I’m from an Italian family. We’re all very proud, loud, and loving. So when my brother was accepted into a study abroad program in Italy, and my dad and I planned to visit him, there was no way we could leave the country without meeting my pretty distant relatives.
It all started when my Grandpa, Joseph Ciabattoni, found out that my brother, Luke, would be studying in Milan, at one of Italy’s most prestigious business schools. Grandpa Joe almost lost it—not necessarily because of my brother’s accomplishments, but because he would be pretty close to our Italian family.
Grandpa Joe started making all the phone calls. He called Roberto, who lived just outside Milan. And then Roberta, who lived in San Benedetto del Tronto. The family was expecting us months before my brother even set foot in the county to begin his semester.
Once my brother settled in, my dad and I came to visit for about 10 days. We let my brother show us around the city; the first place he showed us was the Duomo. We paid a small fee to climb 250 steps to the roof, where we were free to walk around, stick our heads out the ancient windows, and gaze upon the city beneath.
Then, he showed us Castello Sforzesco; it’s a castle that houses an art museum. The outside is glorious, magnificent, and all-of-the-regal words. It’s one of the most grandiose residences in Italy. However, it’s been nearly destroyed about four times: during the Golden Ambrosia Republic in 1450, when Napoleon ordered the demolition of the castle in 1800, and during WWII in the 1940s. Regardless, it’s still standing today.
Our favorite nighttime activity was going to La Fontella. Although I stuck with an Italian classic, the Bellini, they served some of the best beer in the craziest contraptions. You can catch a glimpse of a horseshoe-like pitcher in the right-hand corner, behind me.
Eventually, it was time to make the trek to visit our long-lost family. To be honest, I’m still not sure how we’re all related. But when you’re Italian, it doesn’t really matter; family is family.
We took a train north, for about an hour, where we met Roberto at the train station. He was a middle-aged man, in his forties, with short black hair and a smiley face. He seemed like an incredibly happy yet calm, maybe just overall content, kind of person. And hallelujah! He spoke English. While walking along the Lago Maggiore boardwalk, Roberto pointed out his house, on the horizon.
He drove us up a narrow, winding road where we finally reached his home, perched on the side of a hill, overlooking Lago Maggiore and the Swiss Alps. He led us through a cobblestone-like driveway into a wooden mansion, with high ceilings and glass walls. We couldn’t believe how beautiful their home was, as you can see by my brother’s reaction below. Inside, we met Roberto’s dad, Julio, and his sister, Adele. They only spoke Italian, so Roberto served as our translator for the entirety of the night.
After touring the property, we headed inside for dinner. We sat around a small, wooden table in the center of the cabin-like mansion, surrounded by glass windows overlooking the lake and Swiss Alps. Adele spent the whole day making homemade pasta; I can’t imagine the amount of work that went into that one meal. When it came time to eat, she came up behind each of us, personally, and placed the food on the appropriate plate in front of us.
We began with the aperitivo—red wine and olives for snacking. We were then served the antipasti—which was a board of bread, cheese, and meats. Then came the primi—little quiche-like dishes! I took a bite and… shit. As a vegetarian, I hadn’t eaten meat for about eight years—until now. Bacon wafted up from my taste buds, to the back of my throat, towards my nostrils.
My dad stared at me from across the table, apprehensively. I remember asking my brother to alert the family about my vegetarianism, but he didn’t feel comfortable; he thought they wouldn’t understand. I didn’t blame him, so I let it go with complete faith that I could avoid whatever kind of meat was placed in my path.
But in the middle of this beautiful, wooden mansion overlooking the lake and mountains, with all of the hard work from Adele’s bare hands—I didn’t have the heart to say no. I blacked out my senses and went for it. Bit by bit I chewed, quickly, trying to make the experience pass as quickly as possible; I barely held back gags at the intimate table setting.
