My Two Italies

by Joseph Luzzi

Hardcover, 192 pages, Farrar Straus & Giroux, List Price: $23 | purchase

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My Two Italies
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Joseph Luzzi

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Book Summary

The author of Romantic Europe and the Ghost of Italy paints an intimate portrait that blends together history and the unusual to show how his "two Italies" join and clash in unexpected ways. 15,000 first printing.

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Excerpt: My Two Italies

My Two Italies


Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2014 Joseph Luzzi
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-29869-2


1

Carnal Violence

On July 25, 1943, the Fascist government of Benito Mussolini collapsed after a series of disastrous military campaigns in Europe and Africa. Less than two months later, Prime Minister Pietro Badoglio, who had been one of Mussolini’s leading officials, announced that Italy was pulling out of its alliance with Germany and joining the Allied forces. With this staggering about-face, six hundred thousand Italian troops found themselves in a state of deadly limbo. Needless to say, Hitler was not pleased: the fury he had been directing at the Jewish people would soon find another target in his former allies. The Nazis promptly seized the Italian soldiers under their command and declared them “military internees,” thus denying them the rights granted to prisoners of war. My father, Pasquale Luzzi, was one of these men.

The Germans stripped him of his weapons and shipped him from the Greek front to Bavaria. He nearly died of starvation in transit. At one point he went foraging for a raw potato and was beaten with the butt of a gun by a German soldier. A small number of military internees refused to work out of principle and were denied food; the vast majority, my father included, did what they were told under pain of death. He had no idea what the principle of a free and united Italy was. For him, Italy was Calabria, and Calabria was a test of endurance, not an idea.

Another time, a German soldier ordered him to dig a ditch. Exhausted, he refused. The soldier unloaded a fury of obscenities on my father and then dragged him away to finish him off. An officer witnessed the scuffle and commanded the soldier to stop. My father was released amid more shouting and curses. Over the years, I have thought many times, What was my father thinking? Why didn’t he just dig? I never dared to ask him.

In 1944 Pasquale arrived in the outskirts of Munich at the farm of a municipal official—a man he called il maresciallo, “the marshal”—who lived with his beautiful niece Hilda. Her husband had been killed in the war. She noticed my father right away; he studiously avoided her. If he was caught with her, it could mean his death. Yet if he continued to defy her advances, this too could prove fatal, for she could report him as insubordinate. Eventually she made him an offer he could not refuse. I have often imagined the thrill of love with his blond, voluptuous captor. A tremor of her discontent and he was finished. But the relationship flourished. The weeks stretched into months, the months into years. Before they knew it, the war was over, and they were still together.

After the surrender of Germany, in 1945, Hilda and my father were married. He believed that this would keep the Germans from killing him. Though she was pregnant with his child, he was restless. The war had been a parallel universe. As he continued to work on her farm, that first thrill of their clandestine meetings tapered into domestic routine, and my father knew that he could never be at home in Germany. Calabria was his paese. He wanted to go back.

Hilda sensed that he was eager to leave, so she was extra vigilant in monitoring his whereabouts. He tried to get her to relax her guard, and one day he insisted that she attend a faraway festival—she’d have a ball, he was sure of it. While she was away, he fled the farm by stealing a boy’s bicycle. Eventually he made it past the German border, through Austria, and into Italy, where he began the long train ride south to Calabria. My father always spoke wistfully about his time in the Bavarian countryside. Though he had been beaten within an inch of his life at least once—for stealing that potato—and narrowly escaped execution another time, his years in Germany seemed to be among the happiest in his life. He vowed to my mother that he would return to Bavaria with her one day, and that he would show her his Germany. He never did make it—nor did he ever find out whether Hilda gave birth to a son or a daughter.

In 1963, eighteen years after my father escaped his captors and his pregnant wife, the Italian Army awarded him the War Cross of Merit for “internamento in Germania.”

*   *   *

A half century after my father’s flight from Germany, I spoke at an Italian American society before an audience of about twelve—several of whom were my family members. I discussed the hidden connections between Italian culture with a capital C (Dante, the Renaissance, Michelangelo’s David) and Italian American culture (Rocky, Tony Soprano, spaghetti and meatballs). After the presentation, a member of the audience compared the small crowd with the one that had been attracted by another Italian American, Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi from the television program Jersey Shore. I was told that there had been “lines going out the door” at her recent book signing at the nearby Barnes and Noble. Ms. Polizzi once earned $32,000 for an appearance at Rutgers—$2,000 more than the Noble laureate Toni Morrison received for a talk there, and $32,000 more than I earned that evening. Jersey Shore also generates its share of social capital: in 2012, the University of Chicago hosted an academic conference devoted to “Jersey Shore Studies,” which included the panel “The Construction of Guido Identity” and the paper “Foucault’s Going to the Jersey Shore, Bitch!”

