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Non Parlo Italiano: Part 3

Non Parlo Italiano: Part 3

Mary Saracino (May 27, 2008)

Part 3 of a four part essay entitled, "Non Parlo Italiano."



Non Parlo Italiano: Part 3
                                                      by Mary Saracino
Before I traveled to Italy, I dreamed in Italian. I couldn’t comprehend what was spoken, but I recognized the meter, the beat, the lilt of the vowels, the expanse of the consonants. It was the language of mother love, the language of insistent emotion, the language of memory purged from my cell walls.
My dreams were full of dark-haired women with wide hips, soft breasts, full mouths open, laughing. In one, a shopkeeper invited me to admire her Venetian glassware; in another a restaurateur offered morsels of Italian delicacies. I reached for their gifts, but their wares dissipated before my eyes; my hands returned to my sides, empty, heavy with longing. “Non parlo, Italiano!” I cried. The women shook their hands at the sky, closed their eyes. Tears wet my cheeks. I woke feeling hungry. And alone. Stricken with grief.
During the day, I practiced conversational Italian. I popped the cassette into my tape player and learned phrases for travelers. “Mi chiamo Maria.” “Che ora è?” “Un tavolo per due, per piacere.” “Dove’è il bagno?” 
At night, in the place where the heart remembers, I dreamed in Italian once more. Again the olive-skinned women laughed, sprinkling my dreamscapes with their luscious invitations. Again, my ears heard but my brain couldn’t translate. I woke with the sound of Italian dancing in my heart. Conversational travel phrases tumbled forth from my sleepy head. The first thoughts of my all-American day were uttered in Italian, “Vorrei un biglietto.” “Troppo caro!” 
On and on it went. For weeks, undecipherable Italian haunted my dream life. By day, I pieced together shards of vocabulary, preparing for my arrival in Roma. Never did my two worlds merge, the night-world of incomprehensible longing and the day-world of pat phrases, packaged for tourists too lazy to learn the real thing. I remained a traveler without a passport, wandering the country of my bloodlines without a translator.
In Italy the conversational phrases were helpful, when my mind wasn’t foggy with jet lag, or when I wasn’t placed into a harried position of having to seek and find answers to questions quickly. The pat phrases kept me insulated from feeling utterly like an ugly American. At least I tried, I attempted to convince myself. I didn’t expect the shopkeepers to use English. Thanks to genetics, I passed as a native until I opened my mouth to speak. My “Boun giorno” revealed a definite American accent. I wasn’t from around here. Or was I?
My Italian American tongue was hungry for luscious vowels, thirsty for the music of its history. Southern Italian, northern Italian. Familiar eyes, gestures, expressions. In museums and churches. In shops and cafés. On street corners and gelati bars—the people I saw reminded me of myself, and of my mother and father, my sisters and brothers, my aunts and uncles. My grandparents. Pietro and Immocolata Saracino, Francesco and Fiora Vergamini had walked these cobblestone streets. They’d stood under these same skies, gazed at the same stars. The air reverberated with the cadence of memory, cellular ties that bound me to my cultural legacy, silenced, sent underground.
In Florence, I watched people rushing to and from their jobs, drinking cappuccinos, toasting glasses of vin santé after supper. Would my life have unfolded in this way, had my grandparents not immigrated to America? Would I have left the hills of northern Italy or the poverty of the south to pursue a career in a big city like Florence or Rome? Both of my parents have first cousins in Italy, the sons and daughters of their parents’ siblings who’d stayed behind in the towns my grandparents had left. 
These men and women steadfastly chose the hills of their homeland, forsaking the unknown opportunities that drew my direct kin to the “New World.”   The ones that remained in Italy prospered, mysteriously somehow—for that was always the reason, offered up like a remorseful cry, always the answer we grandchildren were given when we ventured to question why our grandparents left their homes and their families. They sought the land of opportunity. They were poor. They were starving. They had nothing to call their own. They wanted a better life for themselves and their children.  They succeeded in creating one but along the way something happened, of which they couldn’t have predicted, or prevented. 
Can what was lost be regained? Or at least reclaimed? That is the ever-present, unresolved question of the grandchildren of the Italian Diaspora. With feet firmly planted on American soil, we are yet not fully American. 
On sturdy legs I stood before the Pantheon in Rome, the Duomo in Florence, the Grand Canal in Venice, the hillsides of Assisi, Lucca, and my maternal grandparents’ own Castlenouva di Garfagnana. Each time I felt the familiar pangs of longing, nursed in my pre-trip dreams. The Italian women did laugh loudly and openly from full mouths. Their fingers danced in the air, flicking vowels right and left as they talked. I shopped in their shops. I ate in their restaurants. I slept in their albergi. I dreamed of belonging. Sometimes I felt as if I did. 
My grandparents’ hopes for a better future in America didn’t negate their Italian identities. Simultaneously Italian and American, they never blurred the lines. Somehow they managed to cradle the contradictions.
America did its best to erase my grandparents’ ethnicity. But their spirits refused to deny who they were. They worked hard to give their children an education, better jobs, things they thought their offspring wouldn’t have had, had their lives not been transplanted to the shores of western New York’s Cayuga Lake. Had my grandparents been able to know that the children of their own brothers and sisters, their Italian siblings who’d remained in Italy, would prosper equally well, if not better than their Italian American children, they might not have left. They might have found a way to apply the same fortitude and courage they displayed in leaving for LaMerica to outlast the hardships of home and carve out an enduring prosperity in the land of their birth. I can never know.
Assimilation severed their ties to the ancient country of their birth. My mother’s parents never returned. My father’s mother did, for awhile, but her fate was intertwined with that of her husband’s, when having chosen to start anew in America, called her away from her Italian family. Leaving twice must have shattered her heart. How does one recover from such abject separation?
...To Be Continued...

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