When I was around 15 years old, my parents thought it was time to show us our roots. It’s always nice to know where you come from. I grew up in a sicilian household in Elizabeth, New Jersey. My brother and I were raised in a 2 family house, we lived upstairs with our parents, my grandparents downstairs. The finished basement complete with a kitchen was reserved for Sunday Dinners of the best Italian homestyle cooking you could ever eat! My grandfather is a tailor, so he would also work out of the basement, his clients would come over and mingle with the family as they got their custom Italian suits fitted. We always had family from Italy come over to visit. My grandparents themselves came over to this country around the late 1950s on a boat with my 2 aunts, and my dad was just a little bun in the oven. My dad’s family is from a small down in Sicily called Ribera (we will get to that in future posts).
My mom’s father’s side of the family is mostly from Messina, but growing up , you didn’t feel the culture in her family as much as we felt the culture on my dad’s side. I think it’s because my dad’s parents were born in Italy, so he was brought up with the culture from his parents first hand. My moms parents were both born here, it was her grandparents on her dad’s side that came from Italy on the boat , so skipping a generation naturally distances you from the culture a bit. You think that growing up in the same house as my grandparents would have me speaking the dialect fluently, but nope.. like I said , skipping a generation distances you from the culture a bit. I also moved away from their house when I was 8.
Not to get too off topic or anything, but I figured a bit of background was necessary and the proudness I feel about my heritage leads in to this trip. So it was my junior year of high school , around October, and my father had told us that his aunt and uncle would be renewing her wedding vows in Italy, and we had been invited to go!
Again I was only 15 at the time, and I had been to Mexico, but I have never been overseas before. I am 30 now, so my memory is a bit rusty on details of certain things, but I will try my best to recall most of the eventful things of this trip….
On this trip was My mom and dad, my brother Vincent, and my Zizi Fina and her son, my cousin Nick. We went during the last 2 weeks of October, so as kids we were a bit upset that we were gonna miss Halloween, since they don’t celebrate Halloween in Italy the way us Americans do (We are pretty big Halloween buffs, so missing it is a bit sacrilege in my house, but I mean looking back now as an adult, I really couldn’t complain… I was getting a free ride to see my roots, and immerse myself in such rich art, history, food, and culture). I don’t remember much about the plane ride there, or really much about the airport upon arrival.
We flew into Rome, and stayed in a little hotel on the outskirts of Vatican City. It was a bit slummy around the area, but the hotel was pretty nice. I do remember upon check in, they had this accordion music playing in the lobby, and my brother being the jokester and goofball that he is, began pretending he was playing the accordion! I remember laughing at that a lot! We got checked in, and then we went to eat at a tiny little restaurant about a block or so from the hotel. I remember walking down a basement to get to this restaurant. Once we got down there, it was nice and quaint, adorned with wine bottles, and the cliche red and white checkered table cloths. I remember ordering Gnocchi for the first time, and my mind was blown when I found out that it was pasta made from potatoes!! It was DELICIOUS!
After the restaurant, we were walking on our way back to the hotel. It was a pretty nice night, and relatively relaxing until we got a reality check that everyone warns you about when you are in Italy. We were walking, joking around, when all of the sudden, where hear a woman scream from a distance “AYUTA, AYUTA!!!” which means HELP. We are from Elizabeth, NJ, which has its rough spots, so we all go right into awareness mode. All of the sudden, we see a man (could have been a woman) all dressed in black, with a face mask on, running out of the alley with a woman’s purse under his arm. He ran right past us, and my dad and Nick didn’t even think twice and started immediately running right after the guy.
Nick had his camera in hand (not recording unfortunately) and just as they went to reach for the guy and catch him, the masked bandit hopped on a double parked moped and sped away into the night. Just as the crook sped away, the woman who was robbed, and her daughter who had her arm in a cast, came running out of the alley screaming and crying. We helped her phone the police, and I don’t remember much after that. It was pretty crazy to witness something like that on our first night there. We were pretty shaken up and headed back to the hotel. We knew from this point on that we really had to watch our backs in unfamiliar territory.
