Thursday, November 27, 2014
Word Count – 1,083

My family left Calabria in 1957 for the wonders and promise of America. But, we ended up in northern Ontario, in Sault Ste Marie. Back in Calabria, we had no idea that Canada was a separate country. Everyone used the term america generically. Even today, many of my cousins in Aprigliano who are of my parents’ generation still use the all-inclusive term. And it annoys my Canadians relatives to no end. I laugh and secretly think – get over it, we all know Canada is the 51st state.

What I didn’t realize for a long time was that the War and its aftermath were the determining factors in my family leaving Calabria. And even though my parents never fooled themselves into believing that the streets in American were paved with gold, they also never connected, for their children, their experience with the post-War devastation and resulting poverty, to their leaving.

The immigrant identity has been with me since I was 8 years old. My time in northern Ontario was about being different, but pushing away from those foreign roots and towards assimilation. The successful families divested themselves of their mother tongue, their strange foods, their old-world ways and quickly transitioned to the manners of the white-bread majority. The modern 1950′s Canadian immigrant family wanted their children to marry English.

As a teenager in Sault Ste Marie, I remember being embarrassed whenever my mom packed a sandwich of fried eggplant. I loved fried eggplant on my mom’s home-made, but eating it at a cafeteria table full of English boys was difficult. I’d sit in the corner closest to the railing, away from prying eyes and take a bite, quickly returning the sandwich to the wax paper wrapping. I also remember asking my friend and neighbor Giselle C. out on a date, but she was not allowed to go, because her family believed I had gone over to the other side; I was no longer Italian enough. I had no accent, knew all the foreign words and I hung out with both Italian and English kids.

On the flight to Rome, I read Joseph Luzzi’s new book My Two Italies. In the first part of the book he writes of his difficulty reconciling the Italy of the Renaissance and the Italy of his Calabrian parents. There were two Italies separate and not equal; northern Italy was the real and southern Italy the faux. And Calabrians were not allowed to claim Michelangelo or Da Vinci as their own. That confusion is easy to see given that our parents never told us that the reason they left their homeland was because of the aftermath of the War. Nowhere in Luzzi’s book is there a connection between the wave of immigrants leaving Calabria and the devastation left by Mussolini, Hitler and the Allies. Without that connection it was easy to fill the vacuum with a sense of less-than, with a feeling of outsider, with an inferiority and a reluctance to claim or take pride in our heritage.

In Sicily we explored the Baroque cities of La Val di Noto; in Naples we explored Ercolano, the Museo Archeologico and the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte. What I didn’t expect in either place was the dialect everyone spoke. For years, I’ve thought that my Calabrian dialect was an inferior version of Italian and that it was restricted to the contadini of the hill-towns around Cosenza. (I’ve always prided myself on being able to speak both the dialect and modern Italian even if I spent much energy and mental gymnastics figuring out when and where to use which.) But, in Sicily and in Naples everyone talked using what I thought was a Calabrian dialect. Now I know that it’s the dialect of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and still widely and proudly used. Whoa! The dialect my parents and their contemporaries brought with them wasn’t a mountain twang, but a legitimate version of the vernacular spoken in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. It was great fun speaking dialect again with its ending u-sounds replacing the soft o‘s of modern Italian. Zio Michele became the zu Michele of my childhood, of my first language. I could talk without mentally translating from English to Calabrese to Italian.

The last item to challenge is the food snobbery of the expats. I read several blogs by Americans who have landed in Italy and chosen to live there. It’s not unusual for this group to whine about modern Italy and the Italian-Americans that travel back. (The expats remind me of converts who in their new faith become orthodox proselytizers who take their Paul-of-Tarsus role very seriously.) Their disdain is hurled at those travelers who look for American-Italian dishes in Italy, especially anyone crude enough to ask for spaghetti-and-meatballs. The expats’ reaction, with its adolescent superiority and wish for banishment, is worthy of a 9th grader. There seems to be no understanding or genuine pride in the work the immigrants did to introduce Italian food into the New World. All they see is a bastardization of their Italian ideal and react. And yes in that introduction the Calabrese and Neapolitans made changes, adaptions and modifications that expanded the markets; that made Italian style food the norm in a vast new country. Yes, no one in Italy eats meatballs with their pasta, so what that they do in America. That doesn’t mean that the immigrants that introduced these foods into their adopted homeland didn’t know that in Italy pasta and meat aren’t mixed. In my family we never eat spaghetti-and-meatballs. My parents would never think of mixing these two items. So what that American restaurants serve this ubiquitous dish; it’s called knowing your audience; making good economic decisions; being a smart businessman. Those immigrant families that left the destitute Mezzogiorno have been wildly successful in their adopted land and because of them y’all can go back to live in Italy and post blogs about those embarrassing American tourists.

It’s time for a new lens. We immigrants are citizens of two worlds. Let’s celebrate the fact that we know how to live in both the US and modern Italy. Let’s focus on the fact that Michelangelo and Da Vinci were from regular hard-working families; we come from a courageous stock of Italians who trusted in their skills and ingenuity and transformed the new world making it hospitable for the next generation. We are the children those immigrants dreamed of when they left their homeland with tear in their eyes.