Wednesday, July 6, 2016

On Raising a Child in Venice and Four Categories of Travelers

The parking lot of a Venetian preschool (the wall reads: "I miss you to death")

Our eight-year-old son, Sandro, who has lived more of his life in Venice than in America, does not speak English with an Italian accent, but when he reads English it's another story. Then, he sometimes sounds like the requisite Italian street urchin in Hollywood films like Roman Holiday or Summertime delivering his few lines of helpful local color to the embodiment of one or another American ideal of uprightness and/or uptightness.

This shouldn't have been a surprise, as his schooling has been in Italian and his first inclination is thus to pronounce the letters of longer words in the Italian way--even if the words themselves are English. But the first time I heard him do this it came as a real shock; the latest in a series of periodic shocks that began with his first spontaneous exclamation of "Ma dai!" when he was three years old.

But this one, as it involved reading and writing, seemed the most substantial, the most lasting, yet. 

Who is this kid? I thought.

Similarly, the first note he ever left for my wife and me at home (where we speak only English), confirming that he had indeed gone outside to play with the friend who was due to pick him up while we were on a conference call in the next room, was entirely in Italian--down to the Mamma and Papà instead of the Mommy and Daddy he usually employs.

Of course, part of the process of growing up is growing outward, of putting some distance between oneself and one's parents, and part of the process of parenting is preparing kids to do this and giving them a safe space from which to make these ventures out into broader worlds.

But raising a child in a foreign context, in which he is markedly more fluent in both the language and culture than either of his parents, emphasizes these processes. The natural steps of differentiation between parents and a child that can be obscured--consciously or unconsciously--in a monolingual, mono-cultural household are glaring, for example, on those nights when our bi-lingual son chooses an Italian book for us to read to him at bedtime instead of an English one, and my wife or I struggle to get the pronunciation and cadence right in a tongue not native to us.

Our children, in other words, get away from us, as surely every parent must sense (if not admit) at some point. That is, like everyone else in the world, they are their own people. But if it can sometimes be hard for us to acknowledge this with certain people--most notably that love interest with whom we feel we are "one" and forever inseparable--it can be particularly charged with our own kids (with all the possessiveness of that formulation).

I have a video clip of Sandro in our old bath tub in Brooklyn when he was two. We've just returned from living for three months in the Piemonte region--our trial run of living in Italy--during which time he'd gone to an asilo nido (preschool) and begun to learn Italian. At one point he lies down in the inch or two of warm water draining from the tub and then, finding that it's too slippery for him to sit up again by himself, shouts "Aiutami! Aiutami!"

Jen and I were charmed by this, as we were by every bit of evidence that some part of our Italian experience had left its mark. Parents want their children to have "enriching" experiences, are thrilled by the ways they develop as a result, and when children are still nestlings there's little hint that such enrichment will be anything more than acquisitions to be carried around in a kid's pockets, attainments still well within a parent's control--and which may, of course, even reflect well upon a parent.

A rather appalling (but quite typical) article recently published in the New York Times conceptualized raising a child in terms of managing one's financial portfolio. The child was the portfolio, the passive recipient of the parent's management decisions, and the parent's aim was to enrich his or her portfolio according to the standard strategy of wealth management: diversification. The child/portfolio should be stuffed with a balanced selection of activities or investments in order to assure a maximum return on the parent's efforts, as well as long-term stability and steady, profitable growth.

I suppose it's not unusual for parents, no less than most tourists, to think of experiences as discrete treasures to be accumulated--the latter for themselves, the former ostensibly for their children (though, of course, not only for their children).

And I suppose it's also an open secret that the availability of enriching experience to travelers and their children is rigidly delineated according to class (and, often, race):

Expats are typically all about enrichment: spiritual or cultural, sometimes sexual, but never merely financial. If your primary purpose in traveling is to make money, and you're blatant about this aim--with no poetical reveries about the Tuscan sun or the spirituality of food or the nutritional value of prayer--then you're not an expat, you're an immigrant.

My paternal great-grandfather traveled back and forth between the mountains of Liguria and California a number of times, staying for extended periods in the US before returning to his native village in Italy. My grandfather was, in fact, born in San Francisco, then raised in Italy. But no one would call them expats. They didn't have the money for that title. They traveled steerage, and I'm quite sure my great-grandparents made no attempt to arrange culturally-enriching play dates for my infant grandfather, nor cared whether he learned a few words of English to show off for the folks back home. Children were not conceived of as "investment portfolios" in those days. Rather, they were thought to be (as my own father always said) like donkeys: ignorant, willful creatures who needed to be educated to proper obedience and labor.

In fact, whether you're a NY Times reader who conceives of your child as an investment portfolio or a Ligurian hillbilly who thinks of him/her as a donkey your unquestioned assumption of ownership is basically the same.

In contrast to expats, immigrants--especially in these rabidly anti-immigrant days--aren't thought to enrich themselves with their experiences in a foreign country. They are in their new country, at best, to strive; at worst, to plunder. Their children aren't celebrated as precious little investment portfolios, just waiting to be filled up with well-diversified experiences, but derided as drains on the unfortunate host nation's purse.

Immigrants are considered such a frightening, unmanageable plague these days that the most bellicose, chauvinistic folks in the world's most bellicose, chauvinistic nations can do nothing but hike up their skirts and with no end of macho racist imprecations leap to the supposed safety of their own solitary perch, well-separated from the common fray below.

Refugees, of course, are yet another class of traveler. But they're often lucky, first of all, to merely survive their voyages, and second, if they manage that, to get mere sustenance--never mind "enriching experiences." They deserve more serious attention than I can give them in this blog post.

