Friday, January 5, 2018

Italy: Is it a state . . . or a state of mind? A poetic thesis about what it means to be Italian

I’ve written a couple of articles about those DNA tests that help people discover their ethnic backgrounds. The comments I’ve received range from gratefulness to bewilderment to anger.

Some are thankful to understand why their own tests came back as less than 100% Italian (or less than 50% for those with one Italian parent). Others wondered why I even bothered to write the articles, since ‟everyone knows” that Italians are a blend of many cultures and ethnic identities. And some feel that DNA tests are a waste of time. ‟Why should I take a test when I already know I’m 100% Italian?” some readers ask.

I doubt that anyone will show up to be 100% Italian genetically (although a few readers did claim their DNA tests proved just that). I suppose a person could make a case that if one’s ancestors have been in Italy since the unification in 1861, they are 100% Italian. But rather than elaborate or argue about the value and purpose of genetic testing, now I’d like to forget the science for a moment and speak to the heart and soul of what it means to be Italian.

I wrote previously that there’s a big difference between ancient ethnic origin and culture. To be Italian, I said, can refer to either a region or a culture—but I may have been leaving something out.

I recently read a splendid thesis by Enzo Camilleri, an Italian American writer born in Porto Empedocle in Sicily, Italy, and now residing in New York. Camilleri is a decorated veteran of the United States Army. He is also a cousin of famed writer Andrea Camilleri.

Porto Empedocle
The thesis came in answer to someone’s comment on Facebook, and I don’t know if Enzo considers it prose, poetry or just a response to another person’s comment—but I love it and consider it exquisite poetry.

He wrote it in Italian, but he’s graciously consented to translate it for me. I’ll include a copy of the Italian version in the footnotes.

Italians are complex people who are quick to complain about their crazy culture—and quick to defend it as well. They are proud. They can be both reverent and irreverent at the same time. But enough of my pontificating. Here are Enzo’s elegantly expressed thoughts. Give me your reactions.

Italy is not a country: Italy is an emotion . . .

There are countries that do not have geography and even less borders. It took several trips to different Italian cities to convince me that Italy is not a country in the conventional sense.

Italy is an emotion that does not leave you even if you are on the other side of the earth. Italy is something you bring inside you. Everywhere you go. It becomes a part of you, a lifestyle, an intoxication that takes you away in the moments when you are in apnea, a beauty tattooed on your eyes that projects you, in the blink of an eye, well above the ugliness that surrounds you.

Italy is a personal score written in your DNA, a hymn to life, a prayer, a permanent reminder that tickles all your senses and invites them to a journey of initiation, even if you do not move. Your body can be placed anywhere in the world, just close your eyes to let the colors, smells, tastes and all the pleasures that Italy offers you flow. Generous, cheerful, elegant, mother of all arts, mad, Roman, Florentine, Tuscan, Sicilian, Milanese or Neapolitan, Italy is a multiple personality that has a unique magical power. When you have tasted the divine, how difficult it is to return to earth!

Italy is an earthquake full of emotions from which nobody comes out unscathed. It penetrates your genes. It flows in your veins. It lives in you. It lights up inside you.

Italy is radioactive, nuclear, titanic, volcanic. It’s a wave that drowns you to enable your rebirth. It is a melody that caresses the eardrums, a masterpiece that leaves you speechless, a sweet that will become the salt of your life . . .

Italy is not a country, Italy is an emotion that hits you in the heart and will never leave you again.

Italy, my love.

Enzo Camilleri

Lonely tree on Sardegna


Enzo’s original version, in Italian

L'Italia non è un paese, l'Italia è un'emozione....

Ci sono paesi che non hanno la geografia e ancor meno i confini. Ci sono voluti diversi viaggi in diverse città italiane per convincermi che l'Italia non è un paese nel senso convenzionale.

L'Italia è un'emozione che non ti lascia anche se ti trovi dall'altra parte della terra. L'Italia, te la porti dentro. Ovunque tu vada. Diventa una parte di te, uno stile di vita, una ebbrezza che ti porta via nei moments in cui sei in apnea, una bellezza tatuata sui tuoi occhi che ti proietta in un batter d'occhio ben al di sopra delle bruttezze che ti stanno attorno.

