New View of Italian Roots

For this month’s travel post, I welcome guest blogger Vienna Lionberger, my daughter, with some thoughts from her recent trip to Italy:

Vienna Lionberger stands guard in Pompeii

All my life I have heard about Italy. My mother has studied Italian history and language, visited Italy for a few months, and taught me to make torcetti, an Italian pastry, from her grandma’s recipe. Though I am only 1/8 Italian, it has been the predominant culture (or at least the loudest one) in my life so I have always felt more Italian than anything else.

Despite my blue eyes and blonde hair (thanks to my dad), I take great pride in telling people I’m part southern Italian, from near Cosenza. Because I have felt so Italian, I was very excited to go there for part of my honeymoon.

Our first Italian stop was at Palermo in Sicily. I have to admit, I thought I would step off that boat onto Italian land, tear up with an upwelling of emotions and start hugging people simply because they were Italians too, and they, of course, would understand and hug me back. I actually stepped off the boat into horse manure. And I definitely wasn’t going to hug the first people we saw because they were the Italian authorities and they had guns and looked like they had had just about enough of tourists for the summer. Although the feeling of belonging I had expected wasn’t there, we enjoyed taking a horse-drawn buggy tour, eating sweet pastries, then savory ones, walking through the market, and touring some Spanish ruins. Back on the boat I thought, “The other ports will be where I feel at home, since, alas I am not Sicilian but southern Italian.”

A week later we stopped at Naples. Again I stepped from the boat, certain this time

Vienna Lionberger, center, with Filippo and Julia in Naples

there would be tears and hugging. Our Italian friend Filippo met us at the dock. There were hugs, and tears came to my eyes—tears caused by the sweet, vinegary stench from piles of garbage all over the city—piles the size of a semi-truck load every couple of blocks. Filippo told us the garbage pickup was run by the “criminali” in Napoli. They let the garbage sit there for weeks until it became so unbearable that people would pay more to have it removed, basically extorting a whole city. Every couple of months the army was called in to get rid of the garbage because, oddly enough, no other garbage pickup company wanted to take over the contract.

Filippo took us to Pompeii in the morning – which was completely and totally awe inspiring. In the afternoon we went to the best Napolitano pizza place: L’Antica Pizzaria da Michele. They served only two kinds of pizza: Marinara and Margherita. I had a Margharita and never want to eat anything other than that again. We stopped for dessert and espresso, and I rolled onto the boat with a full and happy stomach, and a full camera card. But other than my stomach, I had no feeling of national pride or belonging.

At the end of the cruise, we returned to Rome to meet Filippo and his girlfriend Julia, and travel south with them to his family’s home in Benevento. We arrived late one evening. Filippo’s mother, Angela, knowing I loved mozzarella di bufala, had made fourteen pizzas mostly topped with mozzarella di bufala and tomatoes and basil from their garden. They pulled the pizzas from their brick pizza oven as we arrived. Beside the house where Angela and Dario, Filippo’s dad, live, six houses are clustered together. In these houses live aunts, uncles, brothers, cousins, grandparents, great aunts and great uncles. They all came to greet us, bring more food, sing some “country” songs with Jack, put on a magic show (seriously, a cousin did card tricks for us), drink some wine and simply just be with the family for the evening. Perhaps it was a bit livelier because there were guests, but the sense of family community coming together for the evening seemed a regular occurrence. It was a beautiful night and we went to bed satiated in every way.

The next day, a Sunday, we went to explore Filippo’s home town. The main boulevard was blockaded to cars. It looked as if everyone in town was there walking up and down the street chatting with friends, family and neighbors. No one rushed away to watch a football game or get back to work. Kids played in the fountains and ate gelato. Men congratulated one another on the big soccer win the night before. Women chatted on benches while watching their kids. The scene was an Italian version of a Norman Rockwell print.