Aesthetically speaking, Jersey Shore stands at ground zero of the Italian American look. For all their cruelty, the mobsters in Coppola’s Godfather films cut a fine figure, especially the Vito Corleone played by Robert De Niro. Things took a turn for the worse in the suburban chic of Tony and Carmela Soprano, who favored such prêt-à-porter items as leisure shirts and matching pantsuits. If the Corleones were always prepared for a wedding or a christening, the Sopranos looked primed for the bowling alley or an evening out in Jersey’s Little Italy.

But nothing could presage the fashion atom bomb of their kindred on the New Jersey coast. In season four, Snooki and friends traveled to the city of Dante and Michelangelo, where, according to The New York Times, they staged “a cultural collision between working-class Italian-Americans who favor fake tans and gold chains and call themselves guidos, and Florentines, who are among the most elegant and snooty of all Italians.” Tracksuits, push-up bras, tanning spray, animal-print suitcases—all the brash signifiers of Italian America were on display. Dante described his quest for the elusive Italian language as the hunt for a fragrant panther that knew its way around the woods; Snooki in her trademark leopard print advertised her ethnic identity with decidedly less mystery.

Not long ago, Snooki’s public appearance in a shirt with “Brunette Mafia” emblazoned on it would have rallied the troops. In November 2001, I watched the critic Camille Paglia stride onto the podium of Logan Hall at the University of Pennsylvania to speak on the topic “Tony Soprano, the Media, and Popular Culture.” The HBO program The Sopranos was inaccurate, she claimed, not because it portrayed Italian men as murderous mafiosi, but because it showed them as vulnerable and introspective, nothing like the manly types she recalled from her childhood. Her Italian men didn’t slump as Tony did on some psychiatrist’s couch; they rolled out covered in grease from underneath cars. The firebrand Paglia is nothing if not original, and her elegy to the biceps of Italian America riled the earnest Ivy League auditorium. But she produced some howlers. She railed against a putative New York “haute bourgeoisie” that refused to live up to its ideals of multiculturalism. If this group understood The Sopranos, she said, it would own up to its “heavy guilt trip” about race, realize that its idea of society was “white,” and see that “the whole thing about The Sopranos is a cryptic version of dealing with race issues in this country.” She marched ahead:

The fact that [The Sopranos] shows that Italian Americans are literally the last group that people are free to libel means that all Italian Americans have to start banding together and realizing that’s why this is so pernicious—because the educational system in America at the public-school level and the college level has moved away from the Western tradition.

Despite her overheated syntax, Paglia failed to diagnose the real issue about the show. It’s not because of race that the Mafia remains our great Italian American foundation myth, our Iliad and Odyssey, a Paradise Lost but never regained. History, Marx wrote, happens first as tragedy then repeats itself as farce. Initially we had the Shakespearean drama of Coppola’s star-crossed Corleone family, then the suburban sprawl of the Sopranos. Before, mythic Sicily, historic Greenwich Village, and a family man played by De Niro/Brando; after, Snooki giving birth on her own reality show.

About a year after Paglia’s speech, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York invited two stars from The Sopranos to march in the Columbus Day Parade. Claiming that the show promoted negative stereotypes about Italian Americans, the organizers of the parade protested. Bloomberg held firm, skipped the parade, and spent the afternoon of Columbus Day eating Italian food on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx with his two friends Lorraine Bracco (Tony Soprano’s psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi) and Dominic Chianese (Tony’s surrogate dad and predecessor as the family capo, Uncle Junior). Is The Sopranos good for us, many of us wondered, good for Italian America?

Although this debacle has faded from memory, the controversy it symbolizes endures. Whether we like it or not, and whether inside or outside Little Italy, the Mob remains a myth as irrepressible as the honor of Vito Corleone. No wonder most Americans separate Italy, the Land of Dante, from Italian America, the Turf of Tony Soprano and Snooki. We Italian Americans suffer from a form of cultural schizophrenia, half of our soul nourished by centuries of European arts and letters, the other half contaminated by Luca Brasis and Jackie Apriles. Many organizations have decried this cultural duality and argued for more representative images for Americans of Italian descent. After all, Italian Americans have produced the Yankee Clipper, two Supreme Court justices, a woman vice presidential candidate, four mayors of New York City, and three governors of New York. Yet for all that Italian Americans accomplish, we can’t seem to wash mobster blood off our hands. As Tony Soprano might say, You know, we’re not really like them, those ’mericani. He might add, We Italian Americans, we’re not really like them either, those italiani—you know, the real deal you get over in Italy. The outcry against unsavory media representation of Italian Americans reflects the unease that many in this ethnic group feel toward the Old Country, Italy itself. In fact, the hullabaloo about The Sopranos had less to do with the preeminence of the Mob as Italian America’s most enduring stereotype than with the historical melancholy of something called the Southern Question.

