My Two Italies

Joseph Luzzi

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Introduction: The Witch of Naples

"You killed him! You killed him!"

"Giusè, aspetta," my mother called as I fled the kitchen in tears, accusing her and my father of murder on the holiest Catholic day of the year. Easter Sunday had started with such promise. That morning, the house had been filled with the smell of frittata, a sausage, egg, and cheese casserole that left rose-colored oil slicks on your plate. I mopped them up with u panu di Pasqua, the Calabrian Easter bread made from two hard-boiled eggs baked into a figure-eight-shaped dough that was flavored with anise.

As the flavors were blending, I had awaited the arrival of my favorite relative, Cumara Amandina. The mere mention of my godmother’s name could halt card games between my father and his expat circle. She had earned the most glorious title any Calabrian woman could hope for: fimminella, "little woman." She who cooks, cleans, bears children, nurses grudges, would sooner self-flagellate than commit adultery, and doesn’t put on too much weight with the passing of years. (As opposed to the non-fimminelle, huge women who roamed Little Italy like mastodons in black dresses.)

The gift of beauty didn’t end with Amandina. She had three girls, and the youngest, Giuliana, had earned that other honor reserved for the Calabrian female elite: she looked German. My people revered those few fair-haired creatures with blue eyes and light skin, women with none of the facial hair that afflicted so many of my darker relations. I was one of these black-haired and brown-eyed creatures myself, but I too had something that set me apart—something suspiciously ’merican that seeped out of my adventure books and striped rugby shirts. Giuliana and I seemed destined for each other from childhood. Had we met ten years earlier and thousands of miles away in a southern Italian village, we would have been the occasion for an exchange of livestock and toasts to healthy male children. As it was, she and I just stammered around each other, too paralyzed by old-world expectations to have anything close to a normal conversation.

Amandina arrived, and with a living, breathing present: my very own Easter rabbit. All during childhood I burned with envy as I watched other children care for their pet cats, hamsters, even parrots and lizards. Though our yard teemed with winged and hoofed animals of all kinds, our home was off-limits to the nonhuman. "I case sunu per gente e i animale per mangiare" ("Houses are for people and animals are for eating"), my parents would say. Anything with four legs was banished from the house. Especially dogs, the animals I yearned for more than any other. I often saw my parents carrying a decapitated chicken or a bucket filled with crows shot from a downstairs window—Pasquale and Yolanda Luzzi were hardly the ideal stewards for man’s best friend. The one dog we had, Sam, was kept in an escape-proof dog house sealed with wire mesh. Sam was no fool: he ran away a few months after arriving. Maybe he saw my father whaling away on our poor goat, as was his habit, and realized he would be much better off with a real American family.

I took the rabbit in my arms. Circumstances had kept me from becoming an "animal person," but this guy, with his white fur and gentle eyes—a present from my favorite relative to boot—was different, just like Cumara Amandina, who was much more delicate than the bruiser Calabrian matrons who poured into our home on Sundays. I would cherish him, I swore to myself. I’d make sure that the creature enjoyed a different fate from Sam’s. My mother and father smiled, Amandina gushed, and the bunny went back in his box.

That afternoon I imagined that the rabbit was resting while I played outside. In truth, he was about to face an ordeal that would have shocked even battle-scarred Sam. Apparently my mother and father weren’t just admiring the rabbit’s dreamy eyes; they were sizing up his haunches. I don’t know what it took—my mother’s usual two brisk whacks with a stick to the back of the skull or my father’s preferred twist of the neck in his thick fingers— but by five p.m. my pet had become an entrée. I came into the kitchen to find him splayed out, his glycerine blue eyes lifeless and coated in oil, over a bed of roasted potatoes.

It took my mom an hour to calm me as she explained that she and my father hadn’t tricked me. They had planned it all along and just assumed that I knew what was coming. She spoke with a smile. That was the worst of it: to her, destroying my pet was no different from weeding the garden.

I followed my mother to the kitchen table, slunk back into my abandoned seat, and, tears spilling onto my napkin, ate my pet rabbit.

* * *

When I went to sleep that night with a belly full of my godmother’s gift, I knew I had done something not necessarily wrong, but certainly strange: eating a pet bunny may have been acceptable in Acri, the Calabrian hill town where my family had lived before emigrating, but not in the suburban Rhode Island town where I grew up. I had to admit, the rabbit was delicious. But what if my friends found out? It wasn’t just the slaughter that troubled me. It was the feeling that everything I was learning in school, seeing on television, and picking up from my friends was pulling me away from my family’s world.

