Bolzano…A Much Needed Family Vacation

After London I was left with a very bitter taste in my mouth about abroad, being abroad and the whole experience. It was the week of Thanksgiving and I wasn’t going home. It would be my first Thanksgiving away from home, something no part of me wanted. Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday and always a major turning point for my year. Up until college, Thanksgiving weekend was the first weekend of basketball season where I would begin my season for biddy basketball (when I was young) or start the high school season. Besides starting my favorite season of the year, something to which I looked forward with countdowns and excitement for 13 years of my life, the Thanksgiving holiday meant a meal with family without presents. I’ve always enjoyed the gift giving and receiving at Christmas but at some point in my teenage life I realized that my favorite part of Christmas was actually the meal and spending time with my family. I could care less about getting presents. My wonderful, loving, “sane” family always gave me more presents through their love, affection and warmth than any temporary gift could provide. With Thanksgiving I had them without the presents. Perfect.

There I was in Italy left without the family and without the meal. Thanksgiving had always been, at least in college, the time when I needed a break. It was at the perfect point in the semester when I would have gone crazy without getting away for the weekend and taking a break from the pressures of school. How was this possible in Italy? I felt completely alone without the BC friends in London or the friends at Parma. I had to start doing tedious research for two papers on topics about which I had spent the semester not learning. I was pissed that we actually had to do work in these classes where for the entire semester we had done nothing. I hated that I wouldn’t be seeing Courtney for Thanksgiving and that I had missed out on going to Cairo for the weekend. I stayed inside for nearly three days as I wallowed in the lack of family, basketball and America in general. Where were the holiday comforts of dry, cold Connecticut weather? Where was the break I needed? Where was my bed and my family? Where was I and why wasn’t I home?

Bolzano Hills

Needless to say, those first couple of days were not my best in Parma. We had a Thanksgiving aperitivo with the group Wednesday night, after which I went home and watched my friends depart for their various Thanksgiving weekend adventures. Luckily, I had contacted my family in Bolzano, where my Grandma’s cousin, his wife and their children (except for Caterina who I met in Florence) live. I went there three years ago at the end of my last Italian trip and spent four days exploring the mountains and city of Bolzano. It is an incredibly beautiful place and, more than likely, the most beautiful place I have ever seen. The only comparable American city, that I’ve seen, is actually Asheville, North Carolina, another city surrounded by mountains. Bolzano lies in a valley circled by the Alps. Vineyards line the sides of the hills and apple orchards take up the valley. A gorgeous, clear mountain-fed river runs through the city where there is a bike path along the side of it. The downtown of the city managed to remain relatively intact after WWII so it still resembles an old northern Italian city where there is mix of German and Italian influences  because for a very long time northern Italian was under the control of Austria or Germany. The Alps, including the famous Dolomites, are topped with snow, even during the summer when one can walk to literally underneath the peaks as I had done three years ago with my cousin Betti. In the summer it was warm, green, clear  and vibrant. I had no idea what to expect of it in the late fall, wet weather of Italy, but I knew that I would at least see my family.

My cousins, Mario, Silvana and their children Giovanni (Joe), Caterina and Betti are some of the most loving people I have ever met. Three years ago Mario and Silvana welcomed me into their home with open arms without the slightest hesitation to hosting an American teenage relative. This year they did the same thing, regardless of the fact that Mario and Silvana are not exactly young. Well, that’s not true. Both of them are extremely young at heart and are two of the most lively, youthful, mindful, thoughtful and energetic ‘elderly’ people who I have ever experienced. They live a wonderful life after years of hard work and are literally loved by everyone in the city. So the thought of them, and the knowledge that I would indeed be spending Thanksgiving with family members that would provide the love and warmth that only family (I use family here in the sense of blood relatives, but I have always believed that family extends to the closest of friends) can give a person., comforted me and lifted my spirits. I was beyond excited to see them and even managed to leave nearly on time to catch my train to Bolzano on Thursday morning.

Bolzano!

