That’s the phrase that came into my mind as I boarded Iberia flight 6252 for Madrid last week. It was the start of a journey to Umbria in Central Italy, where I’ll register as a full-time resident. In doing so, I’m moving in the opposite direction of Carlo Ancona, my maternal grandfather, who tried to escape a second stint as a conscript in the Italian army during the incredibly stupid European conflict that we call World War I. (He failed and was drafted to fight in the trenches in the U.S. Army.) I’m also reversing the direction his wife, my grandmother Rosa traveled a few years after Carlo, sailing to New York in steerage with two young children. And finally, I’m canceling out what my father did in 1955, the year before my birth, sailing from Palermo, Sicily, to New York to join his bride, my mom Angelina Ancona.
All of them fled economic bad times. My mother’s parents were tenant farmers leaving the crushing poverty of the seacoast and agrarian town of Castellammare del Golfo, in northwest Sicily. “They ate pane e cipudda, bread and onions,” my mom would tell me. My father, from a middle class family in the big city, wasn’t starving. But when he left the Italian army, there was precious little opportunity for a restless young man in mid-’50s Palermo, the island’s largest city and capital.
What am I fleeing? Eh, nothing that affects me personally except, perhaps, boredom and endless HGTV programs like Love It or List It. I was involuntarily retired by Covid, when a lot of work I did dried up. A few years ago I did have a day job as a working journalist. I loved the job until it was turned into a soul-crushing exercise in scaring up website clicks by a bunch of Catalan consultants and dull-witted corporate executives.
I’m not alone in doing this reverse migration. Some 20 to 30 percent of the millions who left Italy during the great migration of the late 19th and early 20th centuries returned permanently to their homeland. In my own family, my grandparents and one of my aunts lived in the U.S. for a few years and then decided to return.
So here I am. I’m sitting on the patio of our house looking down into the valley of the Chiascio River, a tributary of the Tiber that runs to and through Rome 192 kilometers (about 120 miles) away. It’s a breezy sunny day, coming after a few days of leaden clouds and periodic cloudbursts. To call it pleasant would be, as the cliché goes, damning it with faint praise. We walked up and down our road earlier, getting reacquainted with the human and canine neighbors. Last night, we along with what felt like dozens of fellow Umbrians, ate gelato at a popular place a few towns away, signaling the start of a lazy Italian summer.
That’s literally and figuratively the sweet part. The bitter? Leaving my babies. Okay, they’re adults now, but I like to think that even though they’ve grown into terrific young women, they’re still my babies. And my older daughter gave birth to (this is grandpa saying this) The Most Beautiful Baby in the World. I’ll miss them terribly, even though it’s exponentially easier to stay in touch these days. Back when, my father and then later I kept in touch with overseas loved ones with postcards, letters, and the rare long distance (!) phone call. Even the baby responds to the screen when I use FaceTime to videochat with the fam.
And the in-between? Leaving the city where I was born, raised, educated, had a career, and raised a family. Either purposely or by accident, The Spartan Woman and I avoided what a lot of educated class Americans do. We didn’t let internships and college take us away from our hometown of New York. A big reason came down to economics: Coming as we did from families just getting their feet on the American ground, we couldn’t really afford to go away to school. Later on it was a conscious choice, that New Yorker snobbishness that considers every other American place to be, simply, not good enough for us. Hey, we had free university, great museums to wander around in, incredible hangouts and backdrops for romance. Did I ever tell you about the rehearsal show for Kid Creole and the Coconuts we were at? When my sister danced on stage with August Darnell? Or when as young adults we’d catch a Ramones show at 3 a..m. in a seedy bar and then head to work with impaired hearing?
For better or worse, I have the foghorns of New York Harbor embedded in my brain. And the clickety clack of an elevated train making its way to Coney Island. Hell, it took me years to orient myself here, a place on a landmass with lots of what looked like identical towns at first. A New York kid, I knew that if lost, I’d end up at a shoreline eventually. I walk fast, even as an old guy. It’s what we’re trained practically from birth to do. Skyscrapers don’t faze me, and I’m frankly bored of upscale restaurants where the chef is so hell-bent on innovation that he or she forgets to actually feed people.
I don’t think I’ll miss the rest of the United States. Still, there’s nothing like a lobster shack in Maine, or the honky tonk Jersey Shore. I do miss our summers on Cape Cod, where we’d rent little cottages with the kids when they were little and eat way too much seafood.
Living here in Central Italy feels natural. It’s not as intense as Sicily yet not as proper as the north of the country; it’s somewhat of a halfway house between the Latin and Anglo-Saxon worlds. I didn’t have to go through any cultural acclimation, since I grew up in an immigrant family full of relatives who moved back and forth between Italy and the U.S. for vacations or to live. I spent my first times in Italy at relatives’ homes, the first time a lazy beautiful summer in a beach town just outside Palermo and got first-hand lessons in how to shop and get an espresso or beer at a bar.
I’m going to go back and restate the original point of this blog, besides my having the urge to write every so often. I aim to show what living here is like in a realistic way, without the romanticism of silly stuff like Under the Tuscan Sun or A Room With a View. Italy is a modern, vibrant, sometimes infuriating place to live. If I’m successful, I’ll smash some stereotypes, yet leave you with an occasional smile.