As the boomerang flies, so it flies back. The stories that lived within me, passed down from my grandparents. Theirs was an Italy of nostalgic approximation. Mine is an Italy that is bowed but unbroken, a phoenix that will rise again.
“In an age when it is common for progressive cosmopolitan intellectuals (particularly in Europe?) to insist on the near-pathological character of nationalism, its roots in fear and hatred of the Other, and its affinities with racism, it is useful to remind ourselves that nations inspire love, and often profoundly self-sacrificing love.” — Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities
I belong to a generation of Americans whose myths of origin can be traced back along a well worn path of our shared human history. They were called the Greatest Generation. I never interrogated that term too much, never unpacked what made them so Great. I never really thought of it that often.
First, there was the Great Arrival. My great grandparents emigrated to the United States from Italy in the early years of the 20th century, each with their respective aspirations for that elusive ‘better’ life. As one of the stories goes, my great grandparents came from the towns of Pagani and Nocera Inferiore, deep within the province of Salerno. No one really knows which parent came from which town, as they were all eventually funneled by temporary work through Naples, and from there onward to New York. They lived in crowded tenements that, through the tenacity that has become emblematic of an epoch, eventually became single family houses that would soon sprawl into suburbia.
Then, there was the Great Depression. It marked my grandparents so profoundly that it informed everything that they did subsequently. The Depression was a guest at the table, an unspoken reference point to which everything else was silently compared in the same way a well-timed raise of the eyebrows could indicate that you wanted someone to pass the bread. It did not so much hang over us as it existed amongst us. It accompanied us, it encouraged us to take another helping or pass the plate along. It looked on proudly as we celebrated our bounty and when we would leave my grandparents house it would wave at us from the window.
My grandmother would stand over the stove and tell us about how they had to wait in line for broken macaroni and bread, but that she and her 5 siblings were still able to finish high school with her father supporting them by selling coal and running numbers on the side. Listening to Jonathan Schwartz on the radio every Saturday reminded my grandfather of the Big Band concerts he used to sneak into while he worked as a newsie, barely old enough to read himself. His own mother was a seamstress, one of the women who managed to escape the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, and she sewed what she could for whatever money she could get.
Throughout my youth, these two streams formed a watershed where the droplets of our family history pooled together. In each, our identity as Italian-American was fundamental. Even though I was only half Italian, it didn’t matter. Italy formed the backdrop of an imagined community that I belonged to whether or not I objected. Our traditions revolved around recipes and dishes passed down to my grandmother that she replicated for us on Sundays and holidays that other kids in my class (except for the other Italians) never celebrated. We ate seven fishes on Christmas Eve; we made macaroni pie on Easter Saturday. Those meals were the setting for oft repeated tales of uncles and aunts with nicknames like Combo, Fifi, Lefty and Sonny: everyone had the same given name so their aliases became their identities. My teachers thought I had invented these tall tales when I reported back after school holidays, though they enthusiastically accepted leftovers.
The stories often involved hijinks, practical jokes, or paraphrased punchlines, but they inevitably led to a more melancholy talk of the wars they had fought in or the hunger they had suffered. Even though the decades had blunted the sharpest edges of their suffering, it was nonetheless a constant presence in those tales. My grandfather had been in the War and would repeat the more innocuous stories to us. The painful memories of camps and trenches and death were left unsaid and would never have been known at all were it not for the grimace that would pass over his face at the nearest mention of them. He did not want us to know those stories.
All of these snippets that I can so easily recall as I sit here decades later were tied to our ‘Italian’ identity, no matter how tangentially. Maybe it was the way we all seemed to magically know what “va fa Napoli!” meant (or more serious vulgarities), or how we all pronounced words like mozzarella or capocollo. Maybe it was the gestures that seemed to pervade our extended family: a flip of the hand underneath the chin was one that children were not to replicate, biting down on a finger from a balled up fist signaled feigned frustration, and a simmering pot of tomato sauce (or gravy) was as permanent a fixture in the house as the walls that kept it standing. It was so integral to my constitution that I rarely ever thought of it. We spoke with our hands and it was our language, full of signifiers that told us to whom we belonged.
Was it this unintentional duality that made me take to the road? I was barely a teenager when I left home: not long after that I left New York and then the United States, returning only for brief intervals when money ran out or a relationship went sour. Wherever I went people would press me on my background when I told them I was from New York. When I mentioned that I was half Italian they would often reply, “ah, that explains it”. I was American, but not really, they would say. It became an asterisk, an innate qualification, a hall pass when I should have been in class instead. When I lived in France, my background made me more European; when I lived in North Africa it made me almost Arab.
For my part I mostly found it amusing, the idea of being American but not really. I felt no particular bond to any place or any passport, and I did not yearn to attach myself to a point on the map. The accidental exceptionalism was certainly a perk, my large brown eyes and slightly olive toned skin helped me pass in a great many countries and until I opened my mouth I might have been mistaken for a citizen of any number of places. Traveling as I did, it was an asset and one that I unabashedly exploited to my advantage without ever giving too much thought to whether or not it defined me in any way.
