Meet The Family

1San Severo 1.1

October 28, 2015

Facebook has its good and its not so good side. This is definitely a story of its good side. While on my recent trip to Europe, which included a few stops around Italy, I was able to meet some of my extended family that live there, and it was all made possible from one seemingly simple photo being tagged on my Facebook wall.

I celebrated my birthday the week before my European adventure was to commence. While having brunch with my mother, my brother, my aunt and one of my cousins, the obligatory family picture was taken. As I usually do, I uploaded the picture to my Facebook wall and tagged those of us that exist in the social media world (I still have’t been able to convince my Mum why she should have a Facebook account. She has Instagram though, so I’ll take that as a win). The next few hours would lead me through a series of events that I never contemplated, nor thought possible.

As I was doing this trip on my own, and due to my basic Italian speaking abilities (I know words and can read street signs and menus, but don’t get me in a conversation as it’ll be mostly one way), I was not factoring in an opportunity to travel to my Mum’s home town of San Severo, a town in the beautiful province of Puglia, which is in the south-east corner of Italy (pretty much the area that makes up the heel of Italy, if you think Italy looks like a boot). I also wasn’t factoring in a chance to meet family there. However, after tagging my aunt in this photo, the family that she is friends with promptly starting adding me as a friend, and then the (Italian) conversations started to flow on Messenger. They consisted of brief but incredibly warm and friendly greetings and introductions to each other. I could understand some of the messages, but to be sure, I utilised the wonderful resource that is Google Translate to navigate my way through these unexpected yet fantastic conversations. I didn’t mention that I was about to travel to Italy, as I didn’t think it would work for me to go visit them without being able to speak fluent Italian, but I knew that once they saw that I was in Europe, they would want to meet at some stage. As I later discovered, English is relatively common in parts of Italy, but south of Rome does not appear to be one of those parts.

When I did arrive in Rome one week later, I received a message from my cousin in Italy, and as expected, she wanted to meet. I was heading north to Venice the next day, but had the final four days of the trip planned for Rome. I suggested we meet when I returned to Rome in a few weeks time and we made plans to do so. In the meantime, I pondered how I was going to manage this, however, any doubt was quickly consumed by the excitement of being able to visit my Mum’s home town and of course, meet some of the family.

When I returned to Rome at the back end of my trip, I decided to make a day trip out of the journey to San Severo, as it is close to a three-hour train ride from Rome. I worked out that I was able to get a train first thing in the morning and arrive in San Severo around 11am. I would get about six hours there before having to board the last train back to Rome that night, and while it wasn’t ideal to only have part of the day to spend with them, it was better than not going at all. You just never know when you’ll be able to go back, so I knew I had to take this opportunity.

When I arrived in San Severo, I looked around for the face that I’d only seen in pictures on Facebook. Suddenly, I hear an excited “Stefano!” from behind, and there she was – my cugina (cousin) Soccorsa and her partner Luigi, there to pick me up and take me to my Nonna’s brother’s house for lunch (of course) and to meet the rest of the family. There was no awkwardness – only hugs, kisses, smiles and laughing. Sure, there was some silence as they figured out pretty quickly that my Italian wasn’t exactly up to scratch, but we didn’t need words in this moment – we had the universal language of smiles and hugs. We walked to their car with some feeble attempts from me to string a sentence together, before we were on our way.

The town was much bigger and busier than I had pictured. There’s a story of my Mum having two birthdays and no birth certificate because of being born in a small town (and it taking four days for them to reach the birth registration office, which resulted in the two birthdays – the actual birthday, and the official birthday), but San Severo was bustling. Old streets and older buildings took centre stage, as did some very questionable driving from the locals, although this seems to be the norm in Italy – no order on the roads, but it somehow works. “La citta grande” (the city is big) was my best attempt at trying to convey my surprise at the larger than expected city I was being driven through. The roads were quite rough, pot holes were common. I got the feeling that affluence wasn’t synonymous with this part of Italy, but that’s what gives this area its charm. Many a story from my childhood involved upbringings where things were tough, and you made the most of what you had. Food was never wasted, and there was always a meal to be made by whatever ingredients you could get your hands on – something my Mum managed to do really well at home too. These parts don’t need polish – they have what’s most important to them already – family.

