“I told him that was where we came from”: in the old Italian villages, with our 10 month old baby in tow, I find a deep personal story
Futani. It was a small town I had never heard of, close to larger towns which I might have recognized as being the top of the front ankle of the Italian boot.
The name did not conjure up any images, not the grand arcades that come to mind when someone mentions the nearby town of Sorrento, nor the alluring myth of Naples, nor the houses carved into the hill that resemble a large ornate cake. from Positano.
To me Futani meant nothing other than the location of the apartment my little cousin owned and gave us during my wife’s winter vacation after graduation.
There wouldn’t be anything to do there, I assured Emily as we debated whether we should board our 10 month old son on a transatlantic flight, to the middle of nowhere in the South of the United States. Italy.
“We can cook, we can go out, we can walk around,” I told her as we weighed the pros and cons of taking a vacation of this magnitude. “If it’s not too far by car, I would like to visit the city where my great-grandparents came from.
“It is more or less that.”
We convinced ourselves that this trip might not be so easy when our son is a mobile toddler, that such a long flight might be made impossible by his hustle and bustle and curiosity. We convinced ourselves that after a long first semester of graduate school, Emily deserved a vacation.
We convinced ourselves that taking a baby – the one who just figured out how to sleep through the night in his own crib – 5,000 miles, six hours before our home in North Carolina, all in exchange for a week under the pink-sun orange Salernitana, would be a good idea.
The sleep schedules, the lack of civic attractions and the sanity of the parents, to hell with it, we were going to a remote area of southwest Italy, far from the ruins of Rome, the canals of Venice and the artefacts of Florence.
Without relief like a family of American tourists, Futani served as a base and almost every day we headed to a new destination, exploring this less traveled corner of one of the most visited countries on the planet.
We spent an afternoon in the seaside town of Sapri, strolling through its long coastal arcade during the famous Italian siesta, the pisolino.
We walked through the rolling fields of Campotenese, its plots of verdant farmland and fields of wild lavender contrasting sharply with the harsh southern landscape which is so uniformly brown during winter.
We walked to the top of a nearby mountain for dinner in the village of Vallo della Lucania, whose large square was surrounded on all sides by bustling cafes, old buildings whose white stone glistened in the midday sun, and dotted with old Italian men doing what old Italian men do best: standing in small circles, talking.
Halfway through our trip, we loaded the car up for time travel.
The city from which my great-grandparents emigrated to New York a little over a hundred years ago was only a few hours south of us, through windy mountain roads, deep valleys and tumultuous crystalline rivers.
When we arrived Cerzeto was different than I had always imagined.
Brown hills, deserted streets, dusty ravines and tiny side lanes have replaced the bustling fishing village of my mind. As our car drove through rough roads towards the city center, our GPS told us that we were approaching Piazza Richelmo Mantovani.
“Em,” I shouted enthusiastically, “that’s my grandfather’s name. ”
Of course that little place in this little town on top of that little hill in the middle of nowhere was not named for my grandfather, a humble bricklayer, who spent his entire life just outside of New York.
I jumped out of the car and picked up my sleeping son from his car seat, explaining to him that this is where his great-great-grandfather and great-great-grandmother lived when they were. young children.
I told her the story that Emily had heard hundreds of times before, about how my great-grandparents grew up in this same little mountain village, but didn’t know each other until they meet in New York, soon discovering that their parents had been knowing for years.
I told him that was where we were from.
I told him all this, knowing he had no idea what I was saying.
Nonetheless, he was happy to be let go of his seat after a long drive and smiled as I regaled him with the stories that had been passed down from generation to generation, stories that I have heard a thousand times and that I ‘will tell a thousand others.
I hugged him to my chest as we took in the panorama of rusty hills, stone houses and azure skies, almost perfectly dotted with white clouds.
I told her that was where my great-grandmother said goodbye to her own mother at the age of 22, knowing they would never see each other again. I told him that she had done this for him, that although he had never imagined that a young American boy, with blond hair, blue eyes, part Italian, part Polish, part Russian Jew , part British of Mayflower, would one day sit in this same place, she headed to America so that her children could go to school and have the opportunities that I have long taken for granted.
We wandered the streets in silence as the pigeons whipped above our heads, the flapping of their wings and the sound of our boots creating the only noise in town. We came across an old, sturdy two-story house, gray and sad, looking like a long forgotten party cake, with a door locked with chains. I recognized him in a photo my father showed me when he visited Cerzeto a few months earlier.
I sat in stunned silence for a moment, gazing at the house where my great-grandfather grew up before embarking on his own trip to New York City, where he would soon meet a young woman who grew up in that same city.
I whispered in my son’s ear, “This is the house your great-great-grandfather grew up in.
As my 10 month old baby gnawed on a piece of bread that Emily had wrapped, I started telling him another story about who he is and where he came from.
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