NOW THAT I’VE BEEN back and forth several times to Italy, Italia, the motherland, the paese of all paesans, no matter how distant, how removed in space and citizenship, I have soaked its internal divisions into my red wine-colored red Mediterranean blood.
My family is from the South. This means something to people from the North. In the North, the South has something of an unfortunate reputation. “All of our money, all of our money goes down South,” said a granny in Firenze. “Where does it go after that?” Corruption. Insinuation. “But you know what my cousins in the South say,” I told the Firenze granny. “All of the good criminals from the South have moved to Milano.”
Bari, the home of my maternal grandfather’s family, gli Abbatecola, is known to Northerners as a Southern city. Most of them have never been there, but they are sure it is dangerous, or even if there is no scheming swarthy pickpocket out to make off with their Milanese borsa, their bag, something is still probably not quite right. Bari is still Italy, if not the Italy they would like to present to others. Bari, Napoli, these are Italian cities. It’s the tip of the boot, Calabria, the point of origin of my father’s line, i Petrone, that is not only shrouded by the gauzy veil of Northern suspicion, but considered foreign and peculiar for its Greek churches and old Albanian villages.
Yet there is something unfulfilling about the cities of the North, about Bologna or Firenze. They are too clean, too modern, too nice, too convenient. “Italy lite.” There are too many tourists there. In the streets of Bari at night, the fishermen chant “fresh fish” and sell the day’s catch from carts and old men play cards in the piazzas and the only tourists are other Italians visiting cousins. This is the South, my South, our South. For me, something is not quite right about the North. Something is off up there, something is strano.
Something is not Italian.