Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Italy... Home to Half of My Heart

Scilla - one of my favorite beaches in Calabria

     My mind has been on another continent lately. With the writing of my new book, Beautiful Secret, I've found myself so utterly immersed in my memories of France and Italy. It's been a wonderful mental vacay. The story is very much a tribute to my father's mother who was the breathing definition of commitment to family, joyful living, kindness and unconditional love. She was born and raised in a poor hill town near Reggio, Calabria and gave birth to my father there. Even in her absence now, I feel her in the warmth of my huge extended family - her children and grandchildren. I smell her in the anise and fry aroma of our holidays. In my memory, I hold the bedtime stories she told me when I was a young child cuddled  into her Oil of Olay scented arms. These stories came to life for me after she died, when I finally visited the place that raised an angel.  Beautiful Secret is set partly in Pittsburgh but mostly in Europe. Writing it took me back to some of the most revealing and rich days of my life.    
     When I think  about the times I've spent with my family overseas, I realize that those days were days that truly defined me. Italy and its people took me, a twenty year old woman in the throes of University life, and shaped me into what it wanted me to be, into who I am today.
     The first time I traveled across the ocean with my mother and Italian-born father, I did so with no expectations. A little indecisive at the thought of leaving my then college boyfriend for three summer weeks, I landed in Paris feeling exhausted and a little out of place.
      Twenty-one days later, the planes of my world had shifted considerably. I'd sprouted wings and wanted nothing more than to fly through my discovery of luxurious landscape and bright flavor, to land inside this passionate family who'd opened their arms and wordlessly assured me that their nest was mine too. I'd fallen so deeply in love with the pace, the particulars and most especially the people, I thought I would die when I had to say goodbye.
     I will never forget the moment of that last farewell. In the hot stickiness of August, at Reggio Calabria's tiny airport, staring at the sea of cousins, aunts and uncles... When I boarded that plane back to Pittsburgh, I could hardly see through the blur of my tears.
     It was one of the hardest days of  my life. And, since that first trip, I have felt quite halved. So much of my heart is much too far away. I have a big, amazing, crazy family here in Pittsburgh and one on another continent, the continent that holds both the secrets to my grandmother's countenance and half of my heart.
     I would love to hear what places or experiences have molded you. Please leave me a comment or a facebook message and tell me about your experiences too!


Just a few of us - Americans, Italians and French... in my grandfather's hometown of Valanidi.

 I've posted the poem below on different websites, but I wanted to share it here on my blog. Italy is such a sensual place. It's hard not to give in to the sights, smells and sounds. One morning, I got caught up in my remembering and this happened.
There is a piece of my heart that will always belong to you
You with your desert landscaped of dry dry mountains and thorny trees
Prickly pears, figs, and olives
Animal smells and sounds
Breath of petrol and cigarettes and unwashed bodies.
Fast cars and slow mornings.
You with your clear blue sea
Pebble marks embedded into my skin
The smell of sleep and fish and salt and
Black coffee, oozing with foam in the afternoon.
The sensation of breathing out, finally.
You with your stranger smiling faces,
Outstretched arms and ears yearning for conversation.
Wrinkled greetings, broken teeth, and dirty fingernails.
Something is familiar here.
Acceptance by love and association.
Because I have my great great grandmother's nose
So you love me already for this.
You with your sleepless nights.
Concentrated life, vibrant and fully felt.
Wine after wine, food after food, dancing until the noise cannot be discerned.
Is it laughter from my lips or is it music?
And on and on it plays until the sweaty sunrise brings silence once and for all
And yet I cannot sleep in the quiet.
The heat bubbles on my skin.
I am wet with sweat and with the still excitement of one more day with you.
You with your mysterious pull on my heart.
That small part of me which remains in a moment,
On your mountain- dodging cars and breathing polluted air,
On the street, lost in conversation with a stranger who is my family,
Drinking, dancing, laughing.
Digging deep to release joy from the well of life inside of me.
Hardly sleeping, never forgetting that even when the time comes to say goodbye to you,
I will still be there... a piece of me that is forever yours.
You will find me at your sea, tossing pebbles into the clear blue water.
And breathing... finally.