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Can't We All Just Get Along? How to Get to Know Your Italian Relatives Better
Since I started writing this column, readers from all over the world have been sharing stories of how they discovered their Italian roots. Some people tracked down distant cousins in their grandparent's hometown and actually went to Italy to meet them. But a few too many wrote to say that they were disappointed because language barriers, cultural differences and stereotypes prevented them from developing a lasting bond. But you can find common ground and build a relationship with your family abroad even if you don't share the same language. I promise. Just keep reading.
You might find that Italians still living in the homeland, who also sometimes write to me, believe that Italians living abroad - especially in the United States - maintain the traditions and speak the dialects of an Italy that no longer exists. They think their "connazionali" are living in the past and are completely uneducated and uninterested in contemporary Italy.
Both groups are partially correct. Some Italians who immigrated to other parts of the world still speak to each other in old-school Napoletano or Calabrese or Siciliano - or, worse, they don't speak anything but English. We might still believe in the malocchio or remember days when the whole family ate pasta from the same pot. But many of us also watch today's Italian news, read the Italian papers, listen to Italian music, watch Italian movies and root for Italian sports teams. We maintain strong ties with our extended family and eat the Italian food that our parents ate when they grew up in Italy.
Our American or Australian or Canadian or Argentinean neighbors, who literally live next door, have a hard time relating to us because, to them, we are still Italian. But our own relatives living in Italy don't understand us either, and some of them have no desire to see what our life in America is really like. (One of my cousins thinks Italian Americans eat out of cans or at McDonald's for every meal!) We're left with one foot in Italy and the other in this new land - never able to completely stand tall in either country.
That is not even the saddest part of this story. The misconceptions keep us from realizing that Italians in Italy and Italians in the rest of the world share blood and DNA and, most importantly, history. When we ignore these similarities, we miss the opportunity for cultural exchanges, life-altering meetings and, perhaps, even an enduring friendship with a long-lost relative.
My father was born in Italy and, although my mother was born in the United States, she spent much of her youth going back and forth to Italy with her parents. So, I had the luxury of meeting my Italian relatives for the first time when I was just 2 years old. I feel as close to them as I do my relatives that live just around the corner in the States. But keeping in touch with my family abroad requires a little extra work. Here, some tips on what you can do to improve your own personal foreign relations:
Phone home. Phone cards, dialing 10-10-987 followed by the long-distance number and affordable cell phone plans for international calls make your life easier. All you have to do is dial the number for your cousin in Milan or nonna in Palermo. This suggestion is a little more difficult for those who cannot speak Italian. Perhaps, one of your relatives speaks English or French or another language you can speak. Or you can try using that old-school dialect. (In another column, I already explained why you should learn Italian, so I'll spare you the lecture.) The important thing is that you find a way to communicate. And do so as often as possible.
Stay connected online. If you want to get in touch with a relative but you do not even know a single word in Italian, you can still write a quick note via email. Pick up an Italian phrase book or dictionary and put your thoughts on screen (or on paper for those who still prefer snail mail). Keep the language simple and add a photo or two to give your relatives a peek at your life abroad. I have gone so far as to create a family Website where I post photos of just about every event - weddings, birthdays, holidays, baptisms, etc. The truly ambitious can schedule family chat sessions, a virtual reunion.
Pack it up. Packages, with treats from your home country, photos, a letter and other goodies, are an excellent surprise for relatives who have already gotten to know you. After my last trip to Italy, I sent a handmade scrapbook, spearmint gum, Hershey's Kisses and some Polo T-shirts and accessories to my cousins who put me up in their house for the week. I often send them photos with little blurbs about our life in the States to give them an education on how we live. And I love to get postcards and photos from them. They opened their doors and their lives to me - then and now. I try to return the favor.
Frankly, the number one way to become better acquainted with Italy - its politics, culture, traditions, values - is to become better acquainted with Italians, your people. That said, Italians in Italy should grant those of us abroad the same courtesy. The exchange of ideas can enrich everyone's life. In fact, the only pitfall is that developing ties with your relatives abroad means you will have that many more people to love - and to miss.
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