November 5, 2007

Wayward Thoughts

I just can't focus. I've got a 10-page contract I should edit and get to a partner tonight. 10 measly pages. Simple. But I can't do it because I know I can wake early and do it tomorrow before the deadline really looms dangerous.

Also, my brain is flitting between the amazing and interesting observations about culture from Arvay on American Food and lucky_girl on Japanese gratitude.

I've spent quite a bit of time in the last 5 years thinking about identity and culture and food. In particular, I'm fascinated by the role that culture plays in forming an individual's identity, even when they try to rebel against it. Arvay's comment that all Americans bring a bit of the old country with them is very true, in my case.

Take, for example, my family.

I have several branches of ancestors who immigrated to California in the mid-1800's. I'm a big walking melting pot due to the many branches that feed my genetic tree and have always thought of myself of stereotypically American. I was told my great-grandma Erma was Swiss. I never really thought much of it. I remember my gran telling me that she was portuguese, german, swiss, french and british and her making me repeat it. When I asked the other grandparents, it was a similar story of multiple ethnicities (except for Grandma Mary, who suprised the hell out of my mom and me with the revelation that she was 1/2 Cherokee and 1/2 french when I did my 4th grade geneology project -- boy was Mom surprised...Native American, who knew?)

At some point in my 20's, after a visit or two and an exposure to the language, I fell in love with Italy. At some point later, I fell in love with E, a boy of Italian decent. Oddly, it was one of the few enthnicities that, despite a large immigration history in the US, I didn't have a grandparent claiming. After being laid off in 2000, while E was still employed, despite no apparent genetic or cultural connection, I thought the best thing I could do with my time was to go to Italy and study Italian.

My Papa, of the Swiss side of the family, when he found out I was going to Italy to study instead of getting a new job after the burst of the first tech bubble, said, and, I quote, "Why do you wanna go learn WOP?"

I was appalled and amused. How old he was. How little insult he intended and how much curiosity he had. And yet, how harsh it sounded. I explained. He, like the farmer of few words that he was, said, "huh." And that was that. I sent postcards and we never spoke of it again. But every postcard with a picture of whatever Italian village I was visiting at the time was displayed on the olive green fridge at the ranch with pride until his death. And they were stained with farmer fingerprints that showed that he took them down, he showed them off, and he put them back up. I took more comfort in those silent dirty marks than I could in anything he'd ever say to me. I know that he loved me more than he could ever say from those marks and my percentage of the fridge space.

Within a year after my return from my jaunt in Italy, my Papa had an 80th birthday. There, I met many of my Papa's cousins. The Manetti brothers, the Polettis, the Perozzis... and, shockingly, I was able to communicate with several of my visiting cousins who spoke Italian. Sure, they insisted on calling it Swiss, but I could fully comprehend everything they said as if it were perfect Romani.

I remember being shocked at the realization that it was very likely that my Swiss ancestors were likely Italian and managed to lie to get around the over-subscribed quotas of the late 1800's. I remember thinking that it was amazing that their self-indoctrination against embracing their Italian heritage was so strong that my Dad never considered that his grandmother's Swiss phone conversations sounded much like the Italian he'd heard elsewhere. Or that my Papa, my father's father, didn't know that if I learned WOP, I might be able to speak with his cousins in their native dialect.

But what I hadn't really considered until today, reading Arvay's post about food followed by lucky_girl's post about Japan was the oddly foreign comfort of my time in Italy.

Many people *love* Italy.

But for me, my last visit was like a homecoming of sorts. I just felt as if I belonged in a way that felt wonderful. Strangers would insist that they could see my Sangue Italiani despite my insistance that no, I didn't have any Italian blood. I'd try to say things in this new foreign language and magically, the syllables would roll off my tongue easier than any other language I had ever fallen in love with. Strangers would say things that were oddly constructed, and yet, I immediately saw the beauty in the way they said it and appreciated the gorgeous message of their words.

The men, in their stubborness, their romanticism, their over-exuberance, their exaggeration, and their specific blend of machoism, often reminded me of my father and brother and grandfather and uncles. The food would comfort me (this is probably true for many people). And the frustrations of the day to day life -- they just seemed to be true and unavoidable. Frustrating, yes. But things to endure.

I think, in many ways, I returned from my last and longest, most immersive, trip to Italy able to understand and forgive my father and his family for many of their oddities that I couldn't understand before I went. I was closer to them through their homeland or the homeland of their ancestors, which, for reasons of history or politics, or confusion, they didn't even know belonged to them.

That some not insignificant portion of my identity and my conception of normal is formed by a country I never visited before the age of 19, and that I have maybe spent a total of 3.5 months in, blows my mind.

And yet, if I am honest. It is true.

It is so true, that, unbeknownst to me, despite being raised in a household where no overt effort was made to connect me or teach me to avoid my Italian-based heritage I still sought out my roots in language, in food, in travel and in my husband. Granted, California has a huge influence from Italian culture and no doubt that plays a large role in my decision.

But still, I think it's fascinating and I want to think about it.

And that's why I can't work on my 10-page partnering deal right now.

No comments: