So you think you’re Italian? (or Irish, or Polish, or…)
I have an Italian friend who lives in Rome. Initiated by a shared sense of profound mutual boredom and pandemic-enforced isolation, over the months of quarantine we have text-discussed the gamut of topics relating to politics and culture. Antonio’s like the son I never had, and if I had had a son, it’s pretty likely that he’d be arguing with me companionably but passionately just like this, about politics and culture. Like a son, he often insists that I “just don’t understand” a lot of things.
He may be right at times, but his insistence on ignoring history beyond the last 48 hour net-denizen attention span will come back to bite him, I caution.
I try to convince him that his generation will pay the price of the three-day news cycle to the exclusion of anything that’s happened a few decades back.
So far I have been unsuccessful. But we Boomers soldier on.
This morning I told him that when he is my age, the younger people will probably be bashing and trashing their elders, just as my generation of Boomers did to the WWII generation. Now “Boomer” is used as a pejorative. But, no worries: Auntie Karma and Uncle Destiny eventually come to live with everyone, whether you invited them or not. And they are staying.
Old age is not for the faint of heart or the thin of skin.
He listens to me rant about American politics; I commiserate with him about Salvini and the Lega Nord. We share a profound contempt of all things racist, fascist and regressive.
He asks me to show him how we make chicken or veal parm, pepperoni bread or an “Italian hoagie.” As it turns out, virtually nothing we make here and label it “Italian” really is Italian. These are Italian-American specialties. But they are not “Italian.”
The recurring thread of these conversations always returns to the theme of “You Americans are not Italian. Calling yourselves ‘Italian’ sets our teeth on edge.”
Since nobody likes edgy teeth, I counter with things like “Oh, really?” I say. “White sauce on lasagna? No garlic? Who ever heard of starting an Italian dish with celery, onions and a carrot? Since when? Celery? Seriously? What are you, Amish?
“Who’s the Italian? You, or me?”
“But my father was Sicilian,” I say. “One hundred percent Sicilian.”
“Was he born in Sicily?”
“No, but his great-grandfa—”
“Did he ever live in Sicily?”
“Well—no. But his mother—”
“Actually, no. We always meant to take that trip but never got around to it.”
“Then he was not Sicilian—he was American!”
According to Antonio, the only thing that qualifies you as anything is if you were born and raised in a place.
“There is no such thing as ‘Italian blood,’ or ‘Sicilian blood,’” he asserts emphatically. The best I can say, he insists, is that I am “Italo-American.”
“But we never say that,” I respond. “We say, ‘I’m Italian. I’m Irish. I’m Polish. All of us talk this way. Every St. Patrick’s Day, Chicago dyes the river green!”
“Cherie… do you hear how crazy that sounds? You dye the river green.”
There is a great little video online right now by a woman named Laura Clery. Her English husband’s straight-man routines are comedy gold: his remonstrations at his wife’s antics and insistence on “celebrating Irish” are not to be missed. Any American will understand Laura Clery in that video. I contend that only Americans can understand it.
Non-Americans don’t get it. They will never get it. Why would they? They were born in the lands of their ancestors. The only people here who can say that are the Native Americans, and needless to say, that history, with the horrific genocide inflicted on them by the European explorers and settlers, was never a peaceful or a happy one.
This might be a uniquely American thing. But Americans … for all our military might, economic power and overly-heavy cultural weight around the world, are still in certain respects like lost children, desperately wandering the forests looking for their ancestors’ homeplace, which seems to have vanished, Brigadoon-like, somewhere in the mists of ancestral memory.
When we travel to Europe, are we really seeking a paradise lost … one that exists only in our imagination? We can’t even get the food right.
Despite signals that the (actual) Europeans find our compulsions with ethnicity a bit jarring at best and a target of ridicule at worst, it may not stop until Americans are five different things, like my husband. When I ask Terry, “What are you?” his response is “I’m a fifth-generation Californian.”
I’m sure Antonio would approve.
Cherie Calletta was born and raised in Hammonton. She graduated Saint Joseph high school in 1977, then graduated from Rutgers College in New Brunswick and went to Japan for four years to teach English as a foreign language. She later spent about five years in Germany outside of Frankfurt am Main. After several years in Charlotte, North Carolina, she returned to Hammonton in 2002, where she and her husband make their home.