My Father’s Daughter,
From Rome to Sicily
Gilda Morina Syverson
In coordination with
Book Excerpt – Sample Chapter
1. Wake Up Call
Sunday, October 15th
Bright lights on the digital alarm blink 5:00 a.m. Five o’clock? What in the world am I doing awake? And what is this inner voice nagging me about room reservations in Rome? Something doesn’t feel right. Today? Sunday. Tomorrow is Monday. We’re leaving—Mom, Dad, Stu and me—for our trip to Italy and Sicily.
Why this message now and not when the itinerary arrived two months ago? Wait. I did wonder why the address for the hotel was different from what Carol, our travel agent, gave me on the phone. Why didn’t I pay attention to those feelings when the reservations first arrived?
I’ve been to Italy half a dozen times. Anything’s possible there. The building could be on a side alley, the address on the main road. Carol referred to the place as Hotel Columbus, and in her next breath called it Hotel Cristoforo Colombo.
It didn’t seem unusual to hear her use English and then Italian. After all, we both have Italian backgrounds. That’s why I used Carol to make the flight arrangements. I even chuckled when she rolled those rich flowing vowels off her tongue. Maybe I shouldn’t be so friendly and focus strictly on business.
One night on the Internet, I looked up the Hotel Columbus. Just like Carol had said, the address was Via della Conciliazione, Numero 34. The ad even touted that they were only blocks from the Vatican. I assumed the street address on the itinerary was simply an error. How many Christopher Columbus Hotels could there be, anyway? It wasn’t a chain, that much I knew.
At different times in my life, I’ve learned to let go and let others do things for me. But it didn’t come easy. Being the second oldest of eight children, I’ve often felt overly responsible. I can’t be in charge of absolutely everything. At least that’s what I’ve tried to tell myself after having moved away from my large Italian-American family. Besides, our agent is not just any fly-by-night. She’s been in the business for over thirty years specializing in trips to Italy.
Now, here I am the morning before we’re supposed to leave, and I can’t stop churning. If I don’t get back to sleep, I’ll wake my husband. There’s no sense in both Stu and me being sleep deprived. I slip out of bed, climb the stairs to my art studio and quietly close the door. I hate following up after Carol, but I’m calling that hotel in Rome. “Buon giorno,” I say in my best Italian. “Parla Inglese?”
I’ve learned that if anyone there admits to speaking English, his or her verbal skills are much more fluent than my broken Italian. Luigi, the person on the other end of the phone, takes my last name, and my parents’ name, then asks for our reservation numbers. “No problema,” Luigi says in his rich accent; we are booked.
To be absolutely sure, I say, “Now this is the Hotel Columbus two blocks from the Vatican, correct?”
“No, not correct,” Luigi replies. “We are about fifteen kilometers from the Vatican.” Fifteen kilometers doesn’t register. I envision fifteen yards, fifteen feet, fifteen anything but kilometers.
“Si,” I repeat, “fifteen kilometers is right down the street from the Vatican, correct?” “No, not correct,” he says again. “Kilometers, kilometers,” he repeats, pronouncing each syllable—key lom e tours.
And then it hits me.
“KILOMETERS?” I bellow, “But my travel agent said that you were in walking distance of the Vatican.”
“We are not,” he says. “You will have to take a bus or a tassi.”
Frantic, I hang up furious with myself for not having listened to my intuition after the itinerary arrived months ago. I ignored that internal voice trying to tell me something was awry and assumed my imagination had gotten the best of me, as I’ve been told most of my life it did.
I click on the Internet and find the phone number for the other Hotel Columbus and call. A woman named Stefania also replies yes to my question about speaking English.
“I’m sorry, Madam,” she says, “We do not have your name.”
She doesn’t have the reservation number that I read off either. Obviously, the confirmation system at one hotel is different from another. But I am grasping here. It’s pretty apparent that our reservations are with the first place I called.
