From the writer: I wrote this essay for a writing class while I was living in London, England. The assignment was to write a creative non-fiction piece about a place. I knew immediately that I wanted to write something about a trip I had taken to Italy. But I was unsure how to make the piece more interesting than just an account of my trip. I decided to start writing and see where it would take me. The piece started out as only a memoir, but as I wrote, things seemed to fall into place; new discoveries with every sentence, and I knew exactly what I was trying to say. This piece is very special to me because it taught me the beauty of writing and just how many of the little things I might have missed.
From the teacher: In the weeks before spring break in our semester in London, the students pondered the stories of travellers and practiced their spellbinding craft: description, characterization, dialogue, scenic construction, details, details, details. On the day of departure I said, "Travel safely. Bring back a story from your adventures." And they did. enchanting stories from far away and very deep within. Like Lori, a wonderful storyteller, who travelled far away to learn a truth so very close to home.
The space between the idea of something and its reality is always wide and deep and dark. The longer they are kept apart -- idea of thing, reality of thing -- the wider the width, the deeper the depth, the thicker and darker the darkness. This space starts out empty, there is nothing in it, but it rapidly becomes filled up with obsession or desire or hatred or love -- sometimes all of these things, sometimes some of these things, sometimes only one of these things . . . That the idea of something and its reality are often two completely different things is something no one ever remembers; and so when they meet and find that they are not compatible, the weaker of the two, idea or reality, dies.
--"On Seeing England for the for the First Time"
Pictures and stories flash through my head. Not one at a time, but all jumbled together. Pieces of a puzzle, interlocking in some places, but there remain giant gaping holes where pieces are still missing in others. They are colorful and interesting, but not completely understandable. Every once in a while I will find another piece--through digging, through talking, through searching. There are still not enough pieces. I know the most vital ones are still missing, the ones that would give me great insight and understanding into my past, still hidden in some unmapped location, waiting patiently to be found. But I am not so patient, I am frustrated; I can almost make out the whole picture, I can almost make out the message it holds. I can see the parts individually and for what they are, but I don't have enough to give me a greater feeling of the whole. All of the tangible pieces are firmly fit in their proper places--landscapes, faces, stories--but it's the intangible ones, the ones that involve personality, emotions, culture, the parts that you can never simply be told or shown, the parts that you need to experience first hand; those are the ones that are still missing. It is a hazy and unclear path I need to follow. I'm not sure where to begin looking. I'm not even sure what it is I'm after. Should I start from the beginning? Should I start from the end, the middle, or maybe a circuitous or meandering route? I should probably just stop looking all together; things usually do pop up when you least expect it when you are not looking at all.
An overwhelming feeling of nervousness engulfs me as I step onto the plane. I take my seat in the coach section, seat 52 C, right next to the window. I have been waiting for this experience since I was a child, and I first recognized my parents' thick accents. I am finally traveling to Italy, my parents' birthplace. The puzzle pieces of the huge green rolling hills and acres of grape vineyards on the beautiful Tuscan country side fill my head. Stories of my nonna and nonno (Grandma and grandpa) and my zia and zio (aunt and uncle) in their younger years come to mind. I've heard and seen these things in pictures and from the mouths of relatives so many times that I almost feel as if I had been there with them, only logic tells me I haven't. They made everything sound so wonderful, not a bad word to utter about their homeland. I often wonder why they chose to leave it if everything was so perfect. I have a hard time believing everything they said; I can't believe such a perfect world exists. I need to see it and experience it for myself.
I'm beginning to worry now as unanswered questions lurk in every corner of my mind: Are my expectations too high? What will I find, if anything? Will I be disappointed? Will I like the people? Will I still be proud to be an Italian? I am going to Italy looking for answers to all the questions that have bothered me since childhood: about my ancestors, about my history, and with only one week to find them.
Even though I love where I live (five minutes west of Boston, Massachusetts) and all the opportunities I have been given, I can't help but curse my parents for leaving Italy. Looking out the dirty plane window, two thick layers of glass between me and the view of Italy--the place I had fondly grown up thinking was my homeland, the place where I feel I belong. These layers, transparent to the naked eye, are thicker than I could ever anticipate, there is a separation, a gap I had not considered before. On my side of the glass exists the idea of Italy and everything I had been told and shown, while on the outside of the glass lay the reality of what I am to experience. In between the two panes of glass, trapped in that tiny space, lie the most important elements of all: love, a vague familiarity, a sense of history, the comforting feeling of home, fond memories. I wait for the glass to shatter, letting them all blend together as one--idea, reality, memories, thoughts and feelings--but the glass remains strong and steadfast. All of the things in that small space are underlain by the nagging feeling that something is still missing, something unknown, something I need to discover, the something that would let the glass shatter into tiny little pieces, the something that would put my mind at ease, the something that would finally complete the frustrating puzzle.
