Articles by: Renata Conte

  • Life & People

    Flying Alitalia with i-Italy. My Tuscan Roundabout

    The last time I was in Italy was almost two years ago. My son was studying abroad in Siena, and I had serendipitously won i-italy’s essay contest and was presented with two round trip Alitalia tickets, which expired after a year. I could not resist this fortunate opportunity. My husband, daughter and I decided to think outside the box and spend Thanksgiving week in the rolling hills of Tuscany visiting my son and the local vineyards instead of shopping like lunatics and cooking an unnecessary amount of food for the holiday here in New York. This was actually the first time I would be in Italy without that (sometimes oppressive) summer sun shining down on me. My family is native to the Emilia Romagna region and I had only passed through Tuscany by car on occasion.

    This was like a virgin adventure for us…..a new season and a new region. My son was living with a host “mother” outside Siena’s historic center, so we decided to pick a random hotel near the address he gave us. Now, after numerous trips to my Italy I can safely say that stars on an Italian hotel are not equivalent to stars on an American hotel. We knew that going in, and we are good sports.  The place was very generic, but we were there to be with my son and to explore the famous Tuscany and the Chianti region. It had a nice enough staff, who could not hide their inquisitiveness when we checked in that first day. The host “mom” had dropped my son off in the parking lot of the hotel in the middle of a downpour. He must have been hooked up with the only Italian middle aged woman who could not “fare da mamma” for him. When we found him in the lobby he was soaked and starving. (The Mom made him eggs for dinner that night! sometimes for a special treat she’d leave him a few pieces of head cheese to eat for dinner!)We hugged and kissed and hugged and kissed, and then answered all the front desk clerk’s amusing questions. Yep, American, yep, it is Thanksgiving week, yep, it’s cold and wet out there, no, we don’t know anyone in this particular area nor anywhere in Siena for that matter, but we’re together now and it’s all good.

    My son explained to us that it had been raining for quite some time, and that it was so damp and cold he had to change socks 3 times a day. He had a few days off from class so we made plans to see some sights in Siena with our now well versed son.  He had sights to show us and his favorite restaurant for us to try. He wanted to introduce us to his new friends and show his sister where he took classes. Whatever unpleasantries he endured at his host home, he knew it was not typical of Italy nor the warm Italians with whom he had already formed lasting relationships. He was feeling a love for Italy that I never thought possible in him. This was truly a new adventure for us all.

    Now, my husband is an adventurer, he had no problem driving from Amalfi to Bologna a few years before, show him where someplace is once, and he’ll find 5 different ways to get there off the top of his head. Driving is his forté. Thus we rented a car for our Tuscan adventure.  This, it turns out was our downfall. We got lost every day, 5 times a day, and that was just venturing from the hotel to the historic center of town! If I never see another roundabout, it would be too soon. Ugh! We never met my son in town on time; he couldn’t believe we’d gotten lost yet again attempting the 2-3 mile trip. To this day I cannot say what the mental block was. It might have been the constant rain that made things look different from day to day, or just the unfamiliar lay of the land, I don’t know. One would think it would become more familiar after so many attempts to reach the same destination.  My husband would start out saying “ok, I know what I did wrong last time” and then the madness of the EIGHT MILLION SIGN roundabouts would overcome us and we’d be lost again!

    After a particularly frustrating 4 hour, rain soaked, skidding on hills return trip from San Gimignano back to the hotel ( we subsequently realized we had been heading to Rome instead of Siena on the Autostrada) we decided to take a break from Tuscany and head to familiar territory, our Emilia Romagna. I called the cousins, assured them we remembered how to get there, we even “Google mapped” it. Everything was going fine. We recognized the shopping center off the autostrada, and my husband pulled off to stop in the Carfour so we could arrive bearing gifts. This, as it turned out was our downfall…again. I was so happy, parking the car going into the store just like a local, my dream come true. Alas, it started raining while we were in the store, the woman at the perfume counter yelled at me when I tested a perfume, and we couldn’t find the car when we came out. I had to actually stop a cop and ask him to help us find the car. I even asked if they steal cars often around here, he patiently replied that “they” did not. We felt like such idiots, but at least we entertained the police department with a story to share at their evening meal. Monteveglio was relatively easy enough to find, the little hilltop town of Oliveto…….not so much. We drove around in circles for 2 hours, damn roundabouts again! I called my cousin (I speak passable Italian, they speak NO English) tried to explain where we were, she sent Mauro down the hill into Monteveglio to escort us back to the house. The end result: a 2 hour trip equals 5 hours in the language of rain and roundabouts and new adventure.

