HERE I GO AGAIN

I went to Italy in my twenties. Most of the time I spent in Florence. Since I was close enough to Rome I thought I should see the Pope. John the xxii was blessing people at the time and he blessed me, too. He reminded me of a butcher in the neighborhood I grew up in: chubby-face, jolly, shrewd. In fact the whole of Italy reminded me of my neighborhood. I felt at home. Finally I took the train to the south and by one means or another made my way to the little town my grandparents had come from. A town called Toritto, that happens to rhyme with Crocitto. There I felt like I was back in my house on 81st Street. The Italian the whole town talked was Barese, the dialect spoken in the area around the eastern seaport of Bari, what I heard as a boy and what so filled my ears that it still bubbles though my dreams, both the waking and the sleeping ones. I hear my grandparents and my mother, who spoke it well though she was born here, and my father, also, who had spent some ten years of his childhood there. My first impression when I arrived in the little town was of a woman yelling at her son who had an errand to run and the word of urgency she pushed him with was: "Foosh!!!" (That's a phonetic spelling.) She was telling him to "Run, run, run!!!" I had heard that word throughout my youth. I stayed there two weeks, at the home of my grandfather's brother, Arcangelo. They were farmers and they had olive trees and grapevines and chickens and a mule that lived in the house with them and his stall was next to the kitchen and as he chewed at his food, which he did until I fell into dreamland, the little bell on his neck tinkled. The family, both sides of it, treated me like I was a privileged person, someone precious, someone special. Most Italians did the same when they found out I was an American. When I ran out of money and I could no longer fight off the assaults of homesickness I went back home to Brooklyn.

Now, some fifty years later I'm preparing to go back again. Of course, Italy, my Italia, has changed, like the rest of the world. But I have to go back once more, and to that end I'm brushing up on my Italian. A woman, a native Italian, is teaching a little class and she's teaching the language through songs. Interesting approach. I sound a lot like Andrea Bocelli, believe it or not. So, the class is stirring up a lifetime of memories, of the time I spent in Italy and the time I spent growing up in an Italian section of Brooklyn. And as these weeks have gone by, with the studying and the singing and the contact with this Italian professoressa, I've thought more and more about my background, my roots—my identity, so to speak. And I've come to the  realization that I'm not really an Italian, despite my name and my looks and easy, charming manner. But I'm not an Italian American either. I'm something special, something precious; I'm an American who is Italianate, who has a background and a bloodline from Italy; I'm an American Italian. I'm not merely playing with words. There's something uniquely American that I sense in me, in my approach to life, in my approach to the world. Hard to put one's finger on but it's there. I see it when I am with native Italians. I'm an American first and perhaps foremost. I belong to a new world, a new humanity. I think that's what Walt Whitman, another Brooklynite, was getting at in all his songs and all his singing. Yes, an American Italian.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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