The cream colored Fiat 500 zips around the neglected and barren traffic circle, sending dust and dirt into a flurry behind it. A brown, hazy cloud almost imperceptibly rises above the sun-baked pavement; it will eventually resettle. As the car comes to a stop in front of us, I wonder if it was once white and now covered with a thin layer of grit.
Emilia’s cousin, Fabio, emerges from the driver-side and greets us both with enthusiasm. Even through his sporty, black sunglasses, I can sense the curiosity in his eyes. I ride shotgun.
The drive through the town is brief but begins to give me a sense of the place. Emilia and Fabio catch up with each other in Italian, which I can tune out with extreme ease—almost without trying. Siderno, where Emilia’s dad grew up, is a small, agrarian town in the southern region of Calabria which sits on the Ionian Sea. Life is a bit slower here, and many from the community have long generational ties to the place. This becomes clear from the short clips of markets, bars, and tabacchi that emanate from the train station at the town center. A middle-aged man helps a much older woman with her groceries, who in turn flashes an immense, toothless smile up at him. A dog wanders from a young boy, who pursues it, carelessly swinging a leather leash. People on the streets talk with each other, laughing and gesticulating wildly. There is a vibrancy in the small town similar to that of Fiddler on the Roof’s Anatevka or the village from Beauty and the Beast. The narrow streets have just barely enough room for—
“Conor . . . ?”
“Di dove sei?”
“Oh—sono di New York. Long Island.”
“Ahh, New York, veramente? Però, studi all’università con Emilia?”
“Sì, sì, con Emilia.”
Relieved that I made a sufficient attempt at conversation, I ease back into my thoughts. Speaking in Italian still makes me uncomfortable. While I like the way it feels in my mouth and on my tongue, I hate how it sounds to my ears. My speech is labored and choppy, very unlike the typical Italian manner of speaking that Americans love to praise for its fluidity and lyric quality, its romanticism and sex appeal. I have only taken one semester of Italian so far, but I desperately want to skip this awkward learning phase. I hate the helpless feeling of struggling to get my thoughts out. I have to simplify them exceedingly so they fit my paltry vocabulary and syntax knowledge. And I know the only way to get better at speaking Italian is speaking Italian, but—
“Right, Conor? The trip was super long?”
“Yeah. Uh, sì. La viaggia era molto lunga.”
“Il viaggio. Il viaggio era molto lungo.”
“Oh, sì—scusa. Ma il viaggio era anche molto bello.”
“Ah, veramente. La costa è bellissima.”
The regional train, a single car propelled by a diesel engine, that brought us from Calabria’s capital, Reggio, to Siderno was dilapidated in just the perfect way and adorned with colorful graffiti. It was more like a glorified bus on rails, although not without its charms. The train moved quickly, as the landscape and shoreline rushed out of view through the grimy windows at an alarming rate. Fabio’s car windows are a bit cleaner, and the view outside passes at about the same speed as on the train. As we reach the more rural part of Siderno, the sidewalks disappear and give way to narrow, sandy shoulders, and the houses are more spread out among the lush, Mediterranean foliage.
“Eccoci qua. Siamo arrivati.”
The house where Emilia’s dad and his six siblings were raised is a sizable, gray cement structure with harsh angles and metallic gold shutters. Like many of the other houses, it was built sometime in the 1960s and resides somewhere between the art-deco and brutalism architectural movements; it is undeniably ugly. At some point, Emilia mentioned that when her father was born, the house had no running water. Her father as a boy had to go out to a well on their property to fetch water for a number of years. It reminded me of my own father, who, growing up in Ireland, had no central heating. The fireplaces found in every room were not for aesthetic reasons but practical ones. How cold it must have been those harsh winter mornings before the kitchen stove was lit, warming hands and hearts. How Emilia’s grandmother’s back must have ached from countless trips to the well to do laundry or bathe her seven children.
While the houses have running water these days, many of them are unfinished. Above the top floors, there is the suggestion of building higher. Metal rods extend upward from the corners, and short frames—all long since covered with rust—outline the walls. The old custom was that once children grew up, they would move into apartments above their parents, who dutifully confined themselves to the ground floor. Families would stay in the same community, in the same house, and raise their children through the generations. However, with the changing economy and job market, the practice is becoming less and less common. Parents still leave their houses unfinished, however, keeping faith that their children will come back to them. The decaying metal serves as a relic from another time, a plea, a hope.
“Ecco, Emi! Benvenuti!”
