Before last weekend, my father and I hadn’t seen each other since Christmas. We ate a basic Italian lunch at a local Long Island restaurant. It was cordial, with only the occasional flashes of exhausting lifelong dynamics, such as him reducing me to a two year old as he repeatedly nudged me not let food go to waste. The day ended at the home he shares with his wife, Dina. I stayed for thirty minutes, reading the paper while he watched TV, before moving on to another encounter. Before leaving I looked around the walls and saw no photos of his family in the house, only his wife’s. When I asked why, he said, “I don’t care. What does it matter?” The implication was that this arrangement was for his wife to feel comfortable somehow. I let it go. As I sat in my car and readied to drive to my friend’s, a greater realization hit me: there isn’t a home in this world where my photograph adorns a family’s wall.
The reasons are too lengthy to divulge in this format, and it’s a story for another time, but the realization helped me understand my lifelong ability, pursuit, and love to build bridges to other homes in other worlds; creating bonds of family where blood was not shared from birth. It’s a passion, a toxic love of mine.
I believe it’s important for immigrants, or the children of immigrants – as I am – to travel back to where our history took root, and to experience that land and that culture intimately. It starts with our relatives, but that is only the beginning. You must lay your face on the soil, smell her fragrance, and listen to her words. You must stay until you discover the part of yourself that had always been foreign in the land you commonly live. Then, stay longer until it’s no longer hidden, but accessible and alive in you everywhere, forever.
While I have found homes, families, and lifelong friends in many countries, the country of my roots is Italy.
In the south her body is calloused, needled, a mélange of sharp rocks, high grass, and earth burnt arid by a torturous heat. Climbing her surface, her features become more and more refined, a gradually constructed mask that deftly beguiles the judgment of her high-browed neighbors to the north. Those Franco and Germanic ilk never trust, perhaps wisely, that Italy’s northern facade is safe from the passions of her southern naturalism.
Passing into France, Switzerland or Austria, one can immediately sense the peoples’ belief that “real” Europe’s southern border is self-evident in the geological impasses that are the Alps, the Dolomites, and the Pyrenees. To the northerners, these landscapes have naturally ordained a separation between their world and the southern land. Latitudinal lines are a rising scale of class and civility. To them, the danger of the southern character is that it has been fertilized in the dark recesses of libido, superstition, possession, familial and tribal allegiance, and most importantly perhaps, its bridge to Africa, the dark well of origination that scares the hell out of the carefully architected world of northern enlightenment.
It’s not uncommon to hear a Northern European refer to Italy as “Africa,” nor is it uncommon to hear a Northern Italian refer to Southern Italy as “Africa.” Napoli è africa, (“Naples is Africa”), I’ve heard many times as I dined over wine and osso bucco with friends in Firenze. That half my blood was deeply southern didn’t bother me, nor did it matter at that point. By then I had been accepted into their inner circle of trust. Tuscany is where Italy completely captured me. I had made Firenze my Italian home despite my relatives living in Naples and Torino. I was a Florentine.
This is an amazing characteristic of all groups in all places I’ve lived: once they love you, and more importantly, feel that you love them, they make you one of their own. Once in Israel, I was given a man’s most dear compliment when he avowed, “Marc, you are Jewish.” He wasn’t speaking of religion; he was speaking of our bond. In one form or another, the greatest compliment always articulates, “you are now part of our family.”
When I first got to know the land, Italy seemed distinctly feminine in a mythological sense. There was something Helen of Troy about her power to overwhelm your sense of time and captivate a visitor’s devotion to her beauty. She is a woman who resides forever in the prime of her sexual and seductive powers. Unlike the vast forests of the world, she is not a nurturer. Unlike lofty mountain peaks rising above the clouds, she is not a beacon. Unlike the dark ocean, she is not a canvas to empty your soul. She is an object to covet, an intoxication. I always imagined her as the mistress of a lavish man who devotes his life to possess her, yet cannot help but be possessed by her. He tends to her needs, showers her with gifts, and even convinces himself she has no other lovers. Yet, he has never managed to own her heart, her force impossible for one man to capture.