As my feet took me farther and wider, the vestiges of my youth slowly melted away. My grandparents died and with them the hearth around which we gathered went cold, despite our best attempts to continue stoking the embers. My parents sold the house we grew up in, then another, and another again until they retired to Florida where our family history remained in the photographs that moved with them. The memories grew more distant, the meetings more infrequent, the laughter more muted. The vibrant colours of that imagined community faded, threadbare.
I came to live in Italy with absolutely no springtime illusions of a dolce vita or any other bucolic aspirations. I was waylaid in New York after decades of traveling the world with not much more than the Freudian drive to outrun time, finishing a PhD in Political Science whose importance I had come to doubt, and working in a restaurant to support myself, which I had been doing since I left home at 16. I came to Italy because an opportunity to go presented itself and my life had been feeling increasingly unsustainable. I was bored, and it seemed a place just as good as any to stave it off.
It did not strike me as odd that I experienced virtually no sense of culture shock upon arrival. I chalked it up to the incessant vagabonding that had defined nearly two decades of my life, longer than I had even lived in New York at all. Wasn’t I impervious to it by that time? I had made extended pit stops in more than 30 countries and I had learned to never get too attached to a country, a city, or any community because eventually I would leave. I got very good at leaving under cover of night with the bare essentials, even from places where I’d lived for months or years. I looked for furnished apartments with just enough to meet my basic needs and never so comfortable that I’d have to wrestle with the decision to go. I relied on my memories and the constant lookout for a strategic exit. I didn’t experience culture shock because I had trained myself to be numb.
My go bag stayed packed for the first year and I fought against the narrative of being an American who came to try her luck under the (very nearly) Tuscan sun. I had spent my life in places where the first question people would ask was, “what are you even doing here?” in incredulous tones, and it made me feel good. Yes, I was that person who went where no one else would go, I was unafraid, I was intrepid. That I now received messages telling me how lucky I was and how old friends that I barely spoke to wanted to come visit was disarming and made me feel, in the truest millennial (or even earlier) sense, like a sellout. Was I a sellout?
And then without realizing it, and certainly without meaning for it to happen, Italy grew on me. I learned the language well enough to communicate in a few months, and then later well enough to contemplate more abstract ideas. I found myself easing into the rhythm not because it enchanted me but because it suited me. The need for an hour of chit chat before a business meeting could come to order? I got that. The serendipity of a meeting at the bar that led to a project? I liked that. The labyrinth bureaucracy that accompanied even the most minor operation? I laughed at that. I didn’t
like it, but I laughed at it because the many dysfunctions that define living in Italy had within them an inherent chaos to which the only response was laughter. I couldn’t wrap my head around the laws that accompany things like taxes, driving licenses, or electric bills but neither could anyone else and that collective sense of absurdity made it somehow easier to bear.
At some point the people I’d once passed off as clichés stopped being a category from which I distanced myself and started to appear as they were: a complex and diverse mosaic of people that had found that Italy also suited them, and who I could admire instead of recoiling from. As the years passed and I found myself still here and not yet bored, I realized that it didn’t matter why any of us had come here, the same misfit thread tied us together, and the eccentricities of a country that should hardly exist but nevertheless did, continued to mystify each of us. We were American, but not really.
A burgeoning sense of pride began to swell in me when I told people I lived in Italy and when they said that I was lucky I began to agree with them instead of finding excuses to counter them. My sense of humour changed enough that Italian jokes made me laugh just as much as English or French jokes had done so before that. My English husband and I began to use untranslatable Italian words in our English conversations because it made more sense to us. I started to think that maybe this was the place to stay, for longer than a little while. We bought a couch, and then a table, and then a blender. All things I couldn’t fit in a backpack or through a strategic exit.
Last Christmas, friends of ours invited us to their hometown to spend the holidays with their family near Naples. We drove down to Angri, deep in the province of Salerno. Angri borders Pagani, where the legend of my own family began. All that I had to say when we arrived was that my family had come from there and, notwithstanding local rivalries between the two towns which must always exist at the crossroads of tradition and identity, it was as if I had finally come home after a long absence. The food was the same, the laughter and sign language and nicknames, all of it was exactly where I’d left it. I could not understand much of the local dialect but I didn’t need to. We ate dinner on Christmas Eve on makeshift tables in a converted garage, just like I had done as a child. Something stirred in me that hadn’t been touched in decades. Eyes that looked like my own, like my father’s, like my aunt’s; eyes that could have come from anywhere but came from here.
Those were halcyon days.
Almost exactly three months later, I read that the first cases of the virus were found in Angri. There is no more need to call it by its proper name for it has become the start and finish of every sentence, the background or foreground of every thought that runs through our minds. The virus is a part of us, we are all infected in fact or in principle and we cannot run from it because we cannot leave our homes. Everything that was, even if it returns, will be unlike what it was before. Whether we will be better for having lived through it remains to be seen; if there is within us the invincible summer that Camus promised, it’s first rays have yet to shine on us. Numbers feel like they’ve been invented only to tell us how many days it’s been since we went into lockdown, and how many we must mourn on those days. The knowledge that stepping outside of our door puts others at risk, puts an entire country at risk, is powerful and daunting. Each of us carries the potential to drag the others further into the abyss. We feel fine; we feel nothing out of the ordinary aches and pains of age and labour yet we know that our bodies are quite possibly betraying us, and anyone with whom we share a gasp of air. We are imprisoned not by a state or a government, but by a silent force that has forced each of us to go into hiding lest we be the ones with the loaded guns. Will we call it the Great Pandemic, and will that make us the Greatest as well?