I’m going to Rome with my mother and father, seventy-three and seventy-six respectively. Although they’re not old, they’re not young and used to traveling either. And we’re not even staying close to the Vatican.
My father attends Mass every day, sometimes twice. Mom is not compulsive about daily Mass, but she is excited about being within walking distance from what we’ve always been taught is the seat of Catholicism.
Thanks to Stu, my Episcopalian husband, we’re scheduled to see Pope John Paul II in St. Peter’s piazza, square, the morning after we arrive in Italy. Stu’s nephew’s wife’s father, a colonel in the U.S. Army, had once been stationed at the American Embassy in Rome and was able to arrange a papal audience for us. Well, the four of us and about 8,000 other people.
The plan is to walk to the piazza from our hotel. Since the year 2000 is the Catholic Church’s Jubilee Celebration, we do not want to fight the traffic with the thousands of pilgrims who will be flooding Vatican City from all areas of the capital. Even though the main impetus for the trip is to visit my parents’ ancestral towns in Sicily, how can we go to Italy with my folks and not visit Rome?
Now on the other end of the phone, Stefania, the woman from the hotel near the Vatican, is trying to calm my rattled nerves.
“Madam, stay in the hotel that you have a reservation for and then try to find another place after you arrive. Rooms are scarce here,” she continues. “You are lucky to have one at all.”
Lucky is not how I’m feeling. I explain to Stefania how my parents are older, that it’s my mother’s first trip abroad, and we are willing to take any available rooms. After several apologies and her sympathy, Stefania says they are totally booked. Exasperated, I go back to bed and crawl beneath the covers. So much for trying not to rouse my husband.
“Stu,” I whisper, “Those hotel reservations in Rome… they’re not at all near the Vatican.”
His eyes pop open.
Now we’re both awake for the day. I wait until almost 8:30 before I call our travel agent at home. Carol and I spend most of Sunday on and off the phone. Even though she looks on numerous Internet sites for another place near the Vatican, none of her attempts meet with success.
For almost twenty years, I’ve begged my father to travel with me to the town in Sicily where he was born. Going with Dad, who knows the ins and outs of the customs there, would provide more information than I would ever be able to find on my own.
But my father has always made excuses for not going. Early on, he said that he hated puckering up for all those kisses his cousins would expect. Eventually he switched to, “I could never travel with you. We’d kill each other.”
There’s probably more truth to us killing each other. Dad has always been patriarchal and more conservative. After having left home over thirty years ago, I’ve discovered a more feminist outlook. It’s made for a rather fiery relationship between my father and me. We’ve argued over women’s issues, the hierarchy of the church, my profession as an artist.
I’ve even reached the point where I refuse to answer my father when he asks how much I make on a piece of art. He’s been known to scoff at the amount, throw his hands in the air and say something irritating about how much more money he makes cutting hair. “And I didn’t even have all those years of college and graduate school.”
Dad also squirms when I encourage my mother to stand her ground against him. One day when I was visiting, my father stood up from the dinner table, like he’s always done and headed for his recliner.
“Mary, bring me my coffee.” he called out to my mother
Using every expression my eyes and brow would allow, I mouthed dramatically for only my mother to see, “Tell him to get it himself.”
With me there as support, Mom held her head high and proudly called back, “Get it yourself, Nick.”
My father turned around quickly, his face a red flame. He stared at her with his mouth open, then calmed down, looked over at me and pointed.
“You, you, I know you were behind this.”
I shrugged my shoulders and smiled. My mother laughed all the way to the coffee pot. She poured a cup and laid it on the TV table next to him. I just shook my head.
Despite my father’s opinion that my career choices as an artist, writer and teacher would never bring in large amounts of money, I’ve managed to get myself to Italy and other countries in Europe numerous times. Of course he attributes this to Stu’s income, even though that’s not always been the case.
