The fear of the fake: What “authenticity” means to a foreigner in a strange land.

French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said,

Authenticity, it is almost needless to say, consists in having a true and lucid consciousness of the situation, in assuming the responsibilities and risks that it involves, in accepting it in pride or humiliation, sometimes in horror and hate.

Let me repeat that last bit: “humiliation”, “horror or hate”. The three H’s, if you will. Three sentiments that every expat/immigrant/foreigner becomes quite familiar with over the years of trying to adjust to a new culture without losing the one left behind.

Authenticity is a loaded word with a lot of baggage in the life of an expat or immigrant.

  • Are my experiences here “authentically Italian” and am I representing them in an authentic way?
  • Am I being “authentic to myself” as I change over the years in this new culture?
  • What even IS something “authentically Italian”? An old man on a bike with a prosciutto under his arm? A gorgeous fashionista in stiletto heels? Both? Neither?
  • Where does authenticity end and stereotyping begin?

And lastly, who even cares?! Why is there such a huge push lately for authenticity? How can an experience NOT be authentic if I am experiencing it as me?

When our blogging group, COSÌ, joined forces this month with Italy Blogger Roundtable to discuss the theme “Authenticity”, I got curious about why this word keeps finding its way into my life lately, so I looked around online a bit.

First of all, I find it fascinating to think about trends in popular topics throughout history. Google Trends is great for identifying popular trends in recent years, and it in fact shows that since 2008 there has been an increased interest int he topic “Authenticity”. Google Trends - Authenticity Many link this with the loss of trust in management and leadership roles after the economic crisis hit. In the years since, we have been seeking truth and comfort in the form of something “authentic”, whether it be in leadership styles, cultural experiences, or basic humanity.

Interestingly another time in history when there was a popular interest in the subject of authenticity was 18th century England. Many historians link this with the emerging prevalence of printed works available to the middle class and a growing emphasis on showing true emotion and feeling as a basic cornerstone of “authentic” humanity.

So what is “authenticity” in the context of a straniera (foreigner) living in Italy?

Everyone who visits here wants the “authentic Italian experience” to magically appear in their 1 week of vacation time split between Rome, Venice and Florence. I think most of us who live here permanently would have varying definitions of what that experience would be. I mean, wouldn’t any individual’s experience in this country be authentic?

Instead of thinking about how an experience, a food, an event or a place can be authentic, perhaps it’s more important to reflect on your own handling of these situations.

Are you authentic?

In my browsing, I ran across a fantastic article written just this past January in the Harvard Business Review about authenticity in leadership roles. It’s called “The Authenticity Paradox” by Herminia Ibarra, and I hope it’s ok that I reproduce on of the graphics from the article here to help further my discussion. In the image below, you could basically replace “effective leadership” with “living happily in Italy without going insane and/or losing yourself completely”.

There are those expats who have the opinion that you should immerse yourself in the local culture and seek out truly “authentic” Italian experiences, as Italians themselves would experience them. Then there are some expats who declare defiantly that they refuse to allow this country to change who they are inside, and we as foreigners must persist in our own authenticity in order to bring a bit of order to this land of chaos. I tend to agree with Ibarra: “A too-rigid definition of authenticity can get in the way of” living happily in Italy. What is Authenticity - HBR In the first example, “being true to yourself”, I find that many expats I speak with are so intent on not losing their sense of self that they can miss a lot of opportunities for self-growth and evolution. It’s incredibly difficult to manage the fear of losing yourself completely in the face of new cultural demands. The thing you have to remember is that you have the benefit of always being you. That’s how it works. You ALWAYS get to be you. You’re automatically “authentic”. Isn’t that great?

The second example is something I am often guilty of, and I have written about before. YES. I feel like I constantly lose credibility and effectiveness, especially in professional situations, but also in personal ones. I blurt out exactly what’s on my mind and share WAY too much with perplexed Italians staring at me like I’m crazy. “Troppa aperta”; that’s me. But, then again, I do that in English as well. So if I stop, am I betraying what makes me me?