Around this time I was named to the Little League all-star team, a group of local boys who represented our town in a nationwide baseball tournament. After our third straight win, I came home bursting with joy: my cousin had pitched a no-hitter to advance us deep into the state play-offs. My eyes adjusted to the change in light as I entered my father’s lair: the refurbished basement where he held court, seated at the head of the dinner table in near darkness to reduce the electricity bill.

"Papà, abbiamo vinto, abbiamo vinto!" ("We won, we won!") I exclaimed.

He fixed me with a shark’s stare and spoke in Calabrian.

"I heard you made a fool out of yourself. And the whole town was watching."

I buried my face in my glove and ran from the room. It was not enough that I had been chosen for the team, nor that we had won. I batted .556 and fielded a flawless third base during that play-off run. But for my father all that mattered was that one fateful at bat, when I waved at a pitch nearly over my head, my hands squeezing the bat so hard that they creased the grip. A home run in front of the town’s faithful would have brought me the approval that was missing in our split-level on Batterson Avenue. He was right: I had strode into the path of the stitched leather ball, swung from the heels, and—like all those who daydream in front of fastballs—struck out.

I didn’t realize this at the time, but my father was swinging at wild pitches of his own—and gripping the bat just as tightly as I was—as he struggled to hang on to his diminished Calabrian world.

* * *

On November 21, 1956, eleven years before I was born, Pasquale Luzzi and his four children cleared customs at JFK and joined his wife, Yolanda, in the United States. They were emigrating from the poor region of Calabria in southern Italy.

My maternal grandfather, Carmine Crocco, had worked in the United States from 1909 to 1923 as an itinerant gravedigger, mostly in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, before moving back to his Italian village. He had won citizenship because of his U.S. military service in World War I, so my mother earned the right to bring her family to the United States, where—thanks to my father’s lifetime of factory work—we joined the middle class.

By the time I feasted on my Easter rabbit, we owned our own home, a squat three-bedroom that somehow slept eight. In true Italian American style, we lived mostly downstairs, a cavern coated with cooking grease—and the seat of my father’s royal authority—while the upstairs furniture was kept protected from the human stain. Eventually I would attend an expensive private university (thanks to scholarships and financial aid) and wind up on a career path smoother than any child of Calabria could ever have hoped for. But first I had to escape the Italian south.

My parents described their region as a land with a blistering sun and an arid terrain, a ferocious ’Ndrangheta (the local Mafia), and an untranslatable worldview called la miseria, "the misery"—a pervasive belief born of poverty that things will go worse than you expect them to and that fate is not your friend. For my parents, la miseria meant stillborn babies, barefoot children, and no meat on the Sunday table. In their world, only the leather-tough and the single-minded (the teste dure, "hard heads")—blunt, tanklike men like my father and his four brothers— endured. Even today, when Calabrian immigrants speak of the future, they will often add the subjunctive disclaimer "Si Dio vo’ " ("Should God will it"). The Calabrian God was one to fear, not to love, and the region he lorded over was no place for Grand Tourists seeking intimate encounters with Botticelli in the Uffizi. It was the quarry for men like the robust Norman Douglas and his Old Calabria (1915), a pioneering work in extreme travel writing:

 

"This corner of Magna Graecia is a severely parsimonious manifestation of nature. Rocks and waters! But these rocks and waters are actualities; the stuff whereof man is made. A landscape so luminous, so resolutely scornful of accessories, hints at brave and simple forms of expression; it brings us to the ground, where we belong; it medicines to the disease of introspection and stimulates a capacity which we are in danger of unlearning amid our morbid hyperborean gloom—the capacity for honest contempt: contempt of that scarecrow of a theory which would have us neglect what is earthly, tangible."

 

This raw genealogy at once repelled and seduced me. I longed to cure the disease of introspection—maybe Calabria would make a man of me. So in the 1990s, while many of my friends pursued lucrative careers on the new dot.com frontier, I entered graduate school to study Italian literature: a gut decision in a life marked, then and since, by hedged bets. I hadn’t pursued the subject as an undergraduate; a vague attraction to Dante’s poetry was my only link to the field. And let’s just say my college transcript didn’t inspire visions of an endowed chair at a leafy New England university. When I asked one of my professors for a letter of recommendation, he told me I was a likable-enough kid, but really . . .

