Napoli Giorno Uno:
I sit here on the train from Roma to Napoli, texting my cousin Lucia whom I haven’t seen for over 20 years, bursting with excitement to see her and my other cousins; I realize this is the first time since we arrived in Roma, 3 days ago, that I feel a familiarity and sense of family here. In Rome I was a tourist, which is a feeling I am not fond of, especially in our current political climate. I am 100% Italian and I LOOK very Italian; if I keep my mouth shut, use Italian hand and head gestures, I can pass for a local. It’s when I open this Seattle mouth that I insert foot.
The last time I saw this family, I was 19 years old. I traveled with my birth father to Italy and met that entire side of the family for the first time since I had been there as a baby. I was named after both of my paternal grandparents, Maria and Angelo – and women’s names end with an A in Italy, so that’s how they got Mariangela. My grandmother, Nonna Maria, was one of the only consistent memories I had from anyone on that side of the family. The aunts and uncles I had met a few times but I had connected with Nonna Maria and she always felt familiar to me. She was a little sneaky, funny, endearing, doting, and witty. And oh, so stubborn! It was clear I didn’t speak Italian but she didn’t care. She would speak at me, over and over, willing me to understand her. “Nonna! Non capisco!!” (Nonna! I don’t understand!) I would say and laugh so hard. But after two weeks, I started to understand some phrases and words. She got her way, ha! To this day I understand more Italian than I can speak.
Day One, we were tested by the infamous thieves of Napoli right when we got off the train (they did not win) and then immediately following that, had a serendipitous Seattle encounter that was clearly written in the cards. We (barely) survived the tumultuous cab ride, and arrived to our beautiful hotel on the sea to find my dear cousin waiting outside the entrance to our hotel with tears in her eyes and hugs built up from 23 years of absence. It was only a welcome that could happen in Napoli and to the Abeo’s. It was epic.
Giorno due a Napoli:
I pick this paragraph up after now being in the city for four days; two carved out places in my heart.
First was the day we arrived. My three cousins took us within an hour of our arrival and immediately immersed us into Neapolitan culture. No tourist anything. “We will just walk a short distance to the downtown where everything is happening” said my cousin Lucia – which I soon learned meant “We will walk three miles to where thousands of people of all ages are walking down cobblestone music-filled streets at all hours and it will resemble a celebration in Rio.” Via Toledo, the main drag of Naples, had chalk paintings on sidewalks that resembled oil painting masterpieces of Mary and Jesus, fire breathers, graffiti artists, small children driving vespas at shocking speeds down populated streets, and decadent street food carts amidst high end fashion stores. It was magical.
The next day, we went to my family’s home to reunite with people who had last seen me at age 19. This was the original home of my Nonna Maria, and now my Zia Carmilla and her husband Zio Ernesto lived there. There are photos of me in that home when I was no more than five years old. When they last saw me I was young, a bit broken, sad and searching for some kind of emotional connection with people related to me.
It took everything inside me to not burst into tears seeing the faces of the people who lovingly embraced me so many years ago, who greeted me with the exact same level of affection.
My Zia Milla, a silver-haired small woman with the smile and eyes of a film star. Her raspy laugh and voice from years of smoking reminded me of Kathleen Turner, as she whipped around the kitchen refusing any help no matter how many times we offered; she was the ultimate host. Food just kept coming, and we sat and rotated between espresso, wine, aperitif, bitters, from noon until 8pm. It’s the kind of meal and experience that’s now my goal to achieve.
Everything in her house, she offered to us. She had so little space but made it seem like a small palace. As the food courses came out, she would pull food that had been waiting its turn, from random holding places around her kitchen: the microwave, oven, cupboard, shelf, almost like magic. You think it’s a bookshelf…NOPE, it also had Pizza a Escarole in it! That microwave is empty, right? Wrong, it’s full of roasted sliced pork! I may start hiding food around my house now, just FYI.
Zia Milla was a master at making us all feel special, fed, and loved. We started to talk astrology and as I was excited to go around the table to see what sign all of my family members were, she exclaimed “Naturalmente io sono un Capricorno!” – “Of course, I am a Capricorn!” OF COURSE. I had been modeling myself after this woman since meeting her at 19 without realizing it. Her huge smile, her electric eyes, her ability to control the space and meal and keep the conversation going; it was her goal to make sure everyone was fed and happy. To observe her made me see exactly where my love, and almost NEED, for serving people in my home, which made me feel so connected to her spirit.
Right now, I write you on Day 5 in Napoli, from a small cafe facing the sea. The youth are across the street, sitting on the railings, laughing and singing songs. A few young couples are arm in arm, clearly infatuated with each other. Young couples in love and making out isn’t a weird scene here. The display of love is common and seen as lovely and beautiful. Such a difference from America where people are shamed and even told to “get a room” or accused of being cheap or slutty. An elderly man is playing the guitar and singing beautiful songs with his guitar case open for euros of thanks. I chuckle to myself as I watch this, because Justin Timberlake is playing in the cafe I am sitting in. The waiter keeps singing random verses as he walks by, smiling to show me he can kind of speak English. An Italian couple comes in with an adorable dog, to which of course I immediately turn into a Kristen Wiig character talking to the dog and going to pet it, and it looks at me like I am insane, then I realize, oh he has NO idea what I am saying. “Cute puppy” and “good boy” are alien words to him.
