La Bella Italia – A trip to explore my roots and discover the land of my grandparents
Umbriatico, Italy–Our destination.
It was a mystical experience–La Bella Italia! A dream–but it became real after an intense struggle with the desire to see the town my grandfather inspired us with on his Sunday afternoon visits to our home while I was a child. A compelling empathy with my grandmother added to the wish. She suffered deeply the loss of her native country and her family to the extent that it robbed her of her reason and put her into the mental hospital where she spent nearly one-half of her life. Finally, I saved enough money to make the pilgrimage.
On September 19, so many years ago, 1989, my youngest son, Sam, who was eighteen, boarded a plane with me in Des Moines, Iowa. We were on the first leg of a long trip, the focus of which was to be the small mountain village of Umbriatico in Calabria, Italy.
There was an air of unreality in the planning stages of the trip. Were we really going to be doing this? Reality struck when the plane leaving New York was airborne and I heard the stewardess give safety information in Italian. The full impact of our undertaking surfaced. I know very little Italian. What I know is self-taught. Italian wasn’t spoken in our household. Mother wasn’t Italian and there was no opportunity to be in many Italian speaking situations as I grew up. I knew one word from childhood that meant “hardhead.” Dad used to call me that: capatoste. That same quality probably got us into our Italian adventure.
I tried to shut out feelings of panic and concentrated on positive aspects of our sojourn. Sam appeared calm. I started a conversation with the young lady sitting next to mel When I commeneted that she seemed to have made the crossing a few times, she shared some of her life with me. Her name was Kathy, an opera singer who was raised in southern Iowa and studied in Kansas. She was married to an italian opera singer and lived in Venice.
I gained a beautiful insight into Southern Italy when Kathy learned of our destination. She spoke of it as mystical. Her opera company had gone on tours to small towns in remote areas of the country. She told of one town where there was no running water. After the performance the singers washed in the town’s cisterna in the middle of the town square. She spoke of the graciousness of the people, even in poverty. When the opera company would go into town to perform, people would bring out chairs from their houses as they came to watch and listen. One old woman came up and kissed her hand because she was so delighted with the music.
The flight passed quickly with snatches of sleep and conversation. France was below us. Then, mountains appeared. The first flight attendant announced preparations for landing. My stomach knotted. Would I be able to find the car rental place? What would driving be like? Would it be as bad as the rumors? Had I truly lost my reason by undertaking such a trip? When we descended from the plane to see armed guards and police dogs greeting us, I was even more apprehensive.
Please let me know if you want to hear the rest of the adventure. And, if you do, stay tuned. It was quite a trip.