My family has always been really proud of our heritage. It’s probably because our European roots are a bit stronger than a lot of Americans’ roots, or so we’d like to think.
My grandfather, Laerte Vaccari, who we called Nono, was born in a tiny village called Rivalli in a valley near the River Po in Italy. The village was a tiny farming town. He lived there until he turned 17 or 18, when he left for Belgium. Our family always joked he left to avoid the draft during WWII, but I sometimes wonder if the joke was a little true.
From there, my Nono crossed the Atlantic and moved to Canada, where he met my Nona. Her name was Joyce Evans. She also grew up in a tiny town. Her town was near Wrexham, Wales. I don’t think you can find the town on a map anymore.
She, too, crossed the Atlantic — with her sister — to Canada at a young age. My grandparents married and had two children in Canada before moving to San Jose, Calif. That’s where my dad was born.
My grandfather passed away when I was 7-years-old, and not long after, some of his family from Italy came to visit. My Nono’s nephew and wife came, and we took them all over California. It was a great time — so great that a few years later my parents decided we should visit them in Italy.
I was 10-years-old and my sister was 5-years-old. For both of us, it would be the first time we stepped foot on a plane, let alone survive a 10-hour flight.
For my mom, having a hyperactive 5-year-old on a plane for 10 hours was a nightmare. But the plane trip must have gone well because I don’t remember much about it.
When we made it to Italy, my sister’s trip took a turn for the worst.
The first week we were there, we stayed in my relative’s summer home in Ferrara. It was June and it was exceptionally warm for Europe that year. Apparently there was some crazy heat wave in Europe that summer. We arrived right in time to experience it in its glory.
Since they weren’t used to having such intense heat in the summer, my relatives had no air conditioning in the summer home. There was a swamp cooler, however, that made everything especially sticky.
The windows in the home were also different from what we were used to. There were no screens, or glass panes for that matter. To open or close them, there was wood paneling that rolled up and down with a crank handle.
Because it was so hot, we slept with the windows open. We had to. The next morning when we woke up, my sister had mosquito bites all over her body. I’m pretty sure we counted at least 20. And she wouldn’t stop scratching. She scratched until they bled. We had to get her some cream from the pharmacy.
After a week or so, we packed up and went to our relatives’ other house in Udine. There we our relative’s children, who were practically grown and married.
We went out to dinner at a local restaurant one of those first nights. The building was ancient, just like everything else in Italy. We soon found out the plumbing was pretty old too, and had to wait a good amount of time to use the restroom after someone else used it.
When our bladders were really full and we were finally able to use the restroom, we came upon a bit of a surprise — Turkish toilets. This was something we had not seen our entire lives. It was a toilet bowl in the ground. It was a squat pot.
My sister and mom went in one stall together and I went in the one next to them. As I was trying to figure out how to relieve myself, I listened to the dialogue between my mom and sister.
My sister: “Mommy this is like camping potties.”
My mom: “OK honey, you’re going to have to put one foot on each side. Here, let’s just take your shorts off.”
My sister: “Its slippery!”
After that, I heard a bit of a struggle. My sister started crying and my mom was trying to stifle her uncontrollable laughter. My sister had fallen in — she fallen in the Turkish toilet — a toilet, where people urinated and defecated. My sister fell in that. There I was, next stall over, squatting with my mouth wide open in disbelief.
A few days later, we went to the beach. My sister and I couldn’t have been more excited. Finally, it was a day we would get to do something more than walk all over a city, go shopping or ride in the car. Yay!
It was a quite a walk to the beach. We walked down blocks of tall hotels, storefronts and apartment buildings. Along the way, we passed a few gardens. One of them smelled strongly of flowers and was buzzing with bees.
It was just her luck— my sister got stung. It was her first bee sting ever. Now, not only did she have multiple mosquito bites all over her body, she also had a bee sting.
So on the way to the beach, we had to stop at the pharmacy, yet again, to get more cream for my sister’s bee sting.
Once we got there, the beach was awesome. The water was warm, the sand was soft and the people, though they were close to being naked at times, were friendly.
My family thought was cool was that there were outdoor showers on the beach to rinse off. We thought they were there to rinse off sand. We never thought to ask any questions about them.
One thing to know about my sister is that her skin is porcelain white. She never tans, ever. She only gets sunburned. She even gets sunburned in the shade. It’s ridiculous.
My mom was sure to give my sister a sunscreen bath multiple times that day at the beach. I probably should’ve used more since my shoulders and nose did get fairly red.
But that was nothing compared to my sister. She looked like a lobster, literally. I’ve seen her get some pretty bad sunburns, but never that bad.
It was then that our relatives told us the function of the outdoor showers. The beach we went to was on the Mediterranean Sea, which was known for being excessively salty. Salt, they said, attracts the sun. The showers were to wash the salt off to prevent sunburns like the one my sister got.
The sunburn exhausted my sister and her body. Later that night, when we got home to Udine she threw up from heat exhaustion.
She could barely move without crying because she was in so much pain. There were blisters on the backs of her ears.
She couldn’t cool down. Talk about one cranky and unhappy child. We all felt really bad for her.
My sister was right at that age where adult teeth start coming in, and she already lost two baby teeth over the course of the week we had been in Italy. When she lost them it wasn’t too dramatic. My mom or dad pulled them pretty easily. She still had a few loose though.
One of our last places to visit was Venice. It was a six-hour train ride, which actually wasn’t too bad. There were plenty of cool things to see out the window and we were in good company.
My sister and I kept each other entertained for the most part, but got a little bit out of hand. We were both lying on the floor of the train, heads at opposite ends and put together in the air. We were peddling our legs and feet like a bike, trying to stay in sync. I guess I underestimated my strength, or my sister’s resistance, and pushed a little too hard. Her knee hit her mouth pretty hard. More tears and a bloody lip followed. And another surprise: another loose tooth fell out.
Later we were able to laugh about it, but at the time I was in trouble and my sister pouted for the rest of the train ride.
All of these things happened to my sister in the course of 18 days. In less than three weeks, my sister got over 20 mosquito bites, fell in the Turkish toilet, got stung by a bee, got the most brutal sunburn and lost three teeth, one of them by force.
Rather than remembering all of the awesome things we saw in Italy, my sister remembers all of the terrible things that happened to her.
At the end of our trip, my sister couldn’t wait for the 10-hour flight. She was even happier to set foot on American soil and make it home. She didn’t mind saying “Ciao” to Italia.