“Your dad’s got my car in the shed,” she tells me over the phone.
“In the shed?” I say. “He knocked down the shed. You mean the driveway.”
“Yeah, well, over there.”
I know it’s a touchy subject with nonna – the car. It’s been four years since she lost her driver’s license, but the memory of the sleepless nights and the tests that she failed twice when she turned eighty, before she got an interpreter, is still fresh.
“We’ll use the car,” I say. “We’re coming for a visit and bringing the baby.” I explain that we’ve been living in Spain – near Italy – and that our daughter Arantxa is now six months old.
She goes on about the car. “He stole it,” she says.
She’s talking about my dad. I know he didn’t steal the car, he bought it for more than it was worth and put more money into repairing it. But I don’t tell her this. Deep down I think she knows she shouldn’t be driving, but the thought of the neighbours not seeing the car in the driveway and knowing she can’t drive is impossible for her. She single-handedly raised four daughters and never asked anything from anyone.
“So you remember,” I say.
“Do you remember the time you came into the dressing room when the hockey team was showering?”
She laughs. Then explains every detail about the fritole – her Timbits – how much the guys liked them, what a great game we had played, how much she liked the tournament in Vancouver. It’s been fifteen years since I last played hockey, but she still remembers. She doesn’t remember the new stuff but she remembers the old.
“What about the joke?”
“That rental car was noisy,” she insists, laughing again.
We had gone for a drive in the Rockies. I’d asked her a question five times and she hadn’t responded. I told her finally she might need a hearing aid. She yelled back, no, I don’t need to urinate.
“You did so much for me,” she says. “You painted the walls and dug up the garden. We did good work, you and me.”
I tell her she’s exaggerating. She changes the subject. She talks now about the “square heads,” the partigiano who tried to steal the family bicycle, the textile mill where she worked with a thousand women, the immigration officer in Rome who questioned the family health, until he saw my roly-poly two-year-old mom running around with a banana.
She asks if I’ve heard about the photo. I have – the photo she’s never seen, that a journalist took of her with my mom when they first arrived, that other Italians said they saw in the paper. But I let her tell the story anyway. I think it’s good for her to be remembering.
I have a chicken in the oven and this international call is costing me a fortune, but I can’t stop her. She’s talking about the Leafs now. And Cory, her hairdresser, who used to do up her hair like Queen Elizabeth every Saturday – like a crunchy helmet, we used to tease her – when she had enough hair to work with. She’s complaining about Gianni, her neighbour, who is still spying on her, keeping chickens and pigs and who knows what else that stinks and makes noise in the backyard, and who is refusing to prune his bushes so they creep over the fence and drop their leaves in her garden, which she can no longer keep up because of her damn legs.
“Someone’s knocking at the door,” she says.
I’m saved by my aunt and her partner.
“Angela and her friend are here to wash my hair,” she exclaims. Her excitement is palpable, like a child’s. She doesn’t italicize friend, as a woman of her generation might. Yet I know she knows. She’s told me, “Those two do everything.”
“Angela, no, it’s Sandra, and her partner Joan,” I say. “Remember, Angela is your other daughter.”
She doesn’t hear me. “Ciao caro,” she says, and hangs up.
It’s cold when we arrive on the outskirts of Milan from Valencia. It’s like Canada. We buy tickets for the shuttle bus into the city. The woman who sells us the tickets says it’s a one-hour ride.
It’s snowing and the highway is a mess. The driver is nervous. I look out the window thinking that by keeping my head up we’ll be safe. I study the surroundings. Construction is all over the place – new condominium units, giant storage facilities, strip malls. This could be the 401.
It takes two hours to get to Stazione Centrale. From there we take a train to downtown Bologna, where at least it’s not snowing. Arcades, domes, clay-tiled roofs, cobblestone streets, motorini – this is the Italy I remember.
We take a taxi to our hotel, a medieval convent belonging to the University of Bologna. The driver is friendly – too friendly. He charges an exorbitant fare. Rather than one signed, filled-in receipt, he offers two. “We don’t need the blank one,” I tell him.