About 15 minutes from the train station, we arrived at our destination. Vladimiro, my Nonna’s brother, was standing on the porch as I got out of the car. He had lived in Australia for three years, but returned to Italy in 1965. Surprisingly, he can still speak some English, and this was much appreciated at times when I wasn’t able to get any conversation going. I went to greet him in the usual Italian way, but he seemed hesitant. My cousin explained who I was and suddenly, a big smile appeared on his face, followed by a swift tour around his house. I found it amazing that a mere 20 or so minutes later, the kitchen was a hive of activity and a steady flow of new arrivals continued to walk through the door. I was seeing first-hand what an actual Italian family feast looked like, and I somehow was a part of it all. As each family member would walk through the door, they’d approach me with the same warmth and affection as the person before them did, and they’d speak to me until they either realised the only reply they were going to get from me was a smile and a nervous nod, or someone else would let them know that I didn’t speak Italian, and they’d just laugh and hug me anyway. To top it off, they were cooking one of my all-time favourites – orecchiette (a local style of pasta, which as kids, we called “little hats” given its hat-like appearance – a picture of it is at the end of the story). I tried to help with the cooking, but was promptly told to return to my seat. I knew that would probably happen, but I felt I had to show some attempt to help anyway.

As we all sat down to eat lunch, I was struck by the moment. Here I was, in San Severo, travelling alone, but now finding myself surrounded by family that I had just met. Welcomed into their home and given an incredible meal to celebrate. The language barrier was gone – we were just enjoying each other’s company, and you don’t always need to speak to do that. There was robust discussion about various news stories that were on the TV and I tried to follow along with them. The vino rosso (red wine) was flowing freely too – it was a local drop, of course. When it came time to clean up, I again tried to help. Again, I was promptly told to return to my seat. The traditions are still very strong here, but there doesn’t seem to be any discontent on the way things are.

The final part of our day together was a delight – they took me out for a gelato! I probably had enough gelati on this trip, but when you’re in the presence of a food at its best, you indulge. I made my usual selection of Nutella gelato in a waffle cone (and yes, it was amazing!), and we walked the cobbled street back to the car. Almost as quickly as the events had unfolded, they were about to end. It truly was a whirlwind day, but it was an amazingly surreal experience. From the first sight of my cugina at the train station, to the energetic celebration around lunch, and to all the thoughts I was having about what life would be like here, this was a phenomenal experience – one that I am truly grateful for having the privilege to have had. There really is something so incredibly humbling about seeing where you’ve come from, even if it’s a distant connection. It certainly gives me an urge to ensure these wonderful traditions are maintained too. It might just be time to rekindle the sauce making, as well as the wine making. Even if it doesn’t taste all that good, it’ll be an excuse to get the family together, just like we did on this day that will be a fond memory for a long time. The simple things in life often are the best.

1San Severo 2

Pictures: Top – a sneaky snap at San Severo train station as I was about to meet my cousin. Above – the action in the kitchen was just getting started before the family arrived for lunch. Of course, the vino rosso is ready to go. And more chairs were about to be added to the table as well.

Below – it wouldn’t be right not to include a picture of the first course of lunch. The very yummy orecchiette! If you think the serving size is huge, I had to ask them to stop adding more to it!

1San Severo 3

The Fear

69H

As children, we are happy enough to test uncharted territory and take a chance on the unknown. At some point as we grow older, we seem to become resistant to risk. The unknown becomes murky water that we don’t want to swim in. Often, this can be a real hindrance to making a decision – there’s that little voice in your head focussing on all the things that could possibly go wrong, even if it’s just a 0.01% chance. Each scenario is blown out of proportion and before you know it, years have gone by, as have many opportunities.

I am guilty of this and can recall at least three decision points in my life thus far where my risk aversion has led to a decision that I’ve later wished I’d acted differently. Some relate to love, some to professional aspirations and some probably fit into the “small stuff” category, but they all ended up the same – that troubling question “what if?”

What if I allowed that first crush at school to become something more? (Admittedly, other factors were at play here as I was not remotely ready or comfortable to accept myself as gay at the ripe age of seventeen at an all-boys school).

What if I lasted longer than three days in my first choice at Uni (Professional Writing, funnily enough) before the self-doubt kicked in about being able to forge a career in this field? (Side note: it may have taken eighteen years to come back to it, but I absolutely can’t wait to start my Professional Writing journey in a few months time).