But in addition to such obvious material differences between these kinds of travelers--tourists, expats, immigrants and refugees--there's another one involving a belief in personal agency: the first two groups are defined by their possession of it; the latter by the degree to which it is denied them.

Indeed, the fact that personal agency is such a fundamental assumption of most tourists and expats--that is, an assumption that they are free to go where they choose and have the experiences they want (or have paid for)--is shown by just how much tourist and expat discourse (published or not) centers upon the frustration of this seemingly divine right.

That is, the ways in which our desires have been thwarted as a traveler, the ways in which we've been disappointed or disillusioned or disgusted, can often enough become the central theme of our accounts (eg, Tim Parks's An Italian Education).

As tourists and expats we are free and entitled to want what we want! And we fully expect to get it!
Any immigrant who was to express a similar belief in his own right to completely control his own experience in a new country would be considered an ingrate, a fool, or in need of a good beating, and any refugee-- Well, actually, refugees aren't allowed any voice at all.

One thing I've learned, though, in the 5 1/2 years we've spent here in Italy are the inherent, inevitable limitations upon personal agency in even the most fortunate circumstances. We set out to shape a world for ourselves and our loved ones and we find that the world shapes us and them. We imagine all the experiences we might accumulate and carry off in our suitcases--or hearts--and, instead, the world carries us off in directions we'd never planned.

Your son sets off into a language and culture which is not that of your spouse or you and as he gets further into it (and further away from you both) the comfortable expat illusion of your control over this "enriching experience" starts to fray. A low, barely perceptible unease starts to inhabit your awareness of your child's increasing "acquisitions": there's no such thing as pure, unalloyed profit when it comes to human "portfolios." And the demands so popular among the political Right all around the world that immigrants give up their native language and culture start to strike you rather differently than they did before (even though you still perceive them from the fortunate position of one whose language and culture is considered useful or desirable rather than "inferior" or useless or suspect).

At a certain point, in our case, our pleased exclamation of "Our little son is becoming a Venetian!" has become the question, "Do we really want him to become a Venetian?" And what exactly might that mean in actual, not Romantic terms?

Being expats, we could of course simply move. For that is what expats ideally have the privilege of doing. But any pristine illusion of personal agency over our child that we may have harbored has (necessarily) been compromised, and any move (even back to the US) would be but a temporary patch. For whether we have children or not, whether we are tourists, expats, or immigrants, the world and those closest to us seem in the best circumstances to be at our fingertips, not in our hands.

Travel (for the fortunate, at least) is one way we try to create the latter illusion that we can take from (if not make of) the world what we want. The world is there for the buying and consuming, the tourism industry assures us, thrilling yet pliable--no matter how much trouble we may have coming to grips with it in our ordinary, workaday, native lives.

So I wonder sometimes if the disdain people feel for immigrants is not only that they "take our jobs" (though often, as here in Venice, they take jobs that no locals are willing to do), but because they are constant reminders of how limited our personal agency is in the world, how much the world is "not our own, and not ourselves", and how foreign even those closest to us can sometimes seem. There's an abiding vulnerability that is common to us all (even the most fortunate), which is simply in the order of things, and for which there's no one to blame--though we'll go to great lengths to deny it.   


  1. To raise a child in any environment is a challenge and in a bi- or trilingual environment four to nine times so. ��
    My daughter and my wife are both bi-lingual but I'm not. It's a tad annoying being corrected by your 4-year-old but that's life, I suppose? I try to speak as much Chinese as I can but with moderate success. At one time we used English as a secret language, but now the little rascal seems to have picked that up as well. ��
    Have you given some more thought to the picture I love? If you're free for a coffee or un'Ombra I'd like to discuss it further?

    1. Yes, the alacrity with which little ones pick up things can make it a challenge to stay one step ahead of them! I know the feeling

      I haven't forgotten about your question about that image--but I just haven't done anything about it either, alas. Are you in Venice right now, Andreas? Actually, I'll ask this question via your email address and you can answer it there.

  2. Ciao Nonloso :) Thanks for writing such "real" posts on Venetian life and not just the typical rose tinted views on this amazing city.
    I'm planning on moving to Venice in November this year with my eight year old daughter. We are both dual Australian/Italian citizens and I have enrolled her in school there (Renier Michiel in Dorsoduro). We are both just learning Italian so Im really throwing her in the deep end :p I'm crossing my fingers that everything goes okay for her, that she gets a nice teacher and is able to make friends quickly. Do you have any advice for us? Grazie.

    1. Hi, J&B: Sorry to do so tardily, but I responded to your earlier comment on an earlier post. I won't repeat myself here. It will probably be a big change for both of you, but depending on where you are moving from, and where you are living here, you may find--whatever the inevitable frustrations--a slightly more human pace here. Your child is also likely to have more of a sense of freedom here because of the absence of car traffic.

  3. An excellent and thoughtful article - thank you.

    1. Thanks very much, Freda, and thanks for taking the time to read it.

  4. A very interesting article. I lived for 20 years as an expat in a Pacific Island nation and my kids (now grown up) had a really interesting life. I haven't really commented, till now, on your articles but enjoy them immensely, particularly ones about your son. Especially loved the story about the trolley he got for his birthday. For some time afterward I smiled every time I saw someone with such a trolley.

    1. Thanks very much, Patty, given your own background raising your kids in a different culture your kind remarks are especially appreciated. So many doors are open to one in a foreign culture when one has a child (or more than one child)--or at least, very different ones, than might be open to an adult. And then the kids themselves provide entirely different perspectives on that culture than one would otherwise have (on things like trolleys!).