Have you ever had one of those experiences that brings you to the purest point of discovering who you are and where you come from? Well I’m not just throwing that profound question out there to grab your attention without any proof in the pudding. This past easter I embarked on a 10 day adventure to Italy to meet my family for the very first time.
To fill you guys in on some important backround information, a little over a year ago, just before Easter, on March 31st I lost my favorite person in the whole wide world, my Nonno. For all of you mangea cakes out there that means grandfather in Italian.
Ten blogs is not enough to explain how his unconditional love has changed my life. For as far back as I could remember, he has always taken the time to proudly and patiently articulated his humble beginnings in Italy to me. From reciting his school poems to his goats in the yard to hiding from his mom with her shoe in hand ready to let him have it, or even just casually playing soccer with his friends in the lane… I got front row seats to it all.
Foreshadowing: March 2016 the show came to life.
Because of my grandfather, I have always felt a strong inner pull to go check out la bella Calabria for myself. This past February, just after the first wedding anniversary of my grandparents without my Nonno, I was blindsided with an idea so powerful, that just by the very thought, brought me to tears. I thought, there was not better way to honnor my Nonno than to see the country that my Nonno adored… with the people who adored my Nonno. That’s an inner calling people.
In the weeks leading up to the big trip I properly prepared by increasing my meal portion size by 1.5 and learning some Italian with some exchange students in Spain, and a few beginner YouTube videos. Before I knew it, I was flying high on my way to the motherland with my angel Nonno beside me in the clouds.
My nerves sunk in on the plane. I couldnt imagine how the first impression might go staying with people I had never met before, speaking a language I barely knew. Nonetheless, I reminded myself that this experience is much bigger than me and to make the most out of every moment.
My intense nerves calmed at the very sight of a man, standing in the Rome Ciampino airport who looked awfully similar to my grandmother. You guessed it… her brother!
From the very beginning, as if it were magic, as if my Nonno was putting the words in my mouth, I could more or less make my way through a conversation in Italian and understand my family. My strategy: using Spanish words with an Italian endings and plenty of hand gestures for added clarification and theatrics.
I spent my first night in Rome getting to know my great uncle and his family. Through the eyes of her brother Sylvio, I met my Nonna in a different light. Not as my Nonna, but as someone’s sister with stories of her life I was hearing for the frist time.
Next stop… pizza marguerita in Rome with my nonnos family. Bellissima! My taste buds are still thanking me for that one. Then off to Giulianova in Abruzzo. I felt welcomed with a kind of hospitality that could only come from family. I spent most of the time exploring the city with my cousin Giulia. I felt as if I knew my whole life. Our grandfathers were always so close and it was extraordinary and emotional to compare stories of our Nonnos and realize that the unconditional love runs in the family; next level connection.
Then off to where it really counted for me: la bella Calabria. Every 5 seconds I had to stop and ask myself… is this really happening. Am I actually seeing the place where my Nonno, little Pasqualino started his life?
My dreams came true, I stayed in his small town of Piane Crati. It’s hard for me to express how much being there impacted every level of who I am.
I was greeted with tears and tons of hugs and kisses. The more people I met, the more I was able to put together the story of my family and understand why my grandparents are so genuine and hospitable.
I visited family in Cosenza and was brought on a personal tour of the city with my younger cousin Giulio. I learned some nice Calabrese, and celebrated Easter the right way; with a truck full of delicious food, made from recipes that were generations old.
On one of the last days I spent in Calabria we drove an hour to the cost to have dinner in a Villa on the sea in San Lucido. We ate like royals; the freshest seafood that has ever passed my lips. The only thing to do after stuffing our faces, was stuff our faces even more with gelato. All of a sudden, as we were walking through the town, off in the distance, my Nonno showed his presence by shining down from between the clouds on the ocean. I could tell he was beaming with happiness. Miracles happen.
Before leaving Calabria, about 15 minutes away from Piane Crati, my family brought me to see the town where my Nonna grew up; Dipigniano. A calm town within the greenest mountains… I fell in love! I made sure to capture every moment to give her a piece of the experience. The next day I was sad to part with Calabria, but happy to feel so enriched with such unforgettable people and such a strong sense of Italian culture.
The last few days of my trip I spent in Rome enjoying myself with my cousins and my great uncle. I enjoyed being a kid again with my younger cousins playing tag in the park, touring some gardens and getting a detailed description of my cousin’s soccer card collection… what an honor.
My Nonna had not physically seen her brother in over 35 years. So I decided to take advantage of the situation and make that happen over skype. I have never seen such a big smile on her face. Those are the kinds of reactions I live for in life.
On the 31st of March, one of the toughest days I have been dreading for an entire year, my uncle surprised me by bringing me to the Vatican. I spent the day with Michael Angelo, my uncle Silvio and my Nonnonello seeing it all. No better way to end off the trip.
After the 10 days I could not believe what I had seen and who I had met. I’m not the same. I’m a better version of myself and I could not be more proud of my Italian heritage. I am so thankful to have had such a surreal experience with loved ones. I know my Nonno wouldn’t want it any other way.
Mangeacakes: All those who are not Italian