The word storia, in Italian, means story. And also, history. Growing up, Italian was always part of my history, but never part of my story. Until, one day, a fire for learning the language unexpectedly sparked.
Growing up in an Italian-American family, Italy was no big deal.
The following was all quite normal: Sundays at my aunt’s house. Cousins everywhere. Lots of talking (yelling) over each other. Constant hugs and kisses. A long table lined with steaming bowls of deliciousness. My tiny but plump, fair-skinned, copper-haired grandma endlessly stirring a boiling pot of something. People in your business at all times. It was a wonderful way to grow up, especially being one of the youngers.
At the center of these weekly gatherings was Grampa Mike, who began my family’s American story. When he was younger than my own teenage son now, he left his Southern Italian home and all he knew and, like countless other immigrants of the time, sailed into a new life in a new country by way of Ellis Island.
He was an 18-year-old foreigner, who spoke no English and knew no one here. And even though he would live another 70 years in this country, Grampa Mike spoke with a thick accent and those famous Italian hand gestures until the day he died, shortly after my wedding.
I never asked him to teach me a single word of Italian. Truth be told, the self-conscious, unenlightened teenager in me was, at times, a teensy mortified by his Italian-ness, particularly in public. What a missed opportunity.
Even though I had no interest in his language, Grampa did instill in me a yearning to visit his land. With his big mustachioed grin and twinkling eyes, during our Sundays together he would tell me how all the roofs in Italy were flat, and that we could sleep on them, outside, underneath the stars. He would talk about how we would go there one day, together. From the time I was four years old, I had wanted to take that trip.
But when I did get to Italy for the first time I was 15 (see me in the center there?) and on a whirlwind three-week European tour with a high school group, not Grampa. None of the others had Italian roots like me. We all agreed that Italy was old. And crumbly. Even though I was thrilled to find 22 families with my Italian surname listed in the Rome phone book, I was 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 decades.
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 college graduate. A wife, a teacher, a homeowner, a mother. Milestones I had always planned. Unexpected were the bumps in the road.
By the time I reached my 40th birthday, our family had suffered a couple of blows, that, cumulatively, I was finding difficult to bounce back from. The first, losing my beloved dad, Grampa Mike’s adored youngest child and textbook grandfather to my three little ones. Just a few years before my dad’s death and barely after the birth of our third child/only daughter, my husband contracted a life-threatening infection and in the course of one day, we nearly lost him. Thankfully he survived, but traded both feet in the process.
My heart felt sad and worried all the time. My mind, in quiet moments of the day, defaulted to anxiety, maybe even depression.
So it was that just months after losing my dad, Husband was determined to help me find my spark again, and turned to our bucket list. He burst into the house one day with his signature enthusiasm — thankfully still intact — and made a quick announcement: “Let’s rent that house in Tuscany! Let’s take the kids! We’ll find your family! And we’ll learn Italian!” And that is what we did.
That innocent statement — not my native grandfather, nor my high school trip to Italy, not even being a fan of Eat Pray Love — changed the course of my days and in this way, Italian unintentionally found me. In its lyrical loveliness, Italian saved me. It gave my grief-filled mind and heart a better place to rest.
Instead of ruminating over my dad’s final days and how I could have prevented the unpreventable, my newly found Italian brain offered up more productive options: the meditation of verb conjugations; the transformation of the ordinary (for example, parsley) into the exotic (prezzemolo — che bello!); the imagined exhilaration of ordering a cup of coffee or asking for directions, were I ever to do so in Italy.
Most unexpected is how something which had always been the background of my life, something which I never had any intention of embracing, waited for me, and, in my time of need, provided me with what was first a beautiful distraction and now has become a lifelong pursuit. I feel fulfilled and nourished by Italian. I feel connected to my roots, to my heritage and to my sweet father, all of which felt lost to me in losing him. I feel relieved of grief’s burden.
Early in my language journey, it hit me that fluency is not the goal, although that would be a fantastic bonus. The goal is joy. And what I really hope to encourage in others by sharing this story is that you find something you love, whatever that may be, and jump into it wholeheartedly. Do it for the sheer luxury of the pleasure it brings you. I urge you to practice regularly a passion, somehow. Not necessarily during indulgent, undisturbed stretches of time (*insert wistful sigh here*) which elude us all , but in the tiny chunks of time which pop up at random in any given day. Even if it’s just for ten minutes here or there, carve out a pinch of time for your personal joy.
My love of learning Italian found me 20 years too late to share with Grampa. But, in something out of a fairy tale, during that bucket list trip to Italy with the kids, we found Grampa’s relatives — my cousins –happy and thriving in the heel of the Italian boot. They took us to Grampa’s house, still in our family after all these years, lovingly restored.
In a most surreal full-circle moment, Husband and I led our children out onto Grampa’s flat roof, breathing in the balmy summer night air together. I hugged my four-year-old daughter especially tight. Through her, the four-year-old me seemed to make it to Italy after all.
