It was 1983, I was 24 and single, and I had gone backpacking in Italy, by myself, for about three months. I made my way from north to south and eventually caught up with cousins I’d never met before, on both sides of my family. Since they were Italians, they were all excited about making a fuss over me, and that meant really great food, including things I haven’t had since, such as a treat my cousin’s wife Carmelina simply called fiori—flowers: yellow-orange zucchini flowers, lightly fried in batter, sweet, with a mild flavor all their own.
Italians, too, have or then had features all their own. I was visiting another cousin, a big foreman for a construction company, with the fanciest house of all. He was a Communist, which for the time and place meant he was a liberal democrat in the mold of Hubert Humphrey. His girth was, well, considerable, as you might gather from the midday meal he served me, because it was his turn to be my host. We started with antipasti, well and good, and then came great bell peppers stuffed with rice, eggs, and cheese, seasoned with capers. They were so good I had three of them, which promptly rested like small cannonballs in my belly. Then pasta, a great dishful, and a salad, and I was letting my belt out a notch, when came, to my astonishment, a steak that filled up my plate. I did my best with it, I really did, but when I said I couldn’t eat any more, his face fell, he accused me of not liking his food, he said that I’d eaten everything at everybody else’s house, and so on.
I did manage to soothe his disappointment, and we went into the parlor to chat. He wanted to talk about politics. He asked me why there was still racism in America. “Why do you treat the blacks so badly?” he asked. “They’re human beings like everyone else!” I agreed entirely, though I tried to defend our recent record in that regard. And then I played a card that took him by surprise. “But what about you Italians?” I asked, mentioning people from Morocco and other places in north Africa. Italians weren’t fond of them.
“Ah, those,” he said. “That’s different.”
I went farther south, to the narrowest part of the “foot,” in the middle of which sits the mountaintop town of Tiriolo, where my mother’s people came from. My cousin Anita was going to make me some pasta with a pesto sauce, and that required pine nuts. So her husband fetched them. He retrieved a ladder, set it against one of the trees that lined the town sidewalk across the street, climbed up and gathered them, just like that. One day she needed oregano, so she sent me and a couple of my younger cousins to get some. We were walking in the direction of the small grocery store, but we didn’t go in. Instead, we went round to the vacant lot behind the store, and gathered up some oregano growing as weeds right there. Why buy what you can pluck friendly weeds?
The families all did a little bit of farming on their own. Each had a vertical strip going down the mountain, carved into terraces, so that they could collect the rainwater in cisterns at the top, and use systems of furrows to water all the land below. Of course, that means you had to carry the vegetables and fruit up the mountain, and I was delighted to see Italian grandmothers, with ample hips and no nonsense about them, carrying heaped-up baskets on their heads, sometimes balancing them with a free hand, but mostly not, as they marched uphill straight as ramrods, chatting to each other as they did so.
So much of the fun of going to Italy—and the human learning of it, too—was in meeting Italians, and in their being different from me, and distinctly themselves. I was once in a restaurant in Assisi, pretty early in the evening, so the place was empty except for me at one table and a young guy at another. He called over. “Hey, why are we sitting here by ourselves like idiots? Come on over here and we’ll have our dinner together and talk.”
So I did. He was a salesman from Florence, quite proud of his city and his heritage. “I know we’re supposed to call ourselves Italian,” he said to me, “but I am a Florentine first. That’s the case everywhere in Italy. The people here are Assisiati, and I’m a Florentine, and that’s right.”
I thought he was onto something important there, though I could never say I felt like that about my own hometown, a small borough in Pennsylvania. “Let me ask you a question,” I said, thinking about America and national unity. “You Florentines hate the Sienese. Why is that?”
“Why is that?” he laughed a hearty laugh. “Because we’re Florentines! Of course we hate the Sienese, and the Sienese hate us, and both of us hate the Pisans!”
That was almost 40 years ago now, and the last time I was in Italy, in 1998, I’d already missed the street musicians I’d listened to all up and down the country, and there were fewer children about, even though the older Italians would shower my young ones with presents and sweets. If you told me that Italy had become indistinguishable from Spain, France, Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, I would weep. I loathe the whole idea of global—whatever; government, courts, schools, mass entertainment, customs regarding marriage and family life; I loathe it as I loathe anything else monstrous and inhuman.
But you can’t have an Italian Italy without Italians themselves, Italians by birth, customs, heritage, memory, culture, and, yes, the religious faith that is the beating heart of culture. Some of my cousins lived in a stone row-house that was old before there ever was an America. Others worshiped in a village church that was already older than America is now when Columbus sailed the ocean blue. The old pagan Roman names are still alive in them: Fabio, Mario, Claudio, Marco. It should be that way.
Italians from the downtrodden south emigrated all over the world; I often spoke to people who had cousins in America, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, England, and Australia. And without emigration from Italy and immigration into the United States, I would not be writing these words now. Yet it would still be a dreadful shame if Italy were to be reduced to a political unit, a geographical area, an agglomeration of human beings with little in common. I want Italy to be Italian, as I want Japan to be Japanese, and Mexico to be Mexican, and Sweden to be Swedish, even if the Swedes themselves often appear to be passionately committed to their own cultural obliteration.
The lesson applies to the United States also. I am glad to be American, though I am not happy to see what America is becoming. What delights me in America has little to do with government, and much to do with her songs, now largely forgotten, her heroes, now largely traduced, her folkways, now under sufferance, and her religious soul, now leveled and sanded and veneered with secularism, the death of culture.
Reasonable citizens should be able to discuss what it means to honor and to preserve our culture, and what that has to do with the whole issue of immigration. Good answers will be pragmatic, not ideological, taking account of what human beings really are, and not what our fevered dreams imagine they might become. But since we are not reasonable, we will not have the discussion.
Here’s to you, then, Italy—that is, if Italy is what you still are.