Five of us travelled from Montreal to Paris to Venice to Mestre to Udine - by plane, bus and train. Mature, mid-career women - all having overcome obstacles to come on this journey. It was necessary to settle the children or elderly parents, get a leave of absence from work, and coax "the support" out of partners or spouses. When we do make it to faraway professional gatherings - such as the one the five of us attended at the Canadian Cultural Centre at the University of Udine - do we ever stop to think about what it has taken for each one of us to get there?
And when we are actually there to show our work, do we think about the unusual and convoluted circumstances which make us strangers in the land of our parents?
We had just missed our train to Udine. We sat sipping a real cappuccino at the McDonald's in the Mestre train station and stared at each other. We didn't say much. Except for Lianne - who has no Italian roots but who has made a career of analyzing Italian Canadian novels with her graduate students at the University of Montreal - Mary, Anna, Connie and I were all born in Italy. I realized, as I sat there watching them, that I didn't really know much about them personally; I knew the literature professor, the poet, the art historian, the businesswoman. That was only less baffling than the fact that I had ended up in a McDonalds in Mestre . . . I who have refused my children so often that they've stopped asking about the "happy meal."
The diligent me would have pulled out the camera and recorded the moment for posterity (and I remember thinking about it), but I was jet-lagged and the cacophony of emotions (at having finally made it there) was affecting my reflexes. Mestre . . . the city where my father's lawyer is - the one he hired to represent him in an inheritance dispute with his five siblings. The case is still unresolved after many years. Those siblings are the aunts and uncles I longed to visit when I travelled to Italy in my youth; the same ones who took me to fiere and giostre and to the spiaggia.
Italy brings out the best and the worst in me. Its people reaped the fruit of the land left behind by those who emigrated, while those of us who did emigrate worked in sweatshops (or butcher shops as I did) to make ends meet or to pay for an education. After Italy's "economic miracle" in the 1960s and 1970s, they saw us as the poor cousins because we didn't wear designer "everything." I never seem to wear the right shoes when I visit Italy, and so I buy new ones on every trip. But, they do not feel right until I walk in them back in Montreal.
Trying to understand the emotions which bubble to the surface when we visit the home of our ancestors is a source of creative and intellectual nourishment. We can see or hear or smell the familiar in each other's stories. Italy is no longer our home - if ever it was. But it remains the source of our present: it is our cultural home. Everything has good and bad. I've decided to take the good. I will focus on the beauty that is Italy . . . savour it, treasure it and pass it on to my children.
Licia Canton is a literary critic and the editor of Accenti Magazine. She lives in Montreal with her husband and three children.