    It’s funny, I always feel such a longing to be in Italy, but I never feel Italian when I’m there. All these obstacles in just the one week made us feel like we had to work too hard for our Italian-ness. Maybe it was just too much of a new adventure for us. Only the sight of the olive trees outside our hotel window could stop our shivering from the cold, wet confusion we experienced in that car. I guess I should just stick to the summer and all the usual tourist attractions, but that would never get me any closer to picking the right turn off the roundabout, would it? And that, amici miei will always be my ultimate dream.

  • Op-Eds

    This is Gonna be Harder Than I Thought

    Last Sunday I decided to once again attempt to bond with my fellow Italian-Americans. Now, ever since my Italian father passed away I have lamented about the extreme sense of void in my Italianita’. The next best thing I could try would be to identify with the actual Italian American that I in fact am. When my Babbo was with us, I felt so much more like an Italian. The phone calls to and from Italy, the Serie A matches on TV, La Repubblica on my kitchen table every day pretty much sealed the deal for me. I was almost there at “tutta via”; alas over this past year I have slipped more and more back to my inevitable “mezza via” status.

         I do realize however that this is not necessarily a bad thing. I mean as I’ve said before, my Italianita’; whatever degree of it I am experiencing, is and always will be of the utmost importance to me. My mother’s cousin, a pillar of Italian-Americanism in his community of Fordham/Little Italy in the Bronx had invited her to come up to a feast the neighborhood was having on Arthur Avenue. He owns a little business on the avenue, and has long been a well liked and respected member of the community. Like many others, he no longer lives in the area, but has been able to maintain strong ties with other merchants, as well as the few older Italians/Italian Americans still living there. My mother was excited to see her cousin, and to check out the old neighborhood.

         My mother, born in the Bronx to Italian parents, left there before she even met my Italian father. I remember her always being so proud of the area. The kinship, the feasts, the grocery stores, the bakeries etc. My parents were married at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church on 187st, the quintessential Italian-American parish. At that time a bastion of Italian-American solidarity, a core of a community so strong it seemed invincible.

         Naturally I was also curious. I wanted to see my cousin, and I wanted to see the old neighborhood. I had visited often when I was little. My parents would do their bi-weekly shopping excursion. I remember my favorite stop, the record store. My parents would buy the latest Italian 45’s and we’d go home and listen to them over and over. Pepino di Capri, Gianni Morandi, Mina, Milva, and numerous others that escape me now. She knew my father missed Italy, and I suppose this was the best she could do for him on their limited income.  My brother and I became so familiar with these Italian tunes, we would sing them on our street in Queens, we’d even invite the Irish kids to come on over and sing “L’Arca di Noe” (il cane,gatto,io e te…)with us, we loved that song!

         And so my husband, daughter, mother and I headed over the bridge and met up with her cousin at this feast. It really was a celebration of community, albeit a now scattered community that just happened to physically be in the same place that day. Many of the old stores are still there, selling their “proud to be Italian” wares and their authentic foods. Cousin John pointed out that not many Italian-Americans live in the area anymore. They do often frequent the neighborhood, eating in the restaurants, hanging around the cafes and shopping the stores. The neighborhood has now become a melting pot as far as it’s’ inhabitants and unfortunately has declined as far as crime statistics, cleanliness and overall safety. Today was different however. The band was playing, the priest was praying, and the crowd was animated. They had come to celebrate their Italianess, by eating, drinking, laughing and yelling things to each other like “kay-say deech” (cosa si dice). Uh- oh, I heard that and I started regretting my decision to come. I started feeling lost again. These were the Italian Americans I had always felt distant from. I was wearing a Parma jersey for God’s sake, but I was overrun by the Yankees jerseys all around me. I had always felt more Italian than them. I read the Italian newspaper, I called my cousins in Italy all the time, I watched RAI on Sundays, but that was when my father was alive, and spread his authentic Italianess among us like the greatest gift in the world. I miss it so very much, so does my Mom.

