By Karlie Marrazzo
Like millions of Italians before and after them, my family was part of the great Italian diaspora that took place at the end of the 19th century and well into the 20th. Almost 30 million Italians emigrated during that period for similar reasons – to escape poverty, war and lack of work and to start better lives for themselves and their families. One of those emigrants was my five-year old father, Carlo. The Marrazzo family left poor Southern Italy in waves beginning in the mid-50s. My Nonno (grandfather) followed in his parents’ footsteps and left for Canada in 1956, working hard for two years to save enough to bring the rest of his family over. At the end of 1958, my Nonna, along with three children between the ages of three and seven, said goodbye to their small town of Piane Crati, Calabria, and never looked back. They made the 300km journey by train to Naples, where they boarded the Saturnia ship and spent a week crossing the Atlantic Ocean. This was followed by a week-long train trip crossing the vast expanse of Canada and finally arriving in their new home of Edmonton, Alberta, a place immensely different from the home they had just left behind.
It was in Edmonton where my dad eventually met my mom, a Ukrainian-Canadian beauty, married her, and had me shortly afterwards, in 1985. And it was in Edmonton where I spent my whole life until the age of 23. Although I’m a Canadian with a mixed European background, I have always most strongly identified with my Italian heritage, largely in part due to the fact that I spent most of my adolescence growing up in my Nonna’s home. I was surrounded by the Italian language, Italian food and my huge extended family, from whom I absorbed classic Italian personality traits and the expert ability to speak with my hands.
I don’t have any distinct memories of longing for the land of my ancestors, but more of a feeling of calm assurance from within that I would end up there, somehow, someday. I visited Italy for the first time in 2008, on my first trip outside of Canada. I spent a week in Switzerland and Austria for the Euro Cup before spending three awesome weeks in Italy. We started in the obvious tourist hot spots of Florence and Rome before working our way down to the toe of the Italian peninsula and landing in the region of Calabria. Basing ourselves in the medium-sized city of Cosenza, we maneuvered our rental car through the narrow streets and up into the hills, to my ancestral villages of Donnici Superiore, where my Nonna is from, and Piane Crati, birthplace of my Nonno, father, aunt and uncle. The drive only takes 15 minutes, but the road transported me back into another time, a world that hasn’t changed much since 1958.
After two more visits to Italy in 2011 and 2013, I waxed lyrical about the beauty of Southern Italy, the exquisite food and lack of tourists, never mind the family connection, I was never quite able to convince my dad to return to his homeland for a visit with me. It was my strongest dream, and for the last eight years, I never gave up on trying to make it happen even though he was apprehensive. His entire family had settled in Canada and his roots grew here, immersed in the culture as he was from such a young age. Learning about his roots wasn’t as important to him as it had become for me.
One evening, as we were having one of our regular phone calls, the words “Let’s go to Italy” escaped my dad’s lips. I didn’t question it. Within a week the three of us were gathered at his dining room table booking flights. We decided to skip the big three – Rome, Florence and Venice – and head straight for the south. Further south than Naples and the Amalfi Coast, straight into the heart of Calabria.
We stepped off of the airplane in Rome and right into a rental car, making the five and a half hour drive directly to Cosenza, capital city of the province of the same name. My dad and I nodded in and out of sleep, the scenery along the autostrada failing to captivate me in the throes of my exhaustion. At last, the familiar cityscape of Cosenza began to spread out in front of us. We wound our way through the modern city and into the heart of the old town, as familiar as if I were returning home after summer vacation. Happy to be back, not feeling like a tourist, but enjoying the feeling of a place that is familiar and close to my heart. Knowing where to go, where things are. Feeling at ease in a place where nothing changes.
Whenever I’m asked where I’ve had the best food or the best meal, I respond without hesitation, “This little restaurant beside the cathedral in Cosenza.” I dined there a few times, but the first meal there in 2011 is the stand out for me. The bread was plentiful and fresh, as was the homemade pasta with a simple tomato basil sauce. Washed down with a bottle of rosé and set against an idyllic Italian backdrop, it was simply the best meal I have enjoyed. It was a no-brainer that we eat there again on our first night back in five years. We were even served by the same waiter. It couldn’t have been more perfect. Any apprehension my dad had before the trip melted away as we walked the ancient cobblestone streets, ate fresh pasta and antipasto and sipped on rosé.
Over the next two weeks we slowly explored Calabria and made our first trip to Sicily. Keep your eyes on my blog for more stories from the trip!