On (the Beauty of) Never “Fitting In”

I’m a transplant.  Or, should I say, a transplanted transplant. I’ve moved around and made myself a home and at home in so many different places that when people ask me where I’m from, it’s hard to say; my answer often depends on the person and the circumstance.

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When people ask me where I was born

Over a period of 26 years, I have lived in 6 different cities and had over a dozen different “permanent” addresses. Others will certainly have a more impressive list, and I can’t pretend that I’m a military brat that moves every time the wind blows, but I can definitely argue that I have lived in each place long enough to get familiar, make a new set of friends, and feel equally at-home-yet-not-quite in each place. Ever since I was a child, I’ve felt different, separated, singled out. That persistent feeling since youth – almost an inability to ever fully conform or feel at ease-has characterized a large portion of who I am and how I operate. I’ve never really felt like I fit in, anywhere. Or rather, I should say that I’ve somewhat sort of fit in, everywhere. Let me explain:

Never fitting in….

As a child in Small Town, PA

For most of my elementary school days up until the sixth grade I was a tall, chubby, socially-awkward kid with a regrettably short pixie hair cut. I was picked on for all of those things, and I still remember clear as crystal some of the stinging wounds from words people have said to me going as far back as the second grade. As much as we hate to admit it, those things do tend to stick with us, and ultimately end up shaping who we are in some form or another.  A “born 30”  (as my mother claims) outsider looking in, I loathed going to kids’ birthday parties.  I was never popular, so my range of emotions at receiving an invitation went from being excited at actually being invited, to then panicking come the day of the party. I always dreaded going. What if the kid didn’t like my gift? Who would I hang out with or talk to once I was there? Who would I sit next to when we ate birthday cake? Similar thoughts ensued for school field trips, after school functions, and group sleepovers. To make matters worse for athletically-challenged me (true story: the only goal I ever made in soccer was literally AGAINST my own team), most kids chose to have their birthday parties at the roller rink. But since I was so awkward and clumsy, I usually went out on the rink to “skate” when Barbie Girl came on, fell once, and came back to chill by the Doritos and Coke table, spending the rest of the party talking to the adults.

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I distinctly remember one birthday, where all of the girls in my class started playing hide and seek at one of my “closest” friend’s house for her party. I was really excited that I found a good hiding spot, and I remember staying there for what felt like forever, eventually realizing that everyone else had gone into the living room to play Donkey Kong on the Nintendo because no one had come looking for me.

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No, I don’t cry about these moments, and yes, I know I’m not unique; all kids in one way or another face the tortures of childhood and feeling left out and unpopular. It’s a rite of passage and eventually, hopefully, most of us – bullies included – grow up and grow out of it, and we each grow into our own.

But such experiences didn’t exactly create any fond memories of youthful companions or everlasting childhood friendships for me, either. While my family created an amazing home environment for my brother and I, and we experienced a lot of wonderful things together, I wasn’t all that sad  when, right before my twelfth birthday, on the awkward cusp between preteen and adolescence, my parents made the decision to move to the other side of the country and relocate to beautiful, sunny, Southern California.  As a result of understanding but never “fitting in” in my small town, I became more open and receptive to a new experience of which the mere thought would have sent me into hyperventilate mode just a couple years earlier.

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As the new kid on the block in OC

Once we finally moved to south Orange County, California,  40 minutes from Disneyland and 20 minutes from the beach, I thought things would change, as I would be trading in backwoods country life for a new social currency. “Everyone is different out there in California,” my mom would say before we moved. “It’s not like Small Town, people come in all stripes and colors, they’re used to seeing all sorts of things and all kinds of people out there.” Except that she forgot that children in middle school are pretty much the same, anywhere.  I was growing out of that awkward phase just as my hair (finally! FINALLY!) started growing out, but it still took time. I remember having a really rough time making friends that first year in seventh grade. I didn’t have anyone to sit with at lunch for a while.

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As a result, I clung to the first person that I met in Art class.  We didn’t have much in common, this cool older 8th grader from LA and I, except for the fact that we were both new to the school. But she was from Los Angeles, and grew up in SoCal; I was from Amish country. She was nice enough, but talking to her was merely an activity to fill the void of having no one else to eat PB&J or cafeteria orange chicken with; it didn’t do much besides make me feel even more lonely.

