By Andrea Scarpino
Even though my father was Italian, I grew up learning French. I went to a French language nursery school as a child, took French in high school and college, lived and taught in France for a year before graduate school. I’m not exactly sure how this happened, how I grew up half Italian with no knowledge of the language aside from random phrases my father shouted: avanti as we pulled out of the garage in the morning, basta to end arguments.
I know that he often felt discriminated against as a young man because he was Italian, and even when I knew him, was hesitant to admit his background. Although he belonged to Cincinnati’s Italian Club, if a stranger asked him about his name or heritage, he always said, I am American. No wavering.
So maybe that was part of it, maybe I developed some negative associations with being and speaking Italian from my father’s coping strategies post World War II. Whatever the case, I never had an interest in Italy. Although I’ve traveled through Europe, to West Africa, to South Korea, I never even entertained the idea of spending time in Italy.
And then my father died. And like that, a part of myself went missing, a part that I will never get back. A broken link to the past, maybe, to this person who represented my birth and childhood, my hair, my blood, my hands. I’ve now spent three years scolding myself for not asking my father more questions about his childhood, why his father moved to the States, for not insisting he teach me Italian.
And then, several months ago, I received an email from a second cousin in Italy. He had found my website and upon showing it to his mother, my father’s contemporary, she said, I immediately recognized your face as part of our family. Suddenly, a link was reestablished. We started emailing back and forth, and then another cousin joined in as well. Everyone’s English is perfect, of course, even though their emails always include an apology for any mistakes. And here I am, still not speaking Italian, still not able to communicate in my family’s language.
So now, I’m planning a trip to Italy in May, in part to visit my family. Every day, I learn a little more Italian—from index cards I use to quiz myself, BBC interactive classes, downloaded tapes. I know I won’t be fluent by May, but hopefully I can say a few things to my family, order in restaurants, maneuver the country a little bit. And I’ve started reading—historical information, travel books, memoirs. I really don’t know anything about the country, much to my shame and embarrassment. I’m starting at the very bottom, the most basic. But with each letter of the alphabet, each practiced rolled r, I feel like I’m getting a little closer to my father, our shared history, my own past.
Poet and essayist Andrea Scarpino lives in Marquette, Michigan. She is a frequenter contributor to POTB. You can visit her at: www.andreascarpino.com