16 July 2010

Kiss Me, I’m Italian

This year I celebrate my birthday with a somewhat altered sense of myself. For one thing, it turns out that the ancestress who claimed to be part Cherokee was not telling the truth, or else somebody misunder­stood her: anyway, I am not in any part Cherokee. This is both a disappointment and a mystification. The Cherokee always struck me as one of the coolest and most romantic of nations, and I’m sorry not to be part of it. Also, I can no longer account for my lack of body hair, previously thought to be hereditary but now somewhat freakish, it must be said.

Birthday Hirsute

Perhaps the more compelling genealogical revelation comes courtesy of my cousin Anita, and as she said, “It explains so much, doesn’t it?” She meant that our shared Italian heritage — of which I had been only dimly aware — explains her almost instinctive urge to study the Italian language when she was in college, and to live in Italy for a time as an adult. She might also have meant my interest in opera, and in the books and art of the Italian Renaissance. Yet I feel sure that being Italian must explain something more than my tastes: I intend to discover what, precisely, that may be.

In 2004, when I saw La Dolce Vita for the first time in many years,
the sheer beauty of this scene made me weep.
Now I know why.

Anita’s maternal grandfather and my maternal grandfather were brothers, who grew up in New Orleans. Many of my grandfather’s prejudices are better left unexplored in a public forum (and would that he had felt a similar need for discretion!), but his concept of what it meant to be Italian can be gleaned from the vignette he used to sketch for me of his boyhood.

My grandfather always loved to go to the opera in New Orleans, he told me. Not for the music itself, but for the spectacle provided by the Italian immigrants in the upper balconies. “When the singing was good, they would shout, ‘Bravissimo, bravissimo,’” he said (mispronouncing the word), “but when the singing was bad, they would throw rotten tomatoes at the singers.”

Like most of his stories, this one needs to be taken with a grain of salt. (Just for starters, wouldn’t the ushers have noticed that people were coming into the auditorium with sacks of rotten produce?) But it does reveal much about my grandfather’s unenlightened attitude toward Italian people, and it surely helps to explain why, when his brother announced the fruits of his genealogical research, my grandfather was horrified.

My uncle, by far the more tactful of the brothers, took note of my grandfather’s reaction, and didn’t want to upset him further. As a result, he didn’t share his subsequent research, which turns out to have been extensive. And since both men died in 1983, I have been left with the understanding that, yes, the family may have passed through Italy at some point — but that on that side, we were mostly French.

The story went that, because we were Huguenots, we fled France to Switzerland, and from there passed through Italy on the way to Louisiana. (Yes, this is the wrong direction, but we believed there were sound, albeit forgotten, reasons for the circuitous itinerary.) Instead, it seems we came out of Milan to Switzerland, and then (possibly) stopped off in France, where we dropped the tell-tale terminal O from the family name.

Because we did wind up in Louisiana, any plausible connection to the French was deemed an asset and energetically advertised; and in my grandfather’s imagination, the presumption took root like a rare, flowering tree.

If he’d had the heart to listen to my uncle, my grandfather might have learned that we are descended from ancient (and rather threadbare) Lombard nobility. My grandfather would’ve liked that, but, so far as I know, he never found out. And neither did I, until Anita told me.

So now that I’m Italian, what do I do next? That is, apart from asking Joyce DiDonato to scout out real estate for me while she’s singing in Milan this month. (I fully intend to press a claim against the Visconti, who kicked us out of power in the 14th century. This ought to be worth a palazzo or two.)

I also intend to do the following:
  • To surround myself with beauty in music and art, and in the human form, even if it costs me certain other comforts.

  • To recognize that language is a musical instrument, and to play it joyously.

  • To be more conscious of the excellence of food and of wine, and to take purer delight therein.

  • To be more passionate about things that matter — and mellower about things that don’t.
And finally,
  • To incorporate the concept of vendetta in my daily life. I’ve never really tried this before, but now — look out, Visconti!
The more generous among you may say that I’ve been working toward some of these goals already. And it’s true that, like my grandfather, I’m subject to received ideas about what it means to be Italian (though I believe that my ideas are received from superior sources).

But so be it. I’ve got time to learn what being Italian really means, and so I shall. It is, after all, my birthright, and, as Anita says, it does explain so much already.


ABC in WFT said...

OMG, there'll be no living with him now!

Janice Hall said...

OMG, we might be related! Don't worry, I'll elaborate on this.