         I was determined to try to fit in. To celebrate with my fellow Italian Americans. Maybe I could let them all in on the secrets of being at least a “mezza via”. So we bought some zeppoles (the fried dough balls dripping with grease), listened to the 29th version of O Sole Mio from the bandstand and drank chianti with peaches in the paper cups. It was a nice day, and I was glad to have brought my Mom to see her cousin, do some shopping and some reminiscing. As I was perusing the crowds I saw one Italian American gentleman that to me represented the human manifestation of my feeling of Mezza Via, why I would never be akin with these Italian-Americans. He was a large fellow, walking along the street with his buddies yelling to each other the only Italian words I assume he knew, ones I rather not repeat here. The piece de resistance was his shirt; which he actually wore proudly; it said “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster”.

    As far back as I can remember I always wanted to voice an uncomplimentary opinion about Italian-Americans that advertised things like that. Need I say more! Whose fault is it really, that we are one of the last ethnic groups acceptable to deride openly and publicly in the United States. Thanks for your help with that “gangster”.

  • Op-Eds

    Yearning for Commonality

    It is certainly true; Suburban Italian-American youth are for the most part void of any positive cultural identity. What is ambiguous and difficult to ascertain is the reason why.  The US census bureau reports an increase in the number of Italian-Americans in the general population, up from 16 million in 2000 to 17 million presently, making up nearly 6% of the US population.  I find it even more intriguing that this difference is due to an “increased identification of Italian roots” rather than any increase in immigration.  Are these 1 million people so far removed from their italianita’that they needed eight years to realize they had any Italian roots? Where did they think they came from? Was it just a lack of interest?

    For myself, I cannot imagine roots firmly planted anywhere except Italy, nor do I have any desire to identify myself as anything but Italian  Mezza Via.  My ravenous appetite for everything Italian is ever present; has always been. This is why I am finding it so difficult to find an answer to the aforementioned “why” question.  I detected a bit of apathy in my children regarding their Italianess, I deemed it unacceptable. That’s about when I took on another job, saved, and gave them a fantastic dose of Italianess first hand. We spent 5 glorious weeks driving all over Italy, Campania to Liguria.  The time we spent with our family including cousins their own age, totally italianified them.  I realize that not everyone has a place to hang their hat that is so warm and comforting, not everyone gets a chance to experience culture and Italianita’ so intensely and directly. So the answer must lie in our young (and not so young) apathetic Italian-Americans’ immediate surroundings. In their schools, their homes, their cities and their suburbs, something is lacking, and what an incredible culture they are all missing out on. I’ve always felt that no one appreciates Italian culture like a non Italian. (-American).

    Recently I came to realize that gaining or improving on this Italianita’ is no easy task; not even in a place like New York City.  My frustration came to acme while trying to engage my daughter in some type of intellectual stimulation for the upcoming summer.  She had expressed some substantial interest in expanding her basic knowledge of the Italian language.  So my search began.  We needed something fun, affordable, popular for her age group, and not too much like “school work”. I guess these were far too many requirements………..I found a program that did meet all these requirements except for one. The immersion program for teens in NYC was affordable and fun and was offered by the “French Institute: Alliance Francaise”. I failed to find the equivalent Italian version.   Please do not misunderstand, I found some Italian language programs, but none fit.  Some offered cooking; most were for toddlers or working adults, wonderful programs but none to suit the needs of my 16 year old. She ended up spending 3 weeks with family in Bologna and loved it because she felt like she “lived there”, like she belonged.

    I must be missing something.  I think back on the six years of petitioning for Italian to be offered as foreign language study in our suburban school district.  A district full of people with vowels at the end of their names.  A district whose offices are located literally on the Stony Brook University campus. The only state school offering adolescent teaching certification in Italian, as a course of study. My petitions fell on deaf Italian-American and non Italian-American ears as well as stone wall administrators with the ever present instinctive response of budget restraints. Finally, and coincidentally I suppose a new middle school principal was appointed who turned out to be instrumental in our cause.  He juggled and danced and was persistent enough to get the job done, he was a rarity, an involved Italian-American.

    My point here is, if it is not yet completely obvious……………..why is this so hard? We need to mainstream a little better; here in New York is the only place to start. This principal I mentioned was educated as a Spanish teacher much for the same reason college students today will not elect to study Italian and will opt for Spanish. There are not enough jobs in the teaching of Italian. We need 20 Spanish teachers for every 1 Italian teacher.  There is a much esteemed parochial High School here on Long Island, run by an order centering on the principles of St. Francis, one can imagine the percentage of Italian American students at this school, it is very high. Yet Italian is not offered at this school on a regents sequence!! When I inquired as to the reasoning, I was told by one of the Italian-American Spanish Language teachers that she would love to teach Italian and that she was indeed certified. I attempted to discuss this matter with the hierarchy, explaining that there really would be no extra cost to their budget because this teacher already on staff was certified. I am still waiting for my meeting with the principal. All those students have long graduated (with 4 years of Spanish, French or German under their belt.)  What is more incredible is to realize the amount of Italian-American parents of influence in their communities that send their children to this school. It is literally an embarrassment that they do not offer Italian as a regents course of study.