The third example is a very very difficult one to overcome as an immigrant. Clearly we all bring with us values that are rooted in the culture we grew up with. Sometimes it’s hard to even recognize that we are sticking to them too much because they are so intrinsic in nature. In the article, Ibarra gave the example of a Malaysian executive whose company was taken over by a Dutch multinational. Suddenly he found that his style of business didn’t work with his new colleagues, and “he had to choose between being a failure and being a fake”.

And here we come to the crux of the discussion about “authenticity”. The fear of the fake.

We’re so worried that our experience won’t be the true one, the real one, the original one, that it leads us to the habit of researching how to “go from Tourist to Traveler” or 6 things about Reggio Emilia that will make you an insider!

Those were both things I wrote. Here. On this blog. Why? Primarily because I’m a #statslut and when I see the little bar graph of my readership go up, it makes me feel better. Sure, give the people what they want!

But the articles I enjoyed writing much more are the ones where I don’t have it all figured out. Like this one. Perhaps because there’s safety in numbers. There’s something about knowing that a commenter is feeling the same thing I am, is commiserating with me, or is searching for the same solution, that gives me comfort and validation even though my experience as an expat in Italy really needs no validation.

Because it’s already “authentic”. It’s mine.

To get your own “authentic Italian experience”, you don’t really need to read about my fears of marrying an Italian or how to get a toilet fixed in 3 short weeks (although they are good for a giggle and I do LOVE seeing that little bar graph go up).

YOU just have to be YOU

… in Italy. Being in Italy helps a lot, as it turns out.

So come on, get on over here. What are you waiting for?


For more safety in numbers, commiserate with the rest of my posse as we all discuss what “authenticity” means to us as foreigners in Italy. Remember to join in the conversation by using #COSItaly on Twitter and Facebook!

Note: most of these links will go live March 18th. I jumped the gun by accident. Oops.

from our fabulous COSÌ group:

from our new friends at Italy Blogger Roundtable:

16 thoughts on “The fear of the fake: What “authenticity” means to a foreigner in a strange land.

  1. This is great, and I especially like what you have to say about “the fear of the fake.” An American friend once told me, “When I come to Italy, I want to play cards and drink wine with the old guys in the square.” The problem with this, of course, is that such scenes are pretty much non-existent along the Venice-Florence-Rome itinerary. And if you do stumble upon said Briscola game, chances are the guys playing won’t speak a lot of English, nor be inclined to invite you to play.

    • Haha, yes, totally. You need to send them out here to rural Emilia. The likelihood of finding old guys playing Briscola is VERY high. But you’re right, they’d never invite tourists to play.:) authenticity varies by location

      • I would love to play Briscola or Scopa with the locals, but they never invite me and if I suggest a game they suddenly become interested in their newspapers.

        I love you post and I love your links so much that I have copied and pasted them onto my page “pigro” I know

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  12. This is great… The trending of the word “authenticity,” & the piece from which you pulled that graphic – really thought-provoking. I really love that bit about how a too-rigid definition of authenticity can be problematic. It’s the thing that makes one definition of authentic travel look down on another person’s travel plans (which I can’t stand).

  13. Excellent and thought-provoking post – as usual! You crystallized a conundrum I’ve faced but didn’t know how to articulate when dealing with an infuriating low level Italian bureaucrat who has been holding up important and necessary paperwork just to assert her power and authority. The American in me wants to scream, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” while an admittedly small part of me knows that I should fawn over her and make her royal highness want to bestow a beneficence upon the humble straniera that is putty in her hands.

  14. Reblogged this on From Wigan to Milan and commented:
    Another interesting post from Married to Italy on one of the challenges of being an expat: how to keep hold of your own cultural identity whilst embracing a new one.

    A lovely post. Enjoy.

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