First published on Prayers and Piazzas April 2015
As promised in Italian and Me: A History, following is the story of how an American girl, raised in an Italian-American family, found her roots, le sue radici, her treasures, i suoi tesori, in the heel of the Italian boot.
Il Retroscena ~ The Backstory
Fall 2009. Still very sad from losing my father in April. Loving husband bounds in from work one day. “Let’s rent that house in Tuscany this summer!” He knew that, at the top of my bucket list, was running away to Europe with him and the kids for an extended period of time. (“Tuscany will be our home base! We can go anywhere in Europe from there! Greece! France!” We’ll stay the WHOLE summer!!) Which, after hanging out with reality, whittled into eleven days in Italy and three days in Stockholm. Because what trip to Italy is complete without also visiting Sweden, right?
Plane tickets booked! Tuscan villa reserved! Passports for everyone! I can hardly believe it. I celebrate with a trip to the bookstore and purchase every title on Italian travel, and one teeny guide on Stockholm. I make a long list of all the sights we’ll be dashing off to from the villa. Sara` perfetto — it will be perfect.
“We can’t go to Italy without looking up your family,” announced Husband one day, after our destinations were already set. But to travel so far in the opposite direction would really throw our travel plans off. It would mean leaving our villa a few days early. Eliminating Cinque Terra entirely. And traveling nearly as far south in the heel of the Italian boot as one could possibly go. It seemed a bit daunting to do with three kids, ages 13, 11 and 4, and my double-amputee husband. Plus, what if, after so much planning, anticipation and effort, the relatives had no interest in being found?
Regardless, it was a go. Schedule rearranged: check. Italian lessons commenced: check. Sleepless nights and worry that it would all be disastrous: check (well, not for Husband.) Since we were meeting up with his parents in Stockholm and connecting with my Mom-in-law’s Swedish relatives there, we decided to call this “The Heritage Trip”.
And thus began one of the most enriching and rewarding experiences of my life.
To give me some street cred, I want you to know that my dad, born in America but from 100 percent Italian parents, still has two first cousins in Bari, Italy, the city where his father, Michelangelo, was born. One by one, my great-grandfather Domenico sent each of his five boys across the ocean when they were 18 years old, or close enough. All those boys established roots and families here in America. My grandfather’s two sisters, in Italian fashion, stayed in Bari, close to their parents. Although both sisters have since passed away, their children (who are now about my late father’s age), grandchildren (about my age) and great-grandchildren (about my kids’ ages) still live and thrive in Bari.
Now, I know the further south you travel in Italy, the more intense the experience. The less English spoken. The more stifling the summer heat. If Bari at all resembled Naples, the southernmost point I had visited in Italy, I’m apprehensive. Or as Daughter says, “I have flutterflies in my stomach.”
Let me be clear: I’m thrilled at the thought of meeting my family so far away, and to visit the home which I heard so much about from Grampa Mike when I was a little girl. Here’s why the flutterflies: at the time of the trip in summer 2010, I did not speak Italian, although I was trying to teach myself (not the most effective method). Also, I’m terrified of germs. For some reason I thought Italy, particularly Southern Italy, would be teeming with them. This was before I realized that Italians are just as germophobic (maybe more so) than me. My fear is valid. Husband has a compromised immune system (two-time cancer survivor before age 20), and, about four years before the Heritage Trip, he somehow contracted a bloodstream infection and in the course of one day, we nearly lost him. Battling this illness is what eventually led to the amputation of both feet. The thought of dragging him all over Italy (along with three kids), through church, monument, oppressive heat and threatening microbes sounded extremely worrysome.
But Husband’s enthusiasm is infectious, so, a few months before departing, I write two letters, one to each first cousin. I plug them into Word’s translating tool, hoping that my thoughts have been expressed correctly, and pop the letters in the mail. Grazie to my Aunt Beth, the official family historian, who made it easy for me to make contact with le famiglie, the families.
About a week later, I awake to find an email from Italy in my inbox! It’s from cousin Lucia’s son, Niki. My letter has made Lucia most happy, and they are all so excited to meet us! A similar connection was made with the family of first cousin Domenico — how long would we be in Bari and wouldn’t we like to stay with them?
Soon, after a series of emails and one international phone call, it was all decided in our two emerging languages, the particulars of when and where we’d be picked up at the train station in Bari. I’m pretty sure I got it right, anyway.
Here in my little corner of the world, I’m elated. Non vedo l’ora — I can’t wait — for it to all come together. I think about my Italian family every single day until departure.