When Italian Americans claim cultural ancestry in the land of Dante, Galileo, Michelangelo, and the like, they’re engaging in a public act of wish fulfillment. These titans hailed from northern Italy, which has historically been the seat of the nation’s political power, material wealth, and cultural innovation. This isn’t to say that the south lacks an illustrious history of its own. No serious student of Italian culture fails to absorb the value of such movements as the medieval Sicilian School of poetry and the artistic ferment of baroque Naples, or of such southern intellectuals as Giordano Bruno, Giambattista Vico, Francesco De Sanctis, and Benedetto Croce. The fact remains, however, that the Italian north has traditionally viewed the south as a massive altro, “other.” As a political quandary, the Mezzogiorno is associated with the Southern Question, the ominous phrase Italians have used since time immemorial to describe the difference between the so-called first world, above Rome, and what many call the “African” territories to Rome’s south.

The great majority of Italian Americans, Tony Soprano and associates included, hail from the Mezzogiorno. Although Italians have been immigrating to America from as far back as the 1700s, the notion of an Italian American came into existence only after the period of mass emigration from southern Italy to the United States in the late 1800s. Before then, an intrepid few made the journey not to escape poverty, but to make their mark in an exciting young country. In 1778 a former Florentine tailor named Carlo Bellini became the first chairman of modern languages at an American college, William and Mary, where he taught Italian, French, German, and Spanish. Bellini also served in Virginia’s foreign office and counted Thomas Jefferson as one of his friends. Lorenzo da Ponte, the Venetian adventurer, memoirist, playwright, and librettist for Mozart, taught for many years at Columbia, where today a chair of Italian studies is named in his honor. Who would label these Enlightenment literati “Italian Americans”? In order to qualify for that designation, you have to carry inside at least a bit of la miseria. Unlike these scholars, Italian Americans generally don’t consider l’America to be a mere step on the career ladder. The inflated rhetoric of immigration (Old Country, New World, American Dream, melting pot) suggests how high the stakes are for those who, like the Italians who arrived during the waves of mass exodus, abandoned their patria out of necessity rather than choice. Many southern Italian immigrants, my family included, carry within an invisible scar that goes by the name “The Italy I Never Knew.”

Against the backdrop of the Southern Question, the great American myth of the Mob begins to make sense. The Godfather and The Sopranos offer an American morality play of upward mobility through the acquisition of power, money, and prestige. Where else might Italian Americans turn for their master narrative—to Rocky? To powerful but less known literary works such as Pietro di Donato’s Christ in Concrete, a story of working-class struggle in Depression-era New York, or the cascade of autobiographical writing by authors ranging from John Fante and Jerry Mangione to Helen Barolini and Gay Talese? None of the above manages the epic scope of The Godfather, and none exhibits the tragicomic melancholy of The Sopranos. Nor have they inspired the public to ponder the mysteries of Italian American identity on a broad scale. I don’t think that the great Italian American book or film will ever be created. Such a story would require a powerful organizing myth. We Italian Americans, on the other hand, commemorate our past only to remind ourselves how far we have traveled from it. Our pride in our ancestors grows with the distance we set between them and ourselves.

*   *   *

Family legend has it that my mother was so overwhelmed when she first met my father, in 1946, the year he fled Germany, that she sputtered chestnut meat on his military uniform. She was young, but her family owned land, and my dad decided on the spot that she was the one, though he had recently broken off an engagement to another woman in their Calabrian village—and though he had just abandoned his pregnant wife in Bavaria. In truth, my mother wasn’t eating chestnuts then, and my father wasn’t wearing a uniform. But the image persists: she was probably afraid of him, as we, his six children, would be. After all, my father was a man who had shared all those stolen, secret nights with his delicious blond captor, the threat of death hanging over each embrace. My mom was a virgin, kindhearted, never more than a few paces away from her father’s or brothers’ gaze. She didn’t stand a chance.