L'Italia è un punteggio personale scritto nel tuo DNA, un'inno alla vita, una preghiera, un richiamo permanente che solletica tutti i tuoi sensi e li invita ad un viaggio di iniziazione, pure non muovandoti. Il tuo corpo può essere posizionato in qualsiasi parte del mondo, basta chiudere gli occhi per far scorrere i colori, gli odori, i sapori e tutti i piaceri che l'Italia ti offre. Generosa, allegra, elegante, madre di tutte le arti, pazza, romana, fiorentina, toscana, siciliana, milanese o napoletana, l'Italia è una personalità multipla che ha un potere magico unico. Quando hai gustato al divino, quant'è difficile tornare sulla terra!

L'Italia è un terremoto carico di emozioni dal quale nessuno esce indenne. Penetra i tuoi geni. Scorre nelle tue vene. Vive in te. Ti si illumina dentro.
L'Italia è radioattiva, nucleare, titanica, vulcanica. E 'un'onda che ti annega per meglio farti rinascere. É una melodia che ti accarezza i timpani, un capolavoro che ti lascia a bocca aperta, un dolciume che diventerà il sale della tua vita …

L'Italia non è un paese, l'Italia è un'emozione che ti colpisce al cuore e non ti lascerà mai più.

Italia, amore mio.


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  2. I have always felt some of that even before I visited Italy. Can such feelings be genetic? Do we relate so much more to our italian side because we were surrounded by so many family members while having so little contact with mom's relatives? Probably so, but I'd rather think it's something more mystical.
    Sorella Linda

  3. Genetics & Anthropology in Sicily

    "Norman Sicily stood forth in Europe --and indeed in the whole bigoted medieval world-- as an example of tolerance and enlightenment, a lesson in the respect that every man should feel for those whose blood and beliefs happen to differ from his own."

    -- John Julius Norwich, The Kingdom in the Sun 1970

    "Sicilians are a diverse people, having had contact with a great variety of ethnic stocks and physical types throughout the centuries."

    -- Encyclopedia Britannica, Volume 10, page 779 1997

    Genes and populations.The most personal of biological sciences, genetics influence everything about who we are. Our appearance, talents and health - even our identities - are all shaped to a great extent by the genes we inherited through our parents. Perhaps for this reason, the topic often provokes strong emotions and opinions. This very simplified overview is not intended as a detailed scientific or sociological treatise, nor is it intended for research purposes. (For insights into population genetics, works such as those of the distinguished geneticist Luigi L. Cavalli-Sforza should be consulted; Matt Ridley's Genome is a good introduction for the layman; Steven Oppenheimer's Out of Eden and Spencer Wells' The Journey of Man place pre-historic human migration in perspective.) First, let's define a few terms. Ethnology generally refers to the social study of peoples and the comparative differences among them, in view of culture, history and traditions; ethnography is a methodical identification of peoples based on ethnology. Genealogy is the historical study of ancestral lineages, descent and kinship. As a research tool, genealogy is quite useful in genetic studies, but social concepts such as consanguinity ("blood" relationships between people descended from the same ancestor) are not, strictly speaking, biological in nature. In a place as ethnically diverse as Sicily, ethnology is interesting (though this is not an "ethnic" website), while genetic knowledge is obviously important in treating certain diseases. Race is a traditional social method of identifying people from various regions based primarily on their appearance and various physical characteristics. Anthropology is the study of man generally - physically, socially, culturally. In its most general sense, anthropology often embraces ethnology, population genetics, genealogy and many aspects of biology, history, archeology, linguistics and the arts. (For more information about the origins and ethnology of the various Sicilian peoples, see the Sicilian Peoples series linked from "Brothers" in the following section.)

    Take your place in history.This all seems rather abstract --even impersonal-- until you start to trace your own ancestral DNA. That's the idea behind the 5 year long Genographic Project sponsored by the National Geographic Society. The project's website offers a good overview and atlas of population genetics, explaining its impact on individuals. To participate in their study, you'll need DNA analysis from a company such as Family tree DNA. Eventually, Best of Sicily will present a summary based on their results. We've already received correspondence from a number of readers about their own results from genetic analysis. This indicates, for example, a high prevalence of gene marker M172 (Haplogroup J2), shared by peoples (including Sicily's Elymians, Carthaginians, Greeks and Arabs) having remote origins in the Fertile Crescent.

  4. This is funny for a change........Subject: ITALIAN PREGNANCY
    An 18-year-old Italian girl tells her Mom that she has missed her period for 2 months. Very worried, the mother goes to the drugstore and buys a pregnancy kit.