And in that twinkling Italian starlight, I’m sure I caught Grampa’s little glimmer of delight winking down at us.
The post Accidental Italian first appeared on Prayers and Piazzas, and is an adaptation of the post Italian and Me: A History. Re-posted today in response to The Daily Post Discover Challenge: Learning.
28 Comments Add yours
Here’s hoping you see more many more summers on that flat roof! Your grandparents sound like a real inspiratiom.
Aw thank you! How nice to hear from you, hope you guys are well! xo
I love the idea of learning a language to give you joy. My aim has always been fluency and grammatical correctness (sounds pompous, I know) but now I’ll think of it a bit differently. And it does give me joy to read Italian poetry in Italian (but not the gruesome bits of Dante!).
I could use much more focus on grammatical correctness, so perhaps we can inspire each other! Thank you so much for being here and for sharing your thoughts!
L’Italia ti ha chiamato! Beautifully written. Prezzemolo is a great word. Have you read Italo Calvino’s Fabie Italiane/Italian folktales? There are several tales of ‘Prezzemolina’. Ciao, Cristina
Ciao Cristina! Thank you for your sweet comments. I haven’t read that book but I will look for it! 🙂
That is so true about finding joy along the way, I often think about this too 🙂 Glad you reposted this one, I love your writing ! Ps. Prezzemolo – such a gorgeous word!!
Thank you so much, so appreciate your sweet words. ❤ Prezzemolo — isn't that exquisite? With your love of "z" words I can see why it appeals to you! Un abbraccio…
What a lovely and heartbreaking story! Kudos to you for finding happiness and strength.
Thank you for your sweet comment, so glad you enjoyed the piece.
I love Italy so much. I think it is the most beautiful place on this planet. Your post has encouraged me to actually start learning Italian, even if it is just for fun. I love the sound of it and what once can express in Italian.. like ‘dolce far niente’. Beautiful!!
I am writing this comment thinking how an Italian native speaker would pronounce every single with this beautiful thick accent, preferably from the South of Italy 🙂
Ciao! I’m thrilled to know my post has inspired you to learn Italian! I hope you love the journey as much as I do. Buon divertente! 🙂
It is lovely to finally find yourself and find joy in it. I am so happy for you and happy that you could share it with the rest of us
Thank you so much for your sweet comment. So glad you enjoyed the piece!
Stacy, don’t apologize for reposting this story. You should post this story every year! It is so beautifully written, from the heart, and reminds us all that despite the problems we may have there is always beauty to be found in the world. And language is one of those beautiful things, a thing in and of itself, beyond all of the rules we are always trying to remember; it makes our visits with other people and cultures special. Thank you for reminding me today! -Also an Italophile
Kathryn, thank you! I so appreciate your kind words and I’m happy you enjoyed the piece. Fun to find something that provides pure joy, and connect with others who feel the same. Cin cin!
I so much agree! I love when Stacy says |Early in my language journey, it hit me that fluency is not the goal, although that would be a fantastic bonus. The goal is joy. And what I really hope to encourage in others by sharing this story is that you find something you love, whatever that may be, and jump into it wholeheartedly. Do it for the sheer luxury of the pleasure it brings you.” It’s really true and that’s what I wish to all my language learners (and myself too!!).
Hi Ermy and thank you so much for your encouragement and kindness! I’m so glad those words touched you, and I wish you every joy on your language journey!
My Finnish grandfather tried to teach me Finnish, but without success. Long after he died I visited Finland and fell in love with it. I have travelled all over the country but was unable to visit the town where he was born as that part of Finland was taken over by Russia in the Winter War, just before WWII. I think of him often when I am in Helsinki and often wonder if he walked the same streets as I do now.
I imagine that Finnish would be quite difficult to tackle! How fun to hear about this parallel experience with our grandfathers. I’m sure he’s looking down on you and loving that you love Finland. I know you have a Helsinki blog (right?) but please share a link if you’ve written about your Finnish roots. I’d love to read it!
What a touching story! I relate to so much of it, especially the part about losing your dad, which I experienced a year and a half ago. I love the idea of focusing on small things that bring your pleasure, even if you can only afford to do them in a stolen moment here and there..
P.S. I LOVE your writing!
Thank you, Jhaneel, your words mean so much to me! I’m thrilled that you enjoyed this piece. I’m sorry to hear about your dad, too. Such a heartbreak. 😦 So important to surround ourselves with tiny joys — 101 of them, right? 🙂
“Early in my language journey, it hit me that fluency is not the goal, although that would be a fantastic bonus. The goal is joy.” How beautifully stated this entire paragraph is. Truly this is something that I have discovered in my own life. It’s the process that’s enjoyable and not just as a means to an end.
Hello, thank you so much for reading and for your sweet comment, your words touched my heart. It has taken me a long time to understand that the joy is truly in the journey. Blessings!