What if I had chosen to live and work abroad in my twenties as I so often dreamed of doing? The fear voices were particularly strong on this one – my parents had recently separated and I felt I would have been abandoning my mother in her time of need to selfishly pursue my wish of living on the other side of the world.

I have come to realise that this is where it is important to understand something about choices – I believe the decision you make at a particular time is likely the best decision you could make at that time. You don’t know what you don’t know and it’s the journey you take that teaches you this. I can sit here now after all of these years and ponder what could have been if I had decided those scenarios differently, but I also know that those decisions I made were probably right for that time of my life, as I wasn’t ready for the other options at that time.

The other important factor is not to look at decisions you’d make differently now as a failure. Look for what you learned on the path that you actually took, rather than focussing on what you think you missed out on. It might even highlight the things you’ll do differently next time you face a similar decision point. My current (soon-to-be-ex) employment is an example of this – I went from one corporate finance role that I wasn’t enjoying to another corporate finance role, thinking that a change in scenery (and more money) would somehow fix everything. Six months later, I was as miserable in this new job as I was in the one I left. Has this six months been a risk that was not worth taking, or worse yet, has it been a failure? Not in my eyes, no. I choose to see this as the definitive proof I needed to cut ties with the corporate finance world and go back to a pursuit that makes me happy, makes me feel that I am contributing something positive to the world around me, while also being something I can sustain a lifestyle from. I’m embarking on a change that will see me shift the balance from being a life supported by a career, to a career that will support my life.

Try not to think that this kind of action is only for the brave. I have been surprised at the number of people who have told me they are impressed by my courage and bravery for making changes, pursuing a passion and downsizing the things which are not necessities to me. I don’t see it like this at all. This is about finding whatever it is that fulfils you, and importantly, sustains you. Money is not that shiny happy object, and it never will be. Yes, having enough money to get by is important (I’ve been on the verge of declaring bankrupt, so I know what it’s like to be on the wrong side of money too), but if you’re living a life that doesn’t fulfil you in any way other than your bank account, you might reach a point one day when you’ll do the same thing I’ve done. It isn’t brave to seek the things that make you happy, it’s what we all should be striving to do.

This brings me back to the fear. Why are we so afraid to fail? Life is about always learning and seeking new experiences to foster that learning. No one will ever have a 100% success rate at decision making, but I’m reasonably sure there’ll be a high percentage of regret if you keep missing out on opportunities as they present themselves, if the only reason you’re not taking them is from a fear of the unknown. Yes, you might not be ready, and that’s completely fine, but you need to take a chance at some point. There’ll be a time when you need to open that door.

A quote from the wonderful J.K. Rowling says it better than I ever could:

“It is impossible to live without failing at something. Unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case, you failed by default”.

Photo credit: http://www.gratisography.com/

Identity

Growing up with a foreign family name was an issue as a child, and even as a teen. Having to spell my name, help people pronounce it, answer questions on its origin, and of course, the occasional racial slur, helped stoke the shame I felt towards the name that was a part of me. The number of times I wished my surname was Smith. Steve Smith – such a simple name, no questions asked and no comments made.

As I progress through life, I am developing a sense of pride in my name and especially in the story of its origin. I wish I knew of this story at a younger age – a story of sacrifice and risk, where my Nonno made the two-month journey here by boat, on his own, leaving behind a young family in 1950s southern Italy, to see if a better life was possible on the other side of the world. I often think to myself what I would do if I was faced by the same choice. My circumstances could not be more different to those of my Nonno. I don’t have family commitments and I am very fortunate to be in comfortable surroundings – none of which I would have without his sacrifice. To get on a boat and go to a foreign country so far away, not knowing what awaits you, and also not knowing when you’ll next see your wife and two young children, just so they can have a chance at a better life, has to be one of the most selfless and courageous acts one person can do, and I’m not sure I have that in me.

I learned of this story soon after my Nonno had passed away. He was a humble man, and he wanted no praise or fanfare. He had been very active in local politics, to the point where a local park was to be posthumously named in his honour. He helped those that followed after him when they arrived in this distant foreign land to find their feet – whether it was assistance with language barriers (he managed to learn basic English from the family that sponsored his trip here), help with accessing the limited local services that were available, or just being there when new arrivals needed someone familiar to talk to. He built his family home by himself, using money saved from the jobs he was able to pick up along the way. He must have been so patient, so driven to achieve what he came here to do, but it’s likely you would be when you’re desperate enough to get on a boat and try to make a new life on the other side of the world.

