My thoughts built up like the clouds piling up behind the mountains, nearly catching up to the sun at its zenith in the summer sky. Shading my eyes to look over the land, I saw the rocky pilings of the small beach where, years ago, fisherman had made a life out of the frutti di mare from those true blue and ever clear waters.
I dropped my arm and as it fell back to hang lazily by my side, I took notice of the burn beginning to assert itself on my bare arms and neck. I hastily pulled the gauzy shawl up over my shoulders and turned for home.
Everyone was sleeping; that’s what one did in the afternoons of the Mediterranean summer. We had taken lunch on the veranda, quiet today, just the two of us, and then Leo had kissed my forehead, helped me haul the plates inside, and had gone off to rest in a wine and heat induced snooze. Usually, I sat on the cool fabric sofa with a book or a magazine, successfully reading a few pages before nodding off myself, but lately I had taken to wandering the hills that composed the terrain in and around town.
As I meandered, I thought extensively about what had brought us here; it wasn’t a complicated story. We had been living in Portland, the city where we had met each other not quite three years ago. I don’t think I ever would have fallen for a man like Leo if it had been another time or another place. But, the combination of his eyes, patience, and persistence had not failed to make me realize that timing really was everything, and his was the right hand to hold through the next part of life. I had been living with an aunt, one of my most favorite women to ever exist, and she had given me a job at her start-up that she shared with a male business partner. When he became her husband and moved into the condo, I realized that a menage-a-tois was not the kind of life I wanted to be living going into my thirties. So, nine months into our relationship, Leo and I began to share his small apartment located a block away from the harbor. It was the kind of neighborhood Portland was known for; up-and-coming, trendy yet inexpensive, artsy, full of musicians, artist and actors. Serious young professionals came here to eat and drink, but Leo, never being able to shut off his brilliant mind, decided that this was just the kind of place for a teacher to find inspiration everyday.
And then, one fine Fall day just over six months ago, we got a call from the Old World; he had not mentioned to me that he had been destined to become a winemaker according to his family’s legacy and tradition, and with the ailing of his grandfather, it was time for him to take his place as his father’s assistant so that he could be properly groomed and educated on how to one day run the family business.
“I know its a huge leap of faith for you to make, carina, I get that. I understand it one-hundred percent. But, if you come with me, I promise we will be embarking on the greatest adventure of our lives.” He was smiling because he already knew what I would say. Despite not knowing more than a handful of ill-pronounced words in Italian, and would likely not be able to find a job very easily, with a furtive glance around our little apartment, I nodded once, nodded again, and agreed to something of which I understood very little. What I did understand of Italian culture were that honesty and trust were of the essence when it came to family matters. Leo called me his family, and so away we went. It was like his grandfather always said: “A man has his God, his family, and his name. If he loses one of these, he has nothing.” But I didn’t learn this until a bit later.
Everybody has to have a beginning. For Italians, life begins and ends with family.
The thing about southern Italian families, though, is that they are everywhere and in everything. The first time we took dinner at an aunt’s house, I hadn’t expected twenty people, let alone thirty plus. And if the sheer volume of bodies wasn’t enough, the extreme level of noise at all times put me into sensory overload. I couldn’t understand them when the spoke, not a word, and their constant vying for Leo’s attention left me to manage the giving and receiving of kisses on cheeks to the best of my feeble ability.
“Is your family always so confrontational?” I had asked Leo on the way back to his parents’ house. He had smiled and looked at me from the corner of his eye.
“That wasn’t anything serious, carina. They were just happy.”
I felt my eyebrows raise, but I continued to look straight ahead, contemplating how one could possible tell the different between felicity and belligerence at family dinner. I shuddered to think what actual anger would look like.
For the first year, we shared residence with his parents. His sister had graciously vacated the ground level apartment for our use and had gone to stay with a cousin in the city center during her summer break from university. I realized, however, that just because we had our space didn’t mean that it was actually our own. We had family guests calling on us, or rather, on Leo, just about every minute of the day. There was business to be discussed, family matters to be exacerbated, stories to tell, food to be exchanged, and everything in between. Most of the time, they just smiled politely at me, from time to time to acknowledge my presence, but I was otherwise more of a ghost who wasn’t quite privy to the conversation.
It was strange; I understood it and I didn’t at the same time. Therefore, I was quite at a loss at what exactly I should do. I felt it would be rude to sit on the couch and be for myself, but I also found it tiring to sit with them and be useless to absolutely everyone, including myself. So, I tried to do a bit of both, and hoped I wasn’t offending anyone either way. Cultural limbo, I called it. And it was exhausting.
One night as we lay in bed, I remarked that his cousins would likely come to bed with us if we gave them the slightest allowance. He smiled, kissed my forehead, and assured me that I was completely correct. “Who wouldn’t want to go to bed with you?” he asked with a huge smile. I looked at him, took it as a rhetorical question, and switched off the lamp. And for the next several hours, I lay there next to a snoring native, wondering how in hell I would ever manage to be part of this family, part of this world, part of something of which, the more time went on, I understood less than I had previously thought. Before I finally slipped into sleep, I remember thinking that Leo would be my guide; as long as he gave me an example, I would eventually be able to follow.