Emilia’s aunt Anna, who lives in one of these second floor apartments, bursts from the front door to greet us. She is both friendly and warm, hugging Emilia and me. A whirlwind of Italian is thrown my way, and I do my best to smile and nod. I make up for what I do not understand with my enthusiasm. As I walk up to the ornate front door, I see Emilia’s nonna peeking through the opening. I suddenly and thankfully remember the word for “afternoon.”
“Eh, buon giorno, buon giorno.”
Compared to Anna’s enthusiastic greeting, hers, as she guardedly peers through the cracked door, is more reserved. Her deep brown eyes, topped with thick, salt-and-pepper eyebrows, are knowing but very kind. I wonder if her hesitation at first blush comes from a place of distrust or mere shyness. As she smiles and fully opens the door to let me into her world, I decide on the latter. Standing with his cane by his worn chair is Emilia’s nonno, who greets us with a huge smile and his husky, age worn voice. Though he definitely shows his age, he wears it rather well and still has a youthful twinkle in his eye.
Soon after entering the comforting space, we all sit at the big kitchen table to eat fruit, as one does during the slow-roasting, southern afternoon. There is a large bowl of plump mulberries and another of nespole, a small orange fruit that is the equivalent to a loquat—whatever that is. All the fruit is either grown on their small property or in Anna’s large garden down the road. It is fresh and delicious. Nonna shows me how to peel the thin skin off the nespole, which I attempt shortly after. Without missing a beat, she insists that I am doing it wrong, that I am simply not delicate enough. Determined to both impress and defy her, I gingerly take another one, and by this second attempt, I peel it perfectly. She carefully watches my technique and approves that I have done well.
“Sì, meglio. Forse perfetto, ragazzo.”
“Meglio. Impari velocemente.”
When Emilia and I began planning our summer trip through Italy, we were unsure of many things: which combination of cities would be comprehensive yet realistic; how long would it take to get the real sense of a place; how much gelato was too much gelato; would we still be friends after traveling together for a month. I had my own reservations, mainly concerning my Italian fluency (or lack thereof). When it was confirmed that we would be staying with her grandparents in the South, I was excited and nervous. Many people who travel to Italy miss out on unique experiences like this one. They stick to the same destinations, Rome, Florence, Venice—maybe Naples if they are feeling adventurous. And while we would be traveling to those places too, Calabria is its own animal. Her family down there knows very little English, so it would be a full immersion experience. Even further, their conversation is quite often interspersed with dialetto Calabrese, which would make understanding even more difficult. I knew the only way to get better at speaking Italian was speaking Italian, but—
“E, ti è piaciuta Palermo?”
“Sì, sì molto. Palermo era bellissima.”
“Sono andata a Palermo dopo il mio matrimonio. Era stupenda.”
“Sì, quello che una città.”
Later that night, dinner is a big to-do, and Anna has been cooking since we arrived. Emilia’s mom took caution to warn me just nights ago about the food in Calabria; there would certainly be too much, and they certainly would not take no for an answer. After we all sit down at the massive kitchen table, I am greeted with the biggest piece of lasagna I have ever seen. The square takes up my entire plate.
For the first time, there is silence—all six of us content with our food. The lasagna is a work of art, with its impossibly thin layers of pasta, cheese, and meat sauce and a wonderfully crisp top. I finish my piece in an admirable amount of time given its size. Impressed, Anna immediately offers me more. Suddenly forgetting everything I was told about this place, I innocently decide to accept. When in Rome . . .
“OK, un po’, un po’ per favore.”
The next piece of lasagna is just as big as the first, as big as my face. Emilia cannot believe how big it is, and even nonna seems amused by Anna’s definition of “a little more.” I do my best to eat as much as I can. However, by this point, they have brought out the fried zucchini and pan-fried chicken and beef fillets—of course delicious, but simply too much food. How quickly I have forgotten Emilia’s mother’s warning! We have coffee, biscotti, and more fruit after dinner. The post dinner salon is relatively tame, as everyone is stuffed to the seams. Nonna looks off as she speaks, wistful and reflective, and she punctuates many of her phrases with “Capisci?” I am not quite sure how or why, but I feel like I do understand her.
Warmed by the hospitality of this family that is not my own and inundated with food and a language I am desperately trying to understand, I retire to the rock-hard bed in the small bedroom at the back of the house. I sleep like I have earned it.
Artwork by Emilia Figliomeni
Photographs by Conor O’Byrne
Edited by Rachel Gross & Cristina Taylor