Wednesday, January 23, 2019

“Ten Years in Italy” is a candid and often sad tale, but worth reading


Italy can be a cruel, dismal, abusive and unforgiving place for immigrants from developing countries. This was the experience of Cristina G., who dreamed of improving her conditions by escaping from the poverty of her family’s farm in Romania to Italy, where she hoped to find a better life. Instead she mostly found bigotry, misogyny, cruelty and abusive conditions that bordered on slavery. She writes about her experiences in Ten Years in Italy, Three Weeks a Human.

I’m Italian-American and live in Italy at least three months every year, and I love Italy. However, I can’t help but notice the harsh conditions that many immigrants there endure. Most of them can’t publish books about their stories, but Cristina, who lived in Italy from 2000 to 2010, gives voice to an experience that one can only hope is rare —but perhaps is too common.

Her first job as a live-in babysitter started badly. “Useless Romanian!” her employer, a countess with two children, shouted. “Stay out of my sight! You make me feel sick. You shouldn’t have been allowed to come here.”

Cristina, then 24, slept in a smelly basement bedroom, its walls covered with damp green mold. The countess made Cristina walk behind her at least a meter because “you’re not on my level.” Cristina tried to learn Italian as quickly as possible and wrote words on her hand to help her remember. The countess saw this and grabbed the pen, shouting, “Illiterate creature! You didn’t come here to learn, you came here to serve and follow the rules! You’re here because you were starving in your petty country, not to write words on your filthy hand.”

When a young man rescued her from that family, it seemed her life had taken a turn for the better. Within a month they were married, but it soon turned out that he and his mother treated her as a servant as well. Within eight months, she was back on her own again. She worked as a waitress, a woodworker and a secretary, among other things, for the next nine years, and mistreatment became the norm. Many of her problems stemmed from her attractive appearance. Men tended to treat her as a sex object. Women resented her because of the attention shown to her by her male bosses.

She refused the advances of her employers, despite receiving advice like this while working in a restaurant: “You silly girl, every man in in this room has their eyes on you. Rich men would buy you a house where you would wait for them and do nothing all day. They would pay for your clothes, food, holidays. You’ll never get out of this. You’re wasting your tremendous beauty and youth.”

Cristina reading two books at once.
She rejected this idea, but her status as a Romanian and a woman made it difficult for Cristina to rent an apartment and buy a car. She also battled ill health and depression, sometimes contemplating suicide, but she persisted. This is not an inspiring rags-to-riches success story, because in the end, riches never came. After 10 years, nearly as poor as she was when she started, Cristina wrote that “defeated in everything, without a shred of dignity left intact, I went home.” She had held only one job during her stay in Italy, a temporary contract that lasted for three months, where she felt accepted and appreciated by both co-workers and supervisors. In recent years, Cristina has found a measure of success as an author while living in England.

Despite all the difficulties, she does not regret going to Italy and says she would absolutely do it again. “It goes without saying that I would have preferred to be spared at least half of the (sufferings), but I survived. I look back and know that everything happens for a reason. I owe Italy everything I am today. I must emphasize that (my story) could have been any other country. My goal isn’t to denigrate but to raise awareness of unwitting prejudices in many of us.”

The story suffers from some grammatical and organizational errors, but Cristina’s voice is sincere and compelling. It’s likely that some of the unsympathetic characters she encountered would want to dispute some of her perceptions, but this is Cristina’s recollection. It’s not flattering to either her or Italy, but the story deserves to be told and is worth reading.


Saturday, January 12, 2019

Take a family heritage trip to Italy for a meaningful, unforgettable experience


If your ancestors came from Italy, you should strongly consider taking a family heritage trip to explore your roots. In recent years, various touring organizations have sprung up to offer customized tours of the home villages of one’s ancestors, combined with genealogical research to expand one’s family tree. While I’ve managed to do this on my own by learning Italian, living in Italy part time and devoting many weeks to research, not everyone has the time and resources to do that. The next best thing is to pay someone in Italy to help you plan a customized trip, where you can visit your ancestral villages and possibly even meet living relatives.

Cassandra Santoro, the founder of Travel Italian Style, offers family heritage trips along with other travel planning services. Send her what you know about your Italian ancestors and she’ll partner with Italian genealogists and researchers to explore your family tree and then take you on a tour of your ancestors’ home city or village.

“From genealogy research to meeting relatives in your familys village in Italy, anything is possible with our team of experts,” Cassandra said. “There’s nothing better than a bilingual tour guide to walk you through the streets and discover the areas where your family lived and worked. We can even book you a cooking experience, so you can learn recipes from the local area that your family comes from.”