Il Viaggo ~ The Trip
The first half of The Heritage Trip is spent in the frenzied fabulousness which is Italy in the summer, experiencing it all with the people I love most in the entire world. Our days were filled with pane, pasta, gelato, sunshine and laughter. Ruins, Italian towns and cities, UNESCO World Heritage sights, churches, street vendors, souvenirs. Also it was really hot.
It truly was the trip of a lifetime for our little family.
Alas, comes the day when our driver, after five days together, now a friend, settles us on the train heading south from Santa Maria Novella station in Florence.
“I feel I must warn you, going down to Bari…” he explains in dramatic English, “that you must beware of the octopus in the sea. They sting.” Oh Dio. My stomach drops. I’m scared enough about germs and heat, and now I have to worry about dangerous stinging octopi? Did he say poisonous too or did I add that part on my own?
The train departs nonetheless, with our family aboard. And as we chug away, I whisper a little ciao to majestic Firenze, which keeps a little piece of my heart at each farewell.
A Bari ~ To Bari
First is the short ride from Florence to Bologna. The train runs a bit late and I fear we’ll miss our connection to Bari.
All five of us, wrangling our baggage, run through the station with me shouting, “nove! nove!” (nine! nine!) lest we miss the platform needed for the next train. With the help of the locals (they are so kind, probably due to four-year-old blonde daughter, my Golden Ticket) we find binario nove (platform nine) with time to spare. Because the arriving train also runs late. Which allows me the chance to show off the longest phrase I committed to memory before leaving the states, “E’ questo il treno per Bari?” (Is this the train for Bari?) The darling young ventenne (twenty-something) to whom I proudly address this question responds, in her perfect English, “YES, this is the train to Bari.”
Here’s some things I learned on the six-hour train ride from Bologna to Bari:
- There’s not much food or water available on the train. Note to self: pack your own panini for the family next time like all the other proper Italian mammas.
- The train stops randomly, for long stretches, for reasons unknown. Sometimes the air conditioner is faulty. I learn the very useful phrase, la aria condizionata non funziona.
- My American-ness is apparent in just a single word of spoken Italian. Accidenti. Darn.
I’m almost surprised when the train finally halts at the stazione which is Bari. Luggage tossed out, kids off (hurray, no one left on the train as is races off without warning!), blast of hot, heavy air, frenzy of travelers finding their loved ones who have been waiting for them on the platform in the summer air.
I recognize no one.
I know panicking would be very unhelpful right now, but it’s really tempting. I start thinking unlikely thoughts like, maybe there are two Baris in Italy, and I booked tickets to the wrong one? Perhaps someone is waiting for us on a platform in a station hundreds of miles away on the opposite side of the country?
La Famiglia ~ The Family
And then, there she is — cousin Maria! A burst of energy with tight hugs and quick kisses for us all! She scoops us up and, dodging city traffic which swirls furiously, deposits us with her husband Michele, who is waiting in an SUV which seats us all AND accommodates our luggage. I can hardly believe it, not just the size of the car but also the sheer weight of this moment.
All my life I’ve heard details of Italy from my grandfather in his thick accent, about how one day, we’d travel there together, and suddenly, here I am, with my little family in Grampa’s home town. I catch a glimpse of lungomare, the beautiful walkway lined with street lamps and touching the sea. It reminds me so much of my home city, I’m stunned. I wonder if Grampa ever noticed?
Soon, away from the confusion of the city, we pull into a gated property which is home to Maria, Michele and their two college-age figli (kids), Maria’s sister Milena, and their parents Rosa and Domenico, along with an impressive collection of cats and dogs.
We are welcomed, not as a tribe of traveling strangers, but as famiglia.
But it’s Domenico, my dad’s first cousin, who really puts a stitch in my heart, because here is the face of my grandfather, gone 20 years now, but nonetheless looking at me. I hug him tight, overcome with emotion. I have so much to say to him, but on this trip, I cannot. Italian is just too unconquered for me. I will work to remedy this, and when I return to this spot in two years, I will receive the ultimate compliment, when Domenico tells me my Italian (although still pretty halting) is much better — no translation required.
We dine together outdoors, starlight over us and soccer on the tiny tv outside. There is so much food, course after course, all hand crafted with love by Rosa, that I’m grateful we didn’t eat on the train. I look around the table, overflowing with food and family, and somehow, amazingly, us five foreigners fit right in. It seems that our places here have been waiting for us all along. In this moment, I know that Italy has changed for me forever, that this beautiful country holds something more important now than ancient monuments and priceless artwork. I have found my own treasures.
In the balmy summer southern Italian air, among all these new faces which also seem so familiar, I feel my grampa and my dad smiling down upon us.
