In the midst of winter, it’s not uncommon to revisit memories from warmer months long since passed. My recent move to Arizona has lessened the effect somewhat, but I still find that the old habit resurfaces when the smallest chill creeps into the air. For instance, in the rolling hills of northern Tuscany where I’ve spent a notable portion of the past five years, early summer is defined by sagra season.
Every weekend, churches sponsor a dinner to raise money for the local community. Each meal features a special dish to draw in the crowds. The offerings are usually advertised in aggressive boldface type on posters plastered to bulletin boards in the center of every little village. Sometimes, it’s olive oil cake. Other times, it’s a meat or pasta dish that someone’s grandmother is “famous” for. Fundamentally, it’s an incentive for a community to get together, visit, and relax; something that seems to be increasingly rare in the U.S. It’s also an experience that most tourists will never have.
The one sagra I return to year after year is in Segromigno, a village located an hour west of Florence. In a yard behind the church, long rows of picnic tables are set up under a sparse scattering of olive trees. Attendees line up to place their orders, while kids clad in matching t-shirts and paper hats bring out silverware and dense Tuscan bread in small paper bags. The specialty there is tordelli, a hearty, meat-filled ravioli topped with meat sauce. It arrives at the table in a Styrofoam bowl. The air is often filled with the excited screams of children playing soccer in the corner of the churchyard, and the animated conversations taking place at every table. Church bells echo in the background. In short, it’s the poster child of a good time.
Yet, every once and awhile, a foreign-looking party draws stares from the regulars. Easily noticeable, they tend to keep to themselves, usually trying to stay all caught up in their own conversations. My tablemates, a shifting mix of expats from all over the world, comment briefly on how out-of-place they look. Yet, trapped in my bubble of English, I eventually feel the eyes on me. Nothing about the situation is unnerving, but I can’t shake the feeling that I’m on the outside looking in. I wonder if time is the only antidote.
By heritage, I’m more Italian than anything else, and for the past five years, I’ve lived in Tuscany part-time with my family. We’ve successfully crossed the threshold from tourists to expats. We have a circle of friends. We do yard work. We go grocery shopping. It’s no longer “going on a vacation,” it’s “going home.” Yet, I feel no more Italian than I ever did before. Which begs the question: Does heritage have anything to do with it? I don’t think so.
My predominantly German-Norwegian father has done a better job of assimilating than I have. He’s harvested olives, learned how to prune grape vines, and greatly surpassed my level of rudimentary Italian. Don’t be fooled though, it takes a lot of work. Like love at first sight, feeling completely at ease in a foreign place is rare. The expectation of receiving a rush of understanding and sentimentality when one journeys to (or lives in) the land of their ancestors is unfounded. Realistically, I grew up in a very different place. I’m an American, and despite humanity’s homogenous nature, culture is often too fickle of a beast to completely tame.
What brought my family, especially my Italian-American mother to Italy was the desire to find a place that felt like home. After nearly fifty years of living in the same area, they decided it was time for a change. We succeeded in our quest, in some ways, but like it or not, we are still undeniably foreign. My entire heritage is a tangle of differences, and unsurprisingly, is difficult to navigate.
Several years ago, I visited the small town, deep in the southern Italian region of Calabria, where my great grand-parents grew up, and eventually left. I tried to picture them walking down the same street I found myself upon. I tried to grasp that intangible familiarity with each person I met there. Yet, deep down, I knew too much time had gone by.
A small piece of me remains in Italy, but most of it does not. That’s not to stay that I don’t want it to. Like my father discovered, belonging somewhere new takes work, and is a never-ending process. It’s impossible to revive the belonging of those who came before me, but it’s not impossible to start over.