Elena, Paul and Andrea
If your ancestors come from the area of my roots, between Lucca and Montecatini, you can make no better choice than to put yourselves in the able hands of tour guide and interpreter Elena Benvenuti and researcher Andrea Mandroni. Elena knows the area’s history well—she’s Tripadvisor’s number one rated attraction in Montecarlo—and Andrea is the premier local genealogist. Andrea can search out your family tree, and Elena, who speaks English well, can show you the towns and churches where your ancestors came from. Born and raised in Lucca, Elena even offers cooking classes that feature her family’s local recipes.

Giuseppe Daniele Pantera, taken between
1860 and 1880.
I recently recommended Elena and Andrea to Paul Jurmo, a friend I met through the Internet. Following my advice, he and his wife and son wrote to Elena and Andrea and planned a trip to Montecatini. They met up in nearby Montecarlo to hear Andreagenealogy discoveries and to learn about the nearby town of San Gennaro, where Paul’s great grandfather Giuseppe Daniele Pantera and earlier ancestors had originated.

I was very grateful for the care Andrea took in making my family tree and providing documentation, and in how he clearly presented the information and patiently responded to my questions when we met,” Paul said. “Elena is a very knowledgeable, professional and personable tour guide, and she and Andrea were a great team, both informative and friendly. I highly recommend them.”

Paul discovered the names and dates and places of birth of about 35 ancestors and cousins that were previously unknown to him. He learned some history of San Gennaro, and, after leaving Andrea and Elena, he and his wife and son visited the town and its church to get a feel for the place where Giuseppe Pantera had been born and raised. Paul wrote a very complete report for his American relatives, and he also shared a copy with me.

These are some excerpts from his pilgrimage to San Gennaro, which took place on Christmas morning of 2018:

We drove along back roads for about 30 minutes from Montecatini Terme, passing through small nearby towns (including Collodi, where the author of the Pinocchio story spent time as a boy). After getting lost a few times on the winding roads, we made the turn onto the rural lane to San Gennaro. We drove slowly up a hill through pretty olive groves. As we rose higher on the hill, we stopped for beautiful vistas and looked out over the rolling hillsides and to distant mountains on the horizon. One could imagine life on that same road in those same orchards two hundred or more years ago.


The Pieve di San Gennaro, the church that the Pantera families attended in Italy. 
Old stone houses began appearing along the roadside. We drove the final stretch of the road and into a parking lot at the edge of the village main street, which serves as the backbone of the community and is lined with old three- and four-story residences painted in yellow and other eye-pleasing Italian-style colors. The village was quiet, with no cars on the narrow street and only a very few people walking along. It appeared that most people weren’t home, maybe visiting elsewhere on Christmas Day or at the village church. We walked to one end of the street and then back up the street in the direction of the church, whose tower could be seen poking its head up over the houses at the other end of the village. I wondered whether our ancestors had lived in one or more of these houses or perhaps in another house on the outskirts of the village.

As we made our way up the hill, we made a final turn that took us to a small cobblestone plaza in front of the church. Christmas Mass was underway. We didn’t want to intrude, so we waited outside, listening to the congregants singing and the priest praying. Then the church bells began ringing and the parishioners emerged from the front door. Not wanting to be intrusive, we didn’t get too close, though I secretly was hoping to catch a glimpse of someone who looked like one of the Pantera aunts or uncles I’d grown up with. Though I didn’t quite see anyone who fit that description, I did see a lot of nice-looking, friendly, well-dressed people greeting each other and looking like they were happy to be together on such a special day and beautiful morning.

After most of the congregants had walked or driven away, we went into the church, which we had read was built around the 13th century on the site of an even older church. The church was not one of the big cathedral-type churches that tourists tend to visit in places like Italy. We took photos of the interior and exterior from different angles, which showed the altar, the priest, his lay assistant, the pulpit, some of the paintings and other decorations, one of the holy water fountains, and the baptismal fountain. I thought that this was a place where many members of our family tree had spent a fair amount of time, being baptized, taking sacraments, attending masses, getting married and attending weddings, and attending funerals.

Paul met the priest, but they were only able to communicate on a very basic level because of language differences. However, Paul said he was greeted warmly and felt very welcome. His visit was too short to allow time to see the cemetery or seek out any possible living relatives in town, but that could be on the agenda for a future visit.

Paul’s visit shows that one doesn’t necessarily have to pay a high price and opt for complete travel arrangements. He made his reservations himself, and by paying Elena and Andrea directly, he saved a bundle over the fees needed for complete trip planning services. However, it takes time and even a bit of good fortune to find a top-notch guide who also partners with the area’s best researcher, so it could be safer to hire a complete travel service such as Travel Italian Style.

