Mambo New York-Italiano

Il_sorpasso.jpgSo I misspoke. More travelogues and adventures will come after this, notwithstanding the above shot of the 1962 cult movie Il Sorpasso (courtesy of Wikipedia italiano; this is in the public domain). For the uninitiated, it’s a buddy/road trip movie that evokes a lost world, when Italy was La Dolce Vita and enjoying the economic miracolo.

A former editor after reading the earlier entries here told me, basically, “dig deeper.” Why do I even bother, why should anyone care about why I’m writing about living in our alternative universe?

I ask myself this a lot. I was born in New York; I carry a U.S. passport. My parents wanted me and my siblings to be American kids, and unlike the case with some of my cousins, they didn’t speak Italian to us.

But I have to. Being here and there speaks to a part of my personality that I can’t control. Growing up as an Italian kid on an immigrant block in New York City, and then going out into the non-immigrant world was bound to have an effect on me and people like me. Trust me, I’ve talked to other kids of immigrants about this; it’s a common obsession.

As if falling between two stools feeling weren’t enough, being a kid in the 1960s and ’70s was a good way to become ambivalent about almost everything anyway. If you’re of a certain bent, you had license to cast aside every tradition, every way of doing things, just because you could. In my case, it helped that I had tolerant, sometimes puzzled parents who just let a strange kid be himself. I had incredible freedom to pick and choose what I wanted to believe. Or not.

So it was like a checklist. Church? No. Food? Mostly Sicilian, but I loved peanut butter and Twinkies. Ethnic traditions? Here’s where it gets complicated.

My parents were both Sicilians, to different degrees, and there was a sort of class war going on in our house. My mother, born on the Lower East Side, was the daughter of tenant farmers who came during and after World War I. My father is a more recent immigrant, from 1955. He’s a city kid, raised in Palermo, and from a middle-class family. We even had two non-English languages going on, the Italian of my father’s side, and Sicilian on the maternal side. We were Italian-American on one side, and Italian-Italian on the other, and that seemed so exotic. Think of ’60s Italian movies like Il Sorpasso (the screenshot up at the top, with a very young Jean-Louis Trintignant and Vittorio Gassman) and you’ll get the idea.

Scan 18Scan

Left, my mother’s family getting together in East New York in Brooklyn. The little baby in the middle is me, and that’s Angie, my mom. On the right, my dad with my Aunt Kitty and my mother, Piazza della Rebubblica in Rome, in 1955.

Identity politics was creeping somewhere in here. To combat the stereotypes of Mafia dons, pizza makers and grandmas stirring spaghetti sauce for hours, magazines started to pop up with the aim of making being Italian something to be proud of. One was a glossy affair called Attenzione (“Attention”) and featured travel stories, profiles of people like Luciano Pavarotti, the onetime patron saint of PBS fundraising drives.

My trips as a teenager to Italy—mostly in Sicily, in and around Palermo—made me feel good about myself, at least culturally. I loved being there, all the pleasures that a teenage boy can enjoy under fairly close adult supervision. (My cousin Giorgio and I would wander around Palermo and when we got back our grandfather gave us a pretty good summary of our route. He had spies.) I didn’t have to run away from my heritage, like a lot of people of my mother’s generation did.

But I didn’t have to take it all if I didn’t want to. As a kid growing up and coming of age in New York in the 1970s, I realized that I could just take what I wanted from the Italian bit, and the American bit. A lot of writers talk about conflict and confusion; what I felt was a liberation. I could be a hippie/punk/whatever in one way, and enjoy what I wanted from my family background. I could learn to cook and play guitar. David Bowie and caponata, coexisting in my psyche, no problem.The one problem, and this is pretty common among us dual-identity types, is that sometimes you’re not entirely occupying either identity. It’s a virtue, if you’re a journalist, or, maybe, a spy. But I can see how some people mind find it unnerving.

And so that brings us—or at least me, my wife and kids—to Perugia now and the Umbrian countryside soon. The region and city are definitely Italian, but there’s an efficiency and civic spirit that is lacking in some other places. Part of it is history; we’re talking about an insular region of under a million. There never was any mass migration to the U.S. or Canada from Umbria. Most people stayed.

I think I’ve set the stage pretty well. Kathy (a/k/a The Spartan Woman) and I leave in a couple of weeks to check out the new place, armed with tape measures and a credit card for furniture. Somehow we’ve got to get the utilities hooked up in our name and get an all-important Internet connection. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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