An inspiring article about travelling back to Italy on ancestors traces, listening to their voice
“Come to visit us…we can give you the past, just as you can give us the future”
Italian Roots – Listening to Footsteps on the Stones of Matera
By Dominic Ambrose
Sometimes we make decisions without telling ourselves why. That’s what I did when planning my first trip to Europe as a young man in my early twenties. I planned to go to Berlin, but my journey eventually took me even more significantly to Matera, the Unesco world heritage city in Basilicata, Italy, and home of my ancestors. Without thinking about it too much, I decided to fly into Rome and travel North to Berlin from there. It was inconvenient, but when I arrived in Rome I understood the reason why I had made this decision. The people, the air, the buildings, the trees all seemed inexplicably familiar to me. I began to sense the infinite complexity of ethnic identity.
The truth is written on the face of a child. One of my first stops that day was the Spanish steps. While getting off the bus there, I was confronted by a young boy holding up a wooden board covered with small packages of roasted nuts. He began his sales pitch in a flood of words, each breath ending in interrogatives. I felt trapped. With my nice middle class manners, I couldn’t brush him aside without responding, but how? I did what I could: I opened my mouth and said “No Gabish’!”
The words stopped him in his tracks and I began to walk away. But he followed me talking and talking, his mouth open in an irrepressible smile. He didn’t let me escape for two blocks, managing to get it out of me two or three times again: ‘”No Gabish!” each time stopping him midstep, and it seemed to me, bringing him to the brink of outright laughter.
Finally I lost him, but I couldn’t so easily lose the feeling of sadness that he left in me. I well understood what had happened, and what a buffoonish image I had presented, indeed, I had seen the shame of my ignorance reflected in the shocked facial expression of a child. Like so many second generation Americans, I had grown up with the sense that denial was totally normal. I had grown up carelessly ignorant of the Italian language, as though it were just an unverifiable legend told by the old people to pass their days. Now the stigma of that amnesia burned my tongue. I bought an Italian conversation book and looked up the words: “Non capisco” I said, “non capisco” I repeated, enjoying the clean crisp sound of the words. And slowly I began to understand.
Making up for lost time. It’s never too late. When I returned to New York that autumn, I began to study Italian: the language really existed! And miraculously, there were teachers in New York who could teach it to me. I saved money so that I could return to Italy again and again. I began with the usual, predictable itineraries: Florence, Venice, Milan. But four years later I took a different route and headed south, and thus I first saw the Sassi of Matera, the place of my ancestors. The vast stone ghost town of homes carved into the side of the bony mountains.
It was an overwhelming sight. In an instant I could see for the first time the real homeland and it was a profoundly sad and beautiful land. Here my ancestors lived, worked and suffered from birth to death over hundreds of years. And then the children left, like all of their neighbors did, in a continual trek out and away: for Argentina, then New York, then Germany and Milan, until there were few left behind. Finally, after years of debate and Carlo Levi’s landmark description of the Sassi in Christ Stopped at Eboli, the government moved the remaining residents to municipal housing at La Martella, on the outskirts of town. Thus the last inhabitants left in carts and in cars, just as the others had gone on buses and trains before them, abandoning here the ancestors among the refuse and the broken furniture.
The living people were driven out and left a dusty ghost town, but the ancestors were more resourceful and more stubborn. They took that ghost town and transformed it silently into a monument, the Sassi, and they did it with the one power that the dead have: with the power of history. I Sassi stretch out as vast as two mountainsides, displaying the labors and suffering of generations chiseled into the rock glistening under the sun, forming caves and trails that seem carved with the acidic drippings of a thousand years of sweat and tears.
Our restless grandparents who emigrated to half the world were silent about this place, they wanted to shield us, protect us, us delicate babies of the Americas. They didn’t want us to carry the yoke and weight of this poverty. But the ancestors were less inhibited and more patient than those dislocated grandparents, and they waited here, silent and eternal, awaiting our return. Their forms remain traced in the rocks forever, their spirits dressed as black holes beyond the thresholds of innumerable caves, mutely watching the horizon for the return of their offspring. I have no doubt that they will wait forever until every grandchild returns to recognize here what these people have lived.
“Come to visit us” I imagine them saying, “Take a walk through our streets, under our sky and stop in the shade of our silent stone belltowers. Travel around the globe if you like, speak the languages of foreigners, of machines, of birds, if you like. But come to visit us at least one time, and retrace our steps with your own healthy feet, give us breath with your lungs, and sound to our spirits with your modern voices. We are strong, and resistant, we can wait millennia if necessary. But come, because without you we are just indecipherable black holes in the stone and without us, you are adoptive children. We can give you the past, just as you can give us the future.”
Dominic Ambrose is a writer and script developer living in Paris. He writes about social relations, history and travel. Take a look at his blog of words at http://dominicambrose.wordpress.com and his art blog at http://ambroseartgallery.wordpress.com