For years, for decades to come, we will only need to say The Virus. Everyone will know the one we mean.
And yet, despite the surreal and deepening landscape of eerie quiet, punctuated by news alerts, bulletins, singing and ambulance wails, I have found myself forming a bond with this country that I can only define as intimate. The affection that was building up to this point, that I had begun to feel in fits and starts, now rises in its own peak, a noiseless graph that runs parallel to the mounting numbers, the mourning numbers. I have begun to feel, for perhaps the first time, the visceral and almost instinctive call to bind oneself to one’s country. It is possible that only now I know why people raised their hands on their hearts at the opening bars of their national anthems, that I am just beginning to understand what it is that makes people patriotic. I have felt the first tinglings of actual love for an idea, and for the place that is organized around that idea.
But it isn’t the United States that has stirred that love in me. It’s Italy. Despite all of my best efforts, it’s Italy.
I find myself believing in the Prime Minister when he addresses the nation and I find myself feeling as though I too am a part of that audience. But I do not believe in one man, or one party, or one region. I believe in something that continues to take shape before me even as I fill in the days with numbers that I mourn quietly, alone. I find that my eyes begin to tear when I hear people singing the Inno di Mameli and when the hour strikes I too feel some nascent sense of unity. I have felt grateful for every person who has put themselves in harm’s way to perform a service for others, even if I have been far from it. I have felt heartache for each of those numbers and the sum total of them all.
I have lived on the fringes of the world for so long, and gone so far that I never even considered that a road back to any bosom would be forthcoming. And yet I am moved, not just within me, but towards something new.
I believe that somehow Italy will emerge from this more fortified and more glorious than it was before and I refuse to shake that thought because with love comes hope and that hope is not to be squandered. I am convinced without any evidence in which to ground my conviction that this wholly exogenous shock will be transformative and for the good, and that even within the good the gone will not be forgotten. I am positive that Italy will still be an infuriating place at times because it must be and I know that I will be grateful for those frustrations because it will mean that our hearts are still beating.
Years from now, students will publish their theses on the responses of each country, and I believe that history will absolve Italy for the inevitable faults it made against a tide that ravaged the shores so suddenly, so violently. The only way to know what could have been done to stop the virus from spreading and wrecking its still-to-be-tabulated havoc will be once we are able to see it in historical perspective. I may not be alive by the time the final die has been cast and the path which led us here has been traced. But I know that I have felt safe here, and that I have defended this country to any who have tried to paint it as a danger zone in these dark days. I have felt an urgent need to defend it. For Italy, for all of its many shortcomings, is perhaps the most utterly and perfectly human place in the universe. It is flawed and it is at times perverse and its mistakes are sometimes too grave for even its charm to recuperate. But when you love, when you really love, don’t you do so unconditionally? You see the flaws, the cracks beneath the armour and the flaking gilded grandiosity for what it truly is. But that’s the difference between love and infatuation, ultimately. Infatuation erases those wrinkles or tricks us into thinking they’re sexy. Love reminds us that they are real and that they are ugly but that they do not need to be smoothed over. It is the categorical imperative that remains despite the flaws, because of the flaws, for the sum total of it all. It is resilient.
I always thought that I would die in the Bronx, an old woman sitting on a folding chair in the street encased in the din of the city. I thought my head would drop into my chest while my neighbors played dominoes further down the block. Now I am not so sure, and I don’t think of it all that often anymore anyway.
As the boomerang flies, so it flies back. The stories that lived within me, passed down from my grandparents with their recollections and recipes and inflections that were never quite like the other families, all of it fused together to create the roadmap that I never knew I was looking for. The struggle that hid behind their eyes, the one that they too carried with them from their own ancestors, the one that led them onto boats bound for an unknown shore: that same trajectory has brought me back here, to where they started. Theirs was an Italy of nostalgic approximation, Atlantis buried by time. Mine is an Italy that is bowed but unbroken, a phoenix that will rise again.
Now I too will carry a struggle with me, one that will define me and an entire generation. I will share something in common with billions of people that I will never meet because we will have lived through something that none of us could have ever thought possible. I will have lived through it in Italy, so close to the towns that my great grandparents crossed to find each other. I will have lived through it under the sun whose beauty I worked so hard to deny, and to whom I only relented when it was nearly taken from me. Italy will become to me what America became to them: a land of infinite possibilities, of tenacity, of resilience.
The mark that will be left on me is no longer abstract, no longer imagined. It will be as indelible as the mark that carried my family to the world they built for us. It will be my mark, the one that carried me home.
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