Joanna Clapps Herman
Quando Sono Italiana: When I Am Italian
Summer mornings I slip into the sandals that are kept by the door, before I step out onto my terrace in my nightgown or in an old, loose dress to sit, while my coffee is brewing. This is luxury in New York City, wearing una vestaglia outside, in full view, but not in public. Half asleep, I sit and study my large pots of geraniums. The endless rain this spring seems to have forced excessive efflorescence—twenty-five blossoms in some pots. There are two bright red, alongside a single pale Giotto pink, a dark, velvety, red on top of the air-conditioner. In one corner, one very dark pink. Two shades of coral sit between the windows. I gaze at my flowers and then off into the distance at the Hudson River and the church. The subway descends into the tunnel, a noisy clung and clatter then it’s gone. Gathering up my cup and milk and coffee from the kitchen, I set them out on the Moroccan tray table, look around again, and slowly begin to drink my coffee. The Times is under the coffee pot, so that it doesn’t blow away, but I rarely read the paper out there. Too often a breeze makes it flutter unruly. The paper waits until later in the evening, but I admit sometimes the paper gets dumped straight into the paper recycling before I go to bed.
After my first cup of coffee, I visit each pot and inspect my blossoming plants. My body is relaxed under the thin fabric loosely grazing my skin; the skirt flaps in the morning breeze.
Is this blossom really ready to be snapped or clipped, then stuffed down into the dirt in the pot? Are there still buds under the flower waiting to unfold? This takes time and consideration. I don’t act quickly. I stick my fingers in the dirt. How dry is it? Water? I go back to my coffee, sipping and looking.
If my plants need water I’ll spend some time going back and forth to my kitchen filling watering cans and making sure each pot gets the right amount. This all leads to the varying colors of petals scattering over the terrace pavement. I might gently shake the dense ripe blossoms to loosen the petals that are ready to drop.
Then I sweep. The soft repetition of brush, brush, against the hard surface, the sound and the motion of the broom, makes a meditative moment. I seek out every crevice between pots, sweep, sweep. Sometimes I sweep more than is needed, loosen a few more petals, tweak another blossom to make room for the new buds underneath. The gathered petals create a small pool of color.
Each brush calls up in me anime di donne italiane, the spirits of Italian women. They flow into me with each brush of the broom, inhabit me. Brush, hush, a whisper from woman to woman. All my Italian women are with me, all southern Italian women, arrive too: Sicilian, Lucane, Calabrese, Napolitane, Apugliese all join this convocation, are in me, with me. Mornings, Mediterranean women sweep around their pots on their terrazzi, or in front of their doorways, around their plants: they bend to pick up a stray stem or stick or pebble from the ground. They, too, are in their vestaglie (clothes meant for domestic life). They, too, sprinkle water on plants; then throw some of the water on hard stone pavement, throw a rag down to the ground. The broom collects the rag in its bristles, then sweeps away the dark earth stains. Then they rest on their brooms, look off.
All of this is real. Something that lives in me.
There are other gestures and postures that transport me to a similar state. In my hometowns in southern Italy, and in Naples, in Sicily, I see women crossing their arms over their breasts, standing outside their doorways talking to their neighbors. I want to stop and chat with them, pretend I live there too. When I snap the ends of string beans, mend with good small stitches, tug just so with each stitch. When I cut the bread toward my breasts instead of cutting down and away from me—they are with me.
This archaic sense of italianate` beckons itself to me at particular times. Only once has one of my son’s friends spoke to me disrespectfully. It brought southern Italian fury rushing up. I couldn’t believe he had the balls to talk to me like that. Didn’t he know he was talking to a southern Italian woman? Disgraziato! Scustumad’!
Another time, just steps beyond the Milano train station, about a dozen Roma urchins surrounded Bill, James and me. James was a young boy. Many of the Roma were younger and tinier than James. We were in for the day from Torino. They encircled us, touched Bill all over his body, while one small hand slipped in and out of his pocket stealing about 100 Euros without him realizing it. They ran off while my husband reached into his pocket to discover the money was gone. Then this group of a dozen or so dirty urchins dared to circle back toward us to see what they may have left behind. Watching them approach us again, my grandmother’s shrieking dialect poured out of me, “Chiesta ca! Ma che fai mo? Ancor’ ritorn.’ Ammazzatevi.” They scattered instantly recognizing my tone if not my words. It was the voice of an old Italian woman who’s afraid of no one. No one had better dare to come near her family. It worked. I was thrilled and enraged at the same time. At Bill as well as at them. “How can they possibly pick pocket me without my knowing it?” he had demanded of me with a touch of scorn, when I had asked him to put his money in a safe place before we got off the train from Torino where we were living at the time. I know who I am at those moments in no uncertain terms. I am more than myself. My original self.
