Is This the Border?

Traveling to Europe a few weeks ago was an amazing and eye opening experience. I learned so much.

And I have so many questions!

For example, when we took the train from Innsbruck to Milan, we had to cross the border between Austria and Italy. Austria is a financially stable and thriving country, while Italy continues to struggle with a weak economy, an unstable government, and an influx of immigrants that it can neither house nor feed.

You’d expect the border between the two countries to be pretty secure, wouldn’t you?

You know what?
It’s completely invisible.

We boarded our international train in Austria and got off in Italy. The only way that we knew we’d changed countries was that the signs at the first station were in German and then Italian, and at the last they were in Italian and then German.

There were plenty of business people and other types of workers on our train. They were speaking German as they entered Italy to work for the day.

In the station we saw people with briefcases or work uniforms waiting to go from Italy into Austria to work for the day.

I was astounded.

Where were the armed guards? The passport and visa checkers? Where were the fences and gates and drug sniffing dogs?

Wouldn’t Italians be trying to get into Austria to have a better life, given the differences in the two economies?

When I asked about this, people were baffled.

“Well, we are Italians and we live in Italy, but we go to work in Austria. Then we come home at the end of the day.” The explanations were given with just the slightest hint of “what the hell don’t you understand about this?”

What a concept.

An open border. And it doesn’t mean that millions of poor, struggling Italians are infesting Austria to rape and pillage.


It means that people on both sides can work where there are jobs. Presumably, both economies benefit from the connection between workers and work.

At night, everyone gets back on the train, or the bus, or into their cars, and they drive across the invisible borders to go back to their families, their towns, their languages and their respective soccer teams.

Wonder what my country could learn from this situation?

the border

Somewhere along the border. I can’t tell you exactly how far on either side of the line this was.

Immigration…and Emigration

For my entire life, I have thought about the idea of immigration. I was raised on the stories told by my grandparents and great aunts and uncles. Stories about coming to America. Coming to the land of education, opportunity, promise.

I have always, for all of my 62 years, viewed my heritage through the lens of immigration to the United States. Growing up in a middle class suburb of Boston, I was aware that my grandparents had raised my parents in far grittier, far poorer, far more crowded areas of my home state.

I knew that my grandparents had left Italy in the earliest years of the twentieth century. I knew that they came here because they wanted to find work. They wanted a steady income. I knew that they came because they wanted their children, my parents, to have an education and a chance to escape the endless pressure of poverty that had marked their own lives.

As a child who came of age in the 1960’s, I was raised on the idea of the American “melting pot.” I grew up with the image of Lady Liberty holding her torch aloft. I imagined my grateful grandparents arriving in this country.

I never thought about those same grandparents leaving everything they had ever known and loved.

It wasn’t until my just finished trip to Italy that I stopped to think about the leaving part of immigration.

Last week I traveled with my husband, our two sons and their future wives to the small village where my paternal grandparents were born. I had always heard about the little town in the “hills above Naples.” I had always heard about the difficult agrarian life, about the lack of opportunity.

I wanted to see that little village because it was the place of my roots. I wanted to see it because my father always talked about it, and because I have missed my Dad every single day for the past ten years.  I had a romantic image of what it would be like to walk on the streets where my ancestors had walked.

But when I got to the little town, winding up its narrow streets, my husband and I were with our sons and the women they plan to marry. I didn’t expect the rush of emotion that struck me when I came into the tiny town center. Getting out of the car in the blistering heat of Italy in July, I felt as if I was carrying the weight of my father and his parents on my aching back. I walked to the small stone monument dedicated to those who had died in the World Wars, and there I read the names of ancestors I would never know.

I was sobbing when the church bells rang at noon, holding onto my youngest child, but thinking of the thread that tied him to my great grandparents. Did my grandmother and father hear those same bells every day? Was this the church where they were brought to be Christened as babies?

The day went on, filled with more blessings than I can name. I met loving, gracious, kind relatives that I had never know before.  I stood on the terrace outside of the little local church, with the most gorgeous valley spread out below us. I heard my sons and their loves talking about marriage. I hugged my husband of 40 years, knowing that he understood how precious this moment was for me. After all this time, to be standing in this place…..

“It’s so beautiful,” I kept saying to myself with real surprise. “It’s so peaceful and so rugged and so beautiful.”

