Growing up, there was no doubt that my family was Italian. From our loud chaotic holiday dinners with antipasto and egg biscuits to the Toppi women’s characteristic dark eyebrows, my extended family has always been proud to be Italian-American. I still remember a picture from one Christmas where I gave my Grandma biscotti and she held it up next to her “Italian nose.” As the younger generation, and with my last name representing the only side of my heritage that is not pure Italian, my connection to Italy hasn’t felt as strong for me as for my aunts and older cousins. However, upon traveling to Southern Italy last week, I felt like I was rediscovering my family’s heritage bit by bit.
I have always loved stories, and would often sit in my grandmother’s chair as a child, stringing together stories of her Italian family like cherished little pearls. For this reason, I was so excited to travel to southern Italy (Naples, Sorrento, Capri, and the Amalfi Coast) while studying abroad. On the plane, I was surprised, and a little happy, when the flight attendant asked me in Italian if I was Italian or English.
The spread of coronavirus in Italy was mostly contained to the North when we visited and has since escalated, but I was still nervous to go. Our flight into Naples was so empty, a flight attendant asked me if I would move seats because no one was sitting next to any of the emergency exits. Upon landing in Naples, the vibrancy of the city drowned out my trepidation, and surprisingly none of the Italians seemed particularly concerned throughout the rest of our trip.
On our first day, we visited the ruins of Pompeii. While I had read about Pompeii since the Magic Treehouse books in elementary school, I was not at all prepared for the scale and amazing preservation of the ruins, and it was both an eerie and exciting feeling to be walking amongst the relics of a town completely decimated thousands of years ago. In the wake of our own natural disasters in the 21st century, visiting Pompeii served as a reminder of the unexpected powers of nature.
The next day, we hiked the Path of the Gods along the Amalfi Coast towards Positano. In a taxi whipping around the colorful twists and turns of a cliff, I felt both exhilarated and slightly motion sick. Later in our trip, we took a boat ride around the island of Capri, rode a chairlift up a small mountain overlooking the ocean, and explored Naples at night.
One of the things I have been most struck by in all of Europe is the common-place presence of majestic historical buildings along the streets. Walking through Italy, I felt connected to both the present and the past. While we aren’t totally defined by the percents Ancestry.com finds in our blood, what our nose looks like from the side, or how loud we talk on holidays, it’s still nice to realize you come from somewhere. From the old buildings in Naples layered with modern graffiti to a hole in a park filled with authentic ruins of ancient society, I too began to unearth a buried sense of identity.