But even in those first fitful steps toward Italy, I felt pulled by something more instinctual than academic clout or a career calling. I wanted access to my family’s history. Yes, they had abandoned Italy for good, but a part of them remained fixed in that blasted Calabrian landscape. Their broken English, canned tomatoes and slaughtered pigs, home-made wine and cured meats—it all reeked of the Old Country. Especially the tripe. Some days I would come home from school and burst into the house for an afternoon snack, hoping for a buttered slab of my mom’s freshly baked bread, only to have my hunger stifled by the odor wafting up from a downstairs pot. These were the days my mother boiled cow stomach, the blanched organ that revealed just how different—less refined, less American—we were from our neighbors, with their vacuumed Pontiac Bonnevilles and pine-scented air fresheners.

A career in the language and culture of my family would immerse me in the mystery of their lost Italian world, which sometimes felt like a birthright, more often a pipe dream. Around 1304, Dante compared the nonexistent Italian language—at the time, Italy comprised various city-states and their local dialects—to a scent that filled the air but whose source could never be found. Italian culture was like that to me. I sensed it all around—in the mildewed winepress and hanging prosciutto shanks of our cellar, in the oily redness of my mother’s sauces and the leathery texture of her cured goat cheese—but it was somehow remote from the "real" Italy, with its Renaissance palaces, handmade leather goods, and covered jewelry stalls on the Ponte Vecchio. My Ph.D. in Italian would be the passport to a cultural homeland that class, history, and society had all conspired to deny me and my family.

When I finally made it to Italy for the first time, as a college student in 1987, it was Florence and not Calabria that beckoned. I yearned for the Italy of Dante and Michelangelo, not the one of sharp cheese and salted anchovies. As soon as I arrived, I felt the weight of the past in the crooked cobblestone streets and the sidewalks that barely held off the Vespas straddled by women in chestnut lipstick and leather miniskirts. Each day, I left my apartment near the bombastic arch of Piazza della Libertà to walk down Via Cavour, the nineteenth-century boulevard that connects the city’s modern and medieval neighborhoods. My route to school skirted the market of San Lorenzo, where stalls of fruit, bread, meat, clothing, and wine have been lining up like dominoes since the late 1800s. From there it was a short stroll east to the Duomo, begun in 1298 by Arnolfo da Cambio and completed by Filippo Brunelleschi in 1436. From this cobblestone womb of the city I would head west along the Corso and into the Piazza della Repubblica, the original site of the city, where the Romans—according to legend, Julius Caesar himself—established a military camp in the first century B.C. Once I had my espresso from the ornate Caffè Gilli, founded in 1733, I circled back east, south of the Duomo and into Santa Croce, the site of the basilica that houses the remains of the nation’s founding fathers. There I would stand before the statue of Dante, nineteen feet high and keeping angry vigil over the stones of Santa Croce.

As seduced as I was by Florence, I still longed to understand the Italy of my parents. So on a cold and rainy November day of my first semester abroad, I boarded the train for Calabria. I felt like I was in Europe until we reached Naples. Then the journey slogged from one local stop to the next on antiquated lines and obsolete regional trains packed with southern Italian families laden with salami. When I finally arrived hours later in Cosenza, my parents’ home province, I felt that I had lurched a century backward into a struggling nation, far from the smiling angels of Fra Angelico and the muscular women of Michelangelo. My blood is 100 percent Calabrian; I looked a lot like the young men milling about the station and piazzas. But the good people of Cosenza regarded me as if I had alighted from a spaceship. Like twins shipped off to different homes at birth, our bodies declared a common biology, but our bearing, gestures, and clothes suggested otherwise. This was my first journey south, but I would discover the Italy of my parents only much later.

* * *

"Sleep . . . is what Sicilians want, and they will always hate anyone who tries to wake them."

In 2003, as my Intercity train from Florence pulled into Napoli Centrale, I recalled these words from The Leopard, Lampedusa’s great novel about the fall of the Italian aristocracy on the eve of national unification in 1861. We southern Italians, remarks Prince Salina, alias the Leopard, wish for nothing more than a "voluptuous immobility," free from the demands of history and innocent of the crimes committed in the name of progress.

Naples, the seat of the Bourbon dynasty that ruled the Leopard’s Sicily, had been the capital of southern Italy since the Middle Ages. But after unification the city underwent a long decline. Millions of its children immigrated to Australia and the Americas, northern factories exploited its natural resources, and the organized crime movement—the Camorra—consolidated its local tyranny. In the early 1990s, however, Naples had emerged as a major European cultural center, especially in avant-garde and politically engaged film. Led by the dynamic mayor Antonio Bassolino from 1993 to 2000, the new Naples supposedly stood at the vanguard of a southern Italian renaissance. Teaching that summer in Florence, I had decided to travel south to witness the revival firsthand.

