THE LAND I LOVE WITH

MY WHOLE HEART

an essay by lucas bozzo

illustration by erin johnston, photos by lucas bozzo

June, 2016.

 

Emotional baggage.

 

My choice to go to Italy was defined more by what I left than what I brought with me. My suitcase was light and undoubtedly my own, whereas my heart felt heavy, almost immovable—tainted with a now stranger’s feelings that had imbued with mine in toxic combination. A summer away meant a suffocating summer of loneliness could be avoided. In Italy, there would be no nostalgia, no reminiscing. If anything, either my departure or my coming back would birth a new era of longings—the familiarity of home, or something, somewhere, someone else. I bought the ticket with two weeks to spare and lingered in my newfound state of dreamy impermanence. Two hours before flight, I unzipped the cheap suitcase sitting in the basement, placing inside my strange clothes, shitty laptop, toiletries, and a jar of peanut butter. My family argued in the car to the airport over something unremarkable. I wheeled my possessions and my reclaimed sense of agency away from them, my flaky friends, and the city that had become the epicenter of my heartbreak…past security, towards uncertainty.

 

Airports are inherently emotional places. My sentimental heart cries itself silly almost every time I visit one, but not this time. This time, I felt not even a hint of sadness as my waving family disappeared behind opaque glass. The attendant, upon seeing our goodbye, asked me, “How long are you gone for?” “Seven weeks,” I replied. He wondered what awaited me in Italy—work, studying? “I’m going to live with a family I met on the Internet.”

 

~~~

 

The sun set violently at 33,000 feet, a stormy mess of brilliance, pink hues, and tangled clouds. It dissolved into blackness and emerged, once again, calmly across the ocean, blanketing waves and the English countryside below in shimmering gold beams. Staring deeply into the eternal, recurring forms of our Earth evoked peace. Yet even the most profound peace evokes a certain kind of violence in its stillness. What forces lay dormant, refraining all action? What forces were about to come alive within me? England became France, which became Switzerland. The flat green countryside grew increasingly yellow and then increasingly mountainous. I marveled at how space could so easily be traversed—and how tiny and insignificant our lives and civilizations seemed from such great heights. Within an hour, the wheels and tarmac had embraced hesitantly, and I was reunited with my beloved Italy.

 

~~~

 

Wild, tropical vegetation sprouted from scorched earth, adorning decrepit industrial facilities along endless, twisting highways. It was post-apocalyptic paradise. The bus exited the congested highway and skirted past Rome’s medieval walls. Cars darted in and out between identical passages in the brick defenses. A decaying Roman monument awkwardly occupied space down a nearby street. Modernity meets antiquity.

 

In long sleeves and blistering heat—without data or sleep—I meandered down filthy, stone-cobbled streets, my stupid suitcase rattling loudly while my knapsack soaked in collecting sweat. The shock of the unfamiliar glazed over reality and sat uncomfortably in my head. I could have just taken the subway, but I was too curious to forgo any exploration by foot—leaving me a hot, wet mess. Rome’s soiled, crooked streets seduced me in every wrong direction—in a circle, eventually. I had to learn how to trust my seeming powerlessness—and myself.

 

Three hung-over business students lay shirtless in the kitchen sleeping. A pair of crusty underwear hung from the light fixture: 16 euros a night. None of them had the key to my room. They assured me Claudio was coming soon over half-hearted, hung-over conversation. Under their broken shower’s frigid waters, I washed away all the worry and sweat that had clung to my skin. I felt the unfamiliar slowly recede and welcomed a newfound sense of place.

 

~~~

 

The real Rome was gritty and raw and startled me: rows of post-war apartments, graffiti, overflowing trash bins, and sidewalks that smelled of piss and dirt. The local morning market offered oasis from the squalor. Romans bought espressos and shopped for their daily groceries; it was the Italy that I knew and loved from my first visit three years before. Classical Rome echoed the modern city’s depravity and tragedy. Pillaged six times in two millennia—and soiled, twisted, and worn from centuries of battle against time itself—Rome’s sites, streets, and monuments filled me with sadness and wonder at the fragility of all things. It was poignant in its beauty—a glorious, cruel spectacle bathed in nostalgia and yearning, an apparition of what no longer was, a lover that strips you naked only to never requite your love. The ruins dwarfed me in their sordid state. I could not imagine them in their glory. Rome’s ironies unraveled before me: tourists abounded in the spaces where emperors had once expanded a burgeoning empire, where men had slayed each other with swords and fought off wild beasts thirsty for their mortal flesh. Rome is the eternal city because it reminds us that nothing is eternal except the inevitability of death, destruction, and decline. How depressing. I had come to escape tragedy, not contemplate it.

 

Over my four days, I came to embrace Rome’s grandeur and shameless character; it felt exotic in a way that Italy had not ever felt to me. I ate apricots and drank latte macchiatos every morning, had Roman stewed tripe in Testaccio, and headcheese in Piazza Navona with three nonnas, and walked, walked, and walked until my feet ached for the rest of a new home.

 

