A Trip to the Past
by Genevieve Forte
I grew up listening to my dad tell stories about his hometown in Southern Italy. My dad is a wonder ful story teller and he painted a picture for me of Italy as a beautiful, innocent, and timeless place, far away from all the problems of the modern urban condition. It was a vision much like the nostalgic childhood memories rendered in the movie Cinema Paradiso.
For years I wanted to visit Italy and I finally got my chance two years ago. My dad rented a car and we toured Italy for three weeks, visiting family and tourist sites. The Italy that we saw was a complex contradiction of modernity and tradition. If you want to see the last 2,500 years of western history compacted on a small peninsula the size of Nova Scotia, Italy is the place to go. But while in Italy, I did not feel at all Italian. I felt very Canadian. I was just another tourist queuing to see Il Vaticano. Italy was beautiful, but when asked by an elderly uncle which I preferred, Italy or Canada, without hesitation I chose Canada.
The last stop on our trip was my dad’s hometown, S. Nicola da Crissa. S. Nicola is located in the Appenines in Calabria, in the township of Catanzaro. Explaining this part of the journey is very difficult indeed. You see, this town existed in my mind from all the stories my dad had told me as a child. I learned that their existed two, or perhaps three Santa Nicolas, one in my mind, one in my dad’s memoriesand dreams, and the third that actually exists.
First of all, I knew that it was small, but I had no idea just how small. It was positively tiny! To give you an idea; you could fit two or three S. Nicolas into the Carleton University grounds and still have room left over. There was one bar, one store, an arcade, a barbershop and two churches. My favourite was the white-washed Communist office, a political movement that still holds sway in S. Nicola. An older friend of the family showed us his little museum, a room where he collected artifacts and photographs of S. Nicola and the communist movement. Although terribly passé in North America, communism was important to a town that still has bitter memories of the Fascist regime.
There appeared to be very few straight lines in the architecture of S. Nicola. All the homes seem to have grown into each other and the surrounding hillside, forming organic curves and shapes. It was difficult to tell where one house started and another ended. The colours of the houses were all browns and grays and beiges, which made them blend in even more. The saddest part of all is that many of the homes had been abandoned and were now crumbling apart. My dad described San Nicola as a place crawling with children – every family had four or six people back in the fifties, and now there were hardly any to be seen. When my dad took me to the courtyard where he used to play soccer games with his friends, we saw one kid kicking around a soccer ball by himself. I met some of my younger cousins (the sweetest kids I’ve ever met) but most of their time was spent in the company of adults. One of my smallest cousins asked me to show him how to speak English. He would point to objects and photographs of relatives in Canada and yell in Calabrese, quiste qua?
In general, I found my relatives in Calabria to be some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. We stayed with my Zio Eugenio, a calm serene man who had made the migration to North America and then, after 10 years, decided to move back to Italy for the rest of his life. We ate dinners at my dad’s cousin’s house, where I ravenously ate the most delicious bread and olives I’ve ever tasted and then was too full for the main courses. Although they had never met me before, my second cousins bought me a beautiful watch to remember them by. (Of course, lousy me, I promptly lost it a few months later.) I met my great-grandfather’s second wife, who still wears the traditional white blouse and black overdress and who cried when she met me. Life for them did indeed seem to move at a slower, kinder pace than in Canada.
As we looked at the view of mountains and the sea, my dad exclaimed, “Could you imagine, this is where I grew up! What a lucky kid I was!” He showed me the parcel of land that our family still owns, where the barn that my dad used to milk cows and feed pigs still stands. This was my dad’s first trip to Italy in almost 20 years. He mused that he should have visited more often; to see his old relatives. We dreamed about building a small cottage on the land that we still own and visiting more frequently. And yet, a sense of nostalgia, time gone past, and the people long passed away permeated our short trip. I saw the grave of my grandmother who died when my dad was only eleven. Although she died nearly two decades before I was born, I still have a sense of missing her.
Since we had a car, Dad and I were able to visit other interesting sites in Calabria. Fifteen minutes away from S. Nicola is the town of Serra San Bruno. It looked like a thriving metropolis compared to my dad’s town. It boasts one of the largest living monasteries in Europe, which has an important library of antique books. The Certosa di Serra San Bruno was founded in 1091 by San Bruno di Colonia. We also went to two of the most popular beach towns in Calabria, Tropea and Pizzo. This was new for my dad as well as for me. He mused in a tone of regret how he was once invited on a beach trip to Pizzo when he was 14, but he had declined. What is really only a half hour drive today seemed a huge distance when my dad was a kid because only one person in his town owned a car.
To me, these two “beach towns” were very exotic and strange. Houses were literally carved out of the cliffs and an air of antiquity pervaded the narrow streets. The sight of little old women in black going to church did not exactly correspond to my idea of a beach town. Nor did I see fancy hotels or crowds of bathers like on the Riviera. Instead, it possessed a natural, rugged beauty; with cliffs jutting out into the sea. It also had a spirituality that you would not find elsewhere. We came across a church that had literally been carved out of a cave. The story says that a group of fishermen who were lost at sea during a storm swore that if they survived they would build a church where they landed. Overall, I loved the bright clear sunlight and turquoise blue water of Calabria.
Combining the many impressions of Italy I felt into, one general impression is not really possible. While in Rome and Florence, I felt like a tourist, no different from the other hundreds of Americans in shorts who had come in droves to see The Sistine Chapel. Seeing the places that my family actually lived and worked made me feel more connected with the country, but nevertheless a stranger.
I never really asked my dad, but I know that it was a disconcerting experience for him too. Dad emigrated when he was 16 years old and had been back only once since. I remember one incident where we had just entered Calabria and dad stopped to ask someone for directions. He asked first in English, then slapped himself on the head and started speaking Italian, then smacked himself again and switched to Calabrese. Throughout those three weeks dad had been switching languages back and forth from Italian to English to dialect untileventually, he got a bit disoriented.
For me, visiting Italy was a matter of enjoying the culture, the food, the sunshine and the art while gloating that I too possessed some of the fine genetics that produced Italian culture. But for someone who has actually lived there and seen dramatic changes to a place one familiar, and to have changed dramatically oneself as a result of leaving, is a different story altogether. It is not easy to go back.