Soviet grandma Nina knows an Italian when she sees one

After several encounters with misdirected racism during her first year in Russia, one young woman from Italy was able to reconquer her Italian identity with a help of a Russian granny. But was this really the image she was looking to project?
Italian_Girl_XPAT_Files
After living with Michela, Nina had become such an expert on Italians that she could even see the difference between her northern discretion and my southern hot temper. Source: Alena Repkina

One day during my first year in Russia, I was about to cross the road. On the right of the alley there was a posh black car and a tall, fat, dark man with golden jewelry was standing next to it. 

“Hey, lady!” he shouted, “Hey there!”

I started: “Me?”

“Yes, you.”

“What?”

“Are you Jewish?”

“… no. Why?”

“'Cause I'm Jewish!” he said, and gave me a big smile.

“Well, good for you,” I replied, and went away.

I’m 160 centimeters tall, I’m thin, I’ve got brown curly hair, dark thick eyebrows, high cheekbones and a hooked nose. My dad looks like Stalin and I’m Italian. Of course, one can be Italian and Jewish, but the point is that you are not necessarily to be asked. Why is it so important, when you meet someone, to make it clear, straight away, where they are from?

Appearance counts

When I began to look for accommodation by myself, I learned that nationality matters. 

Losing sleep on the internet, I found ads that stated explicitly:  “For Slavic people only”; “We don’t welcome Caucasians.” What the hell does “Slavic looks” mean? And “Caucasian”?

One day I didn’t even have the time to discuss the price and the apartment conditions with the agent before the conversation took a funny turn:

“What an interesting accent you have. You’re not Russian…”

“No, I’m Italian.”

“Oh! Italian! That’s wonderful! And what do you look like?”

“Meaning..?”

“Have you got dark, curly hair…?”

I couldn't understand whether the guy was making rude and hopeless attempts to flirt with the “Italian sex symbol,” or whether he was trying to make sure that I was Slavic enough for the ad I had reacted to.

“I am WHITE,” I said, and felt suddenly guilty towards all the black or “blackish” people.

“I see. And you’re short, aren't you? I mean, are you plump?” People were laughing in his office, and I just hung up.

Soviet grandma to the rescue

Then my lucky moment arrived: Michela, an Italian colleague of mine, moved to the suburbs to work for another company, and I was allowed to move into her room. The old landlady she lived with loved Italians, so I had no nationality test to pass.

Her name was Nina and she looked to us like a model of pure Slavic Soviet womanhood. She was between her seventies and eternity and she was still as straight as a ballet dancer, because every morning at 7:00 she did Pilates for half an hour.

To look even straighter, she used to braid her endless grey hair and then fix it in a bun on top of her head. She had never learned foreign languages and she had me translate the labels on shampoo and bath foam. Everything about her smelled like Communist Youth.

“Your Russian is so good, almost flawless,” she would say, praising me while I was showing her how to make good pasta e fagioli. “You girls are both so good. Those people from the republics live here their whole lives and still can’t string two words together! You Italian girls are so smart, so active! You don’t sit home like our modern Russian girls, waiting for a good party to court you, you just go out in the world, do your stuff…”

Comfort in cliché

After living with Michela, she had become such an expert on Italians that she could even see the difference between her northern discretion and my southern hot temper. I would come back late after a dancing night at Gorky Park, talk passionately about literature, rush from one student to the other, speak loudly on the phone, hum in the shower, lose and find lip gloss all over the flat. Nina started suspecting I was too “hot.”

“So, do you like this Ivan?” she hinted one day.

“Yeah, he’s quite a good student.”

“He’s the one you keep dancing with.”

“Oh, no. That’s Vlad.”

“Your other student.”

“No, that’s Sergei. Vlad isn’t my student, he’s my boyfriend.”

“I understand, you’re popular.” She gave a malicious smile, which puzzled me.

“By the way, I was trying to say that tomorrow Ivan is coming here for his class.”

“Oh, no, please. I know how these things go, you can live here, but please, don’t start bringing men home!”

At Nina’s I had finally become the southern Italian girl that perhaps every Soviet old lady imagines.

Sydney Vicidomini studied Foreign Languages and Cultures and, after traveling to Russia a couple of times to deepen her knowledge of the country, she moved to Moscow in 2012. She teaches English and Italian to different age groups at Meschool in the city’s Kurkino district and in her free time she writes about life in Russia in her blog Russaliana.me.

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