We tore ourselves away from this slice of perfection and went back to the house, where Angela had prepared a delicious lunch. Afterward we enjoyed splashing in the full-size pool as the day got warmer. I toured the garden with Angela, who doesn’t speak English. My horrible Italian and her hand gestures allowed a little bit of communication. She showed me her chickens, the fig trees and how they got the figs from the high branches, the olive trees (not quite ready for harvest), the garden with
tomatoes, peppers, basil, carrots, broccoli, arugula, squash, strawberries, and the orchard with lemon, grapefruit, pomegranate, orange, and kumquat trees. (I have a new-found love for kumquats straight off the tree.) Kiwi vines shaded the picnic area.

As we walked she asked about my family. I told her that my mother’s family was from Scigliano near Cosenza. She grabbed my face with both hands, a big smile on her face, kissed my cheeks and said, “You Italian!” She released my face with a force that almost knocked me back, and went down the path to the kitchen to prepare us yet another meal.

Finally, the recognition I had been waiting for, but my feelings had changed. I felt less and less Italian every day as I struggled with the language and saw how different my life was from theirs. I ate my kumquats under the kiwi vines looking over the beautiful countryside thinking back on all of our Italian experiences. The thing I loved most was the feeling of family on that little farm, of being close to the land and people I love.

I am part southern Italian and I’m proud of that. I hope to go back and maybe one day even show my kids a little part of Italy, but until then I will focus on my family and being closer to them. I concluded that I shouldn’t label myself, no matter how fanciful it seems in my mind. I am a mix of many backgrounds with a flavor all my own, and that is ok.


The Link of Lampedusa

North African refugees flee to Lampedusa, photo from

Americans are likely to think of “boat people” as coming from Cuba or Vietnam, desperately clinging to life and hope in a rusting, listing, failure of a boat.

In Italy, the boat people come from Libya and Tunisia. Their landing place is Lampedusa, a dry rock in the Mediterranean, closer to Africa than to Sicily.

Tens of thousands have fled Africa for Lampedusa in the past decade, overwhelming the island whose Italian population is about 5,000. More than 50,000 migrants have arrived this year, escaping upheaval in North Africa, looking for some safe haven, a link on the way to a new life.

Last January the BBC reported on the feel-good story of a Calabrian village whose mayor turned immigration to advantage, keeping the town of Riace alive. Mayor Domenico Lucano was nominated for the World Mayor award for his efforts to reverse population loss by welcoming immigrants. But Lampedusa has not been so welcoming.

News reports over the past year tell of refugees being turned away by island

Refugees set fire to immigration center in Lampedusa, from

residents, Italian premier Berlusconi promising a clean sweep of the illegal immigrants, and in recent weeks violence has broken out when Italy announced a decision to repatriate the boat people.

Now, an Italian film on the subject, called Terraferma, has been selected to represent Italy in the Academy Awards. Perhaps this is where most North Americans will learn of the struggles on Lampedusa. I hope a better solution is found than the one pictured here.

Giuseppe Garibaldi, Hero of the Two Worlds

Giuseppe Garibaldi

His name is everywhere in Italy, found on streets, piazzas, and monuments throughout the country. He is also renowned in the western hemisphere for his military successes in Brazil and Uruguay.

Between May and September of 1860, Garibaldi captured the island of Sicily for Victor Emmanuel II, and marched up the Italian peninsula toward Rome. Along the way volunteers swelled his forces from an initial 800 to about 24,000. He played a crucial role in uniting Italy, and is considered a national hero.

But after this famous march, at the outbreak of the American civil war, Garibaldi offered his services to President Abraham Lincoln. Here is how Wikipedia summarizes his offer: Garibaldi was offered a Major General’s commission in the U.S. Army through the letter from Secretary of State William H. Seward to H. S. Sanford, the U.S. Minister at Brussels, July 17, 1861. On September 18, 1861, Sanford sent the following reply to Seward:

He [Garibaldi] said that the only way in which he could render service, as he ardently desired to do, to the cause of the United States, was as Commander-in-chief of its forces, that he would only go as such, and with the additional contingent power—to be governed by events—of declaring the abolition of slavery; that he would be of little use without the first, and without the second it would appear like a civil war in which the world at large could have little interest or sympathy.