~~~

 

I quivered in my seat as I stared out the window. Fields of crops, centuries old barn houses, and crumbling palaces drifted across the rural Northern Italian countryside, caught in half-light. This was a simple, humble place. “Siamo in arrivo a Ferrara,” the automated Trenitalia voice announced. The train stopped at the redbrick Fascist era station. I reached for my belongings and got off the train. My sentimental heart perennially obsesses itself with visions of much-anticipated, momentous meetings, fleshing out their every possibility and imagined sensation. I looked hesitantly for the family in the nearby faces of platform four.  My heart raced predictably.

 

Emma shrieked, “LUCAS!” in her funny English and jumped joyously, arms flailing, on the opposite platform. All six of them erupted with excitement, their shadows dancing in the dying glow of the Ferrarese sunset. We convened in the subterranean passage linking the platforms, embracing like old friends—but with introductions. I transitioned from stranger to family member in an instant. We had been mystical Internet acquaintances but now we were manifest—losing our mystery to each other with the passing moments. “You don’t know how much we have been expecting you,” Edo confessed with a silly smirk. The feeling was mutual.

 

We squabbled over who would take my belongings and drove out of Ferrara to the surrounding countryside that I had admired from the train. Ugo interrupted a brief silence: “Quindi…parliamo in italiano o inglese?” “So…do we speak in Italian or English?” We all laughed in unison.

 

They didn’t withhold or downplay any of their emotions. They had made a scene in the train station without a trace of self-consciousness. The passions of their heart trickled out of their mouths. They were crazy, crazy Italians—always ready to tease, argue, laugh, dramatize, and rejoice—and I was a “fucking Canadian.” They howled in laughter as I told them that I ate headcheese and tripe in Rome: they were vegetarian. As we arrived in their strangely familiar home, Alberto spoke to me in private: “You are part of the family. This is your home. What is mine is yours.” I was speechless. Who was I but a stranger that they had met on the Internet?

 

That night, I had more fun than I had had in my four days in Rome. We went to a local meat festival where, collectively, they broke their vegetarianism. We made conversation, joked, and played briscola under the stars. It was immediately apparent how they lived beautifully—with sense, modesty, love, purpose, joy, and a healthy dose of insanity. I slept in the casetta, the tiny house in their garden, that night to a full heart—next to the chickens and under the clatter of cicadas and the caress of cloying Ferrarese air.

 

 They had become my family as quickly as I had become theirs. And I loved them dearly, perhaps as much as my own.

 

~~~

 

On my third evening with the family, we went to Ferrara. Castello Estense towers imposingly over Ferrara, glowing in every sunset and every sunrise as it has since 1385. Surrounded by a moat and attached to Ferrara’s medieval city hall, the castle commands attention in every way that the city itself does not. Rome is grandiose, Florence is elegant, Venice is fantasy, but Ferrara is subtle. In the humid heat of the Po River Valley, Ferrara perpetually feels like a lazy, Sunday afternoon. It is calm, resting, lingering—with no concept of time save the fleeting sun. There are few tourists and no commotion—only beautiful women on bicycles and nonnas congregating in Ferrara’s shaded alleys.

 

Ferrara is a city of the renaissance, and there, with the castle looming mystically before me, I thought about the centuries that had passed, the many wars and crises that had engulfed this city: the plagues of the 14th century, the Venetian invaders of the 15th, the devastating earthquake of the 16th, Napoleon’s capture of the city in the 19th, the bombs of World War II in the 20th, and the tremors that shook it just four years before, in the 21st. Time seemed inconsequential, unable to obscure or disfigure Ferrara’s beauty; the city and its delights had hardly changed. Repeatedly, it had lost, suffered, and grieved, but ultimately, it recovered.

 

Along Corso Ercole I D’Este, Ferrara’s renaissance palaces still stand, immaculately and understated, stretching to the horizon. I walked down the cobblestone boulevard. There were no cars, no traces of modernity. Porta degli Angeli—the Gate of Angels—a remnant of Ferrara’s medieval walls, hovered at the end of the infinite street. Ferrara’s ancient, inanimate structures swelled with meaning and symbolism. I felt in myself a profound belonging to the past, a gratitude towards all that came before me that had culminated in my being. Ferrara’s resilience and reverence inspired me that evening. It had managed to convince me that if it could survive its own heartbreaks, surely I would survive mine.

 

