My second semester at Temple was speeding by, and suddenly it was March: I was leaving for one of the world’s loveliest cities in less than two months, and I still hadn’t booked my flight.
“Do you know the name of the airport you’re supposed to fly into?” my dad asked while I was home for spring break.
Yes, I knew the name, but could I say it out loud?
It baffled me. Was the c sound hard or soft? Where did I put the accent? How many syllables did it have? Did it rhyme with Frappuccino?
I might as well have been wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a cheap pair of binoculars around my neck, holding a map upside down and loudly asking, does anyone here speak English?!
Dejectedly, I let my feeble mispronunciations trail off and began referring to the Fiumicino Airport by its other name, the name that any American tourist could pronounce:
“The Leonardo Da Vinci Airport.”
My dad nodded like he’d heard of it before, and minutes later he booked my flight.
I’m Italian-American. I like telling people that. It’s fun to count off on my fingers the seven lilting names–Naples, Casal Velino, Sicily, Milan, Calabria, Abruzzi, Genoa–of the places where my relatives once lived.
I’m Italian-American. My great-grandmother came to America through Ellis Island. The first thing she ate in New York was a banana–something she’d never seen during her childhood in Naples. In her South Philadelphia row home, she used a rough wooden spoon to stir homemade spaghetti and to swat her grandchildren when they misbehaved.
I’m Italian-American. I grew up amidst a backdrop of big, loud family and dusty Frank Sinatra music. My mom swears in Sicilian dialect when someone cuts her off on Oregon Avenue, and my dad fiercely refuses to acknowledge The Godfather as anything but a cinematic classic.
I’m Italian-American, but more Philadelphian than anything. I can find the Schuylkill River with my eyes closed, but couldn’t tell you anything about the Tiber; the art museum steps are more familiar to me than the Spanish ones. But what makes me Philadelphian is my affectionate awareness of the hidden corners of the city, and my anger at anyone who attempts to reduce Philly to “the home of the cheesesteak,” or, even worse “the place where Rocky was filmed.”
I grew up believing that Italy was the setting of some fairytale, a modernized Garden of Eden where people sang in the streets and picked plump figs from trees as they glided by on their Easter egg-colored Vespas.
Therein lies my biggest worry as I prepare to leave for Rome: the fear that I will oversimplify and stereotype a city as eclectic and multifaceted as my own hometown, the fear that I will be the obnoxious American tourist.
I think what’s important in these six weeks is not only my fear of ignorance, but my eagerness to learn as much as I can about the diversity and neighborhoods and side streets and language of Rome. To explore and grow to love the pronunciations and customs, and to make the most of the time in Italy that I am so ecstatic and lucky to have obtained.
For the record though, I still can’t pronounce the name of Italy’s biggest airport. At least not yet.