None of us had the heart to tell my dad––who is neither sentimental nor particularly adventurous––that we severely doubted we’d
None of us had the heart to tell my dad––who is neither sentimental nor particularly adventurous––that we severely doubted we’d find the town of Iacurso. It wasn’t on the map.
“Just go with it,” my mom managed, though she too was a tad skeptical. The extreme unlikelihood of blindly stumbling upon an uncharted town in the hills of the southern Italian province of Calabria, right where the boot of Italy cinches in at the instep, had given my father no qualms.
This trip was a shot in the dark: no plans, all instinct. Despite the fact that this escapade was one of many Gilberti family Italian road-trips in which my dad hugged the ancient hillsides at sickening speeds while I doled out peaks of Toblerone we’d purchased at the Autogrill, it takes the award for craziest. Since my grandfather had arrived at Ellis Island on a boat from Naples in 1925, the goal of this reverse voyage was to locate Papa’s birthplace, tool around the town, drink a caffé, and say we’d visited.
As my Adidas soccer shorts stuck to the leather of the navigator’s seat in the front, I stared intently at the white space on the map where Iacurso should have been, pretending I knew where to look. Instead, all I could locate was a town called “Filadelfia”—had we known we were headed to the City of Brotherly Love, we might have saved the airfare and hopped the commuter rail downtown from our house in northwest Philadelphia. After an hour of nausea-inducing driving, I shot an eye-roll at my mom that implored, “Please tell dad this is getting absurd.” Little did I know, we were almost home.
“Un ci-mi-te-ro!” my brother read off the sign we’d approached, articulating every syllable like our own little Roberto Benigni in the back seat. My dad’s brow had grown increasingly furrowed as his high hopes for finding Iacurso gradually plummeted—our quest seemed dead, having found its final resting place at this seemingly private cemetery just off the arid dirt road.
Like sardines released from a can, we jumped out of the car. Inside the cemetery’s walls, the silence was so thick that it bounced off the rows of tombs stacked like chests of drawers (a particularly creepy image when you envision folded socks and underwear stuffed in there with the dead people). The wind whispered gently in the background—in Italian of course—and as I read the names chiseled into the tomb’s façades, Pavarotti sung a silent opera in my head. I roamed the aisles wondering what the hell we were doing here, until I turned a corner and there they were. Stack after stack of Gilbertis: Michele, Giacomo, Francesco, Immacolota…managia! (“damn”), In this tiny graveyard on a hilltop in Calabria where the wind whispers in Italian, was our family. We had of yet to find Iacurso, but how far is a town from its dead? It’s not as if they walk there on their own.
Revitalized by our freakish discovery, we climed back in the car and followed my dad’s inner compass down the hill where the road emptied into a village. We bounced slowly over the cobblestones of the street, beginning to get the feeling that cars weren’t big in town. Three older Italian men in suspenders, who were tanned the color of leather from the boiling Calabrian sun, sat playing chess under the awning of a caffé while sipping espresso and motioning with their hands. Every one of them was the spitting image of my grandfather, though he’s in Florida playing bridge and sipping scotch. Suddenly, one of the men leapt out of his seat and intercepted our car, cranking his right hand to indicate we should roll down the window.
“Senso Unico!” (“One Way!”) He cried rocking his hands, clasped as if in prayer, back and forth.
“Uhh mi dispiace! Uhh sono Gilberti…mia famiglia, ça va?” my dad managed in his cacophonous dialect of English, French, and Italian.
“Ah si! Gilberti! Certo!” Eureka.
Our new friend quickly forgot our traffic transgression and, assuming the role of chauffeur with my dad squeezed in back, continued in the wrong direction on the senso unico narrow street to the Gilberti residence. He rapped on the door, and out came a woman named Zia Theresa in a housecoat.
“Mon padre è Michele,” my dad said, and instantly hoards of other relatives poured out of the house exclaiming “Santa Maria!” and smothering our cheeks with kisses. They ushered us into the kitchen where the women were preparing the Ferragosto lunch, comparable to American Thanksgiving. Half an hour later, more food had been made, extra chairs were fitted around the table, and my brother and I were instructed to sit at the kids’ table with a cousin whose name was Maria Grazie—forever “Maria Thank you” to us. Three hours later, I had entered a culinary coma from which I thought I’d never emerge. Not eating everything was not an option. Mangia!
That hot August afternoon, we stepped into The Gilberti Family: The Movie. We abandoned the map, followed a hunch, and let go of reality. After all, that’s what it takes to get out of the ordinary. The next day my stomach recovered, but I will always blame my clean plate phobia on that episode in Italy. Sure, I have a healthier sense of who I am and where I come from, but no appetite for tiramisu for at least the next few decades.