An American Learns to Understand Italians … and Italy

— by Dan Calkins, as posted on the FB page of Italian Community Center of Milwaukee Cultural Group

Phil Vassar (born May 28, 1964 in Lynchburg, Virginia) is an American country music artist. In 1999, he was named by American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) as Country Songwriter of the Year.

I know this because I looked him up on Wikipedia this morning. Why the interest? His name was stamped on the back of my left hand, a remnant of our yearly summer commitment, Festa Italiana. Rain preempted our plans to make it back to the festival grounds to catch his show, but we did attend the mass and procession in the morning, and, let’s face it, that’s really what Festa is all about for the Italians, at least the ones I know. I overheard a gal at the service say in mild disgust, “It’s the same thing every year.” I couldn’t have agreed more.

Flashback, 1992, some sort of Italian get together: I was still dating my wife-to-be; trying to fit in with the Italians was still a major challenge for me. It was mostly older folks at this get together and conversation was predominantly in Sicilian. I say “predominantly” and not “exclusively” only because the Italians who knew I spoke only English made a point of ending their anecdotes with “It was-a so nice” or “So, I dunno” or “What are you gonna do?”

I felt as isolated as I imagine Buddy the Elf felt when he set out for New York on an iceberg. But the language barrier wasn’t the worst part of the evening. While my mind spun trying to make any sense at all of the spirited banter, the waiter came along and took my dinner plate. I hadn’t eaten but two bites and I wondered: Was this a message? Were they trying to tell the American to hit the road? I swear I was damn near in tears when I told Toni what had happened. “Dan,” she said, her calm melodic voice an oasis in a desert of misunderstanding, “that was just the pasta.”

Four years later, Porticello, Sicily, married now and kids soon to be: Tile and stucco, concrete and stone and squeaky iron gates—virtually nothing made out of wood. The never ending parade of Vespa scooters, a constant buzzing hornets nest. The unsettling clamor of shutters slamming shut and then, in unison, ratcheting back up again precisely three hours later. A room with china, porcelain figurines, and antique furniture covered in clear plastic—an unspoken but oh-so-clear message: “Don’t even think about making yourself comfortable in here!” No one spoke English, not a word. At risk of sounding kinky, I held to Toni’s side as if we were handcuffed to each other. She translated as best she could. And when she inevitably failed to keep up, the Italians gave up on her and spoke directly to me in Sicilian, apparently thinking if they were vehement enough I might somehow understand. Folks would later ask me how I liked Italy. “Rome was awesome,” I would tell them, “and then there was Sicily.” Please don’t hate on me just yet, but I have to admit I was utterly miserable. Fish with bones in them for lunch here, another kind of fish with bones in them at dinner there. A new place with people I don’t understand for every meal. And did anyone ever hear of freakin’ air conditioning!?

One very early morning near the end of our stay, I braved going out for a walk on my own, up the hillside that rises steeply from the apron of Porticello. Solunto it’s called, a quiet refuge that holds the secrets of a long-ago Greek settlement. Its summit is dotted with scrubby pine, and as the wind passed through the evergreen’s needles, I imagined I heard those ancients whispering to me, telling me that I would one day look back on all of this and smile. Perhaps it was the rarefied air up there, but gazing at the town below, listening to the faint, gravely voice of a street vendor informing the world of the existence of fresh, hot bread (in Italian of course), I experienced an epiphany. The morning sun played off the fishing boats that bobbed about lazily in the port. The wood that was glaringly missing from the town’s structures? It was in those boats. Handmade and faithfully maintained, the hopes and dreams of generation upon generation were afloat on those charming, colorful vessels. How many stories their painted timbers could tell. I realized why in their frustration the Italians spoke directly to me. It wasn’t to make me feel stupid. Rather, they wanted so badly to bring me in. They wanted to tell me those stories. They wanted me to become a part of who they were. They wanted to shower me with it all. Bony fish or not, they put so much food before me, so much… love that there was no way I could possibly leave wishing for more. They wanted nothing more than to make me feel at home. Because that’s the Italians.

I still find myself at dinners and functions where Sicilian is the language of the hour. But I don’t feel as if I’m adrift on an iceberg anymore. Rather it all speaks to me as the pines of Solunto did. And although I haven’t a clue what’s being said, I understand completely. As far as my struggle to fit in? It hadn’t really been a struggle at all—it was merely a matter of letting go. That gal at mass had been right. It was the same thing year after year. And I suppose, unless you are a real Italian, you might not see the brilliant perfection of Festa. From the mass to the food to the music to the fireworks, Festa Italiana is a pure celebration of life and the real face of Italy. I feel blessed to be a part of it all.

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