I left Parma, and the sour mood, behind as I boarded the train to Bolzano. I spent the five hour ride reading and researching and managed to plow through nearly the entirety of the horribly written history of the Italian communes that I had to read for a paper in Medieval History. I had arrived to Bolzano around 3 to a clear, but cold afternoon. I instantly recognized the city landscape, but noticed that the trees were not as green. I looked behind me, and in front of me, towards the mountains to not see slopes of bright green as before, but snow reaching far down the slopes to brownish, barren trees. Still, the place was as stunning as I remembered it, even in the death of winter. I heard my name called and turned to see Betti standing there waving towards me. Her and Mario picked me up and they drove me to Mario’s apartment where I would be staying. The city layout came back to me instantly. I somehow even managed to remember where Betti taught her high school students. We spoke only in Italian, which made them quite happy because finally they had an American relative to whom they could speak Italian and not exhaust themselves speaking English! I was proud. I felt like the new connection between the Old World and the New. I was the fourth generation of our family in America, but I had found the ability to connect with our old home. I was not an Italian, but I am Italian. The sight of family in a foreign country and the instant love and connection that flows between the far flung relatives is indescribable. My loneliness and apprehensions of spending Thanksgiving in Italy disappeared. I was with family. I was, in a way, home for the holidays.

After dropping my things off at the apartment, which was exactly as I remembered it, Betti took me for a “passeggiata” (walk) up a path near the apartment which led up one of the bottom slopes of the mountains surrounding Bolzano. It wound up the slope in zig-zag fashion so that the walking was not difficult at all. The sun had begun to set streaking the still clear sky with radiant, majestic lines of orange, pink, purple and gold that contrasted with the navy blue of the onsetting “buio”(dark of night). The mountains in the distance stood out with their white peaks to break the colorful sky light while the lights of the city began to ignite in the already darkening valley. Betti and I talked smoothly in Italian (yes!) about how my life had moved from cooking to Boston College. She wanted to know about my program and the people in it. She asked about my living arrangements at home. We spoke about her students and her new apartment. We talked about family and Michael. We were family, reunited after a far too long absence. The night was beautiful and I once again remembered why I love Italy. It’s the place of family members as wonderful as these and places as stunning as Bolzano. Once it began to really darken and the cold air set in we went back down the slope to have Thanksgiving dinner.

Before we had dinner, however, I experienced one of the most amazing, intriguing and decidedly strangest sights that I believe I will ever see. It was like nothing I have ever seen and like nothing I will ever see again. I truly believe that this event, this 20 minute, happening will be a once in a lifetime experience. Never again will I Skype call with my Italian relatives in Italy to my Mom’s house where the rest of our family, the aunts, uncles, Grandma, Dell and Aunt Phil would be having their Thanksgiving dinner. Modern technology is incredible. Mario and Silvana were able to talk to Grandma and Dell (who still are a bit awed and confused by the whole system even though we have skyped a couple of times). From thousands of miles apart our families connected on the day of the year (at least for me and Americans) best represents the love that families share. Thanksgiving, the day of days where one should be thankful for the best things in life, is the day of the year where I will always be thankful for having the greatest family in the world. And here I was, absent from my normal place in Connecticut or New York, but present in Italy with my other family and having a video call with my family in America. How is this possible? How can this happen? How could something be better in the absence of hosting a Thanksgiving meal at which all of my family could attend? It was wild and a bit out of control as people hassled each other to talk to the computer and I tried to encourage Dell and Grandma, who looked quite stunned to see Mario and Silvana, into talking. Then, to make things more complete and interesting, Joe and Betti arrived and got to meet the uncles who they have never had the pleasure of meeting. What more could I have asked for on Thanksgiving? What could be better than that? Besides that same impossible dinner with all of my family, nothing. What a miraculous thing. We closed the computer and sat down for dinner.

Silvana, a fabulous cook, had gone out of her way to find turkey to cook for Thanksgiving. Turkey, in Italy, is not exactly something that people eat every day so she had a bit of a hard time finding it in the stores. We had pasta with ragu for a primo, turkey and cicoria for secondi with their homemade jams to act as a replacement of cranberry sauce. It was a wonderful dinner. I had turkey on Thanksgiving, in Italy! I ate with my family. We spent hours talking and talking and talking. At home in America there are no awkward silences. The exact same can be said for my family in Italy. The Paolucci’s are just as lively, intelligent, political and witty as the Sasso’s. We are all family in the end. I was exhausted after dinner, but beyond happy. I was worried when the day began about a lack of family, but ended the day with the love and warmth and comfort that I only knew with family. I could have been anywhere in the world, I realized, and it wouldn’t matter so long as I was there with people who genuinely cared for me and loved me. I love family.

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