What is it about this rich but contradictory land that made my father leave at an early age and never look back, while tugging his American-born offspring back again and again?
His flight had much or everything to do with a dying economic future within a provincial Italian social structure. He was young and on fire with dreams about breaking with the past.
Yet, we, the eventual legacy of his New World ambitions, shaped and programmed by American novelty and experiment, now yearn to age in the trusted old wine barrel that quenched the likes of Leonardo, Bellini, Dante, D’Annunzio, Galileo, Fellini, Sophia, and the father who left it all behind.
You can blame it on the rich patina of a millennia-old culture—with its Etruscan roots, wolf-suckled Empire, glorious Renaissance, Elysian Baroque, and Romantic bravado. It’s been said that Italy led the rest of Europe to literature, art, statecraft, and a unifying faith that defined the continent for almost 2000 years. Italian history and culture fill museums, galleries, churches, libraries, concert halls, kitchens, and laboratories.
But if I had to name just one thing that makes Italy such a comfortable skin to sink into, it would be the national passion for… passion. Food, drink, music, soccer, driving, conversation. Indifference is not an option.
Especially conversation, pursued with vigor and pride and, with the exception of certain Roman cab drivers, good cheer. People strike up conversations in restaurants, in trains, in the streets. It’s an ancient, practiced conviviality that yields a perfection of expression and a savoring of life’s every encounter.
My wife and I got a reminder of this love of engagement during our last car trip through the country’s South, which included Easter weekend in my father’s home commune, Faeto, Foggia.
Just as we left Salerno to head inland and northward, our GPS retired itself unconditionally. Without satellite guide—and since road signs seemed a rationed artifact, especially on rural roads—we were left to depend on the locals, as found, for directions.
I can make two generalizations about asking for road directions in Italy. First, locals will treat your need to set a right course as almost an existential summons. When I approached one military-looking gentleman with the opening plea (in my functional Italian), Scusi… ci siamo perduti… (“Excuse me, we are lost…”), he admonished me in mid-sentence: Non–nessuno è mai perduto! (No—no one is ever lost!”) Then, after a few words about the importance of hope, he told me to turn around and head in the opposite direction.
In Naples, my queries to a gas station owner quickly attracted a crowd of five more men, who voiced varied opinions about the best way to navigate our destination. They debated for five minutes, while I waited, until a consensus was reached. The parking lot counsel then chose one of the group to lead the way in his car, which I would follow to the right exit. With waves and wishes for a good trip, they set us off.
The second thing I found about asking an Italian for directions is that, even if he can’t help you, he may still see the encounter as an invitation to conversation.
In one spot, aiming for the town of Avellino, we arrived at a toll booth entrance—which we were not aiming for. With a line of cars in back and no choice but to go ahead to the toll booth, I frantically asked the slate-haired toll keeper for quick directions.
“Ah,” he beamed. “Avellino is where I was born… It’s my home town. I will go there tonight after work… Are you going to visit there?”
I fought a sarcastic urge to ask what he might be having for dinner that evening in Avellino. But with horns starting to sound behind me, I pressed again on how we might arrive there.
With not a trace of irony, he responded that I should pay the two-Euro toll, go through, make an immediate U-turn, exit again in the opposite direction, paying another toll, then just go straight, and I would sooner or later see a sign. Buon viaggio, he sincerely wished us.
Another encounter had us hailing a passing middle-aged pedestrian at curbside from our car window. “We’re tourists,” I began… “So am I,” he interrupted. “I’m from… and I’m visiting… Where are you from? You speak Italian very well…”
“Thank you,” I said. “But do you know how to get to Benevento?”
“Ah, si” he said, a little crestfallen. “Follow this road to its end—about five kilometers. Then go right for three kilometers until you come to a traffic circle. Take the second right off the circle and drive about three-hundred meters… Then you should stop and find someone who can tell you how to get there because I forget after that.”
Grazie a lot, I thought, scratching my head.
Of course, Italy offers more than conversation. The exuberance, style, and timelessness of Rome and the other great cities have no equal—where you can fall under the spell of Stendhal’s Syndrome or intoxicate yourself on savory regional dishes.
Or, find your way to Pompeii’s encrusted victims, long-gone souls whose earthly forms remain locked in sculptures of silent reminder of the swift fragility of life.
Then witness the macabre and wonderful sights and sounds of Sorrento’s Good Friday processions through candle-lit streets.
This is Italy at its most eerie, evocative, and eternal.
Harry Truman used to rail against the idea of “hyphenated-Americans.”
But I’ve always felt sorry for those who don’t know or deliberately forget their bloodlines, as if they were a conspicuous birthmark that needed erasing. I believe the best citizens—no matter where—have a respectful connection to the history and the DNA that has followed them across the centuries.
(My Ukrainian-born wife shares this fundamental instinct about her own roots and so takes great pleasure in my family bonds. )
Italians seem to have found a way to tie the old to the new and make it all part of the whole. Can you not easily imagine, say, Berlusconi’s famous parties as a wall fresco from Satyricon? Or find this girl riding a Vespa in Venice?
On our last night in Rome this trip, my wife and I dined at one of my new favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurants, Broccoletti.
As we were leaving, after an outstanding meal, one of the owners, Arianna, with whom I had become chummy, yelled to me across the din of happy patrons:
Ciao, Lorenzo— non dimenticare! (“don’t forget!”) She then gave me a huge smile and pointed to the sign posted above the entrance to the kitchen. It read: PASSIONE. TRADIZIONE.