i guess i’ve always had a special connection with my father. i grew up with stories of my mother’s and his lives in tunisia and italy (where they each respectively lived until emigrating to the united states when they were teens). he says “there are two kinds of people in the world, those who are italian and those who want to be italian.” reminding me daily that while we might live in the united states and have american citizenship we were certainly more italian then american. after living for 3 years in japan, i can understand that sentiment. no matter how much you may like your adopted country it’s natural, i suppose, to romanticize your country of origin. anyway, back to those stories of far off places. for as long as i could remember i wanted to get away and travel. and my father has been central to some of my favorite travel stories, even though he wasn’t with me physically. he was a little bird in my ear telling me where to go. or maybe leaving a trail of breadcrumbs is more accurate. here are a couple of those favorite stories.
since i moved abroad in 2005 there have been some pretty intense leaps in technology, or at least in the accessability. now-a-days, even a technophobe like me can look up directions on google maps, or for that matter, take a snippet of information and google my way to an address and phone number. but in the early 2000’s i didn’t even own a computer and cell phones didn’t have gps on them yet. so when i decided in the winter of 2001/02 to hitchhike to new york city to see the metropolitan museum of art’s show of works by caravaggio and the father and daughter orazio and artemisia gentileschi it was with the aid of a map, made of paper. imagine. i didn’t even own a cell phone yet. my only other destination was arthur avenue, the “real” little italy, in the bronx. armed with the crossroads (186th st. and arthur ave.), crytic details (look for a deli with a star of david tile on the sidewalk out front, that’s the best deli in the area) and a list of requests(pepper biscuits, a few pounds of proscuito de parma, etc.) i took a day and headed there with my friend kat who had hitched up with me. from a friend’s place in washington heights, we took various buses and walked a fair distance, honing in on these crossroads, until finally, we found ourselves in the the little italy of the bronx. walking through the streets i kept my eyes peeled for the star of david tile in the doorways. finally i found it, affixed to the sidewalk in front of teitel brother’s deli. kat was a little amazed that we had found it. but for some reason i knew all along that we would find it. of course now the teitel brother’s deli has a website, as does arthur ave which spell out for you exactly which publix transit to take there but who needs internet when you can rely on psychic connection?
fast forward to the following summer. i have been in school at fau for a year and decided to do the study abroad program in italy for the summer. basically, i spent a month and a half in florence, italy learning italian and studying rennaicance art history (pretty amazing) but the real amazement came afterwards, when i spent a month traveling alone throughout italy. there were just a few relatives still in the country that my parents were in touch with, namely my mother’s 2 cousins. one in san remo and one in partineco (sicily). i spent a few days in san remo and about a week in partineco. both were really good visits but stories for another day. on my dad’s side of the family we weren’t really in touch with anyone. but again, i had a list from my dad. names of people and villages (in an email, actually, via my mother). once i arrived in the tiny, tiny train stop at ponte’ (during siesta, which is no good), stumble into an empty bar and am pointed in the right direction i start walking. and walking. and walking…..finally i flag a small car down. the car’s driver happily takes me to casaldune, the small village outside of which my father grew up. once there he tells me that the bus in front of us is leaving and it’s the last bus out of casaldune. it’s not like this place has a hotel! so i thank him and jump out. pulling out my camera, i snap a picture in one direction! turn and snap another, call up to the bus driver to please espeta just a minute while i take another photo. catching on he yells to me “la fontagna, la fontagna!”. to my left i see a small set of basins with spigots and snap a picture of it as well, hoping it’s the fountain he’s speaking of and jump on the bus. the driver takes me back to benevento station (benavento being a proper city with a proper station) and i find out from him when the morning bus runs for future reference. later that day when i talk to my dad, the first thing he says is “did you see the fountain?!”. thanks bus driver!
a few weeks later, literally 36 hours before my departure, while making my way from sicily to milan, i decide i have to try again. this time i start out at benevento station, but the earliest i can get there and get the bus (same bus driver) has me arrive just as siesta is beginning. sheesh! i haven’t written down the names my father had given me but i assume that i will call them from a payphone using an international calling card once i arrive. (the funny part was assuming there would be a pay phone!). i walked into a tiny grocery store and ask in my rough italian “where’s a pay phone?” I am introduced to this analog machine that will definitely not be taking a calling card. someone asks me, what are you doing here? when i try to explain (to the entire store, all of whom are listening now) that i am searching for my father’s long lost relatives someone gets a brilliant idea, runs off and returns with a woman who speaks proper british english. she, at the urging of everyone in the store, asks me a series of questions. what’s my father’s name? his father’s name? what village did they live in? and on and on. eventually everyone disappears, and the owners of the grocery store make me a mortadella sandwich (which they refuse to let me pay for) and things settle down for siesta. i wonder around, take photos and eploring casaldune. eventually the chief of police shows up and in his broken aussie english (everyone seems to have spent their youth being educated by the commonwealth) explains to me that we are going to the house my father grew up in. crazy! i can’t remember everyone’s name now, but i met a couple of people who knew my father’s family before they left. i get to see the house he grew up in (now a small shed really, with a giant modern house attached, with tons of drying garlic and a huge pot of sauce brewing inside), the house he lived in the year before leaving, slightly closer to town and eventually, through these people we learn that my great uncle still lives near by so we pop in on my uncle rocco and his wife. they are totally delightful, we have a quick chat and they ask me in for coffee. unfortunately well into siesta, the police chief’s wife is calling him on his cell, insisting he come home and there is no way for me to stay with out missing my flight out of milan. so we say an equally quick good bye, but i snap photos of each of them and write down their phone number for my dad before i go. the police chief takes me back to benevento and i head north to milan and eventually home feeling like i have had a pretty fantastic adventure.
since then my parents stayed in touch with uncle rocco and a couple of years following my trip, they returned to italy for the first time since their teens and visited. i never saw uncle rocco again and this spring he passed away. in a way, though, he was my favorite relative because we shared such a special story together.
i think i got my sense of adventure and exploration from my parents, inspired by their stories and lives. i’ll always kind of blindly trust those lists of names, places and cryptic clues and know i’ll find my way to another great adventure, even without gps.
here’s a pic of uncle rocco taken by my sister a couple of years ago when my parents, sister and brother all went to italy. my photos of my trip are all film and paper and stored in florida right now but jackie was nice enough to send this one to me.