“Other things may change us, but we start and end with family” -Anthony Brandt
There are many things that spark interest in a person to travel. Perhaps one of the most common incentives (and a special one, at that) to fly half or all the way across the world is to go see where it all started. Cultural heritage is a very important way that we as humans come to know more about ourselves, our family, and the way we live our life. Sometimes we do or say things that are specific to our family, and we may not even know why. Kind of like I never really understood why we say “cin cin” or “cent’anni” when we toast at family dinners, but I figured it was just some old Italian thing. I think a big reason why my family and I have chosen to travel to Italy on multiple occasions is because we enjoy seeing the place where our ancestors came from. I guess it just happens to be an added bonus that it is one of the most beautiful and culturally packed countries in the world. From the history to the food to the beaches to the rolling hills, Italy never disappoints. I never thought there could be better cooking than my mom’s or grandmother’s until I came to Italy, and that’s saying a lot. There is so much to love about a place that you came from, and I like to kind of think of it as “coming home.”
Since I am here for an extended stay, my parents couldn’t help but use it as an excuse to make a visit to the homeland. As this is my second time in Italy (and my parent’s 4th), my Pop-Pop (grandfather) practically warned that he would disown us if we didn’t visit our distant relatives who live in Rome. He gave us the phone number, address, and pictures from his 1985 visit to Rome, and we nodded our heads and assured him we would do it. We never really intended to find them, but we figured it wouldn’t hurt to at least try to look them up using what we thought was outdated contact information. Thanks to our Italian AirBnB host here in Trastevere (Laura) who graciously agreed to call and tell them we wanted to meet, we were actually able to connect. After lots of fast talking that went right over my head, Laura told us the good news: that they would love to meet us and the bad news: they don’t speak a word of English. Since she could not accompany us to meet them the next day, this meant I had to play translator. You would think after 3 months of living in Italy and 5 semesters of Italian I would be less than apprehensive about this, but my Italian is still not up to par for a zero-English conversation. That being said, we hopped on the tram in between my classes the next day and headed outside the city to meet our long lost relatives. Lots of emotions running through us: nerves, excitement, and a little bit of suspense.
Nicola, Pina, and Lucia greeted us at the door with hugs, kisses, “piacere”s, and lots of smiles. The awkward first couple of minutes where I tried to find my legs in the foyer of their spectacularly gorgeous and ornately decorated (so Italian!) apartment was all a blur, until Nicola (the man of the house) ushered us into the living room to sit down. After we all calmed down, the Italian suddenly came so much easier to me. My parents watched and smiled, Dad filming video and Mom asking “what are they saying?!?!” every 30 seconds. We explained who we are in relation to them (that was interesting) and went over some basic facts. They quickly realized that I could only understand them if they spoke slowly (and in quasi-sentence fragments) and easily adapted to make it easier for me. We even laughed and joked, and I was amazed at how easy it was for us to communicate (the fervent use of hand gestures didn’t hurt, either). At a pause in the conversation, Nicola jumped up and proclaimed “andiamo a mangiare!” like the true Italian that he is. They ushered us into the kitchen, poured the Prosecco, and served the most adorable tea sandwiches. When we all raised the glasses and they started the toast with “cin cin,” I knew in that moment that we were family. After some more conversation, a phone call with some English speaking family members who couldn’t make it, a description of their house “at the sea” in Pescara (complete with an invite for Easter weekend!), and a tour of the apartment, we unfortunately had to head out so I could get to class. Nicola insisted that he take us back “in macchina” and we all crammed into the little Volkswagen heading for Trastevere.
The goodbye was bittersweet, but hopefully a “see you later.” Since I am here until May, they made me promise to call and come by the house again. Nicola was persistent that we all must return one day and come to the house in Pescara with them. Obviously we graciously accepted his offer with no hesitation. We hugged and kissed as if we had known each other for a lifetime before going our separate ways, all with huge smiles on our faces. Although it was only one short hour, this was probably the best experience of my entire semester abroad. Every week I write about how travel is rewarding in many different ways, and this was a truly special and once in a lifetime memory. Connecting with people who I have never met and don’t even speak the same language as me, yet still took me into their home on short notice (and with a smile) was something that really speaks to the value of family. At the end of the day, the only thing permanent in life is family, and that was evident in our meeting. I gained so much from this experience, and so I urge everyone out there reading this (travelers and non travelers alike) to never hesitate when given the opportunity to connect with family. Visit the place where your ancestors once lived, and learn about the culture that has had a great impact on your life and the way your were raised. Go back to the homeland! And you just might find people there who would love nothing more than to take you in and hear all about your life, over some champagne and cheese sandwiches.