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A Shiny New World

September 7, 2011

by Ngaire Blankenberg

Me and my daughter against the backdrop of the breathtaking Cinque Terre

A holiday in Italy is a wonderful thing which should never be taken lightly. Days of being immersed in sunshine, Chianti wine, fabulous food, breath-taking monuments, naked men and cherubs, serene virgins — great for a holiday, but who would want to live there?

Joking aside, my recent immersion in the Old World of Italy brought home the stark contrast that exists between the Old World and the New. I realize these categories are somewhat absurd (most countries encapsulating both) but nevertheless…

For me the Old World includes countries where people can trace a direct line through about five generations of family in the same place. The New World is where most families descend from three generations at most. Italy and the rest of Europe is Old World. Canada and the US are New World (First Nations peoples being the obvious exception, among others). We’ll get into the Old-New World places in another post.

I’m first generation Canadian as are most of the people I know. Plus I’m mixed race. So, being ‘rootless’ is part of my DNA. I spent a while in my youth seeing this as a tragedy. I got over it, and now I basically just think it’s the future. In Toronto, where I live, half of the population was born outside of Canada. The majority of second generation immigrants who are married or living in common law are doing so with someone of a different race and ethnicity. My children’s fathers are both of a different heritage than me. My children’s friends have a different heritage than their friends. That’s just how we roll.

I found the Old World to be curiously exotic. I sensed the pull of generations of family. The Italians I spoke to could trace their lineage back for centuries. I could feel what being ‘rooted’ could mean- whether in witnessing the incredible built heritage or just eating a meal prepared from a family recipe. As I traipsed through hundreds of years of visible and very present history I thought of how very nice it would be to be able to claim my presence in a single place, to feel like my belonging was deep and entrenched in time. I felt a strong ‘nostalgia without memory’ (my favourite phrase from globalization theorist Arjun Appadurai) for a place where ‘everyone knows my name’ (sorry- I couldn’t help the Cheers reference).

In between all this longing followed by disparagement of North America and its relative paucity of cultural heritage, I also started to notice a particular ‘aura’ that seemed to exist around many of the North American tourists. After some harmless stalking, my theory was confirmed. I’d say 90% of mixed couples and mixed groups of friends I saw were from North America; the people who stood out because of how they dressed (whether hippy, emo, punk, enviro or whatever) seemed to be North American, dare I say- gay couples who were obviously together- were North American… In essence, the people who seemed free to celebrate their personal identity (no matter how fashionable or unfashionable) all carried markers of North America (whether accent, or the US/Canada flags on back packs, or the Roots sweatpants). I concluded: where the Old World has culture and heritage (and style, and good food)—the New World has personal freedom. It’s a toss up.

At any rate- I returned to Toronto very sad that my days among the powerful sculptures and monuments of Italy had ended but also somehow a bit more appreciative of what this shiny New World offers me and my family. It’s a freedom that we too often take for granted—that freedom to be ourselves.

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Ngaire Blankenberg

About The Author

Ngaire Blankenberg is internationally recognized for her work planning innovative cultural spaces. As European Director and Principal Consultant at Lord Cultural Resources, Ngaire advises the private sector, governments and museums throughout the world on ways to develop their cultural assets for public benefit.

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