My mother’s name, Yolanda, never sounded Italian to me. Nor did she look typically Calabrian, with her dramatic full features, her tight curls, and darker coloring than most of her fellow villagers. But when you watch her clean the house, her ethnicity is never in question. She handles children, dispatches animals, plants tomatoes, and hangs laundry with a care I’ve seen only in southern Italian women. Her youth was no different: she went from one sunrise chore to the next in her village—feeding the livestock, watering the garden, and gathering the vegetables—and to the evening tasks of preparing the meal, cleaning the stalls, and retrieving the laundry. She dreamed of being a schoolteacher but only reached the fifth grade. Still, she had it much better than almost every other Calabrian girl she knew. The tracts dividing her house from the mountains belonged to her father, Carmine Crocco, who purchased the land with the money he had made burying thousands of Americans for fourteen years before returning to Italy for good at age thirty-two—around the age my father was when he left Italy to immigrate to America. Every few weeks or so in the United States my grandfather sent money to his wife, Rosaria, in Calabria, which she used to purchase real estate: Calabrian gold. Eventually Carmine could no longer tolerate the rotted heads and limbs of improperly interred corpses, and his nerves began the steady decline that sent him into an early old age. He had tried to find alternate work in America, in a textile mill, but the fumes overwhelmed what was left of his resistance. It was time for him to return to Calabria.

The dollars that Carmine Crocco had wrung out of America’s cemeteries made him prosperous back in his village, where he spent his days overseeing his properties. All the locals wanted to work for him because he was the only landowner who paid them fairly. But my grandfather’s nerves, the same family malady that later rendered my mother an insomniac, continued to unravel him. A thin man with a broom of a mustache, he had lived away from home too long to enjoy his prosperity, and it showed in his eyes.

His twenty-two-year-old son Angelo died from an illness he had picked up while serving in the Italian Navy during World War II. A doctor in Naples had misdiagnosed Angelo with malaria and given him the wrong treatment. By the time the family found out the true nature of his sickness, it was time to bury him.

The death of his youngest boy, Francesco, at seventeen months from pneumonia pushed my grandfather over the edge. His sorrow became so unbearable that his family decided to take in Giorgio, the illegitimate child of a local peasant woman, to look after the sheep and keep my grandfather company. Meanwhile, everyone still wanted to work for Zio Carmine (“Uncle” Carmine, as he was called with affection and respect) because he paid more than anyone else. Despite the sadness of its paterfamilias, the family flourished. My mother even slept in her own room.

My father’s village was “down mountain,” about an hour’s walk from my mother’s more desirable “up-mountain” village. As trying as Germany had been, at least in the end my father had been his own boss there, with a new family, a household to run, and the exhilaration of having survived what so many of his friends and enemies had not. In Calabria it was back to the manure, the stingy land, the virginal women, and a tyrannical father. He needed another place to escape to. His sister Rosaria mentioned to my father that Zio Carmine’s young daughter, Yolanda, would soon be available. Pasquale decided to pay a visit.

One evening while she was roasting chestnuts, my mother spotted a well-dressed man entering her family’s property. He said hello to her and proceeded to speak with her father and mother. Nothing much else happened. Pasquale liked what he saw and began to visit often. A few days later he stopped by on the way to a wedding with some candied almonds. This was her first gift from him. The visits became less formal and my father’s feelings more manifest. He and my uncle Giorgio, Zio Carmine’s adopted son, often serenaded their beloveds, Pasquale’s Yolanda on one side of the village and Giorgio’s Filomena on the other. (It was hard to believe that the Filomena I came to know, a squat seventy-year-old matron with whiskers, missing teeth, and a purple boil on her lip, could have inspired such rapture.) Then suddenly, inexplicably it seemed to Pasquale, Yolanda went to sleep early on the evening of one of his visits, when she knew he had come to see her, knew that he had made the long journey on foot for this purpose and no other. In Pasquale’s mind there was no more need for the charade: Zio Carmine had agreed to the marriage and given his blessing to both Pasquale and his father. But my mother had heard of another suitor in a nearby village, and she was so young—it was all happening so quickly. “Eru ’na guagliuna,” she said. “I was just a kid.”

“He was a good, kind man,” she said of Pasquale’s rival. “I wanted to see him.” She knew my father’s story: he had left his pregnant wife behind in Germany; he had fled his captors turned kin; he had a child in the land of the fair-skinned enemy. Pasquale had hidden all this from everyone but Yolanda.

