By Carina Rampelt
We’re in Venice and I’m eavesdropping on German tourists.
There’s eight of us in a shop that’s tiny even by Venetian standards. The shopkeeper-slash-mask-maker, a greying Italian in a black apron smudged here and there with gold sparkles; two middle-aged German women; my family and me.
Clumped together in a corner so we’re almost touching, my siblings and I admire a wall of masks. A sun-face, a moon-face and a star-face beam down on us. A cello-woman gazes lovingly at a saxophone-man. A cat and a dog hang unblinkingly side by side. Each one is carefully crafted and unique. It’s breathtaking, but I’m only half-absorbed. The other part of me is listening in on the conversation between the German women.
They admire the masks, discuss their itinerary, disapprove of the disorder of the Italians in general. It’s funny, and strangely comforting. I mean no harm. Having lived in Germany the past eleven months I can hardly help but understand what they’re saying.
I feel like I’m undercover: playing the Canadian while hiding the part of me that can masquerade as a German. A disguise over my disguise. I’m Rosalind playing Ganymede playing Rosalind.
It’s not that I was in any way ashamed of my Canadian identity, but not drawing attention to it was just easier while I was abroad. People treat you differently if they know you’re foreign. One of my housemates came to me once, asking if I had a hairdryer. I paused briefly, trying to think of the words to respond and she continued impatiently, Hairdryer? You know…hairdryer? and mimed drying her hair complete with sound effects. I had understood her fine. It just took me a moment to figure out what to say. I’m not stupid, I wanted to shout, just give me the chance to answer you!
Other people think it’s hilarious to make fun of your home country. Hey, isn’t Canada just basically the 51st state? Or how about this gem: You know what Canada sounds like? Keiner da!* It’s true, right? There’s, like, no one there.
My disguise was almost a way of marking my progress. If people were surprised when I told them I was Canadian, it meant my German was getting better—that my accent was less noticeable, or I was culturally adept enough to pass as a native. It felt like success. And when you’re culturally confounded, feeling like you’re stumbling around in a dark that everyone else has no trouble navigating, those tiny moments of validation are the bits of light that keep you going. You might not understand everything. You might not always feel like you’re understood. But you know you’re getting closer.
Now, with my family again, I feel foreign. My English comes slowly, difficultly. I didn’t believe it was possible of my mother tongue. I construct sentences backwards, used to German grammar. I forget words. It’s not the same language it was a year ago…I have to learn new slang and cultural nuances. I have no idea what a ‘selfie’ is. I’m with the people who should make me feel most at home in the world, but I’ve never felt so alone. I’m Rosalind pretending to be Rosalind, and I’m not even sure who that is any more.
I turn around to leave the shop.
Entschuldigen Sie, bitte. I tell the German women, as I scoot around them. Excuse me, please. Their eyes widen in surprise, but they smile with the unexpected delight of stumbling across someone who speaks their native language. It gives me hope. Maybe I can learn to reconcile my two identities. Maybe I don’t have to pick one or the other. Maybe I can be both Rosalind and Ganymede and still be Carina.
So tell me, I ask my sister as we depart, what exactly is a selfie?
*German for ‘no one there’