In the rolling hills of northern Tuscany, June is sagra season. Every weekend, churches sponsor a dinner to raise money for the local community. Each meal often features a special dish to draw in the crowds. Sometimes, it’s olive oil cake. Other times, it’s a meat or pasta dish that someone’s grandmother is “famous” for. Fundamentally, it’s an incentive for a town to get together, visit, and relax, something that seems to be increasingly rare in the U.S. It’s an experience that most tourists will never have.
Last Sunday, I attended a sagra in Segromigno, a small town located an hour west of Florence. In a yard behind the church, long rows of picnic tables were set up under a sparse scattering of olive trees. Attendees lined up to place their orders while kids clad in matching yellow t-shirts and paper hats brought out silverware and dense Tuscan bread in small paper bags. The specialty here is tordelli, a hearty, meat-filled ravioli topped with meat sauce. It arrived at the table in a Styrofoam bowl. The air was filled with the excited screams of children careening down the large inflatable slide in the corner of the yard, and the animated conversations taking place at every table. Church bells echoed in the background. In short, it was the poster-child of a good time.
Yet, every once in a while, the Scandinavian-looking family sitting at the table next to me drew stares from the regulars. Their blond hair, overly elegant attire, and stoic composure looked laughably out of place. My table-mates, an eclectic mix of expats from all over the world, commented briefly on their foreignness. Yet, trapped in my bubble of English, I began to feel the eyes on me. Nothing about the situation was unnerving, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was on the outside looking in.
By heritage, I’m more Italian than anything else, and for the past two years, I’ve lived in Tuscany part-time with my family. We have successfully crossed the threshold from tourists to expats. We have a circle of friends. We do yard work. We go grocery shopping. In short, we live here. Yet, I feel no more Italian than I ever did before. Which begs the question: Does heritage have anything to do with it? I think not.
My predominantly German-Norwegian father has done a better job of assimilating than I have. He’s harvested olives, learned how to prune grape vines, and greatly surpassed my level of rudimentary Italian. Don’t be fooled, though, it takes a lot of work. Like love at first sight, feeling completely at ease in a foreign place is rare. The expectation of receiving a rush of understanding and sentimentality when one journeys to (or lives in) the land of their ancestors is unfounded. Realistically, I grew up in a very different place. Despite humanity’s homogeneous nature, culture is often too fickle of a beast to completely tame.
What brought my family, especially my Italian-American mother, to Italy was the desire to find a place that felt like home. After nearly 50 years of living in the same place, they decided it was time for a change. We succeeded in our quest, for the most part. But like it or not, we are still undeniably foreign.
Several years ago, I visited the small town deep in the southern Italian region of Calabria, where my great-grandparents grew up and eventually left. I tried to picture them walking down the same street I found myself upon. I tried to grasp that intangible familiarity with each person I met there. Yet, deep down, I knew too much had gone by.
A small piece of me remains here, but most of it does not. That’s not to stay that I don’t want it to. Like my father has discovered, belonging somewhere new takes work. It’s impossible to revive the belonging of those who came before me, but it’s not impossible to start over. I think I’ll start at next week’s sagra.