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  • What I Learned Living in Italy
    Discover the lessons of growing roots in a foreign land
    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    Once upon a time living in Italy had been a hope of mine. Then, I spent months in the country back when I was dating my husband, who is a native, and I changed my mind. I recognized that my family left southern Italy for a reason. There were few opportunities for young people to work. You couldn't achieve the type of success, financial reward, or lifestyle that was promised to me in my United States.

    True, it's getting harder in America, too, but it was still a possibility. On the small island of Ischia, off the coast of Naples, which is the home of my ancestors and husband, you will find emerald hills, blue ocean, and delicious food but no dreams. The people are satisfied with getting by working as waiters and doormen, bookkeepers and tour guides in the tourism industry. A few people are professionals – doctors and lawyers. A few others live off businesses and property that have been in their family for generations. In general, the only ones who are allowed dreams are those who leave.

    That's why I never intended to spend more than a few weeks – at most a couple of summer months – on the island when I married my Ischitano husband. But marriage is a compromise. And he couldn't let go of the homeland. So, I have just returned to the States after spending nearly a year in Italy. I went against my will, against my better judgment, and against all that feels natural to me. I'm proud to say that I survived. Like any challenge in life, I came out of it a bit wiser and stronger. Here's what I learned:

    Cooking for 13 people is a lot of work.

    My in-laws live together, all 13 of us. Even though each family has its own apartment within the house (which was my father's middle school and a later a hotel), we eat all our meals together in the larger kitchen of my mother-in-law. My sisters-in-law handle the cooking and cleaning there. Once in a while, I would throw a party for the family – I forced Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Halloween on them to name a few. I have a big extended family in the States and I throw parties for them often, too.

    But the mere thought of having to cook for 13 people twice a day (and clean up after their cereal, yogurt, and sweets at breakfast) every day for life is exhausting. I feel for my in-laws and appreciate their hard work at feeding me for the time I was there and whenever I go back. It's not an easy life, and I don't envy it in the least bit. The positive for them is no one should ever feel lonely; family rules all.

    In case you were wondering, yes, my father slept in his old classroom when he returned to Ischia for my wedding. Talk about life coming full circle!

    Tracing your roots helps you find yourself.

    After spending nearly a year on the island and witnessing the carnage of Europe's economic crisis on the people and how they're forced to live, I better understand why my grandparents on both sides of the family were motivated to run away. My one set of grandparents were already 50 when they set sail for the States with the three children (including my father) who were still unmarried and living at home. My father was only 13. He was the only one who was able to go to high school and an American high school no less. He is educated in a way that none of his contemporaries in Italy will know or understand ever. I never appreciated this fact. I also didn't realize the gravity of their situation or the decision to leave until I saw for myself how today's young people are managing. In fact, I have friends who took off for the United States, Ireland, and even Australia, where work is available. I realized I owe my life to my ancestors who made the sacrifice of immigrating. It's no easy decision to leave everything and everyone you know. But it could make you a richer person (and not just financially but also of greater character.) I am among the luckiest in the world to hold an American passport and a degree from an American university. They're my tickets to dreaming.

    You can go home again but it won't be the same.

    Sitting in the car, riding from JFK Airport in New York to my New Jersey home for the first time in nine months, I stared out the window. I longed to recognize the symbols of home. I saw Yankee Stadium and the bridges. I experienced the lights of the New York skyline and the smell of the Jersey factories. It was all familiar, but it still seemed so different. The view from which I was looking had changed. My eyes saw things in a new way. It wasn't bad, but it didn't satisfy my nostalgia. Then, there were noticeable differences, too.

    The Red Oak Diner, an establishment I had frequented on a few Christmases with my parents (for a special breakfast), with my softball teams in middle school, with my friends throughout high school and whenever I visited home during college, and all those times with my husband and our friends from Italy, was gone. Some other eatery that I'll probably never enter and could never hold all those memories replaced it. When I walked into my home – the one I decorated and renovated when my husband and I wed five years earlier – it seemed like a whole new place. The dining room table seemed oversized and I had the sense that I was in someone else's place.

    Even the family had changed. They still embraced me as always, but everyone was about a year older. There had been celebrations without me, problems to resolve without me, the sad farewells to departed love ones without me. Since I quickly picked up and traveled to Florida to see my sister and take a little vacation, I haven't fully grasped just how much the family has evolved just yet. I'm sure they still have a lot to accept with my family, too. My son turned 2 and grew three clothing sizes while we were in the homeland. He watched Italian cartoons and played futbol instead of football. Even though he eats peanut butter, he also eats Nutella. (I'm pretty sure everyone can get on board with that one though.) Still, it will be an adjustment for everyone all the same.

    Long before I met my husband, I had lots of friends who had all sorts of cultural heritages. In fact, few of my friends were of Italian origin. People would always talk about whether they were willing to date someone of a different background. Many of my friends didn't like the idea, mainly because they wanted their children to be their nationality or religion or whatever. I would always say, "I wouldn't mind dating someone from somewhere else. If we have children together someday, I just want them to know where they came from, both places." I made good on that promise last year. I showed my American-passport-carrying son his father's Italy. And we are all a bit wiser and stronger for it.

    Di Meglio is the author of Fun with the Family New Jersey (Globe Pequot Press Travel, 2012), and you can follow her life and work at the Two Worlds Web site.

    Article Published 2/3/14


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