Cousins in Calabria

As you can all tell by now, I’m not very good at writing posts consistently; but, my trip last month finally gave me plenty to write about. My family was here with me in Rome, and I had a great time showing them around the city! It’s easy to forget how incredible it is to walk by millenniums-old monuments every day, and being with them reminded me of how lucky I am to be here. But, it was really our trip to Reggio Calabria that inspired to me to write. When we stepped off the plane on to the tarmac of the tiny airport, I had no idea what to expect. What I found in Calabria, however, was some of the most beautiful land I’ve ever seen and kindest people I’ve ever met. 

The 360 degree view from the roof of my cousins' house; the island you see across the ocean is Sicily. 

At the airport, I was greeted by a large group of people who I had never met before or was too young to remember. However, by the time I boarded the plane to leave it was clear that everyone I met was family. I had meal after meal, enjoying time around the table with cousins of all kinds. Of course, everything was delicious; I forgot how much you eat at a proper Italian meal, and I was promptly reminded after the 5th course of dinner. The hospitality of my family, many of whom didn’t know anything about me until probably a month earlier, was absolutely incredible. You would have thought that we were all the closest of friends and family based upon the warmth with which we were greeted, and I was amazed by exactly how kind everyone was. Despite a language barrier, the whole family was eager to learn more about each of us - where we lived, what we were studying, where we worked, etc. Luckily, all but the oldest of our relatives spoke relatively textbook Italian, so I was actually able to understand and talk with them! Finally, all those semesters of Italian paid off; we were all able to talk to each other, and luckily my mom understood the Calabrese that the oldest generation spoke. 

The terrain of Calabria was equally as amazing; never have I seen such a combination of forest, mountain, and sea. I didn’t expect Sicily to be so close, and I definitely didn’t expect to see mountains of the scale we did. As we ascended the winding roads to Trunca - where my Nonna was born and a great deal of my mom’s family live(d) - the mountains grew around us, covered in the greenery of full-grown trees despite the Winter. In one direction, the mountains continued upwards. When we headed the other direction, down towards the ocean, I was amazed by exactly how clear the water was. It was crisp and blue, and lapped calmly against the rocky beaches. Despite the rain, we could clearly see Sicily and the beginning of the countryside from the cliffs of Scilla (a neighboring town). It really felt like it was only a swim away! The beaches were beautiful, and Reggio Calabria was built right up to the shore. The city was by no means metropolitan, but it had everything you might need: a shopping center, plenty of caffe’s that would turn into bars later in the night, and a surplus of restaurants. It was relatively large by southern Italian standards, but held the same slower pace of life that I’ve grown to love. 

What struck me most about Calabria, however, was the interaction between the land and people, and how it dictated the everyday culture. Doors were always slightly ajar to let in the fresh air, and absolutely everyone grew fresh fruits and vegetables. At my cousins’ house, the garden stretched across the entire property - and they still had a separate area for a few animals. They picked the fruit that we had for dessert, hand-made the salami that we had before dinner, and bought the fresh fish from a local fisherman who went door-to-door. There was no struggle to tame the land, and the line between the indoors and outdoors was blurred as the weather improved. Nature isn’t something that you go out and look for in Calabria,  it’s an integral part of everyday life: every day involves driving across the tree-covered mountains, tending to the garden, and freshly picking the food you’ll have for dinner. I really loved the slower pace of life and the effortless coexistence of the Calabrians and the land.   

Unfortunately, we had to say our goodbyes too soon. We reluctantly went through airport security on the way back to Rome with bags and bags of gifts, sadly waving goodbye to everyone who came to the airport. I’m still enjoying the fresh food they sent back to Rome with me, but I left Calabria with much more than bags of souvenirs. I stepped onto the plane with a much greater understanding of myself and my family. I understand why family is so important to us after visiting the place where my great-grandparents worked so hard trying just to survive, but worked together with the other families of the community to build a small church for everyone to use. Family was important because it was impossible to make it through the poverty of those times in southern Italy without each other’s help, and my family brought this sense of unity with them across the Atlantic. 

I understand now why I’ve always been taught to be grateful, and why my nonna is always amazed by the opportunities I have. She grew up in a small village where she had to leave school in order to work and help support the family. The fact that I can go to college and take an entire semester to visit the country where she was born - which I’m sure seemed only a dream to her - is absolutely incredible. There’s no way she could have even dreamt of being able to give her children and grandchildren these types of opportunities when she immigrated with her family, and yet I’m here in Rome thanks to the hard work of my grandparents and great-grandparents on both sides of my family. If Nonna Antonia and Nonno Paolo didn’t have the courage to uproot their lives and travel to the United States, I wouldn’t be here today. It’s humbling to think of how I got here and, though I’ve never held the illusion that my life is difficult by any means, it really puts my life and my family into perspective. This trip was the best yet, and I’m excited to visit once more!