Where I come from, I am an immigrant kid.
Living in Italy these past few years has taught me a lot about being displaced, or at least it has taught me a lot about the feeling of being displaced. Born to Italian immigrant parents in Ottawa Canada, I grew up with a few different cultures. We had a wonderful italian culture at home, the peasant culture of Northern Italy, the British Canadian traditions and my home town bordered Quebec, so there was also a very prominent French Canadian culture.
My parents had been very poor as children, dirt poor. My father had not tasted a banana until he arrived in Canada at the age of twenty-five and only owned his first pair of shoes when he entered the “Alpini” (Mountain Troops, who are an elite mountain warfare military corps of the Italian Army)at age 18.
My father sees his 18 months in that service as an absolutely beautiful time in his life. He ate three square meals a day, worked hard and had a warm bed to sleep in. He made friends he still speaks with today and he still proudly displays his feathered cap and photo of himself at that time in the family home.
But make no mistake, mom and dad did not have much when they left Italy and life in Canada gave them prospects they did not have back home in Italy. We had it much better growing up than they ever did. For me, it was hard to imagine “a family” far away. My grandparents were not prominent in my life and I only met them a few times on brief trips to Italy for weddings or summer visits. Long distance phone calls, trips, all of these things were still expensive propositions for a working family in Canada, so pretty much until I was 18, when I took a trip to Italy on my own, I didn’t feel all that connected to “veneto” where both my parents were born.
I had one of the most profound experiences in my life on a trip to Italy at that age. My aunt drove me to the town my father grew up in and I had the experience of seeing my own face, meeting my own people, face to face for the first time. It seemed everywhere I looked, I saw some part of me, my eyes, the bone structure of my face, a mannerism. The experience stays with me to this day. Its the sensation of belonging, of being a part of something. I could never feel this as a first generation immigrant kid.
It wasn’t until 24 years later I was able to move to Italy. Well, to Florence, which is a different country in Italy (at least it was until 150 years ago) and although I was raised Italian, my parents are both Italian and I am an Italian citizen I found that familiar feeling of not belonging. That’s partly because my italian language was a northern dialect, it’s also because, while geographically close to Veneto, the worlds are vast distances apart.
So, now I found myself and “immigrant adult”. Adapting and changing to both the written and unwritten rules of a new country. About the only place I could feel comforted was in the quality of the food. Here, I would easily say i felt truly at home. And this was the place from which I started, here is where i broke bread and made new friends, across dinner tables and lunch tables. I could invite new friends to my home where I could cook. I could retell a family story about my fathers household.
In postwar Northern Italy a staple food at my fathers table was polenta. Not the rolled up hard polenta you see in North American grocery stores, but rather, a hot pudding textured polenta served hot at dinner. The saying in my fathers childhood home, a dinner table with thirteen people, eleven children and parents around the table, was that “the polenta disappeared from the serving dish before the steam hit the ceiling.”
Well, for the first time last year, I was able to touch that actual ceiling. I was able to visit, with my father and mother, my fathers childhood home, now an abandoned Venetian farmhouse jutting out of a flat wet green field. A house where the stables warmed the children’s bedrooms above, where there was one sink for the whole family, where a 200 meter walk around a pig pen landed you at one of the outhouses in the middle of a cold winters night.
The photos are haunting. They hold my story, the story of my recent ancestors. People who laughed and joked and amused each other with stories about each other, the people in the village, their forefathers and their own crazy experiences.
As I sat around a table later that evening with many relatives, I could hear them tell one story after another, exchanging laughter and filling any empty space with another story, bigger than the last one, more exaggerated, funnier or sadder or rife with folklore. It was around these people and these places when I realized why I do what I do, it’s because I come from a line of storytellers, each more entertaining that the next, each with a unique voice.
Much can happen when you revisit your origins. Much can help define the missing spaces in you. I still know I am an immigrant kid and an immigrant adult as well, but I also know what I was born to do and that is to share stories; written, filmed, photographed, with all of you, my friends.
The field my grandfather farmed.
An Upstairs bedroom, one of three.
The only sink in the house.
The Kitchen where the polenta steam hit the ceiling.