Having come to Italy myself to research my roots and see the places where my grandparents grew up, I can relate to the satisfaction that Paul felt. I’ve been fortunate enough to live in Montecarlo long enough to meet dozens of living relatives and other members of the local community—a source of great pleasure and fulfillment. Seeing the homes, streets, places of work and churches where my ancestors were born, baptized, married and gathered for worship evokes feelings that are difficult to describe and impossible to duplicate.


Thursday, January 10, 2019

A trip westward becomes a defining experience for young John Wagoner


The muted glow from the cloud-covered moon cast only the faintest light in the deep, tangled Idaho forest. The year was 1908, and John Ernest Wagoner was wet, alone and lost. Only 17, he had recently graduated from high school in Carroll County, Indiana. He had never been away from home, but when brother George, 11 years John’s elder, told him about a job prospect in a logging camp out west, John succumbed to the lure of opportunity and adventure.

John E. Wagoner, date unknown
Now, standing in the dense woods, John regretted his decision. He tried to fight back the lump in his throat and the hot tears that coursed down his cheeks and mixed with the rain. Never had he been so scared or lonely. George had written directions about which trains to take and where to get off, but they ended with the words, “Go up the trail about three miles and you’ll come to the camp. Ask for me there.” Indiana had stations for its trains, and John had not considered that the final stop might be just a platform in the woods, nor that he would arrive well after sundown.

He should have asked more questions of the other passengers. They would have known which direction he should take to reach the camp. Perhaps some of them were even bound there themselves. But now it was too late. The half dozen or so riders who exited with him at the final stop had marched off in different directions, disappearing in the darkness, as did the train.

Only one thing seemed certain: He had to take a chance and pick the most likely direction, because he didn’t want to spend the night exposed to the dangers of the dark, moist forest. He noted that just beyond the platform, train rails branched off from the main line, and guessing that this spur track might lead to a logging operation, he set off, stumbling occasionally over the rough ties. The gap between the trees seemed to narrow menacingly, as if the trees were moving closer, ready to swallow him as he plodded forward. The blanket roll on his shoulders grew heavier, saturated by the persistent rain.

John plunged onwards, buoyed by the thought that no one would build a train track to nowhere, but it seemed to him that he had covered far more than three miles. Could this be an abandoned line?

John as a young man.
And then he saw it, a faint light in the woods. As he plunged into the woods away from the track, he realized with disappointment that it came not from a camp with barracks but from a single tiny shack. Still, it was a house and a light, which promised people, comfort, information—vast improvements over his prospects only a few minutes before. He knocked on the door, and the light quickly vanished. He heard scuffling noises from inside, and then silence. He knocked again and called out, pleading for help while trying—with only partial success—to keep his voice from shaking.

Finally, a gruff voice answered, “Who are you and what do you want?” A man inside opened the door a crack and lit a lantern. “Why, you’re just a boy.” Shivering, John stammered out his plight, and the man invited him in to warm up.

“You’ve not far to go,” the man explained, offering John a seat and a sip of reheated coffee. “You’ve taken the right track, and the loggers are just up a little farther. Let me get my boots on and I’ll take a lantern to light your way back to the tracks.”

The man from the shack accompanied John back to the tracks and even walked with him until they could see welcoming beams of light emanating from the logging camp. John, relieved beyond measure and with his composure and courage renewed, thanked the kind stranger profusely.

“I’m sorry I called you a boy,” the man said. “I can see now that you’re actually a man.”

“It’s quite all right,” John answered. “You may have been correct—both then and now.”

⧫ ⧫ ⧫

Teacher and principal
Author’s note: This story is based on accounts from my mom and grandmother, with some descriptive details added from my imagination. I grew up in Rosedale, Washington, next door to my grandfather, John Wagoner (1881-1962). He worked in the logging camp for only one winter before he and George moved to Chewelah. They went to college in Spokane, took a state examination and became teachers in 1910. John taught in Washington state for the rest of his working life, often doing double duty as teacher and principal. He had a profound influence on my life.




Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Other Americans have difficulty “being Italian” (but they still love it here)

Six years ago, I wrote a blog about how I desired to fit in with Italian society but often fell short (I want to be Italian, but I come up lacking in some vital areas). It was lighthearted in tone, because fitting in is truly not that important or necessary for me. I’m not a teenager who needs to belong, and I’m not isolated from old friends and family, as is the case with some foreigners. I just made some observations that it would be easier to blend with Italians if I had more love for coffee, wine, fashion, art and a late-night lifestyle.

