Reviews of Dances With Luigi...
From Fra Noi...
Learning the Steps
By Fred L. Gardaphe
If you missed Dances With Luigi in hardcover, don't let it get by you now that it's in paperback. Paul Paolicelli tells a story that most grandchildren of the early immigrants have experienced and one that most everyone will enjoy. Whether you've been back to the old country or not, this book will teach you something about yourself and your relation to the generation that came before you.
     Paolicelli pursues his past with a passion that many have but few are able to channel into such powerful prose. The secret to his success lies in his ability to turn an eye skilled by years of writing news onto the canvas of contemporary Italy and to search for the records and recollections of his namesake's existence. Instead of news reporting, he must now do historical research and biographical story telling. He's up to the task and the process becomes quite an adventure.
     In his mid-40s and without his own nuclear family, Paolicelli, a Houston television news producer, receives a job-related windfall of cash and decides to take some time off to "get back to something spiritually important." He chooses Rome and plans to educate himself. He starts by studying the language and quickly get drawn into the lives of locals, like his neighbor Luigi who, (roughly the same age), takes him along on his forays into weekend singles scene at a local dance hall.
     In search of more, Paolicelli travels to his grandparents? birthplaces and comes upon old friends and long-lost relatives who all try to help him learn about his grandfather. He knows his grandfather lived and died in a tragic work accident in Pittsburgh, but Paolicelli can't find a legal document to prove that the man was born, baptized or married.
     He remembers seeing documentary films made of his grandfather's visits to Italy (a couple of times at Mussolini's invitation), but the films have long disintegrated because no one thought to preserve them, so he takes it upon himself to reconstruct his grandfather's life. It's a frustrating journey, as he writes, "It seemed for every answer I found I had twice the amount of questions," but Paolicelli is determined.
The village of Gamberale, highest point in the province of Chieti, the DePasquale family home. Less than 300 people live there now on a year round basis.
     During the first couple of years he makes friends, loses family back home and never gets close to finding the information he thought he wanted in order to get him his very own Italian citizenship, but now needs in order to make sense of his life. He gets comfortable with the language, then realizes that he really needs to know dialects. The author comes to the realization that he must never stop learning.
     His friend Luigi, and a few other native Italians, help guide him through some of the stickier situations that would have stymied most anyone trying to go it solo. This memoir is plotted like a detective novel. This story of one man and his family draws us strangers in so that we feel that this is our life. If you've ever been back to what they used to call "the old country," then you know just how new Italy can be. Paolicelli learns that, though he might have been called Italian in his U.S. neighborhood, he has never been more American than during this trip. But he has become a changed American.
     He stumbles on the reasons why traditions in Italy are sturdier than in the U.S. and witnesses the crumbling of many of the rituals that have enabled him to trace his identity back a couple of centuries along his ancestral line. Along the way, he might have learned to dance, but he has more importantly remembered hot to play the songs to help others to dance as well.