Imagine with me for a moment please..
Imagine a nation of people who have worked for centuries at perfecting pleasure. A nation that has worked long and hard at enjoying the simpler and beautiful aspects of human life; like the subtle joy of the company of close friends and family, almost celebrating each gathering as if it may be their last. These people cultivate the arts like a necessary science of the heart, yet have also produced some of the world’s finest scientific minds. Their culture treats each meal as it should be; the nourishment needed to fuel a productive life. Their families are typically warm and inviting, no matter if you’ve known them for twenty years or twenty minutes, you feel like you’ve known them you’re entire life.
To me, this is what it means to be Italian.
But this was not always the case.
Growing up, even until my late teens the idea of being Italian was fairly one dimensional, either you were one, or you were a “Caker”. You ate spaghetti carbonara or you ate kraft dinner, there really wasn’t much middle ground.But no matter where I went I always took my proud heritage with me, a source of self-esteem with really no reason for it. At the time, sadly, the main thing I identified with being Italian was the mafia. It seemed to be the subject of every movie, or movie legacy at the time; Goodfellas, The Godfather, Casino, the Untouchables, Donnie Brasco, and the list goes on and on. Truth be told, I don’t particularly even care for these movies. I enjoy the Godfather because its a quality film, but the subject matter I could do without. I remember always thinking to myself, is this what I’m supposed to be proud of? Is this what it means to be Italian? We’re just a group of menacing, uneducated bullies, who eat too much, disrespect women, and live a life of ignorance and crime? I used to compare these films to my family, who don’t fit that stereotype, and found it frustrating to always be associated with the Corleone’s of the world. Not to mention that my peers at the time were acting out their mafia dreams at any time possible. The words, “Do you know who I am?” were certainly not a stranger to my high school hallways.
Thankfully, I went away to university, to expand my horizons and meet new people. The first Jewish person I ever met in my life (a great guy named Abe) lived on my residence floor, during my first year of University. I remember thinking it was sooo cool that I now lived with a Jewish guy, like he was a celebrity. Unfortunately, as it turns out, it was Abe that reminded me of my heritage’s image problems later that same year.
With 20+ students gathered in the common lounge, someone decided to put in Goodfellas (“this is a classic”), as I feigned enthusiasm. Not twenty minutes into the film does Abe declare to the crowd, “So Mike, this must be like watching family movies for you eh?”. Ironically , I successfully furthered the stereotype I was against by tearing a verbal strip off of him as if he had called my mother a hooker. I didn’t know I had that sort of anger readily available, but it was too much of a reminder of everything I wanted to leave behind at the time. Looking back, I think I was getting sick of being Italian.
It was not until a family trip to Italy as a teenager that I began to understand that many Italians were like me, and despised the mafia. They believed the growth of Italy and its ability to succeed as a nation was always curtailed, if not completed subdued because of the mafia. I learned that many honest and hard-working Italians see the mafia as a black mark on their nation’s beautiful and celebrated history. The nation’s lowest common denominator standing up tall for the world to see (this must be how American Democrats felt for the past 8 past eight years).
The revenue generated by the Italian mafia accounts for $204 BILLION, sadly, making it Italy’s top business. To see a recent article on the matter, click HERE. Not surprisingly, the loudest opponents I have ever heard on the mafia were two residents of Campania and Sicily, the regions that are home to the largest crime syndicates in the country. The gentleman from Agrigento, Sicily was a city councilor and the gentleman from Campania owned a small business. Both of them had similar views in that the mafia, especially in the south, castrated local economies from growing and were effectively “killing” the south. As the mob takes money from small and medium sized local businesses, they do not have the capital to expand, and therefore halting free market progress. The effects of this is that the Italian government (who I believe to an extent are likely involved) is forced to take taxes from northern Italy (which is highly industrialized) to subsidize the lack of funding and revenue in the south. As you can imagine this has caused quite the rift between the two halves of the country each resenting the other. This was hardly the type of legacy I wanted to be associated with.
It was not until I traveled to Europe to visit our family at the age of 20 that I discovered the means to appreciate the lineage that ran through my veins. More specifically, it was on the steps of Venice and Florence in particular that humbled me both to the history of the world and that of Italia, bella Italia.
I still recall the first time I sat in the first row pew at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. It had nothing to do with religion, god, or the unnecessary chanting going on at the time, but with the power of history. For some reason, it hit me like a giant bowl of ravioli in the face, I was now sitting in a building that was built nearly a thousand years ago. It had been shelter and home to some of the most powerful and influential men in the world, and here I was a twenty year old “boy” on a trip with his cousins, still trying to figure out life. It was humbling. It was beautiful. It was on this trip that my cousins, Mauro and Alessandro’s English skills progressed to the levels that, combined with my shaky Italian allowed us to forge real conversations.
I learned more about my own family, my heritage, and the world in which they lived. Local and national customs were fully explained to me, and the mask of the country I had come to believe corrupt and poisoned began to reveal its true self.
The next stop on this trip, Mauro and Alessandro decided it was time for me to experience Firenze (Florence’s true Italian name). If Venice hit me like a bowl of ravioli, Firenze was like an opera singer sitting on my head.
All the names I had read about in Italian school and seen on the History channel were suddenly coming to life. As if the Medici Family had lined the Uffizi Gallery to welcome me to their home town. Yet it was not until I stepped inside the church of Santa Croce that a rush of history consumed me. This church is filled with the elaborate tombstones of some of the greatest minds in world history, Dante (the grandfather of the Italian language), Galileo, Michelangelo, Marconi, Machiavelli, and many more.
Our final tourist stop in Firenze before returning home was to climb the 643 steps to the top of the Duomo, the city’s basilica. It was a grueling climb, but worth every second when we reached the top. I still remember making a seat for myself in between the standing tourists, sitting cross-legged, leaning forwards against the safety fence looking over the entire red roofed city and into the Tuscan country side. I sat there mesmerized for over half an hour, taking it all in.
I have been very fortunate to have visited the country a number of times since that trip, mainly to visit my grandmother (nonna), and once to tour southern Italy, which is equally as beautiful as the north yet in a completely different dynamic. Picture the difference between New York City and the Grand Canyon, both majestic and awe-inspiring, but in two distinct ways.
My grandmother Antonia who lived in Italy passed away a few months ago, and I guess I never realized the impact she had on me until I began writing this post. She was an amazing woman, who at 90+ years of age still chatted with her friends on her cell phone, gave you a good smack if you needed it, and spoke with the force of Tony Robbins and the compassion of Oprah (except intelligent). It was my nonna who was the glue that kept the family so close together for so long. It was at her house as a child that I received my first Spiderman doll for my 4th birthday, and began a bond with my cousins that I still consider extremely important.
So in essence I believe it was my nonna, and every part of her that has instilled in me the love and appreciation that I have for Italy. The tough as nails matriarch that would scold me for my crazy behaviour with one hand, yet soften the blow with the other. Always a kiss and a hug, and the perfect panino (sandwich) tucked away just waiting for Michele. I think the Italia I have now come to know and love, is the Italia my Nonna Inez loved and its beauty largely reflects everything she stood for. It was the significance I had been looking for in my heritage when at the time all I was told to think in North America was, “fughed aboud it!”.
That’s why I look so forward to returning this summer to witness my cousin Mauro’s marriage to his beautiful fiance Claudia. After my trip when I was twenty, no matter how many times I return, my heart seems to beat a little different while I am there. It beats with the understanding of where I came from, who I am, and what it truly means to be Italian.