This post is an exciting one to write, as it introduces a new venture we’re embarking on to help you visit your ancestral towns, and even meet your Italian relatives! More details are at the end of this post!
I remember the first time I went to Italy at an age when I was aware enough to take in what I saw. At an age when I was able to compare and contrast, New York, my home, and Southern Italy, my ancestral home. My parents took me to their villages, of course. To where they had been born and raised, even married, before they left one winter in 1967, not knowing they would never live there again, but that being their fate, just the same.
I remember the home my father grew up in, where my grandparents still lived. I had been there before, when I was a child, was even baptized in the small chapel around the bend, where my father himself had been baptized. But now I was a young girl, about to enter junior high, the confusion of adolescence, and I had started to understand that I was something different than the other kids at school, and the reason I was different was this place. It was Italy. It shaped everything about me, my family, how we were raised and how we behaved.
I remember the hollow carved into the faded stone wall across from the front door in the courtyard (o’ porton’, as they say in dialect,) where someone had intentionally carved out – God knows in what decade or even century – a display area to fit a small altar. I remember the statue of the Madonna, perched there on the shelf, how she stood above the tiny, cobblestone street that ran along my grandparents’ house, and how very Italian that was. I saw the Madonna in our home, but never perched on a shelf in the streets of my New-York neighborhood.
I remember the old lady who sold fresh cheese, hollering in the early morning hours. I remember my grandmother shuffling in her house slippers toward the door to buy ricotta and mozzarella straight out of the basket affixed to the old lady’s bicycle. I remember the open air terrace that sat square as a stamp in the center of the house, where my grandmother hung the laundry out to dry, beside a lemon and olive tree.
These things were not new to me. As a child, I spent the mornings of warm summer days clipping my family’s wet laundry to a clothesline in our backyard, and I unclipped them in the evenings after they dried and folded them as a chore my mother insisted on. But suddenly, these things were very new. I had seen these things growing up, but suddenly, placed in this new context, it seemed I had never truly seen them.
The Southern Italians have a saying – Sangue del mio sangue. Blood of my blood. In Italy, this is what I felt – something in me, within me, understood. I was not home, yet I was home. Emotions, understanding that had been created in my DNA sat up, as if to say, Finally. Finally, I am called to.
Here lived everything that made me different from my schoolmates, everything that gave me this identity, everything that had been within the walls of my home, yet not outside of them. I was at the source. The center of my universe….
The photos of saints and madonnas that hung throughout your childhood home suddenly take on a deeper meaning when you see the importance Southern Italians place on creating small shrines throughout their neighborhoods.
The insistence on driving 40 minutes to Arthur Avenue to get the freshest cheese possible suddenly makes more sense when you see your grandmother lift a milky towel of ricotta from an old lady’s bicycle basket, handing her a few lira in return.
And even on the flip side of the idyllic – (because if we are going to talk about our heritage we should talk about it honestly) in the meager apartments of your relatives who did not emigrate, in the packs of dogs that scavenge for food among the garbage in the larger towns, in the slow, almost stillness of daily life, why your relatives left also takes on a deeper meaning.
I remember seeing the home my mother grew up in with my grandmother and her brother, who died when she was only 12 years old. This is where you grew up? I asked her, because I couldn’t believe that the woman who immaculately cleaned our modest but beautiful four-story home in New York, the woman who cooked meals in our nice kitchen that regularly fed 20-something people, the woman who was meticulous in her appearance, donned in 18-karat gold, ever lived like this. She showed me the outhouse. She told me that on cold nights they used a bedpan.
Until you see things like this for yourself, you can’t really understand. Suddenly, I understood as I had not before – deeply, with my own nose, eyes, ears – why my mother had left, and never wanted to live there again. For what? she used to say back home when I asked if she’d ever live in Italy again. America had given her everything. Now, I no longer needed to ask her. I understood what she had lived.
La miseria that our ancestors talked about is a chapter in a textbook until you stand in it, touch its walls, smell its smells, hear its voice in the streets…It may not have been the Southern Italy of the 1960s when my mother first left, but I could still see that Italy in whatever bit of progress had been made, and when, some 20 years later, I sat down to write a memoir about my family, I used what I saw on these trips to flesh out villages I had never lived in, and to bring alive people I had never met, but only heard of.
Even the dichotomy I just described – the beauty and the beast of Southern Italy – is something description cannot really capture. You need to see it and to feel it firsthand.
As with many of you, Cassandra Santoro’s grandparents immigrated to America. Our guest on Episode 32, Cassandra faced the twin tragedies of the death of her grandfather and father, both at young ages. Only 19 years old, staring into the chasm of loss and grief, she wanted to touch the source of where these two men she loved so fiercely had come from. She wanted to viscerally experience the traditions, the personalities, the character they raised her with. She arrived in Italy, and the minute she stepped off the plane, she felt at home.
She hasn’t stopped living there. Cassandra divides her year between Italy and New York, doing custom travel planning for those who wish to see Italy in an off-the-beaten path type of way.
“You cannot get that connection to family unless you just step on the ground and feel the energy,” says Cassandra.
Italy, just like America, has an energy. To feel it for yourself firsthand is to feel the energy of your ancestors. The energy that is already in your blood, dormant, waiting to be awakened.
As with many of you, Anthony Fasano’s great-grandparents immigrated to America. My co-host on The Italian American Podcast, when Anthony reached his mid-30’s, he realized there was so much about his heritage he did not know. I was fortunate enough to have my parents bring me to the towns where they were raised, while Anthony would need to do way more legwork to make it happen. But the experiences we had once there were similar. He writes about how he made this happen – and how you can do the same – in his upcoming book, “Forty Days in Italy con la mia Famiglia.”
Anthony’s not been the same since that trip. His children met Italian cousins they didn’t even realize they had. They played together on their family farms. They ate figs grown on that farm, and he and his wife and children ate many dinners together with their Southern Italian family. They cooked together. They talked. And they continue to stay in touch. Anthony’s understanding of, and connection to, his heritage deepened immeasurably. He went from being an Italian-American with a vague understanding of what that meant, to being an Italian-American fully aware of what that means, and continuing the journey to learn more.
Anthony, Cassandra, and I are really excited to announce that we’re teaming up for a new venture, one that can help you experience everything I just described. Pulling together our various passions and skills, we are combining our talents to offer fellow Italian Americans the opportunity to create a personalized heritage trip to their ancestral towns. With a range of options – from using a genealogist to trace your ancestry to doing the work yourself as outlined in Anthony’s book – Cassandra’s custom travel plans, coupled with her terrific Italian network of tour guides on the ground in Naples – can make your visit to your ancestral towns unforgettable experiences that will change your life. We want to help as many Italian Americans as we can to meet their Italian relatives, when possible, and at the very least to see the places where those relatives once lived. Because we get it.
More details on this venture will be announced soon, but you can learn how to get a 15 minute call with Cassandra to discuss possibilities for the trip!
Just fill out the form below!