As I ponder my heritage and admire this vibrant photo of a port in Trapani, my heart jumps. Look at that water. I can almost hear it lapping against the boats and smell the espresso brewing at a nearby waterfront café. I stare at it again and again and can't help but think...could there be a tangible reason I yearn for "la dolce vita"? A pre-disposition to living in a small waterside town where the sun beats strongly year-round, the square (or piazza!) is the town gathering place, and the passeggiata is the "big event" of the evening? Maybe the reason I treasure experiences and places like these is that they run in my blood...literally.
My grandfather passed away when I was 2, so I never had the chance to sit with him over a cup of strong coffee and ask him if he ever missed his Italian home. Unlike his granddaughter, this gruff family man whose hands only knew hard labor would not have pined away for the life that he left behind...at least not outwardly. I do know that he became a brick-layer, married an Italian-American New Yorker named Maria, and they settled in tiny Madison, NJ, "The Rose City," where I grew up and where my parents still happily reside. I also know my grandfather fiercely loved his children: my aunts Lucille and Paula, and my dad Frankie. I hear Grandpa could eat an entire pound of pasta by himself in one sitting, ate 4 sandwiches for lunch, made his own red wine, loved playing Pinocle, and smoked 10 packs of cigarettes a day (yes, that's 200 cigarettes...), yet he left this world with perfectly healthy lungs.
There are no streets paved with gold in Madison, but it was a lovely place to grow up. I did not always feel that way. As a child, I ungratefully resented the fact that I was a dark-haired Italian-American. I had weight issues stemming from our carb-loving family genetics. I was literally from the "other side of the tracks." My family was blue-collar. Unlike several of my close friends, we didn’t have sitting rooms or a butler’s pantry. We spent summer nights eating hotdogs at the picnic table in the backyard. My dad always had grit under his nails. Everyone on my street had a last name that ended in a vowel.
This is the tiny house where I grew up in the immigrant part of town. Across the street are three sprawling baseball fields, and to this day, the old Italian neighborhood men never miss a chance to hike up their britches and play some Bocce ball on a Sunday afternoon! And you know, there is something respectful about the fact that these men are still the working class people, the day-laborers of the town. They're the men who build the playgrounds and keep the town parks manicured. They provide the fresh meats and produce. They keep the school cafeteria floors polished. They coach our teams. I definitely took it for granted while I was there, and I regret that now. So what if I didn't grow up like the kids on "the hill"? There seems to be a beautiful simplicity about the way we lived.
Somewhere between childhood and leaving for college, I became a young lady, and with that came an adoration of the place I called home for the first 17 years of my life...and the homeland where my family history began. Having been to Italy, I understand now where this simplicity of life was birthed. A little over 3 years ago, I stepped foot in Milan with my mother and knew that, in a way, I was "home." This is a bit hard to put into words, but I finally felt like there was part of Who Christine Is that was explained once I had been to Italy. Not explained through words, but through experiences.
Just so I never forget, and since this blog is supposed to be about the "simple life," I thought I'd share a few of my favorite memories of Italy. May you enjoy them too.
Piazza San Marco in Venice.
One of my all-time favorite memories. Accordions playing in the background….the glorious St. Mark's Basilica against the bluest dusk sky as the sun is setting. At the close of the day in magical Venezia, a few couples start dancing in the middle of the square where the pigeons play.
Corniglia in the Cinque Terre.
We left our car at the entrance of this tiny medieval town and were immediately transported to another time. The golden Ligurian Sea glowed in the distance, and the only sounds were church bells and birds chirping. As we strolled through this little town at dusk, villagers resting peacefully on wooden benches called out a friendly, "Buona Sera!" At the edge of the town were rows and rows of olive groves and lemon trees. The constant smell of honeysuckle. No tourists. Time stood still. My mom and I stepped through narrow alleyways, stopping outside one family’s house to savor the sounds of Italian conversation and the clank of utensils on their pottery plates. At the inn/restaurant in his photo, we dined on a patio overlooking the ocean and received a personal Italian lesson by the owner, who taught me how to say, "I love my mama!"
Rosa & Annarella. On the journey from Sorrento to Rome, we were supposed to change trains at the tiny station in Casserta, but there were no more trains to Rome that night. Suddenly frightened and abandoned at midnight with our colossal luggage bags and my mom with her bright blond ponytail, we might as well have been wearing signs that said, "American Tourists...please take us for all we're worth." Then these two sweet Italian angels named Rosa and Annarella befriended us. Since I only knew a few Italian words, I spoke French to them, and they understood! They led us safely to a nearby hotel where we stayed for the night. Here we are...the Italian sisters :).
Sorrento's Treasure. Sorrento is a small city on the bay of Napoli and from its shores, you can clearly see Mt. Vesuvius. On the shores of Sorrento, I found a treasure. Thousands and thousands of clay tiles in every color imaginable, smoothed by the ocean and resting peacefully in the pebbled sand. Disguarded pieces of tile flooring from coastal homes, or perhaps shards of pottery from urns that once graced flowered patios, these were literal fragments of someone's memories. I spent about an hour there and left with my pockets full. Today, some of them are displayed in a glass jar in my bathroom, and the rest are stowed safely away, waiting to be used for the perfect craft project...perhaps a mosaic table, mirror, or countertop. I will know when the time is right to use them.
* * *This September, a Beginner's Italian class is being offered at the Italian Club of Dallas. I'm strongly considering finally learning the language of my grandfather Stefano, my grandmother Maria, and so many relatives before them. It's my only way to feel close to them now and to understand more deeply the simple life they lived...and the life I strive to live.