Sunday, October 27, 2013

An Italian Exodus

It seems wine isn’t the only thing that is trying to get out of Italy. Her people are looking outward again. All this while less fortunate ones risk their lives to get into Italy, many often dying in the process. What does this global diaspora mean for Italy, for America and for the world at large?

These are pretty big questions for a Sunday night. Earlier in the day I went to see my friend Mario. He just turned 97, and he’s slowing down. I wanted to talk to him about something he witnessed during World War II. He was in the battle of Hürtgen Forest, where over 60,000 soldiers perished. Mario was captured and taken prisoner by the Germans. He spent the rest of the war in a P.O.W. camp and lost 40 pounds. He never took food for granted after that.

But Mario didn’t want to talk about that. He wanted to reminisce about his father and mother and my grandfather and grandmother; they had come over from Sicily about the same time, and they were friends. Their lives were intertwined and they looked out for each other. When I came to Dallas, my dad called Mario and he looked out after me, gave me a job and essentially helped to start me out on the path, this wine trail that has led me back to Italy so many times.

Now I am home. And while it would be great to see a vineyard during harvest time, that's not going to happen to me this year. The battle isn’t over there for us. The Italians have their own struggles, and wine isn’t going to save the country. Or could it?

Italy is in a crisis. So is America. Well, where in the world isn’t right now? And not only right now, but many times during the past 100 years. And what is your place, our place, during this period? What can we do? What should we do?

I was recently talking to a friend in southern Italy, whose family makes wine. For years I had the pleasure of representing his wines. And then this summer the importer made a decision to interrupt that process. I remember writing to him and telling him that I was sorry the importer made the decision he did, but that our friendship would not be broken. Someday it would circle around again. And I’m sure it will. There are factors other than a private equity firm, a pompous president and a narcissistic chairman that decide the future. They don’t get to dictate who is and who isn’t a friend. And their position does not guarantee they will find what they are looking for, especially the most elusive of all, happiness. Millions on paper, a townhouse in Midtown Manhattan and a high-rise condo in Miami are just things, and things one must eventually let go of.

“I’ll see you in Italy,” were the last words my friend said to me. “Not unless I see you in America,” I replied. That can’t be bought and sold or taken down the street. That belongs to us.

I say that because there were those of us who came to America on boats or in the cells of our grandparents. Some of us haven’t forgotten the ones who stayed back, who had to remain with the land, work it, tend it, harvest it and create the wine that gives our lives a common goal.

“Jesus, Alfonso would you just write something about Italian wine and stop these missives?” Yes, I hear those voices, the ones that want to know where to find the Vino Toscana they had when they were on vacation. I’m sorry; this is not the place you are looking for. Eight years blogging on the wine trail in Italy, and this is where it has led me. That’s the inevitable destination for the time being.

I’m back with Mario. Ninety-seven years, a lifetime of experience. He knows what a true Carbonara is. He saw the sacrifices his dad made, my dad made, he made. And now this long exodus for his family is winding down. There will be no procession of 26 generations. This is it. America has released many of us from the burden of history and time. And freed us to know there is no immortality in business even when it is handed down through the family for 600 years. When it’s over, it’s over.

The gift of America to an Italian has been that of opportunity, freedom, space and improvisation. Get unlucky in war and imprisoned until you almost starve? Return to America and build the best darn Italian restaurant there ever was in those parts. Lose in love and take another path? Waiting at the airport is a new life and a career in Italian food and wine. Escaping a stagnant society? Come to Italy. Come to America. It all depends on where you are coming from. To a Somali, Italy looks like Heaven. To an Italian, anywhere might look better than the Italy of Berlusconi they feel trapped in. I know two fellows who started a business in America right as America was going into deep financial crisis. Those fellows now are making six figures. Their children have unlimited opportunities. And they came here with little more than a dream and a hope.

Just like 100 years ago, when Mario’s dad and my dad’s dad came, and now their dream has been realized. And thanks to guys like Mario and my dad, they have elevated their children into a world that is harder to find. All because they dared to pass through a gate into a land where they had no idea what awaited them.

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