ON BEING ITALIAN
I was once introduced as a “professional Italian”. At first, I bristled. Then, I acquiesced, proud to champion my cultural heritage. I felt I had finally earned some gravitas, an authority to speak on matters Italian. I imagined the flood of awards from the Ministero dei beni e delle attivita’ culturali e dei turismo (Italian government department of heritage, culture and tourism). Nothing came. Niente. No awards, no acknowledgement. I was on my own. But I felt, and still feel, a heavy responsibility to slap people on the wrists if they order cappuccino after dinner, or serve salad with their lasagna, or demand parmigiano with their spaghetti al frutta di mare. I’m getting old and grumpy...I’ll have to edit that after my medication kicks in.
I was born in Adelaide, South Australia. My parents, Alberico and Elvira, migrated from Altavilla Irpina, (Avellino) in Campania. Their stories - sad, happy, fabricated, apocryphal, moralistic - were so vivid in the telling and retelling that they became real to me. On my first visit to our paesette (our village) as a young girl, everything was familiar. I knew the houses; the road to my auntie’s fields; I knew the gate that squeaked so loudly it woke my grandmother, alerting her to the late arrival of her three wayward sons, my father and my uncles. I knew the stream where a snake had bitten Toto’, the family dog, at a Pasquetta (Easter Monday) picnic. But, these were not memories. How could they be? And yet, to me, they were as real as the blistering hot summer days spent at Semaphore beach, the long days of summer in the suburbs where the asphalt melted with its particularly tarry smell. I remember shivering with cold at early morning mass at The Holy Rosary Church as clearly as I "remember" Nonna collecting the water from the well and carrying it home in a brass pitcher on her head, even though she had died years before I was born.
What does it mean to belong? Where do we belong? In the place where we were born? In the place where we grow up? Or in the place where we choose to live, love and grow old?
As a child, I felt I didn’t belong in Italy because I wasn’t born there. And yet, with my hesitant English, my dark eyes and hair and my olive skin devoid of tell tale Anglo Saxon freckles I didn’t belong here either. From that moment of realisation until now, I felt lost. I don’t know where I belong.
Does this explain my wanderlust, my urgency to travel – what am I looking for?
Photo taken in Valletta, Malta