Slowly, as is wont to happen, I started to meet people, but it wasn’t easy. I was the smart, kinda nerdy kid with the weird hair and crooked teeth from Redneck City, PA. I had a high learning curve not only because I was adjusting to a new culture entirely different from my own, but also because I was learning how to relate to people my own age for the first time. That year was very much a lesson in How to Win Friends and Influence People. Thanks, Dale Carnegie! Fortunately, like most most of us, I managed to survive pre-adolescence and the 7th grade, and it led me to one of my favorite years in school – 8th grade! This was the year that I met my current  best friend, now of nearly 15 years.

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I know that my experience as the classic “new kid” in school, and of feeling left out and isolated because I was different, gave me an empathetic heart for those who found themselves in similar situations. I used to, and still do, try to reach out to the shy kids, the new kids; I would invite them to eat lunch with me or work on group projects together, because I knew what it was like to be the person that nobody ever asked. And I wouldn’t wish that on anybody.

As a Study Abroad student in Florence, Italy

After graduating high school, I moved an hour and a half north to Malibu to attend a small private college right along the Pacific Coast Highway, offering spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean, and a stone’s throw away from Santa Monica, Venice Beach, Westwood, Santa Barbara, and downtown Los Angeles; it was an exploratory time in which I discovered the beauty of travel and pushing boundaries during my year abroad in Florence, Italy. Yet here, too, I never felt like I fit in. My first year of college was a difficult transition, and I lived so close to home that I could get away with putting minimal effort into forging friendships, instead choosing to return home on weekends and hang out with high school friends (yes, I did eventually manage to make some really good friends and actually had a pretty great high school experience, all things considered).

Now, as a student in another country with only my fellow study abroad students, I was forced to conform to the group. Right? We were all each other had. Family and friends back home were a Skype date and a 6-hour time difference away; this group of fellow Americans was more immediate. Our experiences together in a foreign country would bring us closer together.

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No more did I “fit in” with this group overseas than I did with them back at home. Though perhaps this time was of my own choosing. Whereas before feeling “different” or like an “outsider” created feelings of unworthiness or rejection, now I began to view it as an asset. I was different because, for the first time, I didn’t want to fit in with the crowd – nor was I trying. I was in a foreign country and I wanted to have a true, authentic foreign experience. I didn’t want to be like the rest of the loud, drunk Americans stumbling around the city in obnoxious groups of 15, pretending to “experience Italy” while eating at McDonald’s, never speaking to locals beyond asking directions, and getting wasted at any of the well-known “student bars.” Not to say that I didn’t have my fair share of fun at bars and restaurants and with friends, but I wanted to do it the Italian way, with Italians. I wanted to go to local bars, speak the language, have conversations, fully immerse myself – and if that meant a separation from my fellow American collegians, who were out traveling every weekend to a new foreign country becoming “besties” in Belgium or Budapest (sorry the alliteration was right there, I couldn’t resist it), then so be it. I didn’t care.

When I came home late one night on the back of a motorino after going on a date with an Italian barista, wearing his leather jacket and coyly answering questions from curious students, I didn’t care. When I missed the American Easter celebration at the student house in favor of attending a local friend’s traditional Italian Easter dinner and going to the cinema to watch my first full-length film entirely in Italian (without subtitles!), I didn’t care. When everyone else was going to Amsterdam, Prague, Vienna – and I chose to go to a remote Italian island with one of my local Florentine friends for a weekend to visit his family and have a truly immersive experience – I. Didn’t. Care.

“Fitting in” would have been detrimental to my experience in Italy, as it would have prevented me from trying out some of the more adventurous and ultimately life-impacting aspects of my trip. These experiences shaped the person that I am today and the life choices that I have made, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

I knew I had to get back to Florence, to Italy, to the place I felt I most belonged; so I hopped on a plane 3 days after walking across the stage to accept my diploma and returned to my beloved Italia for the summer, this time to a small hilltop town in the middle of Umbria, not unlike where I came from in Western Pennsylvania. That fall, I began my Master’s program in Italian Renaissance Art History in Syracuse, New York before returning once more to Florence, the city that I made my home for nearly 3 years. I would finally fit in! I was in the place where I belonged!

