No matter where you go or where you turn, you will always end up at home.
If you have been around my family before, you would be the first to notice that we aren’t exactly “normal.” We are a big, loud, Italian family, and we meet for Sunday dinner every single week. We celebrate every birthday and every holiday together, and my cousins and siblings are some of my best friends. I live by the saying “Family Over Everything,” and I rarely ever miss a family event. Because of all this, my decision to study abroad and be away from my family for an entire semester came as a shock to some, but my decision to go to Italy was not surprising at all.
Thrilled that I was returning to our homeland, my great uncle sat me down and told me all about my family heritage, sketching out family trees and maps of his favorite neighborhoods. Through him, I discovered that I still have family members living in Italy. My uncle told me that my Great-Grandpa’s nephew still lives in the same house that my great-grandpa and his 5 siblings we born and raised in. My Great Grandpa was born in 1905 and the house was well over 100 years old. He had lived there for 18 years before immigrating to the United States and marrying my Great-Grandma, who had come from a neighboring Italian village. He had died before I was born, and I was excited to connect with a space that had meant so much to him.
I had no idea what to expect when I was on my way from Rome to Santa Croce del Sannio to finally meet the family I have never met before. Of course, I immediately got lost. I went up to the wrong house and an old man started screaming at me in Italian to get out of his yard. I thought this was my family, and I was so disappointed that I had been chased away. I walked back into the town and started trying to figure out how to get back to Rome, when my cousin called: “Are you okay? Did something happen? Why didn’t you come?” I was so relieved. From the very first minute that my cousin came to rescue me from the town square after being lost for over 2 hours, to the very last minute we spent together on the platform waiting for my train to return to Rome, I felt like I was home. Right before I got on the train to go home my cousin turned to me and said, “Remember that we are family, and if you ever need anything you just call and we’ll be there.” In that moment, I knew studying abroad in Italy was the greatest decision I have ever made.
Some days were more difficult, and Rome did not always feel like home. I remember being at a restaurant with my cousin who had come to visit me from America, and we sat next to a couple of Italians. At this point, I had been immersed in the culture and taking an Italian course for 3 months, and I knew the basics of the language. The Italians sitting next to us flagged down the waitress and asked if they could move to a different table simply because they didn’t want to sit next to Americans. I was shocked and offended to say the least and I could not believe that something like that would happen in my family’s country.
It was a strange experience for me to go to a completely different country and be immersed into a culture that I had thought I knew so much about. For the first time in a long time, I felt like an “outsider” and I didn’t know how I was going to deal with it. As a person who was raised on Italian family traditions, I did not expect to feel so out of touch in Italy. I thought I knew everything there was to know about being Italian – have dinner as a family every Sunday with all the cousins, eat a lot (and I mean A LOT), always make fresh sauce and meatballs, go to Church every Sunday, respect your elders, and talk with your hands more than you talk with your mouth. I got some things right, but for the most part I was way off. I eventually adjusted and came to the conclusion that I was never going to fully “fit in” in Italy, but that didn’t make my heritage or my identity any less real or important to me.