The day after she snubbed my father, local elections were held in the village. My grandfather Carmine, who held this to be so sacred a rite that he would lose his U.S. citizenship over it, wanted to participate with his wife. They were reluctant, however, to leave their daughter unattended. But Yolanda’s younger brother Giovanni was at home with her, so they decided to go. Later that morning, Pasquale and his brother Giancarlo showed up at my mother’s house. Giancarlo accosted Giovanni in the yard while he was tending sheep and tied him up. Meanwhile, Pasquale burst into the house, brandishing a revolver.

“I’m going to rape you,” he said to my mother. “Stay still, or I’ll shoot you!”

“You can shoot me,” she answered, “but you will not rape me.”

Pasquale reached for her, and she fended him off with a pair of scissors. Outside the house, Giovanni began to shout, and soon a host of villagers showed up on the property. After some time, Pasquale emerged from the house with his shirt ripped and his revolver in hand. My mother swears that nothing happened, that she sat on a crate the entire time they were inside and repeated to him, “Shoot me, but I’m not coming near you.” Afterward Pasquale told Zia Rosaria, Yolanda’s mother, that he still wanted to marry her daughter, even after assaulting her. Fine, she answered, but she also wanted to know exactly what he did. My father swore that he didn’t rape Yolanda—he was just trying to scare her and, more important, make her shame public.

The act was a ritual of sorts in the region; it went by the term acchiappare—“to grab” or take someone by force to create the impression (actual or fictitious) of a sexual conquest, so that the acchiappata, “seized,” party would be dishonored and hence suitable for marriage only with the person who had supposedly laid his dirty hands on her. But it carried its risks, legal and affective. My father was charged with two crimes by the local judiciary: violenza carnale, “carnal violence,” or rape, and omicidio mancato, “attempted homicide.” In Calabria, there was no issue of dropping charges. The state acted as prosecutor and pursued the case irrespective of the possibly harmed party’s wishes. The judge on my father’s case came up with a brilliant, operatic solution: unless Yolanda agreed to marry Pasquale, he would be sent to prison. Pasquale’s father, Federico, wept at the verdict: his family faced ruin.

Meanwhile, the other suitor, whose affections had instigated my mother’s refusal of Pasquale in the first place, remained steadfast in his intentions. He swore that even if Yolanda had been violated—even if she was pregnant—he would still marry her. As far as I know, my mother has only ever been with one man, her husband of half a century, Pasquale. But this other villager who gently pursued her in the Calabrian hills still manages to elicit pangs from her. He died in the 1980s from a brain tumor after living in Argentina for decades. My mother met him once at the home of a mutual relative in New Jersey, and she said that he gave her a strange, imploring look.

Yolanda agreed to marry Pasquale. She couldn’t bear the thought of him being sent to prison on her account. “Eppure gli volevo bene,” she said: “And still, I loved him.” They were officially wed on August 17, 1946, so the criminal charges against him were dropped. My mother was fourteen years and eight months old.

*   *   *

After the wedding my father returned to his family and she to hers so that they could prepare for their life together. But after a few months with his family, Pasquale and his father reached the point of no return. He moved out. He asked Zia Rosaria—my grandmother—if he could stay with her, and she agreed (a quarter-century later, after Zio Carmine died and Rosaria joined our family in America, my father accused her of being nosy and sent her back to Calabria in a rage). During this intermission Pasquale and Yolanda lived under the same roof as husband and wife in name, but not in fact. It was not until they moved into their own home, on March 17, 1947, that they consummated their marriage vows. She swore that, again, he hadn’t touched her during those months they were living together at her parents after the official marriage. They had only one fight in that period, when he brought home a dog. Never one for pets, she kicked the yapping beast.

For the next fifty years my parents fought like a cat and a dog trapped in one of Zio Carmine’s coffins. They slept in separate beds for as long as I remember, and they performed an endless series of small deceptions behind each other’s back (my father, through his Scrooge-like grip on the family finances; my mother, with her secret doling out of favors to her children). Yet all their actions aimed at keeping the family intact, and their love for each other was as unshakable as the regulations my father issued to everyone under his roof. They finally left Calabria when my father could no longer bear the poverty. I don’t know what he expected America to provide other than more money, and I think he was too old at the time—not in years, but in experience—to harbor illusions about anything as naive as an American Dream. But he was ready to work.

My mother, for her part, was prepared to join him and do whatever she could for her family. It was she, in fact, who was able to get her husband and then four children citizenship because of Zio Carmine’s ties to America. But first she had to spend a year of residency alone in the United States. She seldom talks about this interlude. I imagine it was her version of my father’s wartime Germany, a rare space apart from the family that defined her life.