During the time we lived in Torino, I noticed that all the women of my mother’s age dressed precisely as my mother and my aunts dressed. Although my family is not widely traveled, somehow these same boxy silky (rayon) blouses in flowery prints were worn over sheath skirts reaching just below their knees. They all wore the same low-heeled pumps or white sandals in the summer. Simple and elegant. I could, and did, buy almost whatever came to hand in the outdoor markets, and my mother was delighted. Yes, those earrings, yes that blouse. Perfect. How had this style sailed across the ocean. It wasn’t high fashion, it was simple, and lovely, what older Italian women wore then, wherever they lived.
Two years ago I began a search for French bistro dishes with an orange and thin gray stripe around the rim. Annie Carballo gave me a whole number of them she had stored in her basement when she found out about my quest. By then I realized this search had overtaken me because they looked so much like the dishes that had always been on my grandmother’s farm table. When I tripped into that recognition I bought even more of them. They belong to me. These dishes happen to be French bistro but who’s keeping this record? Sei moi. E` mio.
All this belongs to me. Is me.
When my sister and I heard older women speaking in Portugal, Lucia turned to me, “Don’t those soft s’s sound like Tolvese dialect?” Yes, yes, she was so right. Didn’t those women look like our aunts and grandmothers? They wore the same long skirts, the same scarves tied to their heads as our older Tolevese relatives. Is that vernacular Portuguese closer to the Spanish spoken when southern Italy was part of the Spanish empire?
When I read Palace Walk, the first volume of The Cairo Trilogy by Mahfouz, the descriptions of the coffee gatherings, with plates of sweets after school hours, with the women and the children all gathered in one room every afternoon, I was stunned by recognition. This was my home, this was my family. The voice and tone of the father was the identical to that of my patriarchal grandfathers. I began to understand how widespread the Mediterranean culture was and is: how broad and old the culture I belong in is. Yes, this too is familiar and recognizable.
For years on my travels throughout Italy, I admired the gold necklaces on Italian women, tracing their fine Italian necks. I saved every extra penny all of one year because we were going to be in Italy that summer. I finally bought myself one lovely gold necklace. It’s the only good piece of jewelry I own. When I wear that necklace I am more Italian. This identification takes on a new meaning. Buying the necklace, wearing the necklace, helps me assemble more of my Italianate self. These evocations are layers I reach for, to lay these new pieces onto myself to reinforce this identification.
I study the way women dress when I travel in the Mediterranean, buy clothes just like theirs. I study their eyeglass frames. Search for similar ones myself. My homes for decades have been filled with coffee pots, platters, silverware, duplicating the ones as I’ve found it in the Italian and French homes of family and friends, in flea markets, in home good stores.
These are things I gather to me as I travel, take home to store in my home and inside me.
I am Italian. I am Mediterranean, I reassure myself.
While Waterbury, my Italian ancestral village, my Italian colony came first, once I was firmly outside the paradigm of my origins, all my extensive travels throughout the Mediterranean, in Italy especially, the reading, studying, observing, has reinforced what I knew as my Italian self. I carefully harvest each observation, each new understanding, applying the additional layers like gold leaf with great care and pleasure. This is invocation, is an embracing, but also, an insistence. To whom am I insisting?
Perhaps the construction of this overlay onto my origins is not just an embrace of the larger Italian culture, but in my intensity is, at times, exaggerated. Perhaps I’ve even become a fabricator of the first fraudulent order.
I’m a primitive Italian speaker. I get by in Italy. Although the sounds of my dialects create an intimacy and longing when it swishes past my ears, I only have a scattered vocabulary, the words we used daily alongside of vernacular provincial English. Merely, the obvious.
I was born and raised in America, however much our daily lives were embedded in the ancient ways of southern Italian immigrant ways. I grew up listening to rock and roll in the late ’50s as it poured through our radios. I went to sock hops in high school. I watched every sports game Crosby High School played. I wore Madras plaid shirt-waist dresses with the best of them. I learned to dance the jitterbug first, then the twist, then the jerk, then I learned to move my body to the rhythms of rock and soul. Motown still thrills me. I have lived through the assassinations of Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. I am embedded here. Too.
I enjoy the privileges, and I am ashamed of meanness, that attend growing up at the height of the American First World Empire days.
When I’m in Italy, clearly sono un’Americana. They know it and so I have to know it. I am always doing my best to learn some more about where my people came from. To create another deposit of this complex, layered identity.
I am really only trying to say one thing. This is a confession, so I’m just going to go ahead and say it. I confess. I am American.
Just not when I’m sweeping my terrace.
Joanna Clapps Herman’s publications include the forthcoming memoir How to Build an Italian: Six Rules, (SUNY Press, 2018), No Longer and Not Yet, a collection of stories, (SUNY Press, 2014), the Anarchist Bastard, a memoir, (SUNY Press, 2011). She was co-editor of two anthologies, Wild Dreams (Fordham Press, 2008) Our Roots are Deep with Passion, (Other Press, 2006). Website: joannaclappsherman.com