Luck manifests itself in many forms but it’s when it takes the human one that I welcome it most. An extraordinary man abruptly entered my life tonight. His name, Erri De Luca, will not mean much to most of you as it didn’t to me until a while ago, despite his extensive body of literary work.
Mr. De Luca left his native, contradictory, at times desperate and maddeningly beautiful Naples at age 18 (he is probably close to 60 now). While talking about the experience tonight he likened it to a voluntary tooth extraction, providing me with the analogy I have been looking for for the last 20 years. I voluntarily left Italy and I also left behind any guilt or nostalgia that could have ensued. Like a tooth and its root that have been permanently extracted, those roots cannot take hold anywhere else. “Apolide” is a rather arid and juridical Italian word that means “stateless”, and if not exactly stateless I am definitely rootless and, for the first time, the words of another person who so beautifully described his eradication, gave me permission to feel at ease with my lack of feelings.
Upon meeting me for the first time, question number 1 usually is “Where are you from?”, followed by “Were you born and raised in Italy?” and “When did you come here?”. Tricky question number 4 is harder to answer because I don’t want to create discomfort in my interlocutor who has a picturesque and romantic vision of my country at best or an idyllic one at worst. “Do you miss it?” “No, I don’t”. Despite the pride of heritage I carry, despite being the sum of many Italian parts no, I don’t miss it and I feel no guilt or nostalgia. And tonight I finally realized I carry my roots on my back, never to be interred anywhere else, which might explain my unconscious decision not to start the US citizenship process after all these years.
Most people touch us over time in a continuous arc – others are of a more meteoritic nature. I didn’t have my book signed (the autograph – a pathetic effort to feel close to what we perceive greatness to be) nor did I linger. I just thanked Mr. De Luca for bringing his pages into my life. In his book “Montedidio” (God’s Mountain – available in English translation which I strongly recommend), Mr. De Luca has one if his characters, a hunchback Jewish cobbler who happened upon Naples on his way to Jerusalem, say to the 13-year-old protagonist: “When you feel nostalgia, it’s not an absence, it’s a presence, like a visit – people and countries come from afar and keep you company” […] “..welcome every absence…[…].Whenever you think of me, I will be present”.
Italy has been a guilt free absence in my life for a long time, an absence I can learn to welcome and that I don’t need to justify any longer.