    I’d like to end on a positive note, but I don’t think I can. I guess we will have to start on an individual basis, as I have been trying to do. My daughter will be majoring in Italian Language and Literature in college next year. She has such a fierce love of Italianess, it makes me look like an unemotional Celtic. I hope she will have a new “Italian insider” world opened up to her. I hope she will find a great internship, and then a great grad school, and then a great job. Most of all I hope she finds a commonality and camaraderie in those around her.


  • Op-Eds

    Mind The Gap

    A few nights ago I decided to attend the round table discussion at Casa Zerilli-Marimò, centering on Piero Bassetti’s notion of “italicita”. The idea of a new virtual meeting place where 250 million people of italic origin could transcend formal boundaries and interact.  A general invitation had gone out to all bloggers and really any members of the i-italy community. I want so badly to find my place; to “g-localize” myself, and this seemed a step in the right direction.  I rearranged my schedule and off I went with a sense of excitement, and in my mind alot to say.

    I arrived in a room filled with excited people. They all seemed to know one another. They all were extremely animated, flitting from Italian to English and back again.  I followed some conversations, and yes they all knew each other for the most part. This was the club I so longed to be a part of. This was my way of getting from “Mezza Via” to Tutta Via”.  I listened intently to the learned and very entertaining panel. The idea of this “Italicity” was grand. These people were so intelligent and so caring and passionate about their work. I have never felt that way about the practice of Pharmacy and that made me listen more intently. I almost felt like I belonged there.

    My reality set in when the Consul General of Italy in NY, Francesco Maria Talò took his turn speaking. This is a charismatic man who one cannot help but listen to and for the most part agree with, that was the problem for me, he made sense. He began to describe the 3 different populations that are encompassed  by “Italicity” and the free and open community of Piero Bassetti. 

    The first group, as he explained, numbered in the tens of millions. They are the grandchildren, great-grandchildren and beyond of Italian immigrants. Most do not speak Italian nor have ever even been to Italy. And now I add that they do not fight for pro-italian causes, they do not care about defending the image of the Italian-American/Australian/South American etc , they do not get “involved”. They do however retain some type of connection with ancestors long gone, usually through cuisine, or an Italian flag sticker on their car. 

    The second group, numbering maybe in the hundreds of thousands was my father's. He visited, fell in love, and stayed in NY in the 1960’s. He still read the Italian newspaper, followed Italian politics and calcio, and spoke Italian 50-75% of the time.  But in my opinion this group is not exactly the internet generation. Most, (my father was an exception) are totally involved in their regional organizations. They keep a tight circle of friends, usually involving the common denominator of the geographical area of Italy in which they were born and raised in. 

    The third and smallest group was the new virtual “Little Italy” inhabitants. These were young professionals from Italy living in and working in NY (or somewhere else abroad). They connected via their i-phones and truthfully always feel more comfortable when they are around each other. They are an unknown entity to most Italian Americans of the first group.

    Unfortunately, out of these 3 groups that Francesco Maria Talò had described and that I have elaborated on, I could not find my place. It made me pat myself on the back while thinking about the name I had coined to describe myself and status; me; sempre “Mezza Via”. How incredibly left out I felt, and how my mind went in all different directions trying to figure out how to belong to Italicity. It seemed I was always fighting to show the 3rd group that I was definitely NOT part of that 1st group.

    Physical distance can now be overcome, globalization has intensified common worldly concerns, cosmopolitanism creates that internal unity, but the main obstacle and divider in any issue of networking, global community, italicita’ is LANGUAGE. The people I spent Wednesday evening with are a relatively small group of people without this problem. They are all fluent in at least 2 languages, and could have been just as comfortable conducting the evening in Italian as they were in English. How could they empathize with the angst I feel when someone asks me if I speak Italian... I do but please do not speak too fast or use any idiomatic expressions, why don’t I just admit it and say “no, not really”.