I walk down the street of la Passagia Colonna, completely left to my own devices, one foot in front of the other, teetering on the stone wall that serves as my balance beam. The streets, made of a brownish orange color clay, are much more suitable for horses than for cars. I feel as if I'm in a time warp, in an era I cannot really place. Nostalgia engulfs me as I walk down the very streets my father and grandparents may have strolled down not very long ago. The town of Montecelio, Italy, my grandfather Celio's namesake. Only one hour north of the large city of Rome, this place could not have been any more different. The town of approximately 200 people is filled primarily by old-fashioned religious Tuscan wine-makers. My Italian forename, Sperandio, meaning "hope in God"is such a common name in this small town, but completely original in America.
Still keeping my balance on the wall, I wonder where I would be right now if my grandparents had not left this small town. Would I have taken over the family business, taking care of the vineyards, harvesting the grapes, letting them ferment into their final intoxicating state? More pieces of the puzzle spring to mind--my grandfather's stories of what a celebration harvest time was. I can see his face take on that faraway smile as he recalls the stories of his life. "Back then wine was made the old fashioned way, no huge industrial plants and large wine presses, we made it with our hands, we made it with our feet. Wine making was an art then, wine making was my life, now . . ."he would repeat, never really finishing his sentence, never really needing to. He said these very words over and over again with a disgusted tone in his voice every time I asked him to tell stories of Italy.
I see another person and jump down from my beam; this is the first person I have seen all day. An Italian man, obviously tired by the way he drags his feet, is coming towards me. He sees me walking and looking like the full blooded Italian I so proudly proclaim to be. I'm wearing a fleece Fila International jacket with a big red, white, and green Italian flag adorning my sleeve. I had sewn it on a few years before, an obvious display of pride in my nationality. He greets me, "Ciao, Si Italiana?" I am baffled, I do not know what to say. It is a question I had never pondered before. In America, whenever anyone inquired about my nationality I did not hesitate to say Italian, but this man makes me realize something I had never even contemplated. I am forced to reply, "Non, Americana"in my apparent American accent, pausing at each hurtful word. I cannot believe my own ears, I cannot believe the reality. I've finally discovered what it has taken me 20 years to find, but in the mere second of a shooting star somehow it all makes perfect sense. I finally have all the pieces, I know now what was missing. I'm actually just an American with Italian ancestors.
If I had still been on the plane looking out of those two layers of dirty glass, they would have shattered. The gap was completely full now--idea, reality, memories, emotions, thoughts, feelings, love, familiarity, history, home, all underlain by the fact that I am an American with Italian roots. I look at the complete picture for the first time and realize that this puzzle isn't mine at all. I am not in any one of those puzzle pieces--not one arm, not one leg, not one ear, not even a glimmer of my existence. I come into the story only after all the pieces were created. This puzzle belongs to my parents, grandparents, and everyone who came before them. I have a puzzle of my own that I have already started creating pieces for--the puzzle that belongs to a plain American merely of Italian ancestry.
In America there is no such thing as a plain American. Every American is a hyphenated American. The original melting pot has crystallized out into a zillion ethnic splinters: Croatian-Americans, Irish-Americans, Japanese-Americans, Mexican-Americans, African-Americans, and so on. An American will say "I'm Polish"or "I'm Italian"because his great-grandparents were born in Poland or Italy. It does not matter that he speaks not a word of any language besides English and has never been farther east than New York City or farther west than Chicago. He knows how to make kolatches (if he's Polish) or cannelloni (if he's Italian), and that's what counts.
Back on the plane again, on my way to Avalino. This time visiting the birthplace of my mother. I can't bear to look out the window, I can't bear to see the shattered glass. No repairman can fix this damage. The puzzle pieces from the now complete puzzle of pristine white rocks adorning the seaside and brightly-colored sailboats skimming across clear blue waters jog my memory and calm me some. This place couldn't let me down, could it?
Getting off the plane I get a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach, a gut feeling that this isn't the same Avalino my mother and grandparents speak of so fondly. I can see how the place could have once been beautiful with its majestic cliffs and white rocks. They are now covered in unartistic and obscene graffiti with crinkly old candy wrappers and soda cans littering their bases. I find solace in looking at the Mediterranean Sea, the only thing left that remains unharmed in this town where the people have no concept of beauty. Getting on a bus that seems to be more like the overcrowded cage of a zoo, I am repulsed. Smelly, leering cheetahs, panthers, and cougars moving stealthily about looking for fresh prey in this uncivilized city. These men treat their females as I think cave-men would have, as possessions. I look like a good target since I obviously don't belong here--a gentle pup among beasts. A groping hand reaches out for me. I turn and stare into the beady eyes of a monster and he says "Ciao, Si Italiana"in a voice that was meant to be seductive. I reply this time without hesitation or hurt, "Non, Americana". I am proud to say it and I stare at him a little harder, narrowing my eyes and giving him the dirtiest look I know. I say "Grossero"and remove myself from the cage.
All I want to do is leave this wretched place. There is no home for me here. My pride has been demolished, this city is the wrecking ball. Were my father and grandfather once like these men? I'm proud to be American, the land of civilized people, for the first time in my life It's too bad it took all of this to help me figure it out.
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