La Casa della Nostra Famiglia – Our Family’s House
Unbelievably, the house where my grandfather and all of his siblings were born and raised is still in our family’s possession. The house, which has reached fairy tale status to us in America.
More flutterflies in my stomach as we approach, and suddenly, there it is. The house! And us, on it’s hallowed ground. I cross the threshold and move through the rooms in a dream-like state (plus I’m full from Rosa’s 32 course dinner). Watching me from walls and ledges throughout are framed photos of generations past with faces I recognize. Even though the house has been recently and lovingly restored, I can still imagine my grandfather and his brothers and sisters, rowdy and wild, bounding up and down the stairs and spilling out onto the streets. I think of them scampering down the few short blocks to the nearby piazza to fetch water from the town’s fountain for cooking and washing. I wonder how many hours my great-grandmother must have stood in the spot in which I stand now, stirring pasta on a little flame to nourish her big family.
Soon we are up the stairs and out the second floor landing, underneath the twinkly stars that Grampa always hoped to show me one day. Standing there with my little family, I feel like we could move into this home right now and happily live out the rest of our days. Wouldn’t that be an ironic twist for a family who sacrificed so much to establish roots in America, only to have the third and fourth generations fly home to the original nest?
One thing of which I am certain, my great-grandfather would be quite proud to know that his hopes for his sons, and their offspring, to thrive in a new country, were more than realized. Through my dad, success in his business and mayor of his town. Through my uncle, an esteemed professor at a large university. Several generations and countless cousins, sprinkles across the country, living their lives and raising their families. And hopefully even through me and my simple pleasures of being an educated woman, and a happy American wife and mom.
Piu` Famiglia di Volere Bene ~ More Family to Love
Morning dawns with hot sunshine, and with it, the excitement of meeting cousin Lucia, her son Niki and wife Carmen, and their adorable young bimbi (kiddos). More falling in love for me with this family. “My heart tumbles with a love I cannot answer or explain…” writes Elizabeth Gilbert about Italy in Eat, Pray, Love. With each step we take throughout these withering ancient towns in Puglia, with people I have never met but feel instantly connected and close to, this sentiment grows inside me.
In the few blessed days we spend here, we get to know Italy beyond the Colosseum: Bari’s Citta` Vecchia, Alberobello, Polignano a Mare, and in a future trip, Lecce.
But my favorite memories are found in the ordinary. Like watching young daughter bond immediately with her three and five year old cousins, hardly a common word spoken. Who needs conversation when you can simply hold hands and skip happily around town, pointing and laughing at the things which delight you? And share lunch together of buttered pasta, no sauce? (Apparently, it’s a kid-favorite worldwide!) The tour of Carmen’s school, where she taught hearing impaired students. What a treat for this former American teacher to be inside an authentic Italian school, and meet the tiny yet imposing nuns who orchestrates it all. And Niki, loving son and father, with his infectious spirit and the face of one of my closest cousins in America.
Night two eventually falls and with it, our time together. They drop us in front of our hotel, exhausted from a full day of sightseeing, and we peel out of the tiny car, meant for about six but which somehow all ten of us squeezed into. Us on the sidewalk and them in the car, all smiles and waves, blowing kisses and exclaiming “ciao! ciao!” I feel so loved in this country.
As I turn away from this dear family whom I fear I might never see again, I feel that bittersweet mixture of joy twinged with tears.
Un Cuore Pieno ~ A Full Heart
Back at the train station in Bari. Just three days earlier, I had emerged from the train and onto the platform feeling a bit panicky, worried about what the next few days would hold. Today, I’m also feeling panicky, but for a completely different reason. Because I’m already heartsick that I may never see these cugini whom I have quickly grown to love so much, with their expressive faces and their big spirits. With each goodbye I imprint every detail in my memory. And hope desperately that I will return here, across continents and oceans, to the citta` where it all began for my family, and where the family story is still being written.
Soon enough, I’m back home in my little corner of the world. In the fog of jet lag and a 30-hour (sleepless) journey, the whole thing seems like a dream. Italy, the house, the cousins. But the 600 photos in my camera show otherwise. I scroll through them, one by one, savoring every single image.
I think back to last fall, when I began planning the trip, the grief of losing my dad still so raw. Some of the nerves I felt before the trip stemmed from the sadness of not being able to share this experience — ever — with my dad. Would Bari be unbearable with the planet still turning and him not on it? But Italy was unexpectedly healing. And somehow, in my famiglia there, with their warmth and boundless affection, my dad was with me all along.
It takes a while, but eventually I come to the last of my pictures. And with these photos is proof: my smile has returned.
The post Finding Famiglia first appeared on Prayers and Piazzas.