At least that’s what I told people. In truth, I had come to see the capital city of my parents’ homeland—the Mezzogiorno, "Land of the Midday Sun," the nickname given to the Italian south because of its geographical location and, more figuratively, its relentless heat. For two decades I had been spending nearly all my time in Italy in Florence. I had even stopped visiting Calabria because I was tired of the suspicious looks that the locals gave me, of having to wash myself each morning in my uncle Giorgio’s detached bathroom with its trickle of icy water. I was now a professor of Italian and a published scholar in that high culture that had been so remote from my childhood world of boiled tripe and aunts swathed in black. My parents’ Italy was no longer my Italy, I told myself. But still, I owed it to them to see the heart of their southern Italian patria.

"See Naples and then die," the expression goes, and as my train made its way toward the Bay of Naples, I couldn’t imagine an urban space more favored by nature. The hills along the shore spread into the city proper. The arches and columns that punctuate the metropolis recall the city’s ancient Roman settlers, one of the few peoples from the Italian peninsula to rule Naples. The gentle symmetries and proportions of Italy’s other cities pale in comparison with this awesome port of entry.

"Here you’ll find the best and the worst," the Neapolitan lawyer seated beside me said. "Siamo in un’altra Italia."

Another Italy, indeed. I arrived to find pickpockets swarming the train doors, on the lookout for the markings of foreign prey: white sneakers and university logos, grinning American midwesterners in pressed chinos. In the sulfurous July air, the chaos of trams, taxis, kiosks, and buses made crossing the Piazza Garibaldi a sweaty ordeal. All the while I held my hand over my wallet.

My hotel room was accessible only by a dingy elevator in a courtyard that doubled as a loading zone. Though I’d been promised a room with amenities, construction delays would force me to use the communal bathroom in the hall. The receptionist deflected my protests by pointing to a caving plaster roof above him and lamenting, "Nella camera con bagno, è ancora peggio." I accepted his word that my original room was in worse shape than the mutilated reception area, picked up my keys, and headed in for a nap. To my amazement, the terrace of my room looked out onto the Bay of Naples and the looming Castel dell’Ovo fortress along the shore. For forty dollars a night, I had a room with a glorious view—but no toilet.

I spent the next few days sleepwalking. Each morning at around four a.m. a troop of Spaniards in town for a wedding dragged Naples’s disco culture into the adjacent room and danced and sang until dawn. I complained to the receptionist, but he could only throw up his arms and provide a Neapolitan brand of reassurance: "Eh, le regole purtroppo s’infrangono" ("Well, the rules unfortunately get broken"). Neapolitans, I learned, often speak in the impersonal voice, symbolic of the powerlessness they feel in the face of fate.

But the sights. Whether the endless corridors of Renaissance painting in the Capodimonte Palace, the mummies and Greco-Roman statuary of the Archaeological Museum, or the delicately sculpted Veiled Christ and preserved human anatomical experiments ("the skeletons") in the baroque Sansevero Chapel, Naples offers cultural treasures that few cities can rival. A ghostly quality permeates these marvels. Since the city lies off the Rome-Florence-Venice tourist path, I often found myself alone in a room filled with priceless art. In the Sansevero, I was one of only three to admire Sammartino’s Veiled Christ; the security guards, ticket vendors, and other museum employees outnumbered us by a wide margin. The quiet disturbed me. Foreign rulers, especially the Spaniards, had hoarded the treasures of Naples in their palaces and temples for centuries. No Neapolitan ruler, Italian or foreign, had ever intended his trove for the people. One could say as much about most rulers and most collections, but in Naples, whose small middle class and teeming millions will probably never set foot in a Sansevero Chapel, there isn’t even the pretense of art being for the masses.

Nearby Pompeii left me cold. I had already taken the trip in my mind a hundred times. I had imagined temples of Venus at sunset and ancient lovers wrapped in each other’s arms, their passion eternally fixed in lava. I found instead droves of backpacking Germans, loud American student groups, and even louder Neapolitan tour guides, as well as a cafeteria specializing in french fries and fluorescent ices. Amid the dust and jostling of Pompeii’s queues, I became nostalgic for the large, lonely rooms in the Capodimonte and the Museo Archeologico, however undemocratic.

