A Pilgrimage to A Pilgrimage in Search of Old Italy


I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to get Italian citizenship. I imagine spending swaths of time there in my fantasized future and I have no desire to dodge authorities to do so.

But there isn’t a loophole I can squeeze through, or a man I want to faux marry. 

My great grandparents, not my grandparents, were born in Italy; therefore I am not eligible for a dual passport. But all of this investigating has made me realize the irony of the situation.

I want to return to a place that the majority of my relatives risked their lives and used all of their savings to leave.

It’s this abandoned Italy that I am ready to encounter, not just the one idealized through the generations.

For my grandparents, as first generation Americans, Italy was a place that needed to be left, but was never completely left behind and remained hardly understood, but romanticized nonetheless.

My grandmother’s father, Raphael Aiello, came from one of the poorest towns in one of the poorest regions of one of the poorest European countries. As a teenager, he made his way from a mountain town called Serrastretta in Calabria, Italy, to a boat in Naples and took that now iconic voyage to New York. He settled in with others of similar circumstances and, like them, began the integration process. English quickly replaced his language –probably an Italian dialect --, and he couldn’t wait to pay taxes. 

And so the story goes.

By the time I was born, my grandparents were no longer from one of the poorest countries, regions and villages; they were doing a whole lot better than that. Any real remains of Serrastretta had faded away in lieu of more glamorous trips to pre-revolution Cuba and eventual winters in Florida. 

Despite their new station in life, their love and belief in family and their “Italian roots”, although now a cliché, never faded.

I always loved my grandmother’s story of her pilgrimage to Serrastretta where, a part of her anyway, may have ended up.

Now that I have travelled through and lived in Italy, the fact that these two Americani went to a relatively wild place like Calabria in the 70s is simply surprising. I can’t even imagine how they got there, how they found the village and what their paisani must have been thinking of these well-dressed foreigners who probably looked vaguely familiar.

I recall hearing how they made their way up a mountain and arrived at the town piazza and began to inquire for other Aiello kin who didn’t leave the enclave, who didn’t make that vital decision but who supposedly have the same green eyes that distinguished my grandmother.

They found (or maybe they knew) relatives and were welcomed into their home.

But, like I said, Italy isn’t a fantasy and is probably buckling under that kind of responsibility. 

In the middle of the night, a “cugino” snuck into my grandparents’ boudoir and stole their camera. In modern analytical deconstructive manner, I now imagine it like stealing a part of America back after not ever having had it. (Or, he probably just wanted a camera).

I, for some strange reason, couldn’t forget what she repeatedly said about staying overnight in that strange place: “It was so cold in the mountains, in that bedroom, and when I woke up, my nose was cold.”

I think, in some way, she was transported into what a body would feel like if it lived there in that provincial, isolated and continuously tourist-less place.

Since I heard that story as a child, I have planned to make the same pilgrimage, in essence, a pilgrimage to a pilgrimage.

And I guess it needs to happen now as I booked the ticket on a whim and rented a car and have a vague idea of the direction I need to follow. My road trip will begin in Lecce, Puglia and four hours later, end in Serrastretta, Calabria. I will see what I see and let Italy be what it wants to be, the one left behind or the one ahead.