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Back In The Old Country

June 12, 2015

Many of us have heard the term “back in the old country” when applied by our immigrant parents or grandparents in an attempt to regale us with stories that usually contained morals. “Back in the old country, I had to walk ten miles to school through heavy snow.” This is one of my personal favorites. It was often laid upon me to say, “You really have it good so you shouldn’t complain!” I later employed the same good stuff when speaking to my own son who had to walk a half a block to school but still wanted a ride. I would say (with a twinge of guilt), “When I was a kid I had to walk two miles to school.” The moral imperative was the same.

There are some truisms in such statements. Yes, my father did indeed walk many miles to school, often through deep snows in both Europe and Wyoming. And yes, I did have to walk two miles to school when I was a child in Southern California. However, the “Back in the old country” approach does make the speaker just a bit suspect in both cases. Why? Because the “old country mentality” should give way inevitably to a “new country mentality.” Aside from accuracy, the “back in the old country” approach does serve to color our pasts with a touch of rose colored bravado. We all do it.

But what happens when the “old country” itself is changed more than once? Interesting to say the least. As I grew up in Southern California, I had a steady diet of “old country” philosophy and such statements as, “Eat, there are children starving in Europe!” Later in life, I moved to Europe and hence America became my “old country.” As sort of a reverse immigrant, I would often start sentences with, “Back in America….” But then I noticed that in Europe parents often said to their children at dinner, “Eat, there are children starving in Africa!” While my “old country” had changed, the driving motivation behind my “old country philosophy” had not budged.

After 12 years living in the South Tirol of Northern Italy, I returned to the “old country” and started referencing the new old country as Italy. My sentences would often start with, “Back in Italy….” One morning, I stared into my coffee cup and asked the simple question, “Where exactly is my old country?” The answer, it seemed, was really not that simple for it turned out that my “old country” was not a place but rather a state of mind.

As a two time immigrant, I have a new perspective: There is no old country, new country or anything of the sort. There is just life and I have and will continue to enjoy mine wherever I find myself. But the echos remain: “back in the old country…. laggiù nel vecchio paese…. zurück in der alten Heimat….”

By the way, the image above is the symbol of the South Tirol. Old country? New country? Ich weiß wirklich nicht!

Read author Allen E. Rizzi’s latest books available at Amazon.com

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