My mother didn’t follow fashion and current events. She still spoke Calabrian, never learned proper English, and expected her children to respect the customs of the ancestral home. No funny business for the girls before their wedding night, and no housework for the boys, whose bread she buttered from childhood to college. But she was no anachronism. If the girls were supposed to hold on to their honor till marriage, that didn’t mean they always needed a male family member to look after them. Let them be free, she believed, and they’ll know better. And we all did stay out of trouble, by and large, but only partly because of our good judgment. Mostly it was because we were terrified of what our father would do if we fell out of line. He punished us physically only on rare occasions, but he administered his curses as though they were the lashes of a belt, and the welts of shame stung just as much as their physical counterparts. No matter what he did, his dignity remained intact; hitting his children was beneath him. Besides, with a tongue as sharp as his, there was no need to waste such energy.

But Pasquale was having a worse time of it in the United States than Yolanda. He did seem anachronistic, though in a charming way—he would never set foot in a mall or wear the sweatpants and football jerseys of the ’mericani. My father wanted this vast superpower, the ancient Rome of the modern age, to conform to his worldview. Great men often do, and sometimes they have the power, money, or good luck to bring the world in line with their vision. But he could not speak the language of his host country and did not give a dried fig for this new culture. So he expected his children, and especially his wife, to live as if they were in the Old Country—not the Italy of Verdi and Vivaldi, but the one of Zio Carmine and Zia Rosaria, who remained behind in Calabria and are now buried there.

Meanwhile, my mother went with the flow. When my father banned my sister Rose from home because she had the nerve to move out on her own (she was single and twenty-seven), my mother worked to broker a peace accord. When I insisted on going to a private college and brought home the fees for my boutique liberal arts education—in my father’s defense, my academic performance warranted no subsidy—my mother pleaded with him to help pay the bill. When Rose could no longer bear to clip my father’s yellow toenails and exercise his limp arm after his stroke, my mother reasoned with him that these tasks weren’t suitable for a young, single woman—which is exactly what they were in my father’s view. In his Calabria, unmarried daughters tended to their sick fathers with nunlike devotion. Pasquale Luzzi, a fierce, ethnic Lear roaring across the plain of old age, cursed the shortcomings of his children in proportion to the love he bore them. His life began and ended with his family, but everything that l’America taught his children seemed to weaken their connection to him. Poor Lear had only a fool to calm him, whereas my father was lucky enough to have my mother. Slowly, with each year that passed between them, with each domestic disaster averted either because of my father’s will or my mother’s diplomacy, the center held.

But their new country exhausted them. My father would fall asleep at the dinner table after a sixteen-hour workday, the basement rife with his snores and his breath reeking of stewed meat, cigarette smoke, and red wine. My mother was doomed to sleepless nights in every corner of the house, from the foldout sofa in the living room to the bedrooms vacated by siblings on their way to marriage and new lives elsewhere. There was a lot of passion between my parents while I was growing up, not the cooing kind, but the stuff it takes to hold together a family of six kids.

Love and hate, yes; intimacy and tenderness, no. At least not until their time together reached its winter. After my father’s massive stroke at age fifty-nine, he depended on my mother for everything. She fed, bathed, and changed him. He was her baby now, and the situation infuriated him. But the physical proximity also had a mellowing effect. My father understood that in America in the 1980s and 1990s there weren’t too many women who would spend their days tending to an invalid. He never said as much, but he began to show appreciation by hounding her less about her household duties and agreeing more when she asked him to help their children.

In his last, mightiest act of heroism—one that surpassed even his survival of enforced labor in wartime Germany and a Calabrian judge’s nearly sentencing him to prison—Pasquale Luzzi defeated biology itself. The stroke had left him paralyzed on his left side: the left arm didn’t move at all and the leg only barely so. Still, through a militaristic regime of diet and exercise, my father began walking with the use of a cane. Then he returned to his garden, at first just a few plants and animals, eventually a small suburban farm, with crops of squash, potatoes, corn, tomatoes, onions, strawberries, basil, and oregano, and livestock including a goat, chickens, pigeons, and rabbits. Despite his handicap, he struggled on with the only thing that calmed him: meaningful work. My parents sowed, tilled, slaughtered, and watered together, just as they had at Zio Carmine’s. When the time came to dismantle his backyard kingdom, the debris weighed more than thirteen tons—one for each year since his stroke. I was away at graduate school when my family took it all down. When I came home and saw the pristine green patch where my father’s miniature farm had once stood, I broke down. His southern Italian footprint had been wiped off the map of New England.

