Italy is Out
Time to change perspective
“What I need is perspective. The illusion of depth, created by a frame, the arrangement of shapes on a flat surface. Perspective is necessary. Otherwise there are only two dimensions. Otherwise you live with your face squashed up against a wall, everything a huge foreground, of details, close-ups, hairs, the weave of the bedsheet, the molecules of the face. Your own skin like a map, a diagram of futility, crisscrossed with tiny roads that lead nowhere. Otherwise you live in the moment. Which is not where I want to be.” ― Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
My last change of perspective was thanks to the book Italy is Out by Mario Badagliacca with Derek Duncan – Liverpool University Press. The collaboration between documentary photographer Mario Badagliacca and Derek Duncan for the TML team “explores Italian migration in a global perspective’. The book is delicate and elegant alternating pages with writings and photos. As Mario Badagliacca said during the online presentation of the book on the 29th November 2021 at New Jersey City University (NJCU), he wanted to capture with his photos Italian migration refusing preconceptions and clichés. His previous works concerning recent immigration from the Mediterranean reveal a broader horizon, and I got the message loud and clear.
As I went through the pages, I naturally connected to my family’s story, I couldn’t avoid it. I come from generations of Italian migrants. Emigration is in our DNA. My great grandfather was the first of the family documented to have loaded a covered wagon to travel with all his family and the essential travelling items, pointing North. Events that happened not many years after the unification of Italy in 1861. His life project was to earn enough money in the North and then return to his home village in Southern Italy and buy the pieces of land belonging to the Church that his family had worked for generations. Thanks to the new laws enforced by the new Italian nation, the Church was selling the plots it could no longer keep. Since then, all his descendants, except my children’s generation, have taken that road, and today again, I watch my grandsons getting ready to leave. The first iconic generations of Italian emigration narrated masterfully so many times, by books and movies, have unfortunately set stereotypes and clichés. Italy is Out has shown me the bigger picture and migration from another perspective.
Mario Badagliacca’s asked the subjects “to bring along three objects representing their attachment to Italy.” I find the idea so simple and yet ingenious. In my opinion, the objects the subjects chose are not at all trivial or predictable. On the contrary, they surprised me in many ways putting me in front of the cultural complexity of Italian migration. Time, destination, land of origin, age, education are only some variables.
When I saw Ada Boni’s cookbook ll Talismano della Felicità in one of the photos (page 45), my heart somersaulted. That book, in the cheaper edition, was my mother’s bible for cooking. She never became a good cook, and it wasn’t Ada Boni’s fault. Cooking just wasn’t her thing. When I got married, totally unprepared to take care of a family, my mother gave me the new big edition, and that’s how I learnt to cook. My friends always teased me, saying I handled the cookery book like a dictionary: that’s my way of learning. When the time came, I bought the latest edition of the family’s recipe book and passed it down to my daughter and son.
“Italy is Out” has been tailing me for more than two months now. It has lingered on my desk, on the coffee table, on my nightstand, and I have leafed through it many times, so it could not but bring back the memory of the links to Italy my father embraced during our years in England.
I’m sure it was a Sunday morning because I could hear, from the garden, the Opera record my father was playing. He did that only on Sunday mornings. They were the only records we possessed. Mario Lanza, Beniamino Gigli, Mario del Monaco are the first names I remember. He didn’t bring them back to Italy when we returned. He left them to his best friend who was staying in England. I was behind the hedge with my sister making a mud pie when two ladies stopped on the other side of the garden fence:
“Look! Isn’t this garden glorious?” the lady had a sweet singing voice.
“Oh! Yes! You’ll never believe it, but the man that lives here with his family is Italian. He’s a gardener, and in his free time, he’s a tailor. Isn’t that bizarre?” And they walked away.
It was bizarre because my father was a tailor who loved gardening in his free time, just like he loved playing opera records. I think he did both remarkably to remind all the neighbourhood and us that we were Italian. Proudly Italian.
My father’s other Italian mania was coffee. At the end of the 1950s, Italian imports were only for wealthy people. So, after months of mixing different kinds of coffee beans chosen with care and dedication at the only coffee import and roaster of Manchester, he finally had the formula for his Italian coffee. Once a week, when he got his wage, he bought it, and he would attract the attention of all the people on the bus with the smell that came from his precious little bag.
Every three or four days, depending on the postal service in Italy, he would read a newspaper on the bus: Il Corriere della Sera. He shared the cost with Pietro, the other tailor that worked with him.
I can perfectly imagine my father’s photo if he had been one ofItaly is Out” subjects.
He would probably be sitting, in his perfectly tailored grey suit, with a perfectly ironed shirt and tie. He has a mischievous smile and his astonishing white hair, without a trace of grey or yellow, perfectly combed back. On the side page: vinyl 33 RPM Opera recordings, a little paper bag of coffee beans, Il Corriere della Sera newspaper. His links to Italy.
He came back to Italy in 1971, and I never again heard Opera playing at home.
He bought the most famous coffee in Rome, Tazza D’Oro, and went on filling the 44 bus that took him home from work with the smell of freshly ground coffee.
He stopped reading Il Corriere della Sera and started reading Paese Sera. He could finally choose. The only Italian newspaper available in Manchester had been Il Corriere della Sera for all those years.
We were back home. We were all changed forever by the emigration experience. Still, we had brought back with us understanding and little things that would link us to Manchester, UK forever. But that’s another story: What happens to emigrants when they go back home?
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