Interview with Paul Paolicelli on
Dances With Luigi
1.What was the most important thing you learned from living in Italy and writing this book?
My family had always placed a high value on education. College degree. The more the better. The implication was always that those without benefit of formal education would suffer difficulties,  would live lives somewhat lesser than those with. As a kid, we thought the immigrants who had come over in our grandparents? generation were greatly disadvantaged because of poverty and limited learning.
It was an epiphany to find that these seemingly simple people were really quite clever, that they had learned to live in a much more hostile environment than anything my parents' or my generation had ever had to cope with; that they had survived and even thrived on wits and intuitive talent. It made me wonder how many so-called "educated" members of my generation could have succeeded in similar circumstances. My travel--seeing the country side  they saw in youth, and learning of the political, social and religious issues of their times--gave me a profound respect and admiration for my grandparents' generation. They were tough. They learned how to survive and protect their own. And they were far more educated, in many ways, than I'll ever be.
Il Colleseo and Forum at Sunset
2. What inspired you to write this book?
I never intended to write a book about my family, or even about Italy. My original notion was to take some time to study the new European Union and evaluate its positioning, growth and economic and social development in contrast with the United States. I wanted to live in Italy while staying in Europe because my curiosity had been piqued by some experiences I describe in the book's forward. I became overwhelmed with my love for Italy and things Italian, and completely drawn into the mysteries I was trying to solve about my grandfathers.
But this had all started as a personal side-bar to my original concept. As time went by, and as I told the tales of my travels via letters with those back home and over fabulous meals with my new friends in Rome, I was encouraged time and again to tell that story?the story of my personal research; my family's story. I resisted at first because it was far too personal and too intimate to share. As a journalist I've always been far more comfortable in the third person and at a distance as a removed observer. I found it very difficult to write from a personal perspective. Finally, friends and colleagues, including a marvelous group of writing associates back in Houston, convinced me that it was the personal story, the passion, love and respect that I communicated to them, that should be told. I wrote a novel in first person to get used to the voice, then went back to all my notes, letters and scribblings and reformed them into this book. If I have been in the least successful, then this book is first and foremost, an homage to my family and the contemporary Italians whom I have come to know, respect, and love over the course of the past several years.
3.How does writing this book compare with working in television news?
They are two very different worlds. In television, the sense of "now" overwhelms almost everything else. There is a constant and electronic pulse in a television news room; a giant maw called "air time" that devours everything you have and constantly asks for more. There is little time for reflection, musing, wonder. Television news is about getting information straight, fast, and, most importantly, on. What I love most about writing in long form is the languorous luxury of time to think,  using adjectives and adverbs without guilt, the ability to change one's mind about approach or thought, to edit substance instead of verbiage. It's a delightful counterpoint.
4.What was your family's reaction to this book?
Complete fascination. None of us had ever thought to ask even the most basic questions of our grandparents or, if we had, were still unclear about the answers. My father, for example, had always thought that his father (who died when my father was just nine years old) was from Potenza. Actually, his father had never lived in Potenza, might never have even been in Potenza, but was from Matera--a very different town in the same region--and as different from Potenza as Pittsburgh is to Philadelphia. Potenza had been the regional capital during the time of my grandfather's immigration and probably where his documents had been approved.
5. What surprises did you find?
There has been a wonderful coming together on the part of my siblings and cousins as we've discussed my findings. Several family members visited me while I lived in Rome, giving them a insight into modern-day Italy as well. Yet, I wouldn't call it an Italian experience so much as I would describe it as essentially an American one--the fascination with spiritual and physical roots and the sense of great fortune in having learned about the family's history from the safe and comfortable side of the Atlantic. The correctness and good fortune of the American experience of the family has been reinforced by learning about the Italian past, and is a circumstance, I suspect, we share with virtually all Americans.