To only learn of this after his passing was sad. I didn’t have a chance to thank him for everything I now have. He probably had enough satisfaction from seeing his six children grow up to start new families and provide him with plenty of grandchildren, but it’s not fair that he didn’t see how much this meant to me before he passed on. To compound my sadness, he became a shadow of himself in his final years. Diabetes led to a stroke, before dementia took the final toll. I don’t think he remembered me the last time I visited him and that was profoundly sad for me. Even sadder was seeing him strapped down to the bed in the nursing home, as the dementia was making him violent, posing a risk to the staff and to himself. He didn’t know that though, and it’s possibly why he continued to be violent those last few years. I stopped going after that. I didn’t want that to be my final memory of him – a once great man, reduced to rubble.

The sense of shame as a young boy is now replaced by pride. By a sense of belonging to a culture that values family and sacrifice above most other trivial material things. While it’s fair to say that this didn’t shape my formative years, it now plays a significant role. I want to know more about why they had to leave Italy – I don’t want to assume it was due to the aftermath of WWII. I know he came to Melbourne as he had a sponsor in a small Victorian country town, but he could have gone elsewhere. The entire story could be different in many ways. So much of life is chance; it might not make sense at the time, but when we grow to learn of the how and why, things begin to fit. My place in all of this begins to feel right. I am developing a sense of identity. I am no longer an Australian with a distant Italian heritage. I am an Italian Australian. I am feeling drawn to travel Italy and see where all this history and culture comes from, and I aim to understand why so many Italians felt the need to leave all those years ago. I want to rekindle the traditions we had when I was young – the boisterous weekly family dinners, the making of sauce, wine, pasta and pizza, or the sitting on the couch watching cartoons while my Nonno swore at the TV because the cartoons didn’t make sense (that last one isn’t necessarily a tradition, but it’s a very fond memory). We prioritise other things now, and these traditions are sadly less prevalent. We’re too busy doing all those little things that might not matter, but at the time, we think they are really important. The important thing to me is ensuring these traditions are maintained – my Nonno gave up far too much for me to do anything less than this.

It’s now impossible for me to feel anything other than immense pride in my name, and the story behind it. Sadly, it took a death to truly understand the significance of this story.

I got accepted!

It’s apt that on the day I planned to write my first post for this new adventure that I also learned I’ve been accepted into the Master of Writing and Publishing at a university here in Melbourne. It’s an amazing feeling – one of genuine excitement, and of utter nervousness. It’s surreal to think that next year will now take me on a different course, one that is mercifully away from my current career in Finance (hence the title of this blog). My passion has never been in the numbers – it’s always been in the story behind the numbers. Finance was a part of my life because I allowed it to be. It was comfortable, and I could do it reasonably well. It also helped that it was a well-remunerated field, but that’s probably a topic for another post.

I don’t think I was ready to embrace the prospect of a career in a creative field – one in an unfamiliar area, where I allowed the thoughts of others to influence my thoughts. How could I possibly make a career out of something like writing? Those doubting voices have been vocal for far too many years, and I’m glad that I finally ignored those voices and made the decision to apply for this Masters course. I don’t know where this will take me, but I’m reasonably sure that it will be a more fulfilling path than the one I was on. Even if it doesn’t work out, at least I’m giving it a shot. I already have one or two regrets in life, and I’m not prepared to start adding to that list.

The last few months have provided some significant change in my life, both in personal and professional circumstances. I decided to book an overseas trip (my first in five years!) as I needed something to look forward to. I also need to get away for a period of time and reflect. What better way than travelling alone on the other side of the world? I will document my experiences on this blog while I am away, and hopefully I will figure out how to upload some pictures on here too. I don’t want this to simply be a verbal journey – the visual always helps too.

So, this blog will hopefully become my place to reflect, and to grow. This is only the beginning of my writing journey, and I’m incredibly excited about the opportunity that is now before me. I will get to work on my writing technique and learn from the best. I will also get to learn the art of editing – something I feel I lack at this point. It’s an added bonus that a particular focus of this course is also on publishing and that I will have the opportunity to collaborate with other like-minded passionate creative minds. It’s a far cry from the world of spreadsheets and monthly reports, and that is exactly what I need.