“For the people paying,” he says. “Put in whatever price you want.” He smirks. I take both and I wonder how many times a day he plays this gig. This also is the Italy I remember – Italia la furba.
While my wife meets with other academics, I take in the sights with Arantxa. We check out the leaning Two Towers, museums, and the Piazza Maggiore. At the large Feltrinelli bookstore, I ask for something recent, fiction. A young woman, making faces at Arantxa, shows me a bunch of books by Wu Ming.
“Wu Ming is a collective, not one author,” she explains.
“They sound Chinese,” I say.
“They’re Italian, Bolognese.”
I pick up Manituana. Where have I heard that word before?
“That’s a bestseller,” says the woman.
I flip through the book. Manituana, the Garden of the Great Spirit, it explains, was the name the Iroquois gave the Thousand Islands, in the St. Lawrence River. I pick up another book by the collective. Grand River: Un Viaggio. Grand River, as in Ontario, as in Brantford, Kitchener-Waterloo, Fergus?
I’m a little confused. Why would Italians be interested in Canada, my place of birth? What’s there but broken families with aged matriarchs like nonna? I suppose, I think, there’s multiculturalism and upward mobility, but paid for with a time-strapped sense of community and compulsive work. The interest, naturally, has mostly been the other way around.
“Where are you from?” the woman asks, picking up an accent.
“Spagnolo,” I say. I don’t want to confuse her with my complicated family history. In Spain, I say italiano because I’m tired of saying I’m not American and defending Canada, my country, in a way. Old Europe still doesn’t get multiple identities in the way Canada does.
“You might like something else,” she says.
“No, I’ll take them.”
Sunday is a free day so we organize a visit to my other nonna and half of the family. They don’t live far from Bologna. I only give them a day’s notice, but they’re all there to greet us and eager to meet Arantxa. We take a train and the scenery is better, but still the big boxes and billboards creep into view, interspersed between large farmhouses and thinned forests. I think of the stories my dad told me about growing up in one of those farmhouses – the five or six families crammed in together, the rats that ran along the roof beams and dropped into your bed, the scrawny cats that leapt up and snatched a morsel if you blinked. I think of the film The Tree of Wooden Clogs, about the lives of those farm families, their poverty, but also the beautiful, well-ordered simplicity.
The family is all cheek pinching and mangia, mangia! But I sense something has changed. Nonna can no longer walk alone, which means she doesn’t keep chickens any more and can only go to mass once a week, when my aunt can bring her. She sits at the table slurping her minestra and fiddling with a mound of pill packages. My uncle Luigi, who nonna has cared for since meningitis touched his brain when he was young, is less talkative. He doesn’t perk up like he used to. He doesn’t talk about his bicycle, or the beans he used to put up his nose so they got stuck there and he could visit the friendly doctors at the hospital. The family suspects he’s had a stroke.
“Arantxa è diverso,” says nonna, stumbling on pronouncing the name.
“It’s like arancia, pronounced almost the same, but it doesn’t mean orange in Catalan.”
She looks puzzled. I explain that Catalan is another language of Spain, a bit like dialect, but more. The Catalans revived it when Franco the Spanish Mussolini died. I contemplate saying Berlusconi instead of Mussolini, but I know the family doesn’t like politics.
“Arancia… You know we used to eat just one orange a year,” she says. I listen, happy to hear her stories. Where there are personal and family stories there is hope.
I mention the man at the station from Cote d’Ivoire who we gave a few euro to because he was hungry. My cousins complain they can’t find work after years of university. My uncles groan. They talk about noi and loro, us and them. I’m not sure if I’m part of the us. Maybe fifty percent.
It’s twenty-five degrees in Valencia, spring, and the long-awaited visit to Canada. I read part of Manituana on the flight. Wu Ming fascinates me. I can’t get over how six-hundred pages on the Iroquois Confederacy, Joseph and Molly Brant, and the history of the Six Nations, from losing their homeland in New York State to resettling in Upper Canada, has achieved success in Italy. All I know about the Six Nations is that they blocked a road near Hamilton a few years ago and live in a nearby reserve. I’m distressed it took some Italians to interest me in their history when it was literally under my nose most of my life.