*   *   *

In season two of The Sopranos, Tony and the boys return to Naples for business. Their resale of stolen cars has been suffering because Uncle Junior trusted the wrong fences in Brooklyn: Russians and other East Europeans have been skimming off profits. Tony decides to keep the matter in the family and hire Italian middlemen to peddle his stolen Mercedes SUVs in Europe. Where better to look than in his ancestral home? “This is the real thing,” Paulie announces as they arrive in sun-drenched Naples. Christopher promises to hit the topless beaches and “see that fucking crater,” Mount Vesuvius, though his heroin addiction will keep him sequestered in a hotel room for the entire trip. Paulie goes native. “Tone, try this octopus,” he says at an elegant dinner with local Mob heads. For Paulie, the Neapolitan homecoming is epochal, though some of the customs—and the nasty public restrooms—perplex him. He asks for “gravy” (tomato sauce) on his “macaroni” (spaghetti) instead of the local squid ink, a request that leads his Neapolitan counterpart to comment to his boss, “And you thought the Germans were classless pieces of shit.”

The contrast between Italy as an idea and a reality colors Tony’s encounters with Neapolitan culture. When the curvaceous wife of the local capo, Annalisa, takes Tony to the Sibyl at Cumae, she rehearses a scene that has taken place for centuries: the pilgrimage of an Italian cultural enthusiast to an ancient site. Before you, she tells Tony, the Romans were here, before them the Greeks, and so on. Tony Soprano, the ultimate alpha male, shrinks before our eyes. She asks him if he wants her, and he says no mixing business and pleasure (“I don’t shit where I eat”). Instead, they conclude their deal: the Italians will get the cars for $75,000 each, and Tony will get Annalisa’s trusted soldier Furio in return.

What does Tony see at Cumae? Very little, for his connection to the Old Country withered long before his arrival in Naples. He acts and thinks like an official “Italian American” in the basest sense, with his yacht The Stugots (dialect for Questo Cazzo, literally, “This Prick,” but also a general expression of disgust). And he is as oblivious of the real Italy as Paulie, with his romantic notions of ancestral ties (Paulie and the prostitute he hires turn out to be from the same neighborhood, a coincidence that excites him but bores her). Tony is as jaded as the prostitute. “How’s Italy?” his wife, Carmela, asks him early in his stay. “Pretty friggin’ good,” he says, for he eats well in the homeland and, all things considered, the trip is a success. But Italy itself remains, for Tony and countless others who have sat in its gondolas and stared at its art, more an idea than an actual place.

When Tony, Christopher, and Paulie return to New Jersey from Naples, the translucent blue of the Neapolitan sky cedes to the industrial wasteland surrounding Newark International. Pussy asks them how the trip went, and Paulie answers, “Fabulous. I felt right at home,” adding his name to Goethe, Shelley, the Brownings, and many other foreigners who have sought their own private Italy. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses,” Emma Lazarus has the American Statue of Liberty proclaim, her lines suggesting the future rewards that toil, luck, and upward mobility unrestricted by class or blood can bring. In Italy, the vectors are the opposite. Foreigners travel there to look backward, to live in a land surrounded by the ruins of history and emblems of the past. But it’s hard to build a home on an idea. Christopher never does visit the topless beaches or Vesuvius, nor does he buy his girlfriend Adriana the Italian gifts he had promised her. He has to settle for something from Fendi in the airport duty-free shop. The gift will carry the label MADE IN ITALY, and Adriana will never know the difference. Just like the millions of tourists each year who see the exact replicas of Michelangelo’s David in Florence, she will have a tough time telling the original from the knockoffs.

*   *   *

Years after my father’s stroke, I came home unannounced from graduate school on a summer day to visit my parents. The backyard led to a wooded area that provided a welcome breeze in summer, and my parents often relaxed there in the afternoon. It was lunchtime, and I could smell the fumes of meat as I descended the cement path toward them. They were chatting about this and that, and my mother was cutting my father’s meat, pouring his wine, and scurrying back and forth to replenish his plate from the grill. The intimacy was as thick as fog. I had never caught my parents “in the act”—except for one embarrassed Saturday evening as a teenager, when I was shocked to see that they had climbed into the same bed after a party. Though I was accustomed to their cries of accusation and resentment, this backyard gentleness was alien. Endurance was the cardinal virtue of their union, which began just after Mussolini and ended with Clinton. But on that steamy July day I saw that part of their connection had nothing to do with providing for their children or playing out ancient family roles. They were tender with each other, and they were alone—no children, no threat from a German officer or the caress of a German wife, no unpaid bill lying on the table. They were as intertwined as the roots of the towering oak beneath their picnic table.

