Thursday, October 11, 2012

History Can Teach Us Something; Or, how an Italian American like me is also quite British

This picture is a view from the lower borders in Scotland while walking with the Ramblers

This past weekend David and I stayed at his house in the lower borders of Scotland.  On the ride up and back I got a semester's worth of history on Scotland and Ireland.  David's knowledge of British and Irish history is beyond impressive--my head is still spinning from it all. 

The only thing I can compare his didactic to is a five-hour train ride my brother John and I took from Budapest to Prague. 

Just outside Bratislava a woman got onboard with her husband.  She is Slovak, educated in Canada and a professor in the States.  She talked for over four straight hours.  Everyone in our cabin eventually fell asleep--including the woman--but i just kept talking and asking her questions.  John jumped train somewhere near the Carpathian mountains.  In fact, he's still there.  (If you don't believe me, look at his face to the left)  My mum really misses him.

But this all takes me to an important point: contrary to popular opinion, history is not about the past.  History is about the present.  You just have to ask the right question, and boom, time and space collapse into each other creating an n-dimensional reality where the past, present and future exist simultaneously.

 For example, the reason John and I were on that train ride was, in part, to bring the past alive to us. In the states, I tell people I am Italian American.  Truth is, only my grandfather on my Dad's side is Italian.  My mother's side of the family are all Slovak. 

In fact, my grandfather, John Ocenas, came through Bratislava into Vienna to make his way to the states at the ripe old age of 14 or so, somewhere back in the very early 1900s, during the massive wave of eastern European immigration into the states.  Ruby, our daughter, is eleven.  I think of someone that age making such a trip.  amazing! He settled in Scranton Pennsylvania and worked as a coal miner. 

Lincolnshire within EnglandBut, it doesn't stop there.  My grandmother, on my father's side, is not Italian at all.  Rather, she is quite British.  Thelma Hanes is her name.  She lived in Scranton PA.  Her husband, my grandfather, is John Castellani, who also worked but tragically died in the coal mines.  My father was just a child at the time and was sent to live with his grandfather Hanes.  With the family broken apart, my Dad's understanding of our past grew tired and eventually fell asleep.  I am trying my best to awaken it. 

I have been doing a bit of anthropological digging and, while i am not entirely sure, it appears the name is a variant of Haynes, and so it could be Welsh or English.  Either way, more recent historical connections seem to locate most people with the HANES name to the Lincolnshire region, a county on the east coast of England, about an hour's train ride from Durham--see red county on map to the left.  It is also close to Yorkshire, where Maggie's friend and colleague, Jane, at the Cleveland Museum of Art, is from.  What a small world. 

Anyway, all of this makes me think: What does it mean to say I am American, or Italian-American or part British or Slovak?  How do I get my head around my own identity politics? 

For example, my mother's side of the family has been in the states less than a hundred years.  I am third-generation.  I am less sure about my British or Italian ancestry in terms of how long they have been in the states, but it is not much longer. 

I know American culture is like breathing air to me.  But, what about all these other cultural connections?  For example, why am i such a wanderlust?  Is it true, perhaps, that my gnawing desire to go somewhere else is more than just personality?  Could it perhaps be a carryover from a generation of Europeans who left for the states?  David and others I have met here have told me so many stories about the journey their Irish and Scottish ancestors made as they left for the states, settling in Boston and New York and places like where my grandmother Thelma Hanes lived, Scranton PA, to work in the coal mines.  And here I am coming back.  But what part of me has made this trip I am not sure.  so much of it is still sleeping...

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