My dad picks us up at the airport in Toronto and brings us home. The family is waiting – aunts and uncles, cousins, my sister, and nonna, seated in the centre of everyone, complaining about her new cane. A cheer goes up at the sight of Arantxa, who smiles at them all.
Dinner is barbecue – salsicce for the carnivores and tofu burgers for the weirdos – with a salad of radicchio and tomatoes from the garden, served in a pink plastic bowl large enough to bathe in, and homemade wine in recycled bottles, with an inch of sludge settled at the bottom of them. “A good Italian meal,” someone says. I think there’s nothing Italian about it. The sausages are like hot dogs, the burgers look like they’ve come from outer space, and the salad is doused in a sweet dressing that could be Asian sweet-and-sour sauce. The dessert is stained-glass cake, a family invention made from Jello, and coffee. My wife whispers in my ear, “I’d forgotten about the dirty water they call coffee here.” I somehow enjoy the meal. It’s a welcome break from the stuffy, tradition-obsessed dinners we eat with the family in Spain.
The old generation speaks in Italian, but it’s dialect from the 1950s, and half of it comes out in English. There is no dialect for lawn, basement, or car wash. The cousins and their spouses speak in English. They complain that Italian leaves them out.
After dinner half of us settle into a game of bocce while the other half fishes for change for a few rounds of cards, bestia. I alternate between the groups, trying to talk to everybody, and culling stories I can pass on to Arantxa. In Spain, the family has a million stories, and they always seem to be together to tell them. Of course, I think indignantly, they’ve lived in the same valley for ten generations, everyone is the same. Here my cousins have married Brits, Americans, even a Sri Lankan. They’ve built mixed families and their focus on just one kind of family has split. Each individual has committed to a different cultural understanding and hasn’t seemed to figure out how to join the old stories to the new. Then there is the question of money. Unlike my family in Europe, many of my Canadian cousins are homeowners, and most of my Canadian aunts and uncles have second residences. We are more independent than ever in Canada, but we are also impatient and our family involvement has diluted. When we don’t like something, we get in our cars and go home.
I think it was easier when I was young. On Sunday we went to nonna’s for supper. To digest, we walked around the Ward, crowded with old-school Italians, overgrown gardens, bird cages, and places to hide chickens and rabbits. Nonna pointed out where the mafiosi lived. She told us about the cobbler, whose home-shop the city has designated a heritage site. She updated us on the police raid of the neighbours, the Polish priest at her church, and the good-for-nothing “long hair” living at Mr. Ferraro’s. We climbed the “hundred steps” and tried to keep up with her. We talked about factories and hockey and the Italian-Canadian Club.
When Italy won the World Cup in 1982, we strung Italian flags from the solid-steel railings of our porches. They were small and cheap, not large and official, but we were content with them. That was the last time I remember such a conspicuous display of national pride. And now that the family is almost thoroughly Canadian – a testament to Canada’s inclusiveness but also the lack of real ties to old countries – it doesn’t dawn on anyone to fly the maple leaf.
I board the airplane back to Valencia. I think about all this history, buried and slipping away. Nothing is what it should be. The Six Nations are in a distant land and Italians are telling their story. The Canadian side of the family is dispersed and revolving in a widening orbit around a disappearing core. Even Italy is reinventing itself. What is Italian and Canadian in this shifting world? What traditions will I pass on, and what will I leave behind? I worry I won’t have a cohesive story. Arantxa will be a tangled collection of roots – but as Canadian, Italian, or for that matter Catalan as anyone still is. I figure I offer her a blank canvas with a variety of paints and brushes to choose from. Will she paint an Emily Carr, Michelangelo, or Picasso – a mix, or something better? I don’t know, but I can’t wait to find out.
Ivano Stocco is a visual artist and translator. His paintings have been exhibited in city halls and galleries throughout Spain and his translations have been published by Spanish university presses. He was born in Guelph, Ontario to Italian immigrants. He lives in Spain with his partner and daughter.
“Lost Worlds” won First Prize in the fourth annual Accenti Magazine Writing Contest and was read at the Accenti Magazine Awards during the Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival in April 2009.
First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 16.