Twice I have traveled with my husband to Italy. Stu likes to brag about how I could get us through the country with what he thinks is good Italian. But even Stu always said that he would only travel to Sicily if my father agreed to go, since the language barrier is more challenging in the smaller paesi, villages, on the island.
So during Easter weekend of 2000, while driving from our home outside of Charlotte, North Carolina to see my parents in Syracuse, New York, Stu and I conjured up a plan to trick my father into going to Sicily. Knowing how vital money is to the Italian mindset, we were about to make my father an offer he’d hate to refuse.
“Dad, want to go to Sicily with us?” I asked, soon after we arrived.
He responded with one of his usual smart remarks.
“Only if you pay.”
“You’re on, Dad.”
Speechless, which was rare for Dad, he stood smiling. Even though he can be a curmudgeon at times, I also knew my father’s generous spirit would never allow us to pay for everything. My response intrigued him.
“You’re going to pay my way?” he asked.
“We’ll pay if you go.”
“Your mother, too?”
“Of course,” I said, and looked over toward Mom standing at the stove, stirring a pot of boiling pasta.
She scrunched her face in uncertainty, wrinkles in her forehead appeared. Her mouth turned into a half smile.
“You game, Mom?” I asked.
“Whatever your father says.”
Poor Mom. I knew she had little desire to go to Italy or anywhere abroad. She has never been crazy about flying, period. As part of the World War II generation of Italian-American women, she believes in doing whatever her husband says. She may complain about my father to one of my sisters or to me—sometimes even in hearing range of Dad’s chair—hoping to elicit an ally. But whatever conversation transpires doesn’t matter. My mother still goes along with my father’s decisions.
It took time for Mom to warm up to the idea of traveling overseas. One day in midsummer, about three months before our trip, I noticed while talking to her on the phone that her demeanor had changed.
She actually seemed excited about seeing where her parents, older brother, aunts and uncles were born. Her family’s paese, Linguaglossa, sits at the foot of Mount Etna, only a two-hour car ride from my father’s hometown of Gualtieri Sicaminò outside of Messina, Sicily.
Mom informed me that she began preparing for the trip by walking Sunnycrest Park with a friend at least four times a week. If it rained, they strolled Shoppingtown Mall. She started with twenty minutes and built up to forty. Mom bought new walking shoes and a lightweight purse to strap over her shoulder.
She asked my sister, Teresa’s husband, Jimmy, a leather craftsman, to make passport holders and a rectangular wallet to carry her lire. Jimmy also made leather key chains and small change purses that Mom could give away as gifts to relatives that she would meet for the first time.
Sunday night before our departure, my parents sound eager on the phone as they review what they packed in their luggage and what they’ll carry on the plane. There’s no reason to tell them about the hotel not being close to the Vatican until I see them face-to-face tomorrow in Philadelphia, where we’ll meet for our overseas flight.
After I hang up, my sister Teresa calls. She’s number five out of eight children and the only one still in Syracuse, two blocks from Mom and Dad’s house.
“Aren’t you excited about leaving tomorrow?” she asks.
“I think I’m more nervous,” I say.
I spare her the news of the hotel mishap. Although delighted about their trip, Teresa is also apprehensive that my parents will be so far away. There’s no need to add to her angst.
Teresa and I traveled to Italy and Sicily in 1983 with one of our cousins, Marisa. It was Teresa’s first time abroad, and although she still talks enthusiastically about that trip, like my parents, she’s not crazy about being too far from home. They prefer to host Stu and me, our slew of siblings, in-laws, nieces, nephews and any other relatives who visit Syracuse.
Teresa remembers every detail and every next of kin from that year we traveled together—including many relatives we never knew existed. She swears she will return after getting her four children through college.
My sister sounds more enthusiastic about our trip than I do. I mention to her how responsible I’m feeling about traveling with Mom and Dad. Being that second oldest in a large family, I used to pride myself as being my mother’s helper, taking on tasks of feeding and bathing my younger siblings, cleaning the house, ironing, helping with dinner and kitchen duties.
