was exhilarating for me, as a fake-real Italian, to be coming ‘home’ for the first time.

Clutching my passaporto, I set out on the quest to becoming a real-real Italian. And step by step—registering my residency, getting a health card, obtaining a scooter license—did. Muscling my way through this Olympian obstacle course of bureaucracy, sustained by cappuccinos, I became more confident, sassy and tenacious. The more I said, ‘I know my accent is funny, but I am Italian!’, the truer it became. And the truer it was, the less it needed saying.

Soon enough, when crossing paths with a homesick customs officer, I got chatting about my Italian home. I gesticulated about the eternal traffic of the eternal city, he shook his head about nationwide unemployment, and we both smacked our lips about carciofi alla romana (artichokes cooked the Roman way). All quite fluently, in Italian.

And nowadays, if somebody asks me where I come from, I say, ‘Rome’ or ‘Johannesburg’ or ‘Italy and South Africa’, depending what comes out. And quite easily, I say, ‘Well, I’m South African, but Italian too. Both, you know.’ This declaration falls from the lips effortlessly and quite of its own accord. Just like the pit of a freshly consumed and delicious Tuscan olive as one reaches for another to savour.

You can read an excerpt from Finding Rome on the Map of Love here.


  1. Loved reading about your Italian journey, Estelle. I can relate to so much of it - though through a different culture. But when I present my Iranian passport (in Iran - not elsewhere), no one bats an eyelash. With so little Western tourism, I suppose they're more accustomed to see Americans with Iranian passports than with anything else.

  2. Thank you, that is interesting, Heidi. The notion of identity within oneself and identity as documented is rather fascinating and there are so many people like you and me with half other identities that aren't necessarily our most obvious ones. At least you have an Iranian-sounding last name, which surely helps convey authenticity.

  3. Thanks for your post, Estelle. Most interesting!