Later in our trip, Paul and I went to Sicily. The kids had gone home, but we had more time and we wanted to see the home place of my maternal grandparents. These were the grandparents I knew best, and I felt my Grampa with me every step of that trip. We got to Augusta, where my Grampa had grown up and where my Nana’s parents had lived.

I smelled the sea and the orange blossoms and the dry wind, and I was struck right in the heart with how beautiful it all was. While I was in Sicily, I ate seafood, I swam in the Mediterranean, tasted the wine, saw the olive trees.

And one thought kept going through my mind, “How did they ever leave this place?”

We had hugged our kids goodbye as they headed back to Massachusetts, to jobs and friends and lives. I was truly sad to see them go, and there were a couple of tears when they left.

But now that I had begun to think of immigration as “emigration”, all I could think about was the leaving that my family was brave enough to endure.

How did they do it? What desperation, what fear, what sorrow could have pushed my young grandparents to leave behind their language, their food, their music, their parents, in search of something better?

What desperation, what depth of love, what deeply held hope could have given my great grandparents the courage to hug their children goodbye as they boarded the ships that would take them across the world forever?

I thought about the beauty of the sunsets in Sicily. I thought about the light on the mountains of Avellino. I thought about how hard it was for me to give up the sound of English for three short weeks.

And I thought about kissing my children goodbye, knowing that I might never see them again.

I’ll never think about immigration in the same way again. Those who leave behind all that is known and secure must be powered by a hope that I can only imagine.


Sempre La Famiglia

This was taken around the time I was born.

This was taken around the time I was born.

In about 1905, two young Italian immigrants moved with their new baby son into a house in East Boston.  They had come to America, like millions of others, in search of opportunity. They left a hard life behind them on the farm in Italy.  They came to find work, to raise their family in a better place.

The young man worked very hard, with his hands and his strong back. He was quiet and thoughtful, by most accounts a simple man.  His wife was a sturdy, strong willed, strong voiced woman with a huge laugh.  They tell me that although he was the head of the family, she was one who would sometimes slam her fist on the table in anger, making the dishes jump.

The new young family grew quickly and exponentially; eventually there were 12 children and one Grandfather sharing the apartment with them.  The kids were educated, fed, raised as Americans. One became an educator, one went to the seminary. One played Major League Baseball.

The baby of the family was my father.  I grew up visiting that house on Byron Street in East Boston. I grew up on stories about my Mammanonni, who died when I was only an infant.  I grew up knowing my Pappanonni, who remained a quiet, serene, rock steady presence in the lives of his children and grandchildren.

It was on Byron Street that I first learned how to pinch off the lower branches of tomato plants to help them blossom and bear fruit. I remember the neat rows of plants in the carefully tilled soil of the tiny yard behind the house.  I remember the pungent smell of the leaves, a smell that I still love to this day.

It was in East Boston that I first watched the Red Sox on a little black and white TV, sitting beside Pappanonni as he smoked his pipe. It was there that I had my first struffoli at Easter.  I played in the street with my cousins, danced to Petula Clark with my Auntie Jennie in the tiny living room, listened to the booming laughs of my father and his brothers as they told the stories of their youth.

I miss those visits, those streets, those wonderful memories.

I went back to East Boston today, as part of a history class.  I went to learn about the changing ethnicity of the neighborhood, to see how the area has been renovated and improved.  I went to learn about patterns of immigration in the city.

I am a teacher.   I know that good teachers present information in a way that is factual, informative and unbiased.  Sometimes I have to work hard not to impart my personal opinions when I am teaching.

But I also know that “history” is made up perspective and point of view. The natives who lived in Plimoth in 1620 would recount the history of the Mayflower through a very different narrative than the one we learned in school.   I get that.

So I guess it is understandable that a “historic tour” lead by a member of the neighborhood’s newest immigrant group would tell a different story than the one I know.  I guess it’s not a surprise that the Professor who lead the tour sees the history of the area through the lens of her own experience.

Still, it hurts to hear your people, your clan, your very own beloved family described in derogatory terms. It hurts to hear derisive references to their food, their church attendance, their cultural sensitivity.  I won’t repeat all of the negative references about Italians that I heard today; what would be the point?

What I will do is to remind myself that my memories are valid; my experiences are true and they are real.  I won’t let someone else’s low opinion color what I know of those generous, kind, funny people who I loved so much.

I will also remind myself that being inclusive and open minded doesn’t only mean welcoming newcomers and accepting their differences. It also means valuing those who came before, and accepting their outdated ways.

Dad, I could practically see you strolling through the neighborhood with your brothers.