Until the day I die, I will never forget how to count to eight in Italian. Only to eight, with overdramatic emphasis on each number, and kilt-wearing Scottish dancers doing the jig in my memory.
Sound bizarre? It was, completely. But it also had a rather deep significance to my family and me on our trip to discover our heritage in the summer of 2014.
It started at dinner one night in Maori, Italy, when my sister Cori and I were cold. Our hotel was only steps from the restaurant, so we scurried over to grab our sweaters.
In the lobby, we ran into a big group of people, perhaps 20 or 25 of them, decked out from head to toe in giant Victorian dresses, black tailcoats, top hats, and feathery handheld fans. It was a bizarre sight that we weren’t expecting, so we stopped to stare at them a little bit without even realizing we were doing it. They noticed us, however, and invited us to take a picture with them.
Sweaters in tow, we followed them out of the hotel as they gallantly strolled down the coastal street in the direction of our restaurant. We quickly collected the rest of our family and continued to follow them in what turned into a kind of elaborate procession, gathering gawkers from all sides. Majestic music accompanied them as they reached a small amphitheater by the harbor. We took our seats and watched as the parade transformed into a show. They performed a string of ballroom dances and twirling waltzes as the sun set behind the sea. It was certainly a cool experience, but when we ran into the group again the next day, our last day of the trip, it turned into an experience of a lifetime.
It was our last full day in Italy and it was time to chill. Our family trip that summer was a lot of things – vibrant, fast-paced, surreal, chaotic. We were twelve altogether – me, two sisters, two parents, two grandparents, an aunt and uncle, two cousins, and another aunt, all on my mom’s side of the family. Our trip was an ‘up at 8 and on the bus’ kind of trip, so by the last day, we were all completely exhausted. It was our single low-key day, relaxing on the black sand beaches and spending hours swimming in the monstrous waves, walking through the town to window shop, and enjoying the seaside.
We took our time getting ready for dinner, getting dressed up for the last hurrah. Only moments after entering the hotel dining room, we recognized the dance troop again, this time clad completely in traditional Scottish attire. My parents and sisters and I were completely dumbfounded. The Victorian outfits were one thing, but seeing a band of wannabe Scotsmen and women struck quite a chord.
Our trip to Italy was a chance for us all, from my then 8-year-old cousin to my 75-year-old grandparents, to discover our Italian roots. My entire mom’s side of the family comes from Italy, all from the coastal area between Naples and Rome. We know a lot about the family history – what towns we have roots in, who came over on the boat when, etc.
Comparatively unknown, however, is my father’s family history. Besides knowing he is some combination of English, German, and Scottish, it’s a bit of a jumbled question mark. One thing we know for sure, however, is that when my paternal grandfather was alive, he vivaciously embraced his Scottish heritage. With everything from kilt-wearing to scotch drinking to taking us to the New Hampshire highland games when I was little, he was a true Scot at heart.
You can understand our surprise, then, when Scottish dancers appeared out of nowhere as a cherry on top of our otherwise completely Italian family vacation experience. Grandpa Pat had always dreamed of taking his family to Scotland one day, but he never got the chance before he passed away. Now, it seemed, Scotland had come to us.
The dancers sat down at a long table as if nothing was out of the ordinary and proceeded to feast, dining and carrying on as if they were at some royal banquet. We tried to avoid staring as we enjoyed our farewell dinner. They finished around the same time that we did, and as they moved out onto the large front deck of the hotel, once again, a crowd followed.
They took up formation as before and began a string of bagpipe-infused step dances surrounded by an even more wine-infused crowd. Since we were all tourists there at the hotel, we weren’t the only ones amused by the odd contrast. People smiled and laughed and clapped their hands along to the music, with a number of sideways glances and good-natured snickers thrown in for good measure. The shock my parents and sisters and I had at this point turned into amusement as well. We laughed at how ironic the whole thing was, drank more wine, and enjoyed ourselves. The dance troop, although not overwhelmingly talented, had won us over.
Suddenly, we were no longer the audience. The troop dispersed to grab us unsuspecting victims from the sidelines and into the tartan mix. My sisters and I jumped up to participate. Others had to be persuaded, and still more had to be dragged.
The three of us paid special attention to the leader of the troop, who we had yesterday decided was named Abraham due to his tall top hat and dark beard.
“Abe the Babe is conducting!”
In true Italian fashion, with incredibly magnificent hand gestures, Abe bellowed the counts of the dance steps.
“UNO! DUE! TRE! QUATTRO! CINQUE! SEI! SETTE! OTTO!”
With his animated voice and theater-like projection, his words could undoubtedly be heard from over a kilometer away. He deliberately over pronounced the numbers, with a dip in intonation on the “SETTE!” and a huge rise on the “OTTO!” to make it all the more memorable. I’ll never not be able to count to 8 in Italian that way.
One of the troop members had taken a special interest in my mom who, despite decades of dance training in her youth, could not seem to get the moves down on this one. Finally, one of them, who had been instructing her with broken English and physical positioning to no avail, finally burst out “BACK! TO BACK!” He was half loving it, half ready to slap her.
In all my years, I have never seen my mother laugh as hard as she did that night. She practically had tears rolling down her cheeks as Abe and friends tried, exasperated, to get her to understand them and do the right moves. How could she when was completely doubled over?
My father was slightly more laid back than my mother that night, but he thoroughly enjoyed himself as well. When he wasn’t showing off his snort-worthy highland dance skills, I’m sure he had some thoughts about his father who had been so deeply connected to all things Scottish, and the weirdness of it all.
To this day, I agree with my mom when she claimed those Scottish dancers were no accident. “Grandpa Pat had the best of intentions and talked about taking us to Scotland all the time, but he never got the chance. He must have been watching us on this trip, unhappy that we went to Italy first, and then decided, ‘I’ll send them a message they can’t ignore, they’ll know exactly what I think about that!’”
I’m not particularly religious, or superstitious for that matter, but I do believe that some things are too bizarre, too ironic, too hilarious to be accidents. This was one of those moments in life that had me thinking Seriously, what are the odds?! What are the chances?!?!
Either way, accident or no accident, it was an incredibly unique and special thing to feel so closely connected to both sides of my heritage at one time.
And sometime in the future, when I finally get to Scotland, I’ll hope for a couple of Italian opera singers to appear out of nowhere and brighten my day.
April 9, 2018
Best piece you’ve ever written! Of course, I am a little biased…