When I was a kid, having an Italian mother meant your Mom was in charge. I just assumed that meant women in my mother's generation had strong personalities. What I didn't realize is that Italian women from my great-grandmother's and grandmother's generation, particularly those from the South of Italy were, in a very real way, some of the most independent women of their times. In the many stories I discovered about the women from the time of the great American emigrations, only the Italian women in Europe from that period were really making the majority of the financial decisions and controlling the majority of the money. With so many of their men off to the Americas and other parts of Europe earning a living, the very real survival of the family unit depended on that generation of women. And because of those responsibilities, strong wills and firm decision making abilities were a natural by-product. So, in that sense, my mother's and her generation's aura of command was no accident, but indeed a cultural trait.
6. Did you learn anything about your family's history you wish you didn't know?
On the contrary. What I found truly amazing was the very high regard in which both sides of my family had been held in their respective villages and towns. And even more surprising to me was the fact that, for their times and communities, they weren't poor or deprived. In fact, on both sides, my ancestors were part of the more successful and better off families. I think what drove them to America wasn't the poverty we had all assumed as kids, but the opportunity. The Italy of my grandparents' generation just didn't provide its younger generation with a sense of hope or security, and America sat on the other side of the Atlantic taunting the talented, the healthy, the industrious, the risk takers. What was so reassuring about my research is that all of us, not just Italian Americans, come from exactly those sorts of people; the tough, the ambitious, the daring, the survivors. And that's not how I thought of my family in my youth. I thought of them as speaking with accents and dressing to an Old World standard and being hopelessly out of date with contemporary America. I wish I didn't know how hopelessly ignorant I was regarding such marvelous characters when I had the opportunity to ask them directly about their lives and experiences.
7.  Describe an amusing experience in your research in Italy?
When I first left for Italy I took along a laptop computer, complete with an Italian translation program, which I mistakenly thought could make conjugations, declensions and vocabulary somewhat instantaneous. I couldn't have been more wrong. Now, in addition to learning the Italian language, I was also immersed in computer lingo which I had done my best to avoid for a very long time. The world of "floppies," Email and "DOS" was just dawning for me. I thought the translation program, in and out of Italian, was a miracle come true. Problem was the looks I got from native speakers. I'd crunch my English sentences into the computer and repeat what the computer spit out. It didn't take very long for me to realize that this wasn't going to work.
One evening, accompanied by a bilingual friend, I tried to hold a conversation with an Italian shopkeeper. I typed the sentence, "My parents both spoke Italian as children" into the program and repeated the electronic translation verbatim. The shopkeeper, like most Italians I had been meeting, was very polite, but merely nodded and smiled as I gibbered away, and then  quickly found something else to occupy his time. I looked at my friend.
"Do you know what you just said?" he asked.
"I told him both my parents spoke Italian as children."
"No you didn't," he laughed. "You told him both your parents were juvenile Italian wheel radii."
I stopped using the program and conceded that there was no easy way to learn the language short of study, repetition and the willingness to regularly make a fool of myself.
8. Is "Luigi" a fictionalized character?
Luigi is very real and it was his basic character that I used to explain modern and historical Italy. However, there were literally dozens of Italians that I spoke with, interviewed, learned from, shared meals with, who gave me insights and background into the country, its history, the mental and physical landscapes. There was no way I could include them all in a straight journalism form without confusing the reader in a morass of names and reference points. I kept the point of view through Luigi's eyes. The book isn't journalism, the direct attribution wasn't what drove the story. Also, I didn't want to write the narrative as a straight history text. To me, what made the stories so fascinating were not the stories alone, but the way in which they were told. I tried to capture that sense of enthrallment, the emotion and passion in some cases, by using a central character or "tour guide" to lead the way through the maze of Italian history and culture.
9.  What is your advice for readers interested in beginning a similar journey?
Talk with the elders of your tribe. Now. Before it's too late. Sit down with your family and ask them to tell their stories and take careful notes or make recordings. Since writing this book, almost everyone I've met has wanted to share some wonderful tale about their grandparents or someone in their family who's life and sacrifices had a direct bearing on the present day. Yet, when I ask people where there families originated, most say they're not sure, but all seem interested in knowing more. Try and locate all the paper records of your family and follow the clues from there. If you go to abroad, try and narrow your search to towns that have been documented. Birth records, religious certificates, wills and like all help with genealogies and geographical histories. But most important, record the stories, the human experiences. They will lead to a far greater sense of fulfillment than any document you can ever discover.
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