The cashier uses my transaction as his English lesson: “It has been my many pleasures to serve you.” I don’t correct him because part of me loved it being phrased like that. He introduces himself as Gianluca and after I tell him my name, he says to me “Your name is very Italian, why you no speak.” I told him in broken Italian, “Il mio sangue e il cuore è italiano ma il mio cervello è bloccato in America” which means “My blood and heart is Italian but my brain is stuck in America.” He laughed and told me, “Il cuore è ciò che conta” – “The heart is what matters.” And it was then that I realized, he was correct.
I could take you through every day of our trip – but I have decided to keep some things for myself. This trip was a personal journey in many ways, and as much as I am excited to share the cultural and family experiences, I am going to keep the special moments close to my heart. I learned a lot about real family, and real love when I was there. I learned what I deserved as a person and realized what I needed to receive from those that cherish me. I was shown a love that transcended language, time, family drama, and gossip. It was a love that I learned had always been there for me, but was kept from me for years as a child. For the first time as an Italian-American adult, there was no guilt or resentment, not even a hint. When you are raised with that as the norm, it’s kind of a weird feeling, quite honestly! There was only joy, love, and inclusiveness. Unconditional everything.
This trip catered to the parts of me that were in such need of care. It made me realize how important it is to teach and model self-care to my daughter, at any age. But this is not like going to Olympus Spa, shopping for shoes, a solo lunch date, or ‘take a nap’ kind of self-care. It was about being given what you need without being asked about it. I was cooked for – like REALLY cooked for. That may seem trivial, but as the eternal host, you may not understand how big this is for me. I am always the host. I love opening my home to people, cooking huge meals, and taking care of people’s every want and need. When people come to my home for a meal, I don’t let them help, I want them to be my guest. I love caring for my guests in the form of food. It is intimate and says a lot about how much they mean to you, in the way you prepare their meals and serve them with love. I can count the number of full meals I have had cooked for me as an adult, excluding potlucks – on two hands, barely. No shame to anyone and most people have admitted it’s because they are intimidated to cook for me.
SO when I was literally served and cooked for, for two weeks straight, it was such a treat. Restaurants got old after about five days, but family cooking for me, that truly fed my soul. I know when you see the photos, you think it’s about the food. But for me, that was just the cherry on top. What my family and friends don’t realize is that it’s not about the quality of the food, but about what is put into the food spiritually when it’s prepared and served to you. There is a level of care that goes into filling someone’s glass before it is empty. A care in finding out what they cannot eat before hand so they don’t have to worry. A care in making sure all things they COULD want on their plate are accounted for. Next time you are fortunate enough to be the guest at someone else’s dinner table, see what things you notice that make you feel special and considered. They may surprise you.
This trip taught me the power of attentive love from family (whether blood or chosen). We all need to feel loved and thought about, whether we admit it or not. And it’s not about asking for what you need and getting it. It’s also not about conditional love – that is receiving love that has strings attached with guilt and resentment. It’s really about people that love you, anticipating what you need, and doing it without being asked first. Doing it and then not being attached to the outcome or afterthought, just giving the love unconditionally. There is something very special that happens in your heart when you feel that kind of love.
- My husband anticipated that we needed a special celebration just us, for our anniversary. He also knew if we ever DID get the money, I would spend it on bills and things our family needed. He made the choice for me.
- My Uncle anticipated our need to have connections for restaurants and outings, and made special plans and reservations for us, without us even asking.
- My cousin anticipated my need to see family when we arrive in Naples, and was standing at the door of our hotel when we drove up.
- My Zia anticipated my every want during every meal she cooked for us. From my recipe inquiries, to my last sip of wine. She was there to walk me through her process, fill my wine glass, and all the while, squeeze me tight and even with a language barrier, through her food and the labor she took in cooking these huge meals, she let me know how much I had been missed and how much I was cherished.
And my daughter was able to see all of that through my stories, and even just my happiness, and hopefully internalize it as a standard — a base standard for what she deserves and should expect from both her blood and her chosen family. It is my hope that the feeling my Zia gave me, I am able to give to her and our other guests when they share a meal with us in our home. It is my hope that my daughter’s needs in love are anticipated like mine have been, and that she feels cared for. It is also my hope that she is able to learn from my journey, and give the same kind of attentive care to those she loves. This is what it means to be Italian to me. This is what it means to live your culture and be proud of your heritage. As an Italian, I don’t feel it’s about mob stories, green-white-and-red flags, guilt trips, or pasta. It’s about everything that is felt and spread without words.