Indeed, in just 731 miles her body traverses a thousand histories; from Sicily, to Calabria, to Campania, to Rome, Tuscany, Umbria, Veneto, and Piedmont, she is a different Italy. Nearly every 100 kilometers she exists in a different expression, a voice so specific as to convince each of those who dwell on her body that they are unique from the others, that they know her more truly than the rest. This is the masterful cynicism of seduction; convincing a yearning soul that you are theirs alone, and they are yours alone, while never allowing your heart to surrender to love.
Whatever idea of patriarchy Italians may think on themselves, as well as the outside world may think onto Italy, in the land of La Dolce Vità it is the woman that is all-powerful, worshipped and adored above all else. The Italians have a saying, “if you see a goat alone on a mountain top, it is because he lost his way pursuing the scent of a woman.” And so, the Italian man chases women ceaselessly and without prejudice. Yet, there is an ingredient to their obsession that reflects back onto the land. Here, men are the gardeners, the wine makers, the landscape artists, and the nurturers of the land. They feed her belly, water her mouth, wash and cut her hair, bath her body in sunlight, and carve her form to accentuate her curves, her length, her narrow waist. The beauty of her land, of her seas, of her mountains and hills has consumed their hearts, haunted their dreams, lulled them to a famously sedentary pace, and set them about endlessly on quests of restless desire from one lover to the next.
Walking in the cities, or any obscure village, you will find structures that are hundreds, very often, thousands of years old. The exquisiteness of these monuments cannot help but echo the cries of men’s plights to remain tattooed to her body forever. The chivalrous need of these Peacocks to crystalize upon the landscape a fossil of their vows to be wed to the land is startling, somber, and magnificent.
While living there it would seem evident I’d learn about women, perhaps even my deceased mother.
But as I said, Italy does not nurture. And while my mother was born an American, she also had lived in Italy for many years. That is where she met my father while he worked in her relatives Pastry Shop in Torino. As a southerner, my father was a dangerous proposition to my grandfather. My grandfather expressed these fears to his brother when he described my father’s people as “full of passion and romance”. That unruly force of the south’s dark pathos sent legions of trepidatious armies through his blood. He probably didn’t know at the time, but my father had been born in Africa when Italy controlled Libya. This made my father truly dangerous, perhaps too dangerous for his daughter. Nevertheless, my parents married.
Indeed, I didn’t find my mother in Italy, I found my father.
In the Mediterranean world, if a woman is absent from the family, the family is lost. Men have little faculty to lead their children alone. Children are left to fend for themselves while the men desperately search for new comfort. The family love is strong, but the father’s will is gone. In the land of Italy, I found the woman my father had been without since the age of 30. I saw how without Italy he had forever been lost, an exile.
In June of 2014, I sat at the wedding of my friends Tommaso and Paola. A Tuscan man was braving the tempestuous storms by marrying a Sicilian woman. It was a perfect evening on the grounds of a Tuscan Villa. The sun sunk below the hills in a flaming orange yolk, the sky was soon pink, and truffled raviolis passed around the table. By then the wine was thick in my veins and for the first time in my life the Italian language lived through me. I felt the words formed in unison with my body language and my emotions. I watched the faces of everyone around me and noticed their smiles, their laughs, their constant joking. I noticed how they exist full of joy. I noticed my own smile, my own laugh, and my own jokes come alive with words naturally accompanying a gesticulation of my hands, neck, shoulders, or head. I discovered the secret of this world as it lived inside me, and as it had lived inside my father. I understood what he had lost, the faces he could never smile with as I had that evening.
On that night I shared a lover of my father’s.
She had stolen his heart as a young man, she had captured and sealed the joy he has failed to experience for 46 years. I never noticed the power of her seduction gradually grab hold of me, masked by the joy and abandon consuming me and my friends. On that night I couldn’t help but love my father more than I’d be able to for most of my life. Now, I was part of the family he had been born into, intoxicated by the same indefatigable mistress who gorged our hearts until we could never completely love another home again.