Do Pigeons Eat Gelato? Memories of a little Italian kid immigrant.

My older sister’s watch was going to be permanently wrong. Not just temporarily incorrectly ahead by six hours, but permanently wrong. If we did not switch the little hand on it accordingly, the watch would be set to the wrong time indefinitely.

That was my biggest concern. That’s what I remember thinking on the flight from Rome Italy, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (I’m sure with a layover here and there) as an eight-year-old – almost nine-year-old – child who was about to move to America with her family.

Nothing about the fact that we’d probably not get to see our friends and family much ever again, or any thought about any food or item not being readily available to us any more, or any wonder as to what difference in scenery would now be our new home. Nope. Just an observation about my sister’s watch – my oldest sister, by the way, who had a hell of a lot more emotions and opinions about how her life as a 15-year old was being ruined (Sorry Claire!).

This, to me, is a prime example of the atmosphere my parents successfully created for us as young kids during such a big, daunting, complicated ordeal. Aside from some talk about the movers needing to get our furniture efficiently and properly bubble-wrapped to get it safely across the Atlantic Ocean, I had absolutely no idea how incredibly stressed out and scared my parents must have really been. And still to this day, I don’t think they’ve ever outwardly expressed that.

No idea whatsoever that many of their friends and family were probably telling them not to do it. Concerned relatives were likely exchanging phone calls with burrowed brows about what was going to be of these five kids and parents when they got to this whole new country they knew barely anything about.

No inclination whatsoever of how freaking cool of a childhood my parents had created for us to spend our days walking through dilapidated streets of Rome with cobbled roadways and tall, ornate buildings made of concrete and brick, and little touches of marble. Spending mornings and afternoons in Piazza Navona, with stately scowling statues staring off into the distance as pigeons fluttered around, using the statues’ pointer fingers as their temporary perch as they awaited the next unsuspecting child to toss a handful of bird seeds their way. Or if luck was really on the pigeons’ side, a tourist passing by may just have the bottom of their cake cone cracked and softened gelato could slip and drip through the bottom of the cone and unto the ground for them to have at it.

I had no idea, how exactly awesome holidays and weekends were back then taking our car from Rome, Italy to Gascony, France visiting my dad’s side of the family. Or hopping on a train and watching fields of sunflowers sway in the wind as our train passed them, if we chose to take the train from city to city. We would stay at this old farmhouse hotel, with a large weeping willow tree, and little barns filled with rabbits and chickens, nourished for the in-house restaurant – much to our unfortunate surprise. We’d build little snail villages and run the dirt streets of the little town, looking for snails to rescue and bring in our little fairy-like gardens we made for them. Little did we know we were probably bringing those poor snails more to their demise than any fictional French chef we’d made up in our minds. The hotel had dark woodworking beams along the ceilings and large stones molded together along the walls.

Not to mention the summers in Tuscany, packing prosciutto and sopressata sandwiches to the beach, which would crunch just a little in your teeth and have an extra hint of salt as little bits of sand would make their way in there. It didn’t matter. The sun in our face and the wind in our hair and running after each other, and sandcastles, and big umbrellas to provide some shade were pure happiness. Or picking fresh basil from one of the neighbor’s gardens of the apartment building where we stayed, which my Nonna lent to us for the week or two so we could stay closer to the beach.

I really don’t say any of this to brag. I mean it to give credit to my parents, who no matter what life threw at them, no matter the craziness of having five kids, and working multiple jobs, they gave us an amazing childhood. They always got creative and did what they could for us. And the world should know everything they did for us.

The point is, my dad recently asked me to think about and write down some memories of my perception of moving from Italy to the united States, and the truth is, the transition is a little bit of a blur. I didn’t think much of it when it happened. And that speaks volumes of their parenting. I was there and then I was here.

But now as an adult mom of five myself, my heart creeps to my throat a little bit thinking about my mom, who followed her philosopher husband across the ocean with virtually no way to have any sort of communication or connection to any part of the life she was leaving behind.

Can you imagine boarding a plane with your five kids (Some of whom, let’s be honest, were already into touchy teenager territory, and I know my brothers and I bickered like crazy as young kids) and husband and having to start a life in a completely new place where you’re not quite comfortable with the language? And as your kids start school at their new school every day, and your husband goes to work, you are at home, without a vehicle or legal permission to work, or an economic way to call home to your sister or mother or friends on a regular basis?

That’s what she had to do. And she didn’t wallow. She sought out opportunities to volunteer, and organize religious meet-ups, and go to church, and read books, and be there for us.

I do remember our first day of elementary school in this new country. I remember my twin brother Marco and I were placed in separate classes (Probably to force us to adapt), and I remember he was crying so hard and was so inconsolable, that they brought me in to console him, and I think I just kind of looked at him in bewilderment and shrugged, not knowing what to do. And eventually he figured it all out, too.

I remember the teachers sounding to me like the adult characters from the Peanut cartoons of Charlie Brown. I remember one of the girls who had an Italian grandmother trying to talk to me and just saying the word very audibly and clearly “Pa-ssss-taaaaaaa!” in an effort to communicate.

I also remember that by 5thgrade, which was a year after we moved to the United States, we were all fluent in English and this was just a part of life.

But I feel that the experience has given us as kids a less sensitive of a panic button when it comes to change (At least the younger ones), and we owe that completely to my parents. We moved around a few times after that, and every time I’m sure they were scared as heck, and we knew it a little bit, but definitely not to the degree of the situation at times (At least as kids). Of course there was emotions, and communication, and openness of the situations, but every time with the message was that with God, everything would be okay.

Through the experience we learned prayer, trusting God with whatever situation is presented, following God and only God, and that family is number one, and with family, you can do anything. We learned a new language, English, and stayed fluent in Italian (And French and Spanish for some of the siblings). We learned that no matter what we go through, we come together as a family and figure it out.

We make new friends everywhere we go, and still have strong friendships with the most awesome people back in Italy, and thanks to the world of social media, we stay connected to many of our awesome French, Scottish and Italian relatives (Of whom I burst with pride any time I see a new milestone pop up for them).

This essay is still a work in progress, and as I think bout it more, I am sure more memories will resurface, but the fact that the memory of such a huge transition doesn’t bring any sort of crazy feelings, you did good Mamma e Papa’. And we are all grateful for you every day.

Nonno and Nonna with all their grandkids – who are typically actually very happy children 🙂