One Foot In America One Foot in Italia
By Lee Laurino,
The viewpoint of an Italian American
As an Italian American, do you feel that you have one foot in America and one foot in Italia?
This is my Italian American dilemma….. I have always thought of myself as Italian American, no less an American but also an Italian.
In New Jersey, where I grew up, there was no Italian neighborhood but we shopped at the Italian bakery, the Italian food store for cheese and meats that were part of every holiday or important Sunday dinner. Stores were often identified by the owners last name: Caputo’s or Fuggio’s. Everyone knew where to find the best pizza ‘pie’ and we all went to the same neighborhood church and even used a designated florist or funeral home. This was just part of our daily life and we did not talk about being Italian.
In the USA I am rarely asked if I am of Italian heritage. But while in Italy I am often asked if I have Italian “relatives”. The concept of being Italian American is strange for most Italians I meet. Once I establish where my grandfather was born, there is a certain level of ‘acceptance’ but after years of returning Home to Italy I do not believe Italians think I belong in Italy. The few I have asked, do not understand an interest to obtain dual citizenship and live part time in Italy. Perhaps they prefer to keep their Italian heritage only for Italian born.
Tracing my Italian Roots:
On each visit I come closer to my Italian roots. After several years of research I was finally able to visit the village my grandfather emigrated from when he was 7 years old. Driving up the narrow road to the top of the small mountain where Petina is located, I tried to think how difficult the ride to the port of Napoli was for this family. The cart that took them and their limited possessions to a country they had never visited, could not speak the language and may have had only a few relatives or friends. The steep road must have been packed dirt, the horse or mule pulling the wagon must have taken more than a day to make the hour(by car) drive to Napoli. Even today the
Bus only goes to the village once a day and does not always return the same day
My visit to this rural town was the reverse of my great grandfathers. I had taken a ship to Italy and although I did not use a wagon, I approached the small village with some wonder. The elderly village women were waiting on a bench when we arrived. But not waiting for the daily bus. They waited for the weekly visit from the fish monger. Today he arrives in a refrigerated van. The village was silent in the middle of the day. Fortunately we arrived before the closing hour for the city hall. Once I had requested the documents I needed to apply for Italian dual citizenship, the clerk was absent for a very long time. Finally she returned with a large, old book.
There were some 1980 desk top computers in the office, but the birth records are ALL kept in hand written ledgers. They were beautiful. You could trace the birth of everyone in the town and the house they were born in. I began to feel more connected. Unfortunately the village priest was out of town that day or we would have also found the baptismal record for Edwardo. The kind clerk suggested we visit the next town to search for any relatives. The next town was over the mountains through endless fields of chestnut trees. After just mentioning a name the town hall clerk made a phone call and a short time later my second or third cousin arrived! A lovely surprise. Tracing your roots on a trip home to Italy is truly a moving experience. Over the years I have found some wonderful locals who will help Italian Americans in the process.
Life in an Italian Town
While on a sabbatical in Sorrento, Italy a few years ago I daily observed lifestyle trends that were Italian. At the Tuesday market local housewives shopped with a vendor their mother may have used. There was the daily passegiata where the entire town came out EVERY night and greeted neighbors, family and friends. The main street was closed to turn an 8 block area into an ‘Italian living room’ It was explained to me by an Italian living in the USA that most apartments are very small and the entire family might live together. So Italians spend time socializing in the piazza or main street of a town as well as over a meal in a café or restaurant. In the USA it would not have been unusual to be invited to ‘stop by the house’ even by a casual acquaintance. During one visit I was invited to lunch at a colleagues home. It meant a great deal to me to be included with the family for a meal.
Living in Italy vs spending a vacation in Italy allows time to try to understand daily life in Italy. I watched many weddings from the countless church fronts, saw fresh manifesto (death notices) posted on walls or announcement billboards, watched the entire town close shop doors during a funeral procession, Sundays spent visiting the immaculately tended graves of relatives, daily wash hung on balconies on every apartment building, visiting multiple stores daily to buy bread, vegetables or a housewares, receiving a greeting from complete strangers on the streets. All of this were charming events. If I had to conduct business I may have had a different attitude: the crowds for the post office and bank………no concept of a line, slow is the only speed on the street the opposite on a motorini, the men’s clubs that no women ever entered, the TV shows that even without a full understanding of Italian, were totally senseless, the lack of a dishwasher or having all the lights go out if you plugged in too many appliances. But I loved every minute of it and look forward to going Home to Italy.