    I suppose over time all ethniticity, origin, and commonality become homogenized, diluted, and assimilated into a common “American” culture if you will. One cannot deny that there is strength in numbers and that assimilated 1st group has the numbers on its side. So for me and my Mezza Via  people, wherever they are, we will stand by our causes, keep pushing Italian Language instruction in schools, keep contributing to the digital project, keep opening our children’s eyes to the wonder and privilege that is Italianita’.  And keep trying to find our comfort zone within this Piazza di tutte Piazze.


  • Facts & Stories

    Italian Movies In My Own Backyard

    I spent this past weekend submerged in Italianess right in my own backyard.  The center for Italian Cultural Studies at StonyBrook University presented its fifth annual Italian Film Festival. This event is put together by Professore  G.Balducci and Dr. M.Mignone of the University, along with the aid of the Suffolk County Council of Arts.  It is truly a wonderful little piece of culture and real Italian exposure in this otherwise barren bit of suburbia. Prof.

    Balducci does a wonderful job of selecting the films, which are all top quality, with well known actors and intense story lines. Truly entertaining, not to mention they really help with my Italian language skills.  Most will not be distributed in the US so it really is a treat to get to see them here.

    My husband and I have been to the festival all five years, and we have always enjoyed our experience.  I’ve come to notice that aside from the college students who are viewing the movie(s) as part of a class requirement or hopefully out of interest and curiosity, we were the youngest viewers there (and we have a son in college).  The other attendees were all delightful and really have such a keen interest in discovering and connecting with their heritage. They are to be commended for this. I’ve come to realize, since the loss of my father, how truly difficult this connection is to establish and maintain without the constant presence of an Italian.

    The new Italy and the movies that generate out of it address new concerns that my fellow viewers seem shocked even exist in the country. Issues such as racism, immigration, unemployment, promiscuity and drug abuse.  This part of Italy is never included on the church tour and is expectedly a surprising shock to them. I have the luxury of corresponding with my family, my 21 year old cousin included. I have spent time in the real life towns without a tourist itinerary. Most of my fellow viewers have seen, and do love all that tourist Italy has to offer, who wouldn’t. I have seen much more and still I love it. I will fight hard to stay as Italian as I can, to keep Mezza Via. My Dad used to complain about the present day politics of Italy, the imbroglios, the red tape, tell me it is not a fantasy land.  I’d reply that I knew, and would tell him to read the Washington Post or the NY Times, they might as well cut and paste from the Italian paper, just change the geographical location of the problems.

    In any event the professors are to be commended on the wonderful program they put together every year. I would love to see some local High School Italian classes come. My daughter whom I dragged along for an afternoon movie was reluctant at first but in the end totally enjoyed it. (“the kid in the movie was really cute; and half way through I was hardly reading the subtitles”). She’s really impressing me lately. As the child of “Mezza Via” she’s already achieved “Quarto Via” status. A few more summers in Bologna with her cousin and an Italian major in college and she’ll be totally in-between just like her mamma.

  • Life & People

    Ancora Mezza Via

    It’s been a while since I posted an entry about my half Italian half American life on the site, but I think I’m finally ready, and may have something worthwhile to say. I’ve had a very rough time of it since I last wrote. My dear father, my main connection to the Italian world, passed away after months of fighting pancreatic cancer. The shock of losing him, my father, this wonderful man whom everyone loved, who raised me and was always there for me, was initially absorbed and dealt with as best as any grieving daughter could. It was not until I went to discard my old newspapers that the magnitude of this loss was fully comprehended. As I placed old copies of “La Repubblica” and “Oggi” out for recycling I realized that what made me unique, what gave me my status as “Mezza Via” was now taken from me. I would become like every other Italian-American, with lost ties to Italy, no language spoken around me, no notes left for me in that “oh so particular” foreign handwriting, no serie A on TV, no fresh vegetables in my fridge every day, no one to ask about verb conjugations, I would probably now end up drinking cappuccino at five o’clock in the afternoon and making sausages in a red sauce on Sundays!


    I’ve told a little of the story of my Italian father and my Italo-American mother here on this site. I’ve told how he kept our family unique in its italianita’, how I was lucky to be Mezza Via , now I must carry on without him. I’ve been helping my mother answer all the kind notes sent from old and dear friends that remained in Italy over the years. I’ve spoken on the phone with my cousins and lo zio (my father’s brother) many times over the last few weeks. I’ve sent my daughter to Bologna to be with her cousins and help her deal with her intense sorrow. When I sat back and recalled all the events over the past 2 weeks since his passing, I realized that many of the contacts I’ve had have been of the Italian nature. I've never spoken, called or written, or even thought in Italian as much as I have over this time. And it has all come quite naturally.