After my visit to Pompeii I wandered around the center of Naples at dusk in search of a snack and film for my camera. The human density, which one has to see and smell to believe, choked the city’s thoroughfares. Children rode past three to a seat on Vespas, and the tiny white Fiats appeared to be stacked one upon the other on the slender sidewalks. I found my film and a sfogliatella, the city’s heavenly filo-dough ricotta pastry, then sat for a moment in the Piazza Dante. Into my ears wafted sentimental Italian folk music that, in my fatigue, brought me back to the plaintive accordions and fidgety tambourines of a Calabrian wedding. An attractive dark girl with teased eyelashes smoked on the bench beside me. Like many other women in town, she wore a touch too much makeup, colors too bold and poorly matched to boot. Around me swelled the passeggiata, the Italian ritual in which an entire town or city takes to the streets for an after-dinner stroll. In Naples, though, the casual conversation and gelato consumption of the north changes to boys with slicked hair swaggering past chaperoned young ladies, and old women in jewels led along by trim signori in black jackets. I had seen and heard it all before, in old family photographs, in the Godfather films, in that stack of cracked 45s my mother and father brought with them from Calabria. My mother would clean house to this music of her childhood, her body so enthralled by songs of festival days and forbidden love that the vacuum cleaner danced in her arms.

Here is my first homeland, I thought, my Italian America!

It all came back: the smells of my mother’s kitchen, the icy stare of my father and its hint of possible violence, the stocky uncles in short sleeves and their callused hands, the shapeless aunts, the bazaar of my Calabrian childhood turned up at full volume in the Piazza Dante. My parents and their fellow immigrants would translate the world of downtown Naples into the discos, pizzerias, and social clubs of such places as Providence, Brooklyn, Buenos Aires, Sydney, and Toronto, but the seed of these diasporas, the point of origin to which no southern Italian son or daughter could ever return after having left it, was heartbreaking, impossible Naples. "Napoli," cries a character in Pasolini’s film The Decameron, "only those who lose you can love you!"

The night I discovered the urban soul of Italian America, a toothless woman who had pitched camp in one of the city’s traffic circles accosted me. I had noticed her the day I arrived and was astonished by the care she put into tidying up her asphalt enclave, a bunker of old clothes, ripped boxes, and discarded metal. My stay in Naples seemed to revolve around her: I passed by her junk-strewn roundabout each time I left the hotel or returned to my room from a meal or sightseeing. Walking by her after leaving the Piazza Dante, I looked back—just like Orpheus, when I wasn’t supposed to—and caught her eye. A shock pulsed through me. Half in a trance, I took a moment to realize that she had sprung up from her filthy mound and was heading toward me, swearing at full pitch in a dialect that I thankfully could not understand. She was laughing, so I knew right away that she was not a good witch. I easily outdistanced her, but I can still picture her craggy, toothless smile. Ti acchiappo, figlio mio. I’ll get you, my boy, her dead eyes say, just come back to Naples, and I’ll get you.

That night, the Spaniards continued their revelry. I was sleep deprived and desperate to return to staid, graceful Florence. The witch would never catch me, for I’d been running from Naples my whole life. Though I was close to my Calabrian relatives as a boy, as I progressed through junior high and high school, I had little contact with the thirty-odd first cousins with whom I shared a last name. Consciously or not, the sports I played, the schools I attended, and the career I chose marked a distance between Calabria and me that was as lengthy as the Appenine spine separating Naples and Florence. Staid, graceful Florence. A city of the Renaissance, of Dante and Michelangelo, of unsalted bread and black cabbage soup. This was the Italy I had chosen, though I had inherited one of a very different shape, smell, and taste. Perhaps I deceived myself in thinking that I could ever outrun my southern Italian heritage. Maybe, in the end, all that separated me from the Mezzogiorno was a few advanced degrees and the desire to tell my story to strangers.

 

The next day, I arrived at the train station for the return trip to Florence, but officials casually informed me that a national rail strike, the dreaded sciopero, had taken effect. I’m leaving the city, I thought, no matter what. By then, seven o’clock in the evening, the bus services and travel agencies had closed. Frantic, I found a car rental agency run by a man named Carmine. He was locking up for the day; after hearing my story, he put down his keys. Within a half hour he had provided me with a sturdy Fiat, directions to Florence, brochures of his favorite hotel in Capri, and a compact disc with Neapolitan folk music. I must return to Naples, he insisted. I told him I was not sure that I would. He nodded his head in understanding.

