Here’s what I want you to know about Italy and me:
1. Growing up Italian-American, Italy was no big deal.
2. The first time I visited Italy, I was interested but not impressed.
3. Quite unintentionally, I took up learning Italian, which, to my great relief, distracted me to the point of healing from grief and for this reason…
4. I feel actual love for the country, culture, language and people of Italy. And gratitude.
Italy: What’s the Big Deal?
I grew up in an Italian-American family. All of the following were quite normal to me: Sundays at my aunt’s house. Cousins everywhere. Lots of talking (yelling) over each other. Constant hugs and kisses. A long table lined end-to-end with steaming bowls of pastas and meats. My tiny but plump, fair-skinned and copper-haired grandma endlessly stirring a boiling pot of something in the kitchen. People in your business at all times. I loved it. It was a wonderful way to grow up, especially being one of the youngers of us kids.
My grandfather Mike (Michelangelo) started this all when, as just a teenager, and like so many others of his generation, he left the only home he knew (Bari, in the heel of the Italian boot) and sailed into a new life in America by way of Ellis Island. I suppose it was my great-grandfather, Domenico, who really launched it all. He sent each of his five sons, one at a time, across the Atlantic to forge a new life in a new world. His two daughters stayed behind in Bari, and their children and grandchildren continue to live and thrive in the city in which my grandfather was born. Meeting all of these relatives was a HUGE highlight for our family a few summers ago — details for another post!
Back to Grampa Mike. He knew no English and no one here in America. That was in the 1920s, and even though he would live another 70 years in this country, Grampa spoke with a thick thick accent (not to mention boisterous hand gestures) til the day he died.
I never asked him once to teach me a single word of Italian. Not colors, not numbers, not shapes. What a missed opportunity. I’m so eager now to find an Italian-speaking buddy, I try to speak Italian to people who know Spanish in the hopes of sparking a conversation.
I guess the point I’m trying to make here is that my love of learning Italian really took me by surprise. It was just waiting for me, quietly, patiently, for quite literally my entire life. I just wasn’t ready to embrace it.
We Meet At Last — OK, I’m interested — but not impressed
I had wanted to visit Italy since I was four years old. Grampa Mike would say to me (bear with my attempt to re-create his accent), “eh-Stacy, in-a Italy, da roofs-ah, dey are all-a flat-ah. We sleep-a out-a-side-a. One a-day-ah, I’ll ah-take-ah you-ah dere.” That sounded like a great plan to me.
But when I finally got there in 1984, I was 15 and on a whirlwind three-week European tour with a high school group, not my Grampa. None of the others had Italian roots like me. We all kind of agreed that Italy was old. And crumbly. (Things I love most about it now!) Our chaperone said the water would make you sick, so we brushed our teeth with bottled water. (Maybe she didn’t realize that Roman fountains have provided sweet, fresh drinking water to the public for 2,000 years.) Even though I was THRILLED to find 22 families with my Italian surname listed in the Rome phone book, I also remember being relieved to leave the chaos which is Italy in the summer.
I will confess, however, that Florence and Siena had me at ciao. I’ve had a crush on Florence for 29 years now.
Positively Channeled Grief
So years and years went by and I gave very little thought to Italy and even less to the Italian language. A lot happened in life. I became a high school and college graduate. A teacher, a wife, a mother, a homeowner. Wonderful milestones, but also there were bumps in the road. In 2009, our family had suffered a couple of blows, that, cumulatively, I was finding difficult to bounce back from. Earlier that year, we lost a great light with the death of my dad, a beloved father to me and textbook grandpa to my kiddos. (read more here). Just a few years earlier, barely after the birth of our daughter, my husband had contracted a bloodstream infection and we nearly lost him. My heart felt sad and worried all the time. My mind, in quiet moments of the day, defaulted to anxiety, maybe even depression.
In the weeks that my husband, Craig, was in the critical care unit of the hospital, fighting for his life, I couldn’t help but start to let go of the plans we had for our coming years together. I suppose it was a defense mechanism, but I began to grieve for the future that it now looked like we wouldn’t have. Of all things, one of my bucket-list items was running away to Europe for a summer — me, Craig and the three kids. I mentally crossed that one off the list.
THANKFULLY, MY HUSBAND SURVIVED. And one day in late 2009, he announced with his signature enthusiasm, “Let’s rent that house in Tuscany! Let’s take the kids! We’ll look up your family in Bari! And we’ll learn Italian!”
And that’s exactly what we did.
I Think I Love You
Here’s the best way I can explain it: you know how it sometimes happens that two people are really good friends, for years and years. They date other people. Maybe even fall in love with someone else. But one day, they look at each other and realize, “you are my best friend. You’ve been my best friend for years. You’ve always been there for me. Let’s make a life together.” That’s kinda how I feel about Italy and Italian (weird, I know). I guess I’m surprised, that something which has always been a part of my life, something that I never had any intention of embracing the way I do now, waited for me, and, in my time of need, provided me with what was first a beautiful distraction and now has become a lifelong, joy-filled journey.
Essentially, studying Italian gave my grief-filled mind and heart a beautiful and productive place to rest. And it happened so unexpectedly.
I find my sentiments in Elizabeth Gilbert’s words in Eat, Pray, Love: “I felt a glimmer of happiness when I started studying Italian….” That glimmer, that little seed of hopefulness and joy, has grown inside me and taken up permanent residence. I feel fulfilled and nourished. I feel connected to my roots, to my heritage and to my dear father, all of which felt lost to me in losing him.
I’m so happy on this journey, that I don’t even feel frustrated anymore by the multiple Italian verb tenses and hundreds of grammar rules, each one of them seeming to have a variety of unique exceptions. Certain Italian words make me laugh out loud, their sounds being so delightful to my ears (andiamo – let’s go; vogliono – they want; cocomero – watermelon). Early in my journey, it hit me that fluency is not the goal, although that would be a fantastic bonus (I’m nowhere near fluency and maybe never will be). The goal is joy. And filling my days, pian piano (slowly slowly) with Italiano, puts a smile on my face, and sunshine in my heart. Il mio cuore e’ pieno — my heart is full.
So, for all of you, who have patiently tolerated the italiana in me during the past few years, I say, grazie. Grazie mille. Sono grata per voi, e per la bell’Italia…(Thank you, a thousand thank yous. I am grateful for you and for beautiful Italy…)