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  • Writer's pictureTessa Floreano

Saramago, the sandanielese, and me

Jose Saramago, Portuguese novelist and 1998 Nobel Prize winner for literature, gave a most wonderful speech, of which, I quote in part here.

Having spoken of his grandparents, Portuguese peasant villagers, and of characters in his early novels, he went on to say:

"It was with such men and women risen from the ground, real people first, figures of fiction later, that I learned how to be patient, to trust and to confide in time, that same time that simultaneously builds and destroys us in order to build and once more to destroy us. The only thing I am not sure of having assimilated satisfactorily is something that the hardship of those experiences turned into virtues in those women and men: a naturally austere attitude towards life. Having in mind, however, that the lesson learned still after more than twenty years remains intact in my memory, that every day I feel its presence in my spirit like a persistent summons, I haven't lost, not yet at least, the hope of meriting a little more the greatness of those examples of dignity proposed to me in the vast immensity of the plains of Alentejo."

Saramago could've been speaking about the sandanielese, the people from my ancestral town of San Daniele del Friuli in northeastern Italy.

The persistent presence of a a "naturally austere attitude" and meriting the greatness of "examples of dignity" would be something, I, too, knew and felt the same about my grandparents. I assimilated some not all of this way of being in the world, though I think as I mature, I experience glimpses of it within myself. Friulians are known for being cold and gruff, aloof even. A protective mechanism, a shield of sorts, held over the heart and mind when strangers are near. I know Caesar's troops, the Huns, Lombards, Austrians, Venetians, and Napoleon himself have conquered the region, but the Friulians never let the invaders take their identity. Always Friulian first, Venetian or Italian a very distant second.

When I step off the airplane and my feet land on Italian soil, specifically the Veneto or Friuli regions, the current of energy that exists in that dirt jolts my spine, my senses. I immediately feel at home, even if the soles of my shoes touch only airport pavement, and it just about brings me to tears.

When I'm not in Friuli or the Veneto, my soul's home is somewhat lacking. I'm a first-generation dual Italian-Canadian citizen living in the USA. I'm only one generation away from being an Italian. I was born in Canada and though my formative first three and half decades were there, I don't feel so Canadian anymore. It was my parents choice to emigrate after WWII. They thought we'd have a better life in Canada, away from poverty and the chance for a better education. We had a decent upbringing on both the east then west coasts of Canada, but our parents made sure we never forgot where we came from. I'm eternally grateful that they didn't leave behind their Friulian heritage. That heritage is so deep within my DNA that when I'm in Friuli, I feel as if it is a racecar on a racetrack, coursing through my veins. I'm more truly alive there. I am a friuliana.

When Saramago's grandfather suffered a stroke and was to be taken to Lisbon for treatment, Saramago recalled, "He went into the yard of his house, where there were a few trees, fig trees, olive trees. And he went one by one, embracing the trees and crying, saying goodbye to them because he knew he would not return. To see this, to live this, if that doesn't mark you for the rest of your life," Saramago said, "you have no feeling."

My maternal grandfather Antonio, my father Giuseppe, and my cousins Adriano and Livio would be nodding their heads at this story if they'd been given a chance to read what Saramago had written. That knowingness of where you come from and the people from whom you descend. It's a pulse that connects you forward and back in time to that place and those people. In my case, the Friulians, and more accurately, the sandanielese. My people. Though thousands of miles separate us, I am them and they are me.

For our 10th wedding anniversary, my husband and I privately renewed our wedding vows near an old cherry tree on my family's estate in San Daniele. I know that tree witnessed many melancholy but also wondrous times. Like all trees, it stores information. This one is the record keeper of my family's memories and secrets, good and bad, spanning many generations. Unlike Saramago's grandfather, I will return to the land of my foremothers and fathers, and I will fondly greet that cherry tree again. It holds meaning for me far beyond that quiet little ceremony six years ago. The men and women of my family, the "men and women risen from the ground, real people first"of Saramago fame, may never have had ceremonies under or near that tree. Regardless, knowing they walked past it every day and were nourished by its fruit every year warms the deepest corners of my heart.

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