    So I can safely "Olive Garden" for me. My father is alive in my memory and I will always be Mezza Via because of him. I cannot unlearn his influence on me. I will always be first generation, and I will always love and fully embrace my Italianess. I feel close to him because we will always share Italianita'. I know it was him that allowed the Italian words to flow naturally and effortlessly through me in writing, on the phone, and even in my dreams. Because of him I will always feel more Italian than my counterparts here in America; for I am Ancora Mezza Via.


    Ciao Pa


  • Op-Eds

    Salve, Ciao (“Chee-ow”)

    Salve amici nuovi! Chee-ow pie-zans!  Let me preface my qualifications (or lack thereof) for writing this new and hopefully entertaining blog about life in the in-between.  Now, I am not a scholar of language or literature, philosophy or sociology. I am not a passionate activist for any particular cause, or a politically informed lobbyist.  I cannot offer many learned quotations from famous authors, philosophers or world leaders in order to exemplify my humble points of view.  In fact I write this in between filling prescriptions and counseling patients.  I probably should write about maladies and medicine but Italianita’ is so much more fun.

    This is already my third installment as a blogger on this wonderful website. So, I searched long and hard for an explicit, entertaining anecdote to familiarize you all as to what I actually mean by the term “Mezza Via”, that is if it still remains unclear after reading my first two articles. 

    One of my earliest memories of our family being different, not only from the German, Polish, and Irish-American families that lived on our block, but from the Italian-American families as well, was simply the car we drove.  I remember exactly what it looked like, where the scratches were, the feel and scent of the interior, and even the noise it made when it turned left.  My baby brother and I were crammed into the backseat, becoming slightly more nauseous with every shift of the stick and press of the clutch.  That Fiat Seicento was the only one of its kind on my block.  I’d venture to say it was the only one in the whole neighborhood, probably all of Queens.  It was a small little thing; two men could lift it, dull white with red interior.  I remember my father fixing it a lot on the weekends. It was an adventurous piece of machinery; as I remember we were turned away at the Whitestone Bridge one day because of the wind! Just us and our Seicento, everyone else, Italo-American and non Italo-American was allowed to cross with their substantially heavier cars. My mother even got a speeding ticket while on the expressway (I just think the police officer wanted to get a closer look at the car).  My parents told me that we drive this car because it “comes from Italy, like Daddy”.  So I can safely say that no one else’s Daddy could have come from Italy, because no one else drove this car.  They were Italian, they said they were. Their last names ended in vowels, but their parents drove much bigger, shinier cars.

    So here was my first taste, at such a young age, of finding myself “mezza via”, halfway in-between.  I was riding in a car that no Italian-American (notice the hyphen) kid’s family would ever drive or own.  The problem was I was not speeding down an autostrada, peeling through the tangenziale, or pulling into the “AutoGrill” for a lungo on the road.  I was instead, getting dropped off at softball practice with the other first grade  Polish-American, Irish-American, Italian-American and German-American kids  while the mothers went home to cook dinner for a 5pm serving.  We never ate dinner until eight o’clock at night. I was the luckiest first grader because I had the latest bedtime (but that’s another blog).

    Where did I belong? This car and this family of mine seemed displaced.  I had to keep searching.

    Sono qui a mezza via in quelche e la corsa mia.



    Our car looked just like this when we got it (but the people in this ad do not resemble my parents); it lasted some years and we have many more memories surrounding it.  Imagine seeing the new version zipping around New York!! I’m in!


    My Dad and me in our Queens driveway with the dog and the “600”-- CHRISTMAS 1966



  • Life & People

    A Non-Sicilian’s Reflections on a Very Sicilian Experience

    Several weeks ago I managed to drag my reluctant daughter to the “Sicilian Crossings” exhibit at Stony Brook University.  It had been launched at the Ellis Island Museum where it was fairly well received. The exhibit consisted of 120 panels depicting the story of Sicilian immigration and their assimilation into a new country via photos, letters, tickets and various other items.  I told my daughter we were lucky to have the opportunity to see such an exhibit so close to home.   She was not in the least bit excited, but I played the guilt card, that we needed to spend some quality time together (which we did), and she put her jacket on.


