It was sparked in 1998. That spring, I backpacked around England, Ireland and Scotland with a friend and then took a connecting flight to Rome on my own. Previously, I had only visited Italy with my parents, as a family. And weeks before this trip, I had officially broken up with my boyfriend of six years, the one I thought I would marry. At this point, the continued ability of my fragile brain to move forward despite was a wonder to me, but I was determined to do something symbolic, something brave. And since I was going to be broken for a while, I might as well do it where the beauty could occasionally extract me from the darker landscapes of my own thoughts.
As the plane hovered in the air those last few seconds before alighting, a voice, so exquisitely tender, said “Home”. I looked around, wondering if I had imagined it, but no, it had indeed come from my own head. A kindness that my heart offered my ramshackle self; unexpected compassion at a time when not even my own mother could comfort my loss. Because even if I had broken up the relationship, it was a loss. My mother couldn’t understand why I was ruining my future. My ex was sad. His family was sad. I was devastated. I hadn’t felt tenderness in months and I cried in gratitude. We landed and my body softened like that of a child in its mother’s arms.
Up until then, I had been excelling in the role of the Good Italian Daughter. I had a nice Italian boyfriend who promised to buy me a Volvo and a house for our children. I had education and a half-formed ambition to be both writer and mother. My boyfriend chauffeured us everywhere, but we rarely went beyond a comfortable perimeter. We always ate in the same restaurants because he only liked Italian food. I went to church on Sundays because our families expected us to (and for pre-pre wedding preparation, of course). I respected, loved and obeyed his family as fervently as I did my own. Our friends were other Good italian Children.
My life was so neatly packaged, but I walked through my days as if in a haze. I didn’t have to exert myself. I had everything I was supposed to get. All I had to do was wait for the next logical events in the sequence and perform what was expected of me. Did I like myself? No. Did I have to like myself? No. As long as everyone else was happy, then I was serving my purpose. I sat in the waiting room of life, content that I had already hit the jackpot.
I do not know what compelled me to leave that comfort. There was nothing in my upbringing that marked me as capable of such courage. After all, every female on both sides of my family tree had accepted her fate and soldiered on. No one broke ranks before our generation of women. Every sign pointed at me being no different, yet there I was in the Rome airport, gutted out, formless, unloved and unlovable.
Having deliberately rejected the performative version of Italian life in Canada, with its affected rituals and trappings, how appropriate that I find myself in the place where the lines of my DNA were first threaded. A place, it turned out, where I could let my instincts lead me, where my body knew better than I what to do, where to go and what to eat. I didn’t have to be anything, because in Italy, I was already a purer version of myself.
It took years for me to become the person I am right now, obviously, but since that spring, my body exists in two places. Despite what my birth certificate says, despite the fact that I have never lived in Italy, I feel like an exile. When I’m in Italy, I can clearly see the lines of my body, my skin glows, my pace slackens, the weight of my pelvis shifts down, the place I am looking for is always right around the next corner and all the faces around me seem familiar. As I get closer to the ocean, I can feel my cells reconfiguring — no longer needing to steel myself against the elements, but slipping effortlessly into it.
The distance weighs on me more than it does my parents. How do I explain this longing for a country that my parents never want to return to? In immigrating, they had to push down love of patria. To survive, they had to pretend that they could live without the comforts and memories of home. This longing, though, was pushed into my body, carried through the blood as efficiently as the inherited traits that mark my belonging to that region, that tradition, that tribe. But it’s a longing that can never be reconciled. I cannot undo my birth in Montreal any more than I can undo the flesh that binds me to this other place.