But yet again, as fate would have it, I never fully fit in.

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In Italy, if you’re not born Italian, you will never be Italian. You can live there for years, even decades. You can marry an Italian, have Italian relatives and pop out Italian babies. You can own a business, pay your taxes, obtain citizenship, speak the language more flawlessly than the natives, and vote in the elections, but you will still NEVER be an Italian. You will always be viewed as a foreigner.

At first it’s a novelty; then it’s annoying. Having the same conversations over and over again, that never seem to move beyond the surface of your foreignness, can be exhausting, trite, banal. Of course I have many wonderful Italian friends who always treated me with graciousness and kindness, with whom I forged close friendships beyond the surface for which I’m extremely grateful. These people welcomed me with open arms and accepted me into their lives and homes in a way like I’ve never experienced before, and I’m forever a better person because of them.  Nevertheless, and strikingly different from the American philosophy, the persistent and overlying cultural attitude is simple: if you are not born in Italy, you will always be a foreigner.

But you know what? Once more, not fitting in had its benefits. It pushed me to dream bigger, to never be content with just “okay,” to go harder and to reevaluate my dreams, my ambitions, my comfort zone. After three years and much deliberation, in June of 2015 at the age of 24, I made the difficult decision to leave behind my adopted country and repatriate into the US.  Again, looking for a sense of belonging.  Believing that life in a big city would offer me the cultural and international stimuli that I was looking for, to which I had grown accustomed while being abroad and that had become a part of my being, my goal was NYC or bust, though Boston would have been a close second. I took the first job I could find that took me to the city, and three months later, after my 25th birthday, I settled into my corner of the Big Apple.

As the classic New York City transplant

So here we are in a new place with a new address, learning yet again how to adapt and fit in to the mechanisms of another city and its people. Like a living organism, cities move and breathe and develop; living in each place is like being in a relationship with a different person. It’s not that you’re untrue to yourself when you’re in a different place/with another person, and it’s not that you’re not yourself in other places; you are simply a different version of yourself, brought out by the trials and environment specific and unique to each place. The same way that one person can be a friend, a lover, and a parent according to the situation.

I’ve been reminded recently of how I’m not a New Yorker.  How certain actions, reactions, or non-actions have separated me, distanced me, made me “other” than those born and raised in the city that I love.  And for the first time, I was okay with that.

I’m okay with not fitting in to a particular mold.

I’m okay with never truly “belonging” to a particular part of the world.

I’m okay with not being a “real New Yorker.”

Because that means I belong a little bit, everywhere, in each place that I’ve left a part of my heart. I’m equally at home in the country and in the city, on the Atlantic and the Pacific, in Europe and in America, speaking Italian or English.

My experiences are different than those of a real New Yorker. Because I’ve had the privilege of traveling, seeing the world, experiencing other ways of living and life and have been able to integrate them into one big culturally confused beautiful conglomerate that lives and breathes all of the places that have impacted me.

I’m not a New Yorker, nor am I a small-town girl, a Californian, or an Italian; I’m a mix of all of those and none of those. And because of that, I take risks, make leaps, and push myself in a way that those who claim to be from one place may never fully understand.

I’ve found my peace in the beauty of never fitting in.

4 Comments

  1. Holly Greenwall

    Another great read! This hits close to home for me because I remember the “child in small town PA” Lauren and I always loved spending time with her 😉 I was also fortunate enough to spend time with the “Italian” Lauren which was also a joy! Regarding not fitting in anywhere. . . If you ever feel the need to, you should spend some time in Phoenix. Literally, except for my husband (go figure), no one is from here!! It’s easy to fit in a place where everyone is a transplant. When you meet the rare gem who is an Arizona native, you well marry them I guess 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. girlingothamcity

      Thank you so much Holly!! I always love reading your thoughtful comments. I imagine that as a West Coast transplant, you too would have a similar experience. Another small-town girl making it in the big city! Did you ever feel like you didn’t quite fit in in said Small Town? I feel like a lot of people get stuck there, but you managed to make it out completely on your own and are doing amazing things with your life! And it was such a treat to see you in Italy…a different side to the same coin! 🙂

      Like

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