One of my ancestral towns, Fontanarossa, where my great-great grandfather lived in Liguria
When I was in the US over the holidays, my sister asked me to give a presentation about the search for my Italian ancestors to my niece’s 3rd grade Brownie girl scout troop. I agreed and prepared a little talk about immigration to the US at the turn of the century, my search for my ancestors in Philadelphia and Italy, visiting my ancestral towns, and life in Italy in general.
1,000 year old church in Fontanarossa
The kids seemed interested in what I said and they asked a lot of questions and contributed their own family stories. They enjoyed looking at the photocopies of old immigration documents I passed around, the photos I printed of some of the towns my great and great-great grandparents lived in in Italy, and my two passports, Italian ID card, and colorful Euro money (the whole twelve Euros and twelve cents I was able to find in my purse).
Chickens in a yard in Fontanarossa… the kids’ favorite picture
The best part was at the end when I talked about some of the ways people do things differently in Italy and the United States. I wanted the kids to understand that there are many ways of doing things in different parts of the world, and those things are not better or worse than other ways, but just different.
I started by telling them that there are many things Italian people do that might seem strange or funny to us. For example:
-Italian parents say to wait four hours after eating lunch on the beach before going swimming (instead of the twenty or thirty minutes we hear about in the US).
-Italians eat an entire pizza by themselves and they eat it with a fork and a knife.
-Italians say not to take a shower after you eat, not to sit under an open window, and to wear a scarf if it’s windy even if it’s not cold.
-Italians hang up all their laundry on a line outside or on a drying rack.
-Children finish school at different times each day, for example at 4:30pm on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and at 12:30pm on Tuesday and Thursday, and they don’t eat lunch at school every day.
The laughter was increasing with each item on the list and I had a lot of fun watching them laugh and learn something about life in another country.
However, their laughter turned even louder and was mixed with howls of incredulity when I turned the list around and told them that, while Italians do things that seem funny to them, we Americans also do things that seem strange or funny to Italians. Such as:
-Wearing flip flops in the summer time when you’re not actually on the beach or at the pool
-Eating salad before the main course instead of after it
-Putting salad dressing on your salad instead of oil, vinegar, salt and pepper
-Putting ice in your drinks
-Eating lots of ketchup
-Going outside with wet hair after a shower
-And… putting meatballs on top of your spaghetti
I hope the kids went away with the perspective that if they are laughing because they think an Italian (or whoever) is doing something weird or funny, the Italian (or whoever) is also probably laughing because they think they are doing something weird or funny too. And that different isn’t bad or good, but different.
I gave the kids a little project to work on before their parents picked them up and they drew pictures and wrote about special food they eat with their families that comes from the country their ancestors came from. They had great answers and they all earned their ancestry patch by the end of the afternoon.
I had to do my best to deliver my presentation in a way eight-year-olds could understand. The part I won’t forget was when I started talking and tried to explain to the kids that I went to Italy to look for information about my long-dead relatives.
What I said in reality was, “I went to Italy to search for my ancestors.”
Once child piped up and sweetly asked, “Did you find them?”
These two pictures show people who lived in Fontanarossa at the time.