“Chi si volta, e chi si gira, sempre a casa va finire.” No matter where you go or turn, you will always end up home – or so goes the popular Italian proverb. The love, reverence and strength of family heritage have over time become symbols of Italy and its diaspora, perhaps only second to our delicious food. Across popular portrayals of Italians in film and literature the image of the warm, close-knit, and often large, extended family shines through.
As Italians we celebrate the ties that bind us no matter how we travel, how differently we live and how far apart we are. Though I was born and raised in New York, thousands of miles away from the Campania region of Italy that my parents call home, I was always immersed in my Italian culture and heritage. Family was always nearby – my father’s brothers also immigrated and it is largely from them and my father that I inherited my entrepreneurial bend. Italian was spoken in all of our homes; it wasn’t until I went to elementary that I properly learned English.
My mother was born in Rocca San Felice a small hilly town in the Avellino Province of La Campania and except for one sister who moved to Regimila near Milan, that is where he whole family still resides. Counting less than 1,000 residents it is the type of place that you can walk from end to end along its stone roads in under two hours. It is rich in history, dating back to the 9th century, and the medieval heritage is evident in the castle and fort that sit in the center of the town. Much of the town still retains the narrow streets and low-lying houses characteristic of medieval villages.
One of the central attractions of the town is the Mefite, a small lake of boiling water, caused by pressurised gas being released from deep within the earth. The sulphuric scent of the lake made it a pilgrimage destination for ancient Romans worshipping the Goddess Mephitis.
My father grew up only 6 miles away in the neighbouring town of Guardia di Lombardi. Though slightly bigger with 2,200 residents, Guardia di Lombardi was too built around a medieval fortress, dating back to the 11th century. My father’s ancestors were farmers in this town, making a living in town notorious for its violent earthquakes. Though my grandparents have now passed away, rest their souls, my father still owns a house in the town, never lived in, a compensation from the government to the family after a particularly violent earthquake.
In my childhood, my parents endeavoured to keep us connected to their home and their parents. We spent several summers in Campania with our grandparents- I have a particularly vivid memory from my first trip, still a toddler, being lifted onto my great-grandfathers shoulders. However, as we aged, the tradition waned and at 11, I remember sobbing at the thought of coming home to New York. I didn’t want to leave, as if I knew in my heart it would be a while before I returned.
It was not until I was 30 that I finally made it back to La Campania. I stayed in Rocca San Felice at my maternal grandfather’s house. It was amazing to be back and remarkable how some things had not changed in 19 years. My dad’s motorcycle, unused in over two decades, still sat beside the house. In the attic I found evidence of my last stay toys left behind… my old soccer ball.
I spent most of my time that trip catching up and reminiscing with my grandfather. An infinitely interesting man, he told of his time working in Venezuela as a young man, building train tracks. And like so many from his generation, he told war stories – tales of World War II when the cities were closed off by military and the countryside towns like Rocca San Felice were over run with soldiers. It reminded me that my paternal grandfather was also a soldier. Captured in an assault that saw the majority of his unit killed, he spent seven years as a prisoner of war. Though sobering, it was profoundly touching to connect with this history.
Since that trip, I have made a concerted effort to return to Italy every few years. The call of family keeps me coming back – and the delicious food. My inner child loves the simpler pleasures, pizza and gelato, all made with fresh organic ingredients, unpretentiously. Delizioso.
With each visit I try to connect more with my family, and to see more of the country. In 2010 I rented a house near a mountain top – so high you could see the water on both sides of the Italian peninsula. Invited my entire family and it was an amazing time, the first time the entire family had gotten together in years.
On another trip we took a boat to Capri. Being the island boy that I am, I have been known to be a beach snob and while I loved Capri’s rugged landscape and stunning vistas, I was less than pleased with its rocky beaches. In my travels I have explored Rome and Venice, driven around Naples – , with its crazy drivers and motorbikes. I have toured the Amalfi Coast and taken the high speed Italo train from Napoli to Milan.
My last time visiting was last summer, 2015. Making a more concerted effort to get back to Italy has made me feel more linked with my roots, and even with my family in New York. I must be truly Italian, because I love connecting with my heritage and culture. I hope to make it back next summer, 2017. Fingers crossed.