What Learning Italian Did For Me

My mother and me at the house where my grandfather and Aunt Jennie were born in 2005.

As Italian-American Heritage Month continues throughout the United States, we are also set to celebrate one very special week beginning on October 21– La Settimana della Lingua Italiana Nel Mondo, which celebrates the impact the Italian language has had around the world.

While learning Italian is something that many Italian-Americans choose to do to celebrate their heritage, there are some people who have a hard time learning foreign languages. I consider myself intelligent, but I can’t do math to save my life– I believe that the same principle applies for many people who, try as they might, just cannot seem to grasp the complexities of another language. This is one reason why I did not include “learn Italian” in my recent “Top 10 Ways to Celebrate Italian-American Heritage Month” post– I did not want to alienate anyone.

What I can do, however, is share my story of what learning Italian did for me in the hopes that it inspires someone to perhaps learn a few words or phrases or, maybe, decide to take the plunge and become fluent in Italian.

I owe everything I have to that fateful decision I made so long ago to learn Italian.

I grew up in a broken home. My parents divorced when I was three and I was raised by my mother. My mother is extremely proud of her Italian-American heritage. Many people who know me personally know that my earliest memory is of her taking me to a local Italian restaurant and telling me that her father was born in Italy as she traced the boot on a place mat while we were waiting for our order. It was that very day that my love for my heritage was born.

My mother’s parents both died well before I was born and I only knew them through her stories and through the photos she kept displayed in our home and, of course, when we went to the cemetery for a visit. For some people, when their grandparents die before they are born, they are just names on a gravestone. Thanks to my mother, they lived through her and now live through me.

I enrolled in college as a French major– I had always loved foreign languages and first discovered how interesting they were during a trip my mother took me on to Nova Scotia when I was about 10. I thought the different words were fascinating, so Mom bought me a French dictionary. I ended up taking both French and Latin in high school and loved every second.

To be a language major at the University of Scranton, my alma mater, you had to take a second language. As soon as I saw Italian on the list of available languages, I signed up for it. I had been to Italy twice before at this point and barely got by with my mixed French and my Italian phrasebook. I was going to return and I was going to be fluent.

What I didn’t bargain for was what learning Italian would do for me on a personal level. As I gained fluency in the language, I started to truly wonder about this place my grandfather left and missed so much that his only desire was to return. I knew he was from a place called “Guardia” and I thought I found it, only to realize it was the town of Villa Guardia in the region of Lombardia and not Guardia dei Lombardi in the region of Campania. I didn’t “discover” Guardia dei Lombardi until a fateful phone call in 2001.

The baptismal font at Santa Maria delle Grazie in Guardia dei Lombardi, where every member of my family up to my grandfather and my Aunt Jennie was baptized.

My mother told me that my grandfather had a sister, Jennie, but she hadn’t seen her in years. The one day, Mom was telling me stories about my grandfather and Jennie and how they came over on the boat from Italy. She mentioned that she still remembered Jennie’s phone number. She recited it and I stored it in my memory. Later that day, I called. It was December. The next week, I met my Aunt Jennie for the first time.

Aunt Jennie and I became close– she loved telling me stories about the “old days” and even had the original passport she, my grandfather, and my great-grandmother came over with. Aunt Jennie told me that Guardia dei Lombardi was in Avellino Province and she showed me her birth certificate– sure enough, I had the wrong Guardia! The more she told me and the more she showed me, the more in love with my heritage I fell, this led me to switch my major to focus on the Italian language over French and I decided to write my bachelor’s thesis on literature from Avellino Province after the Irpinia Earthquake of 1980.

As I researched my thesis, I became friends with the town historian of Guardia, the late Salvatore Boniello. Signore Boniello sent me books on Guardia and even a Guardiese dictionary. As my Italian improved, my desire to visit Guardia grew.

In 2005, my grandfather’s wish to return to Guardia came true as my mother and I went there for the first time. I had with me a cross that had once belonged to him. At that point, I had published my first book, “Italians of Northeastern Pennsylvania” and was invited to speak at the town’s school to a standing-room-only crowd. To this day, it remains one of the most moving experiences of my life.

Guardia dei Lombardi, as seen by my eyes for the first time in 2005.

Guardia is so much a part of me now that I wear a necklace with its coat of arms almost every day. In both my home and work offices, there are mementos of the town. And, yes, I even buried a stone from Guardia at my grandfather’s grave, as well as the grave of my great-grandparents. Aunt Jennie died in 2008 and family and friends in Guardia made sure there was a candle lit in her honor in the very church she was baptized in on the day of her funeral.

I owe everything I have to that fateful decision I made so long ago to learn Italian. The Italian language gave me my family as I learned more about my grandparents and great-grandparents because of it. It gave me an amazing aunt whom I miss terribly. It gave me friends and family– none of whom speak English– that I never would have met otherwise, that I cannot imagine life without. It gave me my career as a writer because the only thing that matters to me is to keep the heritage alive by telling as many stories as I can. It gave me dual citizenship to a country that I love as deeply as I love the United States. It gave me Italian-American friends who share the same passion that I have– my tribe, if you will. It gave me the chance to make my grandfather’s dying wish come true and to have my mother see where her father was born.

It gave me… me. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without the Italian language. I could extol the virtues of the Italian language and its uses and impact on history and culture for hours, but at the end of the day, the most powerful impact that the language has had on my daily life is precisely the life I am living.

And so, to the language that has given me so much I simply say, “grazie.”


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