There are things in life that, in order to be fully grasped, cannot be explained: falling in love, the death of a parent, my grandmother’s cooking, the birth of an autistic child who also has with Down syndrome to mention a few I had the honor of actually going through. And then there is the pain of being away from your country of origin, and the difficulty of integrating into another.
Politics have forever spoiled my idea of country: when I say or read the word, I immediately knock on the corner of my brain that stores images of war, flags and extreme nationalistic sentiments. All bad stuff. “Proud to be an American”, suggest many car stickers, and many people. That corner has also stored voices of kindergarten children reciting the pledge of allegiance, or the thousands of baseball fans who place their hand on the heart at the beginning of every game, as if to say, you root for the Yankees, and I am a Sox fan, but we are both American, so it’s ok.
Italy went through its patriotic period, which peaked in the Thirties and Forties. We also manufactured a dude named Benito Mussolini, who tried to make everybody feel proud of being the original descendents of the great Roman Empire. He ended up hung upside down in Milan; in the piazza where bus number 93 makes its final stop. My best friend Angela lives there. It didn’t go too well for him. Berlusconi tried to recreate the idea of Italy as a great country; he ended up destroying its image and economy, but that’s about it. We Italians only become extremely nationalistic every four years, during the World Cup, I Mondiali. We take out our flags from the basement, our red, white and green face coloring kit, and we get ready to kick some serious ass.
The American obsession with flags struck me the first time I came to the United States. I was in upstate New York; my older sister and I came for a month to stay with a family in order to have “the American experience”. Then the two girls of the family who hosted us would come to Italy as our guests, in order to exchange the favor. Driving along the very wide and deserted streets, Renata and I noticed flags everywhere: outside of gas stations, outside of houses, outside of banks and schools. With my very bad English, I asked why there were so many flags. I thought maybe America had won some big international sporting event. He told me, without missing a beat, that what they won was the second world war. “If you guys had won, you would be proud of your own flag too". Glad we settled that one.
Anyway, to get back to the idea of country; only when I left my war-losing, flag-hating but kick-ass-soccer country, did I realized that there is more to it than just that. I realized that it was home. It was the place that taught me to be me, with my likes and dislikes, that gave me a language, a literature, and bad TV shows, my music, my favorite films, my beaches and Alps, my bakeries, and my family and my schoolmates. I understood, when I left, that I never would again find anything quite like it, in its good and bad. It was home, comfort, and I was simply part of it all.
Coming to another country is a very strange and solitary experience. I came here without thinking about what it would be like to go away. Forever, I mean. I was eager to become part of something else; that is, to absorb and make mine all aspects of a new home. A new country, that is. I got myself a beautiful American boy, and a school, and American friends, and American clothes, and American books. I learned the language, how to make pancakes and how to call collect with little prompting. I learned to order improbable foods, and even appreciate some of them. I tried so hard to become part of this thing. But, let’s face it, I never will. I will always be asked, “where are you from? I hear an accent…” I will never make this culture mine, I will never understand references to things kids learn in public schools; I never had detention, I didn’t even know I could get it. I never needed a pass to go the bathroom. I could just go. I could drink wine as a teenager without fear that I would become an alcoholic. I never ate mac and cheese, or peanut butter sandwiches. I don’t know the Bradey Bunch or Sesame Street. There is no way I will ever become an American. Not that I even try, to tell you the truth; I am not here to replace anything. I am proud of my summers in the Riviera, and my strange father and mother. It’s ok that I smoke, even if here it is like shooting heroin, or abusing a baby. It’s ok, really.
The beautiful boy and I got married, excited and in love like in the movies, and we had three amazing children. Here, in America. So they are not like me. They get it. This is their home, the same way it’s not mine. I didn’t do a good job teaching them my language, or trying to make them excited to go visit their nonna in Milan. I’m not sure why, maybe because I fail to see the point. This is their home. I’m not sure. Material for my very patient therapist.
Anyway, the other night I proposed spending a summer in Italy. My family has a little house in Bordighera, which is about 15 kilometers from Nice. A very nice quaint town by the sea. When I go, the butcher and the baker and the other people greet me with delight. The American Viola is back. They saw me every summer ever since I was pushed on a stroller. I thought, the other night, it would be nice to show my kids that place, and take them to the same beach where the same people are playing cards, and arguing over politics and soccer, and, if you are good, they give you ice cream for free. It would be nice to have them peek through a window onto my life, my country.
The proposal was not taken well at all. Sofia started crying because she would miss Cambridge, and her friends; because she doesn’t understand Italian, and her aunts speak really fast. Emma is afraid of the plane, and there isn’t an Internet connection; what is Luca going to do without You Tube for an entire month?
I tired to be firm and say, we are going: it’s your heritage, it’s your house, it’s my world. Dan said I was being aggressive, and if I wanted them to like it, I should not do it with guilt trips. Ease them into it, he whispered, pouring some red wine in the glass.
Forget it, I said.
I felt so lonely; me with all of my country inside my heart, all of those images of normal life in my head, suffocated by the foreign smell I carry with me. It is the past, Marina. Let it go. It’s not going to be appealing to American kids. You sound like one of those old people in the North End, who bore everybody with their good old days in the old country.
I guess we’ll go to Becket this summer. New England. Planets away from Bordighera. I will bring Nutella, and the kids will have their Italian experience that way.