    The test result shows that the girl is pregnant.

    Shouting, cursing, crying, the mother says, 'Who wasa the pig that did this to you? I
    want to know!'

    The girl picks up the phone and makes a call. Half an hour later, a Ferrari stops in
    front of their house. A mature and distinguished man with gray hair and impeccably dressed in an Armani suit steps out and enters the house.

    He sits in the living room with the father, mother, and the girl and tells them:
    "Good morning, your daughter has informed me of the problem. I can't marry her
    because of my personal family situation but I'll take charge. I will pay all costs and provide for your daughter for the rest of her life.

    Additionally, if a girl is born, I will bequeath a Ferrari, 2 retail stores, a townhouse, a beachfront villa, and a $2,000,000 bank account. If a boy is born, my legacy will be a couple of factories and a $4,000,000 bank account. If twins, they will receive a factory and $2,000,000 each.

    However, if there is a miscarriage, what do you suggest I do?"

    At this point, the father, who had remained silent holding a shotgun, places a hand
    firmly on the man's shoulder, looks him directly in the eyes and tells him:

    "You'a gonna try again."

  5. Sicani, siculi, fenici, greci, romani, cartaginesi, vandali, bizantini, arabi, normanni, svevi, angioini, borbone, piemontesi, miricani, curnuti&'nfami, n’è passata di gente senza ponte. Siculamente.
    La storia si ripete spesso due volte, al sud tocca sempre la tragedia, al nord un guardaroba nuovo per sovrani, papi e guerrieri.
    I sud li hanno creati i nord per saccheggiarne impunemente le ricchezze e depositarci le scorie, la spazzatura e le colpe di tutti i misfatti.
    Non dipende dalla razza.
    C'è un nord ed un sud in ogni continente, in ogni stato, regione, quartiere e famiglia.
    La geografia non c'entra nulla, è tutto nella nostra testa.
    Questa consapevolezza è cio' che rende un popolo nordico anzichè sudicio.
    Siamo nati in un'isola dove i popoli hanno fatto l'amore e si sono combattuti, amanti diversi ed opposti, si sono odiati, si sono attratti, contaminati, innamorati, hanno proliferato, hanno prolificato.
    Biondi, bruni, rossi, blu. La sicilia è il centro di tutto, con le braccia aperte siamo stati terra di rifugio per invasori, viandanti, latitanti & pellegrini abbiamo accolto gli stranieri letteralmente come dei re.
    Sappiamo come conquistarne il mondo senza sparare un colpo, perchè l'amore è il centro di tutto e l'accoglienza il centro dell'amore.
    Sappiamo che vorrete venire in Sicilia, perchè una volta venuti non farete che venire e poi ancora. E poi ancora.
    La diversità è una ricchezza ed il nazionalismo una forma edulcorata di razzismo.
    Non crediamo nell'attitudine dei meridionali al vizio e al crimine.
    Crediamo nella funzione pedagogica dell'esempio e nell'educazione al bello.
    Siamo nati senza camicia e comunque preferiamo le magliettine.

  6. Italian Americans are a proud people. We are proud of our contributions to science. Doubly so, we are proud of our contributions to art. Our culture is world renowned. We’re Latin (or, at least, we used to be in the United States). In fact, we seem to let just about everybody we encounter know this. I guess it’s a small price to pay for the greatness of being our friends. Of course, I am being playfully sardonic.
    Here, in the United States, we are proud of the history of our struggle. Most of our families immigrated from the most destitute regions in south Italy. I think just about every Italian American grandchild has heard great tales of struggle—of poverty, of rations, of our grandparents’ holding down of multiple jobs, of war.
    My grandfather never graduated high school. He dropped out to work. He served in World War II and then became a mechanic. His father was a street sweeper. And after two generations, mine is the first to graduate college, at least in my immediate family. Like I stated, this is a commonplace tale. Now, most Italian Americans are solidly middle class, although, for many reasons, mostly having to do with the global economy, this status seems to be in danger of slipping.
    And this last fact is what brings me to our subject. Not everything we do is worthy of pride. After all, when threatened, we have been just as quick to sign our names to the proclamations of dictators as we have been to sign our names to the advancement of science and freedom. Unfortunately, this is a trend that has not changed:


Comments welcome.