Have you ever run into someone you have not seen in decades? I have. Recently, via social media, I made contact with a childhood friend. We had not seen each other since I was 15. He was an old man; what little hair he had was white and his belly hung over his belt. What happened? It was disheartening to later learn that he thought the same of me.
The trouble is that our memory of people freezes in time. We think of them as we last saw them while they go on changing. The same is true of places. While we think of them as we last saw them, which is the only way we really could think of them, they go on changing, evolving. Making matters worse, memories are faulty. If they are memories of something good, we make them far better than what they were while something bad is remembered far worse. I have found that this is especially true of Italy. Italian immigrants who are perhaps a little homesick forget the negative things or at least minimize them while amplifying in their memory the good. The wine was purer than it is here. There was just something in the soil that made the vegetables taste better. People were kinder than they are today. If you are second or third generation Italian American, the Italy we are taught in family lore is a mythical Italy, idealized and varnished. The parts of those stories that were true and accurate have long since passed away.
This mythical Italy created an unrealistic expectation of what I would encounter during my first visits. Let me be more precise. Although I thought that my Italian American roots made me an expert on Italy, I knew nothing about it. This proved embarrassing. You hear people talk about the ugly American, the American tourist whose crass behavior abroad reflects poorly on our country. Well, I am embarrassed to admit I was the ugly Italian American. I mistakenly thought that Italians were going to be like the Italian Americans I grew up with back in New York. So, I played up the Italian stereotype. I used words and phrases that I had heard my parents say without really understanding the meaning. I referred to Italian dishes which I was to later learn were Italian American creations. Worst of all, I made jokes about the Mafia. I cringe to think of the impression I made back then.
Even if we were to put aside what we learned as Italian Americans, Italy is thought of in terms of its past. Common impressions of Italy can be divided into three categories. First are the wonders of Romans. This is the Italy with Pompei, the Colosseum and the Parthenon. Then, we fast forward to the Renaissance, all that stuff in between is just a jumble. This is the classy, smart Italy with DaVinci, Michelangelo and a bunch of really cool paintings hanging in Florence. Finally, there is the modern Italy, the Dolce Vita Italy where guys wear suits with skinny ties and pointy shoes. The girls all ride Vespas while eating gelato. Of course, this isn’t truly the Italy of today. It is the Italy of the ’60s, or at least how the movies portrayed Italy in the ’60s. Those of us living outside of Italy could hardly be blamed for having these impressions. Tourism is nearly 12 percent of Italy’s GDP and employs roughly 13 percent of its labor force. From the guys dressed like Centurions outside the Colosseum in Rome to the gondoliers in Venice, there is money to be made in feeding tourists’ preconceived notions of Italy. This includes making a connection with your long-lost ancestors.
I sincerely do not mean to sound like a cynic. There is nothing wrong with celebrating Italy’s past or even attempting to recapture a bit of your family’s history. However, there is an actual Italy of today with real people living lives beyond the clichés. This is the Italy we, as Italian Americans, should come to know. While cherishing its past, we should embrace it for what it truly is today.