Hunter posted this photo of  the Italian
way of people waiting in a "line."
Recently I shared this blog on the Facebook group Americans Living in Italy, and it struck a chord with many people who were quick to pour out their tales of woe. It seems I’m far from the only American who suffers from a touch of chronic culture shock. I’ll use first names only for privacy reasons.

“This post is me exactly,” Sheila wrote. “I don’t like coffee unless it’s a frappuccino or caffĂ© crema.” For health reasons, Sheila also doesn’t drink wine. “Italians are like, ‘Omg, you can’t drink wine?’ But then I tell them I save lots of money and my health when I don’t drink alcohol. And my vice is Italian sweets.”

Carole also is not fond of the tiny Italian servings of coffee to start her day: “I do the Italian life when out and about, but I have to have a mug of coffee in the morning that I can hug with both hands. I bought an American coffee maker from Amazon.”

Most of those adding comments brought up other Italian habits that they are loath to adopt.

An Italian breakfast.
Miranda: “I eat dinner early. I eat a big breakfast. I drink caffĂ© lungo. In the summer when it’s hot, I go to bed with wet hair and the fan directly on me! I always go shopping on Sundays.”

Jack: “Ice! I want ice in my soft drinks.”

Reeta: “I want to enjoy my coffee for more than three seconds.”

Serena: “I miss salad dressing and Mexican food.”

Dawn: “I love breakfast. A REAL breakfast.”

Thea: “Yes. A PROPER HEALTHY BREAKFAST without so much sugar and flour in it, also known as cake.”

Sandy: “My personal temperature gage is not very Italian. I hate feeling hot so frequently. I’m dressed too lightly for my Italian friends, and they are scandalized by my short sleeves or lack of scarf.”

Kayt: “I just can’t make myself eat fish with the heads still attached. I don’t care how small they are. Gross! They’ll have to lie to me and tell me it’s something else, just like when they tricked me into eating ravioli with asino. It was actually not too bad, haha!” Note: asino is donkey.

Kim: “It mortified my Italian ex-boyfriend when I’d ask for a doggy bag. I wasn’t gonna let good food go to waste.”

A few people really took my blog as an inspirational starting point and added long lists of complaints about Italian society. Dawn from Rome made several observations:
  • ·       The slowness of this place or lack of urgency unless you are paid off really gets under my skin. I’m all about planning, preparation, timeliness, doing what I say I’ll do. Italians don’t grasp this concept.
  • ·       Food places close after lunch and don’t reopen until 7.30 p.m. for dinner. Come on, elderly people in the U.S. have dinner between 4 and 5. Also, places either don’t serve breakfast or stop by 10 or noon.
  • ·       I don’t dress like Italians temperature wise. I get overheated if it’s not that cold. I just started wearing a scarf two weeks ago (late December).
  • ·       The driving! I follow laws. To Italians, it’s just a suggestion.
  • ·       I hug. I can’t do the kiss kiss thing. It’s just unnatural for me. Not to mention I always lean to my left first and they always go to kiss my left cheek first so we pretty much almost kiss on the lips. It’s awkward.
Bush and Berlusconi combine hand shake and
cheek kiss greetings somewhat awkwardly.
Following Dawn’s “kiss kiss” comment, Kayla added an amusing story: “My husband accidentally kissed our babysitter!!! I have learned to go right, but he hasn’t. After I said goodbye to her, he went to say goodbye and they brushed lips! He was mortified, and she said, ‘I have a boyfriend’ and left. He’s still embarrassed, but it’s my favorite story.”

Lauren also made a list:
  • ·       I hate layers of clothing.
  • ·       I smile and laugh a lot and get stared at constantly.
  • ·       I hate eating past 5:30-6:30 p.m. We wake up at 5 a.m. daily, so by 5 p.m., we’re starving.
  • ·       I like yoga pants and sweats for comfort. At first, I cared and would get ‘dressed’ to go places. Now I do what I want.
  • ·       I also am paying for my (American) coffee. I’ll drink what I want. Don’t worry, my digestion is fine.
  • ·       Who the hell wants ONLY olive oil as an option for salads? It’s great, but I miss Ruby Tuesday’s salad bar. So many toppings!
Michael posted this photo with the tongue-
in-cheek comment that Italy has too many
traffic jams.
One might wonder why I and other Americans live in Italy if we have all these complaints, but several of the commenters pointed out that the benefits still outweigh the inconveniences. A couple of days later in the same Facebook group, someone asked the question: “Out of all of you who have bought property here in Italy, are you happy?” The comments are running almost 100 percent yes, so just because we face cultural differences and like to express them doesn’t mean we’re dissatisfied. It just means we’ve adapted and embraced that very Italian custom of complaining about our beloved country.