And then came the secondi—sausage-loaded pasta. My dad stared at me again—eyes full of sympathy. I knew I had to get through it. Looking back, I don’t remember much of that pasta; I think I blacked it out. I was able to cover up the greasy, carnage taste with the contori—cooked vegetables, and then the insalada—a salad. And finally, dolce. Dessert. We had some Italian cookies and espresso. By the time we got to the limoncello, it was like the meat never happened. It was tastebud history.
My dad was incredibly proud and grateful that I sucked it up and ate the meat. And so was my brother. They both gave me high-fives when no one was looking. After dinner, Roberto gave me a ride on his Vespa through the mountain roads overlooking Lago Maggiore. After that, we went inside and listened to Julio, his father, tell us stories of WWII while Roberto translated. It was about 10 pm and time to head home; we all piled into Roberto’s car and headed back towards our hotel in Milan.
Our next destination was San Benedetto del Tronto—the southern tip of Italy—to visit Roberta, another relative. Again, I’m not sure about the relation. And again, it didn’t seem to matter. My brother was able to communicate with her through Facebook Messenger; he ran everything through Google Translate before sending. On Roberta’s side, no one spoke English.
But at 9pm, there they were at the train station—ready to pick us up. It was Roberta, Aldolfo, and Marie, who they affectionately called “little ball” in Italian. I couldn’t believe it; if someone called me “little ball” I’d be incredibly offended. Marie didn’t seem to mind, though.
They approached us with hugs, and kisses, lots of Italian words that we didn’t understand. Luke, used Google translate to tell them where our hotel was so they could drop us off for the night. We arrived at the lobby at 9pm, but no matter how loud we knocked on the door—no one came to answer. It was just my dad, brother, and me wondering whether we’d be stranded, sleeping outside for the night, in the middle of this new town. Suddenly, Roberta’s hand on my shoulder startled us.
“Come with me!” We assumed she said. Apparently the whole family had been waiting, they wanted to make sure we made it inside. Roberta drove us to another hotel, walked right up to the reception desk, and booked us a room. We were pretty sure that she paid for it, too.
She left with a kiss goodnight and more jumbled words. Luke, with his limited Italian that he’d picked up over the last couple of months, let us know that she’d be back sometime tomorrow to pick us up.
With heavy heads, we passed out immediately. Only to be woken up by a phone call from reception at about 7:30am—that was strange, we all thought. My dad answered and the receptionist said that someone was in the lobby, waiting for us.
Roberta. Yikes! We were so drowsy and sleepy from traveling but managed to pull our lives together and make it downstairs by 8am. Roberta was all bright, shiny, and ready for the day. She drove us back to her house, in a seaside town, where we explored the beautiful surrounding streets.
The whole crowd was there—Adolfo and Marie, too. Apparently Adolfo dives for mussels every day in the summer. In the winter, they go for morning walks on the beach. It was a beautiful, calming, and charming little town.
After a full morning and early afternoon of exploring, we were all starving. My brother left on the train, back to Milan, because he needed to make it back for classes. That left my dad and me, with zero knowledge of the Italian language, trying to fend for ourselves with the family. We were trying so hard—so hard—to learn and communicate, but it wasn’t easy. I was nearly fluent in Spanish, and had heard that the languages were similar, but my Spanish wasn’t getting us anywhere.
Somehow, the next couple of days and nights came and went—I don’t remember any silences, and I don’t remember anything being awkward. There was only one instance…
Marie looked at me, straight in the face, and said something—and I kind’ve laughed, innocently giggled, and shrugged my shoulders. Then she said it again, and I said che cosa? She said it again, and I said non capisco.
Then she spoke louder, and louder, almost yelling according to my American mindset. It was the same words over and over again. I didn’t understand, I couldn’t understand, and I could tell she was getting frustrated with me. Tears started streaming my face. I started full-on crying. She embraced me, obviously feeling either guilty or misunderstood, and left it alone. To this day, I have no idea what she was saying.
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