Back at the hotel: As far as I remember, my mom and dad and my aunt shared a room, and my cousin Nick, my brother Vincent, and I shared a room together next door to the adults. Vin and I would drive Nick crazy and keep him up all night as we made fart noises on our leg. LOL! These are the things I remember… oh to be a kid again. One thing I do remember about the hotel, were the showers there. And when I was there, I didn’t realize that it wasn’t just the shower at this hotel, but ALL SHOWERS IN ITALY/SICILY ARE LIKE THIS! I would have to wash in sections which was a bit “new”, lol. Wash my hair, turn the water off, wash my upper body, turn the water off, etc… I think I even flooded the floor… actually now that I think about it, I flooded the floor every time I showered. There is no tub or basin. You’re basically standing on a slab with a drain, which doesn’t drain fast enough. No wonder most Europeans don’t shower much… who feels like dealing with that on a daily basis, like really!?!?
So during our time in Rome, we spend A LOT of our time hanging out in Vatican City. I remember visiting there at night and seeing the Fountain of Trevi. We threw in some loose change, and went to the Gelateria right next to it. It might have been raining, I don’t really remember. I feel like it was drizzling because we were standing under an overhang waiting for the drizzle to stop, as we ate our gelato and watched the Fountain from there. We were standing there, and I remember a woman standing next to us with a poncho or umbrella on. This woman had actually turned out to be my father’s cousin. They realized who each other was, and hugs and kisses were exchanged! Her name was Dena, and she introduced us to our cousin Sirio, he looked about 11 or 12. He was a funny kid with glasses! We walked around Rome, and even checked out the Spanish Staircase. I remember my brother, Sirio, and I racing to the top and playing tag, and just having so much fun on these stairs. The adults caught up with each other and chatted together. I remember going back to my dad’s cousin’s house so they could all catch up more. I remember taking a bus ride there.
The next day we had made plans to go back to the Vatican and take the inside tour. I don’t really remember how long we stood in line to get in. We spent a lot of the day hanging outside the Vatican, lounging on fountains and chasing pigeons around the square. I do remember how ginormous the Vatican was when we finally went it. We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside, but we took the tour of the basement catacombs where we were able to take some, which was pretty amazing. There were sarcophagi of old priests or deacons with golden mosaic tiled headstones which was pretty cool. After the Vatican, we went to eat at a little pizzeria close by. This restaurant was also in a basement typa setting like the last one we went to. It reminded me of my grandmother’s basement back home. This pizzeria served individual pies to each person, not much smaller than a pie you’d share with 3 other people in the US!!! It was the most amazing pizza I have ever had in my life!! We went there with everyone, plus Dena’s parents (my dad’s Aunt Mima and Uncle Pepino).
My dad’s aunt was my grandfather’s sister. Both his aunt and uncle have since passed on over the years, sadly. It was a good thing we went to visit them when we did. After pizza, we did more exploring of Rome. We visited Castel Sant’Angelo (Castle of the Holy Angel) which is a towering cylindrical building in Parco Adriano, Rome. It was initially commissioned by the Roman Emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum for himself and his family. It was later used by the popes as a fortress and castle. It is now a museum… The view from the top was absolutely breathtaking as the Italian sunset illuminated the golden villas for miles into the distance. After we explored the Castle, we headed back to the Vatican square.
On the way back, I remember seeing gypsy beggars sitting along the sidewalls, begging for money. I remember seeing a lot of these beggars, with deformed limbs, no teeth, etc. It was quite the disturbing site, kinda scary actually. They clearly could not walk, but there was also talk of beggars or gypsies pickpocketing you without you even realizing it. We were SUPER paranoid, especially after the mugging incident we witnessed on the outskirts of Rome near our hotel. I remember one day, we were trying to get a bus somewhere, and we had bought tickets. We had wandered the square looking for the bus stop, and when we went to get on, my dad started panicking because he couldn’t find his tickets. He started blaming the pick pocketers, which was so funny, because a minute or so later, he found the tickets exactly where he put them… in his shirt pocket. We all had a good laugh about that, and then we got on the bus, standing back to back toward each other so no one could take anything from behind. LOL!! Talk about being on guard at all times!
This is about all I remember about Rome, Italy. We were there for about a week, but this was not the end of our trip!!
Next was Sicily…
PICK AN ADVENTURE!