Stephen J. Cerulli
Just Another Travel Memoir: an Italian/American’s Journey in Italy
It has taken me over a year to carry from thought to words the recollections of this trip. I could not bring myself to write about this journey, because the memories triggered tears. However, enough time has passed to overcome the cathartic shock. I wish to express my thoughts while the vigor of youth maintains the memories fresh within my mind.
I spent a summer in Italy. The land of my ancestors, a world apart from my own. Not only did I receive a cultural experience in vein of the grand tour, but also, as the cliché goes, I discovered myself. The catalyst for the trip, was a chance – an opportunity – to study abroad under the masters of Italian and Italian/American diasporic studies. The program was three weeks long, and based in Calabria. When accepting the fellowship, I declared: “this will be my journey.”
I had been to Italy before, but never alone. Now I found myself in a foreign country – for two months – with nothing but my backpack, body, and brain. I landed in Milan with no service and no idea what to do. Thanks to my mother, the cellular dilemma was resolved with haste. But, a new impasse arose because of a mix up with hostels. I almost spent my first night on the streets. But with a bribe of ten Euros, it was possible to secure a bunk for one night, and one night only.
Milan is one of Italy’s great cities. To me, it was a great fiasco. I spent the day in panic, nervously pacing around the Castello, Fanta in hand: “what will I do tomorrow?” Luckily, my family in Italy gave me someone to talk to on WhatsApp. To alleviate the shock, I spent a few hours at a bar fraternizing with the employees, all Puglian – like my great-grandfather. My Italian was poor, and so was their English. But we made due.
When I returned to the hostel, the room was packed with new guests, Spaniards. I may have forgotten Italian, but on that evening, I spoke brilliant Spanish: “Yo tengo estudiado español por dos anños al Universidad.” Just having someone to talk to, in person, put me at ease. At least a few people, that day, thought my Latin tongue was coherent.
I woke the next morning pleading, to no avail, for another night. After the denial, I decided to depart from Milan. I used an app called Hostel Booker, to claim a flat, 3km away from Padua’s city center. Before receiving a reply, I was on my way to Milan’s marvelous station. The only thing I was certain of, was getting the hell out of Milan. I knew Padua had a famous university and is radical. That was enough reason to go.
The flat was a distance from Padua’s center, but the laid back rural nature of it, allowed me to collect my thoughts. Contrary to the hustle and bustle of the Milanese capitalist metropolis. Padua felt like Italy. Sacred architecture and frescos at their most breathtaking capacity were abound. Medieval and renaissance buildings peppered the city scape, and conversation with the locals was a reality. The owner of a small store, a native of Sorrento, gifted me wine when I told her my family hailed from nearby Salerno. I also experienced local prejudices. At a trattoria, in the heart of the city, I asked the waitress if she spoke English. Fresh to Italy, and ashamed of how I sounded, the request felt natural. A suited man bellowed that these straineri always want us to speak their language. So, when the waitress returned, in a confident faux-Roman accent I requested: “un bicchiere di vino.” It sounded perfect! The shame on that man’s face was as loud as his complaints.
I traveled the North and Center extensively; 21 towns and cities. I met strangers, and in some cases travel partners, in parks and on trains. I visited the duomi, torri, and palazzi of many former great capitals. I have forgotten more than I can remember. By coincide, I was in Florence on the anniversary of the Rosselli assassinations, so I dropped off flowers in front of Non Mollare’s former headquarters. Some other memorable moments include: the surreal experience of sitting in a Vicenzian park surrounded by rabbits to the sound of live music, a solitary sweaty climb up Monteriggioni to see the walls, dining with Florentine bohemians in four languages, a thirty minute conversation with Romani on a train ride to Siena, chats with my hosts, visiting Verona with another American, an M5 rally in Bologna, a Michelin meal in Parma, and the mosaics of Ravenna in all their brilliance infused with the reflections of the morning sun.
My chapter, north of Rome, concluded with a rainy-day Florence. My transition started on a long train to Calabria via Naples. I had a two-hour layover in Bay. While there, I helped British adolescents acquire train tickets. To my surprise, they thought I was a native, a first on this trip. I walked outside the train station, and at every corner someone was trying to sell me something. One man was begging for money, so I told him I would buy him a coffee and he could keep the change. I grew accustomed to talking to strangers, so this case seemed no different from the others. He gave me a lighter in thanks.
Calabria was enlightening as my trip up north was exciting. Due to class schedules, and location, traveling was minimal. While there, I forged some personal and professional friendships that may last our individual lives. I also found out, that I was speaking Italian with Spanish rules. This explains why a few people I met along my journey thought I was a Spaniard.
