We have a five hour layover in Detroit. This is it, though—this is the gate that will put me on the actual plane to Rome.
Two Italian ladies sit across from us, the mother silver-haired and her daughter a lovely white-blonde. They’re slender and regal, and dressed elegantly. They lean, heads close, and eye all the other passengers, their faces serious.
“See that?” Michelle whispers to me, “The way they’re sitting, the way they’re looking? That is so Italian. You’ll see that look all the time. I even asked about it on one of my trips. Those women are probably not even annoyed or anything, they just have that look. You will never know if they’re actually judging you or if you just feel like it because you feel so American next to them.”
The mother and daughter leave, and are replaced by a darker Italian woman. She smiles at me warmly.
I’m already seeing some of the many faces of Italy.
Another passenger sits next to Michelle and they begin to chat. Like Michelle, she is an American with Italian heritage, and like Michelle, she has been to Italy multiple times. Their conversation centers on the pull of heritage.
“I was telling them,” Michelle says, waving at me and at Petra’s bag—Petra’s off walking the terminal, getting some movement in before the long plane ride—“that the first time I went to Italy and got to the village where my family was from, I sobbed.”
“Me too! That’s exactly what happened the first time I went.”
“And my husband,” Michelle says, “who didn’t even really want to go, when I took him to his village, tears poured down his face.”
They trade a look of deep understanding.
“It’s in our cells,” Michelle says. “They recognize the land they come from. Our souls carry our heritage.”
|Rainbow across the AppeninesPhoto credit: Petra Laster Photography|
I shift on the black airport seat, looking over Michelle’s shoulder at the two of them, wishing I had Italy in my blood, wishing I had a village there, waiting for me. I’ve felt a piece of what they speak of, at Celtic festivals when listening to live pipe-and-drum bands, the Scottish part of me waking to the call of the bagpipes and filling me like a balloon blown too full, ready to burst with the pressure.
What will I feel when I step into Italy, this country I’ve dreamed of for so long? Will I have any connection, really? I have no claim on this land. I listen to the music, I learn of the history, I study the language—but I have never even spoken Italian with a real person before, and in all the many, many generations filled in on my family tree, there is no Italian to be found. Will this place welcome me, let me feel its magic? Or will I just observe as if over someone’s shoulder, and see the magic in their faces, as I do with these women now?
This is my biggest fear for this trip.