~~~

 

My weeks with the family slowly passed to my dismay. I shopped for food gleefully in sprawling Tuesday markets. I cycled around the calm, Ferrarese countryside and admired its otherworldly sunsets. I travelled Italy—visiting extended family in Siena and Parma, touristing in Florence, Lucca, and Pisa—but every time I returned so relieved to be back with them. They, and their charming, sleepy town, became my home. Edo, Emma, and I formed a busking troop with friends and serenaded the crowds of Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore every Sunday. They taught me how to have fun and make of life the joke that it is. I taught them the meaning of the word douchebag. I cried every night in the casetta until my pillow was damp at the thought of having to leave them and my beloved Italy.

 

In our last days, we went camping together in Trento, and arranged that they would drop me off in Padua. I wept silently in the van as castles perched on cliff tops flashed by. No one was talking: in fact, most of them were asleep on a mattress in the back. I had mourned my departure every night in solitude, but there, altogether, faced with my impending absence there was nothing left to say. No momentary enjoyment could satisfy my inevitable longing for them and their company. What had passed had passed, but I simply wasn’t ready to let go. The navigator counted down the moments until our separation.

 

They pulled my belongings out from underneath the mattress in the back of the van. I prayed that I would maintain some semblance of composure. After all the joy and love that we had shared, the last thing I wanted was to leave them in tears. There was nothing to be sad for: I had a glorious Italian summer after my first terrible heartbreak…all I was missing was an Italian girlfriend. As thankful as I was, the pain was so acute and so cutting. I couldn’t look at them in the eye. A new era of longings was to begin. Would we ever see each other again? When?

 

We embraced, equally attempting to subdue the heavy emotions with lightheartedness: “Lucas, don’t leave us,” Emma joked. Eventually, I raised my eyes off the shaded ground, caught one of theirs, and burst out crying. Barbara and Alberto comforted me; Ugo, too, started to cry. As their van rounded the corner, they all waved through the glass and my tears became guttural. I couldn’t breathe or contain the feelings.

 

My suitcase rattled once again on stone-cobbled streets.

 

Emotional baggage.

 

~~~

 

My Italian-Canadian identity was, for my whole life, something that I had inherited: it was accepted and celebrated as a fact of my birth and my upbringing, but never had I realized or defined its meaning for myself. My maternal grandparents immigrated to Canada in 1956 from Zoppola, an unassuming town in the Northern Italian region of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia. My paternal grandparents, like so many other Italian emigrants, were Calabrese—from the hills of Cosenza. I had heard the stories and fables of their youth—the poverty and hardships they endured, the donkey tales of my nonno, the misery and wretchedness of World War II—but I had no concept of my familial past beyond words and faded photographs. The ticket read Padova→Venezia Mestre, Venezia Mestre→Pordenone. Tonight, I would sleep in the town of my ancestors.

 

The train meandered through endless vineyards and fields of corn beneath the silhouette of the Alps. I had never seen countrysides so lushly green or felt so welcomed by the overwhelming beauty of my surroundings. At twenty, my nonna boarded a train for Genoa and left Zoppola and her entire life behind her. She voyaged across the sea for two weeks and docked in New York, destined to reunite with my nonno in Toronto. What was it like to say goodbye—maybe forever? Somehow, I could imagine them here happy, tending to the flourishing garden of a modest country home. I cried violently because I felt so, so connected to them and the causality that had led to my birth—and now, my return to my origins.

 

I took my headphones off, wiping away all of my tears. Passengers all around me were speaking Friulan, the dialect of my grandparents. The words comforted me in my reminiscence. A tall, kind man greeted me, smiling: Massimo was my second cousin. We exchanged travel stories along the curving road to Castions di Zoppola in near darkness. Zia Bruna, my nonno’s sister-in-law, welcomed me warmly. I pulled out a bag of chanterelle mushrooms that I bought in Padua’s medieval marketplace. Zia Bruna cooked them in butter with parsley and garlic, exactly how my nonna would have; it was obvious that, here, I was home.

 