The seminar was illuminating in many ways. I learned about migration patterns and consumed works of art, which were completely new to me, since I spent most of my undergrad and leisure time studying the history of political ideas. The close quarters with so many intelligent individuals helped us all grow (at least I think). In private conversations, with such intellectual companions, you can learn much about yourself.
My experience in the seminar, is better suited for a different work and geared for a different audience. But one question a professor raised, impacted my thoughts greatly: “What do you consider yourself? Italian or American?” Most of us were of Italian or Italian/American background. The majority of the Italian/Americans – even those with mixed ancestries – unlike myself, comfortably claimed to be Italian. After my weeks up north, I felt like a foreigner in foreign land, regardless of how great the trip was. I answered: “I am American.”
The day after the seminar’s completion, I spent four days in Salerno, including day trips to surrounding cities. This was the town where my great-grandmother was raised (she was born in America). While in Campania – I toured the Amalfi coast, explored Naples with friends, and sauntered the halls of Caserta. Equally wonderful places, but nothing compared to the majesty of Salerno, with its lemon trees and gothic aqueducts. I was infatuated with the Commune, its lungomare, and sprawling gardens. While there, I made friends with locals at a street food shop. My picture is on their Facebook page, proudly propping some fried fare decked out in UConn gear. But like all places, my stay was short.
While in Calabria, I booked a house in the town of my great-great grandparents, Faeto in Puglia. I knew no one there, and understood it was risky to spend two nights, since it was in the middle of nowhere. I messaged the town hall, local museum, and town Facebook page – for advice – to no avail. This could have been a disaster.
In typical meridionale fashion, the train going from Naples to Foggia was late. I arrived tardy, but the father of my kind host family waited. His accent was unlike any other. In Faeto, they speak an ancient arpitan dialect. We immediately hit it off because his brother, who lives in America, resides in the same state as me. He invited me to lunch, which I accepted.
As the dry golden Puglian plains transformed to lush juniper colored mountains, I could hardly contain my enthusiasm: “Quello è Celle. Quello è Castelluccio. Sulla montagna più grande è Faeto.” As we transcended up the mountain, the skyline of the town became lucid,. I shed my first tear: “112 year ago my family left this place. I have returned.” In a prodigal fashion, the house was on Vico Cerulli, my surname. Everything was coming together handsomely. At lunch, conversion was difficult. The father spoke Italian with a Faetano accent, and the mother with an Arbëreshë one (the neighboring town is Albanian). But they insisted that I should wait for their son.
The son was a few years older than I, and spoke English at a level comparable to my Italian. We hit it off. We went to the town hall to find my great-great grandparents’ birth certificates, toured the sights of the village, explored the local woods, and meet fellow paesani. A kindness of infinite value, something which I can never repay. I managed perfect conversations with locals, my Italian had improved. He introduced me to some friends. They were sitting around a local bar. To acquaint myself, I bought a round of drinks for the crew. This led into an invitation for a local gathering that night.
As I met more paesani, I was starting to be introduced as: “Steve, un Faetano-Americano,” and that is who I was. My second day there continued my pilgrimage. I made more friends, travelled to nearby sites, and shared a table once more with my host family. At the bar, I putdown some final beers and memories. As I gave my closing farewell, they insisted that I must come back. I promised I would, and we drank to the future. The following morning, as I rode the bus out of town, another tear fell down my cheek.
My last week in Italy was less travel intensive, since I spent most of it with family in Abruzzo. I longed to see the mountains of my Nonie’s native region again. There, I developed close bonds with my mother’s cousin’s family. While out with her daughter, who is close to my age, I demonstrated to her friends how to drink like an American. Perhaps a reclamation of my American identity? But, what was generally different about Abruzzo, is people assumed I was Abruzzese. From the shores of Vasto, to the mountains of L’Aquila, I was not foreign.
As my trip concluded, I spent my last two nights in The Eternal City. My second evening was in the company of another one of my mother’s cousin. I would be the last one, on this side of the Atlantic, in our family, to see him. Like many of the events of this two-month trip, our farewell seemed fated.
The following day, on my ten-hour flight home, I tried starting a memoir. After typing a paragraph, I could not bring myself to continue. I looked back, with tears, how lucky I was to have this journey. It was as existential, as material. At many moments, I experienced the sublime. I saw beauty not only in the objects and places, but in moments I shared with others – strangers – and in solitude. I was assumed to be many things for those two months: a foreigner, American, a stranger, Italian/American, Faetano, Abruzzese, Italian, a friend, a cousin, and Campano. I am all of them.
Stephen J. Cerulli is somewhere in-between New York City and Stamford, CT. He is a multi-generational Italian/American and currently a graduate student at The Graduate Center, CUNY. Maternally he’s Abruzzese. Paternally he is Campano, Laziale, and Faetano. Contact him at: email@example.com