Story and photos by Spencer Gaberino
My family considers themselves Italian. We have the last name, a direct ancestral connection and every once in a while, we make an Italian dish. We, or at least I, imagine ourselves as being different and tied to this foreign nation through that heritage; a place of joy, unbelievable food and family. Thus, I whole-heartedly embraced the opportunity presented by Northeastern University to fully connect with my Italian heritage, including learning as much of the language as possible. As an extension of that, I jumped at the opportunity to study in Rome through one of Northeastern’s Dialogues of Civilization. It was the perfect chance to confront my supposed homeland.
Rome absolutely took my breath away. The city was a beautiful mosaic of old and new as the ages of the world blended into each other. A soaring, white, imperial monument from the fascist 1930s overlooked the close to 2000-year-old remains of the Roman Forum, but history was merely a touch of what the city had to offer. The food was unapologetically delicious with ingredients that could not have been fresher and the streets rang with song and laughter until the early hours of the morning. I would regularly start the night with dinner at 8 p.m. and end it with drinks at 1 a.m. and still be one of the first to turn in. However, the aspect that stood out most to me was the slower pace of life; meals were longer and people even walked slower, though this came as a sort of relief after a hectic semester of classes in Boston.
My time in Rome amounted to a cultural education, which was emphasized by the classes I took throughout the program. As my courses taught me about themes like the importance of fashion and perception to Italians, the temperature rose. While I switched to shorts and short-sleeved shirts, many locals maintained their buttoned-up appearances, punctuated by suits and long dresses which reflect the Italian idea of bella figura (beautiful figure) and always appearing one’s best. This same heat would also leave my apartment boiling during the peak of the day as, despite the terrible heat of the summers, many in Italy do not have air-conditioning. These trials both imprinted a wider lesson on Italian culture that the course alone could not have taught — Italians do not value comfort in the same way Americans do. This would be only one of the lessons I would learn about being Italian.
Overall, my experience in Italy imparted one clear message: identity is not defined by blood. As I mentioned, my family calls itself Italian. Our name means much to us and we can draw a direct line back to our ancestral home in the French-Italian Alps, but we have been cut off from our family in the mother country for as long as anyone can remember, and I’m the fourth generation to have been born in the United States. To be Italian would truly mean to have lived in Italy or amongst Italians, and most of us have done neither. We do not practice the customs that are endemic to Italian culture, and, thereby, we are Americans in every way that matters. However, another lesson my time in Italy taught me is that the efforts to connect with identity can be just as important as the real thing. The Italian language I learned helped me to navigate, though clumsily, through Rome and showed me that with enough time and commitment, I could become who I’d thought I was. Indeed, it’s possible that if I returned to stay longer and immersed myself in the country and its people, I could become one of them: a true Italian.
The story is featured in VOL 7 ISSUE 2 SPRING 2023 (Print Edition).