Commentary: What an American is… from an Italian perspective

lisa capobianco [Web]

The goddesses of abundance and good health surrounded Neptune in a sense of quiet happiness as dozens of tourists snapped pictures around one of their stone ledges.

As some took snapshots, others threw coins in the Trevi Fountain: one to ensure a prompt return to Rome, a second one to find love in the Eternal City, and a third one to have a wedding (for all of you tourists out there this is just a legend).

“I can’t believe I am finally here,” was all I could say to myself as I stood in awe.

And I could not believe I was actually here, finally. After years of seeing this place behind a TV screen and hearing my grandparents repeatedly ask the question, “When are you going to Italy?”

Rome was the first stop on my one-week journey through Italy and Barcelona through a seminar class I took during the spring semester of junior year at Quinnipiac University. “QU 301: An Italian Perspective” was the course that not only opened my eyes to a new place I never experienced, but also served as the gateway to a world that has in fact always been a part of me. It was about time in March 2012 when that part of my world would shine through.

As our tour guide Fabrizio guided us during a walk through the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill, there was something about the air that seemed all too familiar despite never having been there before. Later on, we walked the Spanish steps and saw the Pantheon, the majestic relic from Ancient Rome that still remains in perfect condition.

The temperatures were mild and warm, especially for a New Englander like myself. The sun shined nearly every day without many clouds in the sky, and if this place was not my second home I didn’t know what was. Every meal I ate was a testament to the way I felt in that country: the richness of the gelato that satisfied my sweet tooth, the diced tomatoes on top of the bruschetta that came from a garden of gold with every bite, and the fresh pasta that was lightly coated with tomato sauce instead of white gook.

“Olive Garden is a joke,” I thought to myself as I dived into every meal without hesitation.

On the fourth day, we headed on the bus to Tuscany where the sun shined its rays on a vast amount of green hills from a distance. Gasping at the scene, I knew nothing else in that moment could be more captivating. I was certain that if heaven looked like that, dying doesn’t seem so bad after all.

Before continuing our journey to the north, we explored Vatican City, visiting the Piazza di San Pietro and St. Peter’s Basilica, as well as the Sistine Chapel. As we were about to leave Rome for the Vatican, I remember having an odd feeling. After breakfast, I felt a sudden sense of nostalgia that overcame me. Although I was excited to see other parts of Italy, I already missed the ancient city, where many of my extended relatives of my mother’s side of the family currently reside.

“Why would my family ever want to leave this place,” I thought to myself during the trip.

In 1955, my maternal grandfather, Felice Cucciniello, arrived to America from Avellino, Italy (the region of Naples). Growing up, he told me countless stories about spending hours after school to help his family on their farm. Learning how to grow crops and raise animals, my grandfather knew in his heart he did not want to become a farmer, so he left his country for better opportunities.

At age 27, my grandfather came to Connecticut jobless, single, and without an understanding of the English language. Although he started his career selling produce in a supermarket for only $1.50 an hour, my grandfather never lost hope, as he worked there for several years before returning to Italy where he fell in love with my grand mother Maria.

After they got married, my grandfather came back to the U.S. and found a new job in a factory while his wife took care of their first child miles away. At that time, my grandfather made $2.50 an hour, and took English classes at night.

He did not see his baby daughter, my mother, for a year, but all of that changed in 1961 when my grandparents reunited in their new home, located in an Italian neighborhood where other families embraced their heritage. At that point, my grandfather saw his career advance, as he earned higher wages at O&G Contractors. Working 13 hours a day constructing homes, buildings and highways for 18 years, my grandfather’s hard work paid off, and he and my grandmother ultimately had four children and moved into a one-family house. Like my grandfather, my grandmother also joined the workforce, ultimately working as a part-time seamstress and housekeeper.

Although they still kept their Italian traditions, my grandparents morphed themselves into the American lifestyle, feeling proud to live in a country filled with opportunities and cultural freedom.

Upon my return to America after my weeklong journey, I came to understand and appreciate my family history so much more. That feeling of nostalgia I experienced before leaving Rome was an indication of the connection I felt with my own heritage face to face. Although I understand the reasons for my family immigrating to America, I believe that part of who I am today is because of my family’s homeland.

My long-term goal is to return to my homeland one day, not only visiting the places I have already seen, but also seeing the village in Naples where my grandparents grew up.

For me, an American is someone who is more than just hard working, proud, and dedicated—she also is someone who understands, appreciates and celebrates where she came from.

Lisa Capobianco is a staff writer for The Observer. She can be reached at lcapobianco@BristolObserver.com.