04/05/2011 04:57 pm ET Updated Jun 05, 2011

Don't Touch Me

I was recently in Italy and a friend of mine introduced me to his friends: they smiled and, in turns, told me their names, hugged me and kissed me on both cheeks. Then we grabbed something to eat. While everybody was completely at ease, I found myself puzzled: the feeling of being hugged and kissed by a total stranger was vaguely weird (vaguely because a part of me -- I guess the part that still speaks Italian -- knows this behavior and recognizes it; and weird because I have been living in New York for nine years now and in New York people in these situations shake hands and that's it).

When I talked to my friend about it, he made fun of me. You've become American, he said. I guess that must be the case, in a way. I started noticing other things: how irritated I was while walking down the street in Italy and being brushed by passersby. New York is a big city and it can happen that a stranger's shoulders touch yours, but in Italy it was continuous. A nuisance. Can it be only because the sidewalks are narrower? No: Italians look at each other (actually check each other out) while walking and it is almost as if they also need to physically feel other people around them when they walk: they bump into each other and don't get irritated at all. And when they visit here, they are amazed at the politeness of the New Yorkers who always apologize if fortuitously touching you.

It is weird to notice these differences, it makes me an alien in my own country. Does living in another place make you really change not only habits but the way you feel and think? It must be true. But on the other hand, I did choose to move to New York and I love it here also because people walk as fast as I like, don't bump into me and in general are not that interested in looking at other people (so even if I don't have my shoes and purse coordinated is not the end of the world). I guess I was not that "Italian" in the first place.

Another thing I notice a lot when I'm in Italy is people kissing in the street. My friend would say that I have become American: I notice couple furiously kissing I recall the expression, Get a room (which I initially found so prudish). Have I really become American? Is it only because I don't experience walking in Italy as often as I used to, or is it because I speak and think in this language and somehow I absorbed mental structures along with the grammar (Get a room!)? I don't know. What I know is that, when my mother asked me if I was sad to leave Italy and go back to New York, I told her, Yes, of course I'm sad. But I want to go back home.