But not having lived in Syracuse for three decades, not having children of my own to care for, and not being around to help my folks in unexpected situations makes this responsibility for my parents seem overwhelming. I’m not about to say much to Teresa knowing all that she does for our mother and father.
During months of planning the trip, each time I made some arrangement, I also prefaced it with, “Now I’ll be traveling with my elderly parents, so I’ll need . . .” and I filled in the blank with whatever obsessive concern emerged at the time—twin beds, airline seats together, a comfortable car.
Of course, I was a bit over the top, since my parents are hardly elderly. They were older, but not in need of much assistance. Having felt accountable for every detail, I even returned to my therapist for perspective.
She suggested that I delegate some duties. Stu, who already knew he’d be driving the rental car in Sicily, agreed to plan the routes from town to town. Like his astrological sign, Taurus, Stu is calm, steady, and down to earth.
My mother was delighted to have a job—getting the gifts that Italians bring when visiting. She drove to Oneida in upstate New York and picked up pieces of silverware, ladles and serving utensils, to be given along with the leatherwork that Teresa’s husband, Jimmy, made. Mom found socks, too, with the label “Made in U.S.A.”
“Just a little something extra,” she said. “You know, for my two male cousins that I’ll be meeting for the first time.”
About a month before leaving, I called my father on the phone.
“Dad,” I said, “I’m giving everyone something to be in charge of.”
“Oh, really. Your mother, too?”
“Yes, Dad. Mom, too,” I answered, knowing that if he had a task, she better be assigned one as well.
“What am I in charge of?” he asked.
“You’re in charge of the language,” I said, unsure what his response would be. Dad’s mood could change in a second, and we have been known to come head-to-head over the simplest comments. The Italian language is so natural to my father, though, that it seemed like a reasonable undertaking and a fair request.
Dad burst out laughing.
“No, Dad. I haven’t had time to practice. So can you take on the language?”
Still snickering, he said, “I thought that was why you were bringing me to begin with.”
What a relief.
With this hotel thing hanging over my head, my stress level is at its peak. Maybe my therapist was right when she suggested I go on the drug Zoloft. I opted for the herb, Suma, instead, which isn’t strong enough to get me through the agent’s recent call to announce that after scouring the Internet, there still is no other available hotel in Rome.
Carol is going to her office early tomorrow morning and will call us before we leave at 11 a.m. for the airport. She’s hoping to have better luck finding something with the resources available at her agency.
As I climb into bed, suitcases packed and ready to go, I realize more than ever that I need to write five things to be grateful for today. It’s a ritual I started a few years ago. Having carried the worry gene for so long, I am determined to see the good in life.
1. I am so glad I followed the hunch, the voice, the whatever that woke me, and called the hotel in Rome. It’s a lot better to find out at this end where we’re staying, before taking a cab to the wrong place in a foreign country after having flown all night.
2. I am grateful for my conversation this afternoon with Bridget. Although my sister, Bridget, is nineteen years younger, she has the wisdom of the Goddess Sophia. Her astrological sign is the same as Stu’s—Taurus. She’s as down to earth as he is and was the one who pointed out that at least we had a place to stay when arriving.
3. Thank God for the long, hard walk around the park. There I beat the pavement and let out the frustrations of my day.
4. I’m grateful for the herb Suma to curb my anxiety.
5. Last but not least, I wrote Stu, Stu, Stu. He hung in there, rubbed my head and shoulders. He listened to me fret as we walked the park together.
I also like to write one awareness that I had each day and one request. Today I learned, again, to pay attention to my own intuition. It did try to get my attention about the hotel in Rome months ago.
The one request that I am now asking, this Sunday night from God, Spirit or whatever Divine force exists, is for help in resolving our room situation in Rome before we leave in the morning. After tossing and turning for what seems like hours, I finally fall asleep.