Tragedy Reforges a Bond Lost to the Past in a Onetime Home

(Originally published in the Los Angeles Times, January 27, 2002)

The Italian Alpine village of Cogne was deserted on this November day. Hiking season was over, skiing season had not yet begun, and my husband, Franco, and I found ourselves mostly alone.

Cogne, which lies at the foot of Gran Paradiso mountain, consists of two narrow intersecting streets lined with one grocery store (closed), one pharmacy (closed), one tobacco/stationery shop (closed), several hotels (all closed), several restaurants (yes, closed). As we began searching for a restaurant open for lunch, we were taken aback by a poster on the door of the stationery store. It was a giant photograph of the New York skyline as it was before Sept. 11.

Across the bottom of the poster was a triptych of photographs, the first and second showing the plane heading for the twin towers of the World Trade Center, and the third showing the towers on fire. It was incongruous, two Americans staring at this picture in this little desolate town and not another soul of any nationality around.

We were traveling through Italy collecting information for a book we are writing about the culinary scene in Italy's lesser-known regions. We arrived in Milan from Boston and started driving our rental car toward the Aosta region north of Turin.

As we made our way from the Valle d'Aosta to Alba for the truffles, to Torino and Elba and Bari and as far south as the island of Lipari, we began to discover that what we had seen in Cogne was just one of many indications of Italians' awareness and sensitivity to the events of Sept. 11.

That poster was just the beginning of six weeks of encounters with places and people who reminded us constantly of the events that had shaken the United States two months earlier. Along the way, as soon as they saw our passports or heard my American-accented Italian, people extended their sympathy and condolences to us. Although Franco is from Rome and Italian is his first language, he has lived in the U.S. long enough to be taken for an American even when traveling in his native land. And so both of us became the beneficiaries of this caring in nearly every place we visited.

This sense of solidarity had special meaning for me. It brought to mind sometimes sweet, sometimes stormy years during the two decades I lived in Italy.

In April 1959 I went to live in the village of Raito, at the southern tip of the Amalfi Coast, and I got my first job just a few miles away in Salerno teaching English at the Berlitz school. When the capo scuola, the headmaster, hired me, he told me that, in his estimation, only the British spoke proper English and that Americans spoke only in slang. He insisted that if I wanted to be hired, I had to pretend I was Irish, which he thought I might be able to pull off since my surname was O'Sullivan.

The ruse lasted two weeks. The students in one of my high school classes, whose English was advanced (this being Berlitz, we spoke only in English), said they were not fooled. "Professoressa, you're American, aren't you?" a student asked. "I can tell from your accent that you're not Irish." In the face of his assertion, I could hardly continue the lie and confessed, in a whisper, that I was from New York.

I had never seen a group of people so enthralled to meet an American. We love America, they said, practically as one. We see all the American movies.

Most of these teenagers were children when the GIs came up through Salerno on tanks as they handed out bubble gum. They wanted to know every detail about the United States that I could recount.

From then on, many of our lessons consisted of my telling my students what it was like to live in Greenwich Village or what the Grand Canyon looked like, while we continued to hide our secret from the headmaster.

After five months in Salerno, I moved with my husband to Bari, across the peninsula on the Adriatic Coast. There I took up English teaching again, and little by little I began to learn Italian. My husband and I taught at the Centro Studi Americani, where our students were mostly adults in their 20s like us, or older. Nearly everybody had an uncle in the Bronx, it seemed, and each student wanted to know whether I knew his Zio Mario or Zio Giuseppe. After all, I was from New York, wasn't I?

These students, who later became some of our closest friends, also remembered fondly the arrival of American GIs and the cigarettes and chocolate they handed out on their way through Puglia to the north. Even in the late '50s and early '60s, southern Italy was still recuperating economically, and the love for and gratitude to Americans was immense and ubiquitous.

The start of the U.S. civil rights movement prompted endless debates with our friends. Their love for America, once so solid, began to waver, and they criticized the U.S. for what they saw as its extreme racism. I found myself defending the country from which I had purposely expatriated. I tried to explain that it was a big country and that not everybody felt the way the racists did. I pointed out that, in their own country, Sicilians trying to get work in Milan and other northern cities were discriminated against. Try as I might to explain, those relationships grew strained.

The '60s turned into the '70s, and, separated from my husband, I went to live in Rome with my 5-year-old son. Italy's Communist Party had grown huge, and the Cold War was on. Every day on my way from my apartment in Trastevere to my job at the NBC News office in the center of the city, I passed huge graffiti that read, "Yankee Go Home." I felt melancholy every time I saw it.

By now Italy had become my home, more familiar to me than my own country, but I still couldn't bear to feel the change from the excited clamor of my students with their uncles in the Bronx to one of disapproval, even hatred.

The worst was yet to come as the Vietnam War reached its height. Now I was encountering almost daily anti-American demonstrations all over Italy. Our NBC News team often covered such events for the U.S. evening news audience.

By this time I was fluent in the language, dressing like a Roman signora and able to hide the fact that I was American. And I wanted to. I could no longer defend America, and I didn't want to participate in any discussions involving the United States.

By the mid-'70s, job possibilities for noncitizens began to shrink, and I realized that my career goals could not happen in Italy. As much as my son and I loved Rome, we made the difficult decision to return to the U.S.

I have been back in the States for 25 years now, but I return to Italy every few years to visit my beloved adopted country and see old friends. On this recent trip with my new husband, Franco, nearly everyone we met felt concern for us and our fellow Americans.

When the concierge at our favorite hotel in Lucca saw me, he said, "Oh, Signora, I am so sorry for what has happened to your country." In a cafe in Cortona, a woman I had never met put her arm around my shoulder and offered condolences. At the hotel desk in Taranto, the clerk offered his deep sympathy when he saw our passports. Umberto, one of my dearest friends in Bari, sent an e-mail expressing his sorrow.

In Vieste we saw a young man jogging along the coast wearing a bright satin red-white-and-blue jacket with a big "USA" embroidered on the front.

When we arrived in Rome we went to the lab where we usually go to have photos processed. There, covering the entire wall of the shop, was a giant poster of the New York skyline--including the twin towers as they used to be. I couldn't take my eyes off it.

Nov. 10 was proclaimed USA day in Rome; Piazza del Popolo was teeming with signs that said "Per Non Dimenticare" (Never Forget) and overflowing with Romans cheering and waving American flags.

After all those years of being the target of anti-Americanism, I found it hard to believe such a sight, and tears came to my eyes. A sea of American flags covering the entire Piazza del Popolo? The protesters had their antiwar rally at another piazza, of course, but both TV and newspapers gave it short shrift. Referring to 1945, when the American GIs liberated Italy, speakers reminded the crowd that no Italian should ever forget what America had done for their country. They spoke of the bond between our nations, forged by the millions of Italians who emigrated to America.

"We are all New Yorkers," Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said.

For me, it was as if those uncles in the Bronx had reappeared and I was back in 1959 again.