Here you find the best and the worst, he said, echoing the words that the lawyer had told me upon my entrance to the city. "È un’altra Italia."

By nightfall, the highway had funneled me out of that other Italy and onto the long road north.

* * *

In 1818 the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote:

"There are two Italies—one composed of the green earth and transparent sea, and the mighty ruins of ancient time, and aërial mountains, and the warm and radiant atmosphere which is interfused through all things. The other consists of the Italians of the present day, their works and ways. The one is the most sublime and lovely contemplation that can be conceived by the imagination of man; the other is the most degraded, disgusting, and odious."

Shelley was scandalized by the contrast between Italy’s fabled history—which had inspired him to leave England and spend the last years of his life as an Italian exile—and its everyday miseries and corruptions. Echoes of Shelley’s "two Italies" thesis abound, including the recent book Good Italy, Bad Italy by Bill Emmott, a former editor of The Economist who distinguishes between la Mala Italia ("selfish, closed, unmeritocratic, often criminal") and la Buona Italia ("open, community-minded, and progressive").

I carried my own two Italies inside: the southern Italian immigrant world of my childhood and the northern Italian cultural realm I devoted my adult life to. In the classic story about the founding of Italy, Virgil’s Aeneid, the hero Aeneas greets the ghost of his father, Anchises, in the Underworld. His father stretches out his hands and cries: "You’ve come at last? Has the love your father hoped for / mastered the hardship of the journey?" That word hardship recalls for me the prodigious labor that immigration would exact from my father, whose sacrifices resulted in no epic poem and who left no empire in his wake.

One night, around the time I entered graduate school to study Italian, he awoke and rose from bed to use the bathroom. He was once fiercely strong, shorter than most but built like the proverbial brick shit house. Now, years after a massive stroke, his left arm hung limp against his body; his barely functioning left leg, withered to a chicken shank, left a gap between his skin and his underwear; and his testicles drooped in the sagging cotton as he dragged himself down the hallway. His factory had recently honored him with a plaque that now hung on his bedroom wall. Twenty-five years of service. That quarter century had meant waking up at three thirty a.m. to start work at five (his shift began at seven, but he arrived early to log overtime). He spent the next ten hours powering a lathe in the din—and then, weather permitting, a few hours more landscaping at a second job.

After relieving himself, my father limped back to bed beneath the plaque. This new world, which had given me so much, had taken everything from him. He had acted of his own free will. But the journey north from the Mezzogiorno had broken him in body, in spirit, and in soul.

Or so I thought. When I became a parent myself, I understood that his story was not only about self-denial. It may not have seemed like much to me, but to him that plaque symbolized a lifetime of honest labor that had brought tangible rewards: money in the bank, a house and car of his own, schools and jobs for his kids, even a few acres of investment property. In Calabria, these things were unimaginable for my father, one of eight children raised on dirt floors.

My daughter, Isabel, was born in 2007, four years after my return from Naples and a full half century after my parents abandoned Norman Douglas’s gloomy corner of Magna Graecia. Commentators used to agonize over whether to hyphenate Italian American or leave the words untethered. Should the two ethnic identities be left separate to signal their cultural uniqueness, or be brought together in a symbolic union? My mother and father, for their part, didn’t think of themselves as Italian or American, let alone the fusion of these terms. They were calabresi. For them, the "Italian-American" hyphen, like America itself, was a bloodless abstraction. I also had little time for the hyphen. I was Italian and American—a little of each, yet not fully either. And definitely not their seamless hybrid. It is left to my daughter’s generation to inhabit the hyphen.

With each passing year, with each Calabrian relative that dies, with each Calabrian turn of phrase that is forgotten, the land of my parents fades from memory. At night I read to Isabel in hopes that she will learn to love stories and appreciate language, in the way that books helped me make sense of a country that was foreign to my own family. Stories will be all that binds her to Calabria. She will never be chased by a Witch of Naples, never come to dinner to find a slaughtered pet served over a bed of potatoes. I used to think of my two Italies as a burden, an ethnic cross I had to bear as I struggled to make my mark in the new world that my parents had brought me to. I was right: it was a struggle, one that I might have been happier without. But it was also the gift that brought me inside the disappearing world of my parents and millions of other Italian exiles—a distant land that my daughter may only ever know in translation.

Copyright © 2014 by Joseph Luzzi