Around the time I surprised them in the backyard, I met my parents in the least private of places, New York City, for the festival of the patron saint of our Calabrian village, the Beato Angelo. With his leathery skin and crisply ironed oxford shirt, my father looked like what he was: a farmer come to the big city for the annual fair. My mother wore her finest blue dress, with her hair up, and the two of them appeared to have been transported by a time machine from postwar Calabria to postmodern Manhattan. We navigated the fake jewelry and leather bags splayed out on Canal Street and arrived for lunch in Little Italy. I had gnocchi, and we all drank red wine. As we ate and reminisced, I couldn’t help thinking that they didn’t belong here—not just in bustling downtown New York but in this enormous new country, some four thousand miles from the mountains and fields where they had met. I walked with my mother to a bakery after lunch and took her by the arm for the first time in my life.

My mother once said something that struck me with a force like that of no other words I can recall: during my father’s courtship and afterward in the first ten years of their marriage in Italy, he had been … happy. Even carefree. I have many memories of my father. In some of them he is exuberant, even ecstatic; in many he is troubled to the point of torture. But after my mother’s words I could picture him back in 1946, in the fields of Calabria, surrounded by mountains. Beside him, my uncle Giorgio holds a harmonica, and a bottle of wine lies on the ground between them. The nighttime sky, the young woman he loves and has decided to marry—all of this fills him. He is alive somehow, though he has seen the most frightening things imaginable in Germany, though he himself had been called to death at least twice there. My dad is singing, serenading his wife-to-be. He doesn’t know that in ten years he will leave this beautiful land, that he will set out for something that will require immense determination and self-denial. His children will bear the fruits of his labor, and he will never cease to remind them that their freedom has cost him his happiness—though he won’t use words to convey this. His broken body will be enough to signal it. But there, on a summer night in Calabria in 1946, he has music, wine, and stars.

Neither of my parents showed a particular interest in my study of Italian until I went to Yale—and only then because the name of the school, like Nike or Coca-Cola, was instantly recognizable. By the time I was in graduate school, my father began to accept my choice of career. Then one day he announced that he was going to give me some of the money that he had spent his lifetime saving.

“Be careful,” he said, as he handed me a fat check. “’N trattara cu gende maddamente,” “Stay away from people who are sick in the head. And come to me if you ever need anything.”

I had never heard him speak this way before. That summer, he said, was the last that he was going to tend his garden.

During his final trip to Italy, the year he and my mother went to claim the inheritance left to them by Zio Carmine and Zia Rosaria, they stopped in Rome on the way to Calabria. They took a carriage ride, and in my mind’s eye they seem as out of place there as they had been that day in New York when they went to worship the Beato Angelo. All told, the estate of my grandparents Carmine and Rosaria Crocco was about $9,000, a decent amount for that part of the world at that time, and the sum total of all those years of collecting rents on their now-vanished properties. Some of the money was used to pay for the education that culminated in my Ph.D.

The Italian culture I studied at Yale and that of my parents were from two separate worlds. But in the end, all three of us were Italian exiles: my parents, disconnected from a homeland they gave up at the start of their adult lives; me, spending my adult life pursuing an Italy they had never known. My father kept his distance from American culture his entire life: no HBO, no posters on my bedroom wall, no free expression in our house. My mother issued no such edicts. But when she said u miu paisu, “my country,” the place she was referring to was never in doubt: it was Calabria, not Italy. For all our love, for all the blood we shared, my parents and I belonged to two separate paesi.

I wonder what went through Zio Carmine’s mind that day when he found out that my father might have raped his daughter. And I wonder what my grandmother Rosaria felt when my father swore to her that he didn’t lay a finger on my mother, that he just wanted to frighten her. All it would have taken, from either of them, was a tremor of suspicion, a cold word to their daughter, and the wedding would have been canceled, my father would have been carted off to jail, and my mother would have been handed over to that gentle soul in the neighboring village who said he’d still have her, scarlet letter and all. I don’t know whether it was destiny or love or luck that sealed my father and mother’s fate—and by extension my own—all those years ago in Italy, but I do believe that Pasquale Luzzi and Yolanda Crocco knew from the moment they met that there was one and only one person for them, and that they would bear this burden for the rest of their lives.

Copyright © 2014 by Joseph Luzzi