    I expected to be able to have full run of the exhibit even though it was a beautiful Sunday afternoon. How many people out here on this end of Long Island had any interest in such a thing?  People responded when the exhibit was on Ellis Island because it was part of the tourist experience.  In these parts if you’re not interested in sandy beaches, malls and franchise dining, pick a different spot.


    Now, being Sicilian and coming over to America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries was an unfamiliar story to anyone in my family. They all stayed put in Rimini, Ravenna, Ferrara and Bologna while the masses from Sicily and the mezzogiorno were on their way to La Terra Promessa.  I do remember most of the friends my parents met here in New York being Sicilian.  They spoke differently from my parents, and they were very animated and warm people. My father would always say that he knew many more Sicilians here than he ever did in Italy; even during his years in the navy.  All these folks seemed to own their own businesses, they were skillful tradesmen and crafty businessmen.  Other than knowing common places in Sicily, (like Mondello) or having some mutual experiences here in NY (usually anti-Italian experiences) or rooting for the same soccer team, there was not much more they had in common.  So needless to say this exhibit would be something of a learning experience for my daughter and me.


    We walked into the extravagant Wang Center at Stony Brook; fountain water gliding down marble filled the atrium with the echoing sound of emptiness. Just as I thought, the place was deserted.  The beautiful architecture of the center could be appreciated as there were no other people around to block one’s view. We searched from event hall to conference room to event hall, and found them empty.  Finally I spotted several people outside what looked like a classroom. My daughter and I sauntered over to them with the intention of asking if they knew where the exhibit was. We needed not ask them a thing.  As we approached I saw the multitude of populace in snake like zig zagging lines. Each person was fighting their own way in to view a photo, letter, or story that was part of the large exhibit.  Once they arrived at a particular poster or group of photos it was hard for them to leave it and move on. Wives were shouting to their husbands, brothers to their sisters, asking if the other knew more about “great grandma and where she was from”, or “your grandfather’s brother, wasn’t that the same ship he came to Brooklyn on?” There were hundreds of people there. I was amazed. So too must have been the party that arranged for such a small space in a center full of empty rooms and halls.  Gabriella, my daughter, tugged on me as she whispered to see if I had noticed that everyone there was “over 70 years old and they’re talking about their grandparents!”


    I realized something very profound when my daughter fed me this fact.  I realized that I was really lucky, because I was a first generation hyphen. In 100 years my great grandchildren would be trying to figure out the story of my Italian parents, just as these 70 year old people were doing at the Wang Center.  For now though, I learn all about Italy first hand, from my parents and my own experiences there.  I’ve had a piada generously spread with warm stracchino at one of the many cafe/bars on the beach in Rimini, I don’t need to hear a story about it, I was there…..often.


    It was touching to see such a large amount of people seeking their origins.  These legendary immigrants must have had so many stories to tell.  Unfortunately the legacy has already been severely diluted. And so we are forced to look at picture stories about the sulphur mines, the Messina earthquake, the conditions on the ships and the terrible prejudices they encountered in their new home. They have become entities unto themselves now, as foreign in the year 2008 to a 70 year old Italian-American as to a 70 year old Italian, indeed light years away from the “olive garden” genre previously mentioned in this author’s repertoire.


    It’s funny how I can now realize that the unique distinction of being Mezza Via; halfway in between Italian and American, can also be a privileged one.




  • Op-Eds

    The Hyphen Is There To Fill The Void

         The term Italian-American (with or without the hyphen) remains as ambiguous a description to me today as it did while growing up in a mixed New York City neighborhood some 30 years ago. I often found myself more “Italian” than the other kids, but yet such an American when my parent’s friends or my Italian cousins would visit from Italy.


    I have what is now considered the unique distinction of being a forty something first generation Italian-American. Growing up in Queens, most of my friends who were “Italian” where grandchildren or great grandchildren of Italian immigrants. Sunday dinners were long gone for them, and any knowledge of the vernacular was limited to curse words. They were still proud of their heritage; albeit the little knowledge they possessed of it. They exhibited this pride with flags and mini banners hanging from the rear view mirrors of their new Monte Carlos. The driver’s seats leaned so far back to ensure an angle around the banner in order to see the boulevard as the car sauntered up and down it. The boys were weighed down with gold chains hanging around their tanned necks (a great contrast to the a-line undershirts they wore). The girls were there for the looking and the taking. You really couldn’t avoid seeing them as their hair stood about a foot high off their heads. Needless to say I had a hard time fitting in.