According to Italian historian Petacco, “Garibaldi was ready to accept Lincoln’s 1862 offer but on one condition: that the war’s objective be declared as the abolition of slavery. But at that stage Lincoln was unwilling to make such a statement lest he worsen
an agricultural crisis.” On August 6, 1863, after the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued, Garibaldi wrote to Lincoln: “Posterity will call you the great emancipator, a more enviable title than any crown could be, and greater than any merely mundane treasure.”

Had Lincoln and Garibaldi come to agreeable terms, we Americans would no doubt be more familiar with his name.

5th Friday Surprise: Blog tour of the Italian south!

Like the light at the end of this street in Salerno, the Italian south draws me to explore.

Join me today on a tour that will leave your hungry for more. I’m sharing some of the other blogs about southern Italy that have inspired me.

Michelle Fabio’s is a favorite–she moved from Pennsylvania to her family’s ancestral village in Calabria, and stayed!

At, Bonnie shares all things Naples, from transportation strikes to church services, in the city she describes as “beautiful, chaotic, unbending, romantic, confusing”. Get to know this vibrant, gritty city better!

If Sicily tugs at your heart, visit for a smorgasbord of Sicilian topics, like kid-friendly sightseeing, festivals and holidays, natural wonders, and lots more.

Mary at shares a lot about food, as the blog name suggests, but there are plenty of other topics sprinkling flavor throughout her posts.

BOOK REVIEW: Blood Washes Blood

Blood Washes Blood: A True Story of Love, Murder, and Redemption Under the Sicilian Sun by Frank Viviano  (Washington Square Press, 2002)

Do you love a juicy murder mystery combined with a journey of self-discovery? To top it off, make it a true story set in Sicily. Frank Viviano, foreign correspondent, pursues the barest of clues to find the truth about his great-great-grandfather’s murder, and subsequent events that allow him to see his own family and past in a new light.

Viviano’s melancholy suits the languid landscapes of rural Sicily, and carried me along, as I hoped for the next breakthrough in his search, celebrated each unexpected revelation taking him a step closer to finding his ancestor’s murderer. Family legends and whispered suspicions draw him beyond the limits of officially documented history, beyond the cultural code of silence, beyond the head-banging disorganization. And once in a while, in the midst of the story’s dark longing, comes a laugh-out-loud moment that breaks the tension and makes the journey bearable. Years of research, of wavering between patience and despair, eventually lead Viviano to a discovery he never imagined

Using the best kind of history—history revealed through personal story—Viviano explores the longer history of Sicily, the development of the Mafia, and the social and political forces that made it prosper.

I have recommended Frank Viviano’s memoir more than any other book about southern Italy that I have read. I’ve loaned out two or three copies, never to be seen again. So I cannot offer to lend you the book, but I do encourage you to read it, and to let me know what you think.

Bonus Post: The Sicilian Girl

Celebrating 400 views of The Italian South! Thanks to all who have checked it out. I appreciate your comments.

A few days ago I watched the movie The Sicilian Girl, an Italian movie based on events in Italy about twenty years ago. The fictionalized story of Rita Atria, from her childhood in a Mafia family in Sicily, through her turning to the police in hopes of avenging the murders of her father and brother, is told in gritty detail.

I loved it!

For one thing, listening to the Italian language encouraged me–I haven’t forgotten everything I ever learned about Italian! To help with what I did forget, it has English subtitles.

The story has plenty of tension and action, and provided a different point of view for the events than news reports offer. The conclusion is tragic but satisfying.

If you’ve seen the movie (or when you have), share your comments here! Did you like it?  Why or why not?

And thanks for reading The Italian South.