~~~

 

Meeting my nonno’s relatives that night was bizarre. It’s not that they were strange or contentious, but that I had little tangible connection to him beyond blood; he had suffered brain damage from an asthma attack in 1991, and died in 1996, one year after my birth. I knew that he was a joker and that he didn’t drink wine or eat cheese—except frico, a sinful Friulan fried cheese delicacy—but I didn’t know what it felt like to be with him in the same room. My relatives offered few revelations of him: his two brothers had both passed away years before, and of his generation, only Zia Bruna now remained. As beautiful as our meeting was, it evoked the sharp poignancy of time and distance—how my family tree had been disfigured and scattered due to circumstance.

 

I visited my nonna’s brother, Augusto, and his two daughters, Cristina and Antonella, the next day in their charming yellow home—the same house that my nonna was born and grew up in. It held four generations of my family’s history. Cristina toured me around it and the Zoppola of my nonna: the piazza, now barren in the midday heat; the church, where my grandparents married in 1958; the cemetery, where the names of my ancestors sprouted from headstones. Muzzo, Pilosio, Bortolussi—my great-grandparents, my great-great grandparents, and their families.

 

Massimo, too, took me to the cemetery in Castions—where my grandfather’s family, Ius, is buried. Two striking and joyful women entered carrying flowers and recognized me as my grandfather's grandson. They were his friends before he left for Canada in 1956. Baffled by their sudden apparition, I was barely able to speak. Massimo suggested that I take a photo of them to quell my bewildered speech. I pressed the shutter suppressing the urge to cry behind the cover of the camera. Tears trickled down my nonno’s face when he first held me. Although blinded, paralyzed, and unable to speak, he, too, had recognized me as his grandson. Undoubtedly, this cemetery meeting was a moment of pure serendipity, but it felt preordained—a gesture of the universe bringing me ever so slightly closer to my nonno, the only grandparent I never really met.

 

~~~

 

Every morning, the sun swelled over the sprawling cornfield next to Zia Bruna’s house. This morning was different—plagued by urgency and agitation. It was my last in Italy. I drank my morning coffee and savoured my last figs of the summer. I unzipped my cheap suitcase and filled it, once again, with my belongings. I thanked Zia Bruna for her hospitality and generosity before Massimo drove me to the airport in Venice. We passed my nonna’s family home in Zoppola. In twelve hours, I would be eating pasta in her kitchen with my family. Tonight, my bedroom awaited me across the ocean. I could picture how the light filtered in through the window, how the room would sound on late August mornings like this with the windows wide open, but it seemed utterly unfathomable. In a matter of days, I would return to school. The thought of navigating Toronto’s frantic, noisy streets with the stresses of my old life made me queasy. I didn’t even know how I could do it—or how I had done it. Toronto symbolized the rat race—post-capitalist competition, obsession with success, mere survival. Italy was its antithesis: it had showered me in unconditional love, patience, and profound sensual and existential enjoyments…

 

I got out of the car and hugged Massimo goodbye. My suitcase slid reluctantly on the pavement, towards the terminal. Before entering the dingy complex, I compelled myself to stare past the confines of the airport, to the palm trees and the ether that I wanted to run to. After such a profoundly formative summer, how could I cope with Italy becoming a memory, a figment, a fragment of my past? Leaving felt like betrayal, nothing short of a personal tragedy.

 

It was a painful, clinical end to a summer defined by immense feeling: sign in, check your bag, clear security, kill time with shitty overpriced food, board the plane. If I have to go, just fucking pry me away! Don’t let me linger. I took a seat at the crowded gate and sobbed until I had no more tears left to feed my melodrama, no more tears left for self-flagellation. Emptied of every overwrought sentiment, all that remained in me was thankfulness at how everything had unfolded so perfectly.

 

The airplane surged upwards towards the heavens, overcoming every earthly impediment. I had contemplated this exact moment at lift off when my connection to this country became immaterial in anguish, but now, the swirling blue of the sea and the infinite verdant plains of Northern Italy comforted me in their surreality and serenity. I resigned myself to the finality of my departure, the insurmountability of the distance between myself and my beloved Italy: “So glide away on soapy heels, and promise not to promise anymore, and if you come around again, then I will take, then I will take the chain from off the door.” Venice materialized—its bell towers and monuments prodding from its red rooftops—and then faded into a singularity.

 

~~~

 

It is true that youthful summer getaways seduce you with purely idyllic aspirations for living, but it is also true that the leisure and love of my Italian summer was healing and reassuring beyond measure. As much as Italy is just a place among places, Italy is—for me—a place of special meaning, mystery, and magic. It is my homeland. It is my muse. It is the land I love with my whole heart. It is also a way of life, steeped in eternal beauty, patience, and deep, deep enjoyments—a way of life that I try to carry in my heart wherever I may go…

 

~~~

 

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