    It seems I was caught in a very limited, almost nonexistent category; the first born child of an Italian, who arrived in New York a year before my birth. When my father, the Italian married my mother, the first generation Italian- American, he did not speak any English. He insisted that the language spoken in the house be English. He needed to secure employment worthy of his education and Italian military training. He truly came to this country for love not money. I can remember listening intently to the unavoidable, weekly, animated discourse that was always conducted in Italian. These always occurred when company was over the house on the weekend. I loved the language and felt cheated that I did not fully understand them. We were fortunate enough to be able to spend a few weeks in intermittent years in Italy with family. As a child the language came to me more quickly, but would fade after being home a few months.


    To say that I loved everything Italian would be a gigantic understatement, and I still do. It seemed, however that my idea of things Italian was very different from a lot of my neighborhood friends and schoolmates. I had never eaten a meatball in my life, and I had no idea what kind of “gravy” went on top of my “macaroni”, but it hardly ever included all that RED. I didn’t know a lot of Italian words that they knew; like Sfacheem (?) or Gabatost(?). (Your guess is as good as mine.) Perhaps the most cavernous difference between us was our actual lifestyle. We lived in the same neighborhood, and went to the same schools, but their houses were so much more elaborate, and the cars their parents drove must have cost a year’s salary. In my house nothing was more important than education; it wasn’t that way for a lot of my friends. Making money was the priority, school, especially for a female was optional.


    Being the first person ever in my entire family to attend a university was something of a burden. I left most of the gang behind, determined to make my parents and myself proud as I pursued my pharmacy degree. Also important to me was finding a soul mate which I was certain would happen at local St. John’s University. This was not to be. These guys all ate meatballs too! One has to realize that at St. John’s University in the 1980’s there was a plethora of Italian American guys to choose from. The students in pharmacy school were more serious, bright and diligent than I had ever encountered, but their “italianess” was still so different from mine. I concentrated on my studies, made new friends, dated some guys and satisfied my need for italianess with my present company. I was finally finding my place, I would stop trying to be an Italian; I was born in New York after all. I was one of them. But then my cousin would call from Bologna and we’d fill each other in on the news and I’d feel Italian again. No one I knew at St. John’s knew who Eros Ramazzotti was. I knew, I cared, I tried to share but Springsteen always won out. I would always be stuck in the void; not a true Italian, in denial about labeling myself Italian American.


    I recall my father’s advice while I was dating a Staten Islander in college. My Dad sat me down and told me in scary seriousness, to get rid of my romantic notions about these Italian kids here (in NY). He told me to find myself a German or an Irishman, as long as they were your equal, loved you, and treated you like gold. It didn’t happen.


    And so it was in the mid eighties, our family had their first college graduate; a white coated Pharmacist (Dottoressa to my father). It was at this same time that the other part of my life changed as well. His nephew and my little brother played junior soccer together. We met at a game. He was handsome, educated, well mannered, and soft spoken and his last name ended with a vowel! When I learned that each of his parents was born in Italy, I was in love. He was stuck in the hyphen space between Italian and American just as I was.


    We settled in the suburbs with our two young children, and reality really set in. Not only were we missing Italiani, but these people hardly even cooked meatballs. Our children grew up among the “Olive Garden” genre as we later named them. One day I turned around and they were as much (or as little) Italian-Americans as any in the suburbs. Visits from Nonno and Nonna kept up traditions and some cultural knowledge, but these kids were fading fast.


    My husband and I would speak to each other in our broken Italian so at least the kids would have some exposure, but they would just laugh. We managed to take them on a spectacular trip to Italy several years ago, sort of a family reunion with my father’s town of Rimini as the base. They couldn’t help themselves, they loved everything about it, and they felt like Italians. They made friends with cousins their own age; they became interested in history, art, and cuisine. They were sad to leave.


    Last month my very dramatic high school aged daughter informed me that with all her heart she wanted to live in Italy; maybe be a teacher there. My son was recently accepted into medical school here in New York, it was wonderful news and the whole family celebrated with him bursting with pride over his accomplishment. A few weeks later he gave me even better news. News that admittedly brought all my senses to life and lightened my heart. My brilliant, analytical pre-med math/science guy is going to spend a semester in Siena Italy, studying the language, the art and the culture of his roots.


    They get it!