Autumn of 2015, I was inspired to enter a contest sponsored by Oberon Wines. The theme was, "What do roots mean to you?" I wrote 1100 words about my Friulian ancestry, well within the 1400 word limit. Or so I thought until I copied and pasted my words and they didn't fit in the field provided. Then I looked at the error message: Maximum 1400 characters. Darn it! It was just past midnight when I discovered that my story was too long and despite being awake since 4:30 AM that morning, I pushed through and whittled the story down to the required length for submission.
The prize was a trip for 4 to Napa Valley and awarded to the author who receives the most votes. I would have loved to take my almost-80 year old mother and my sister Lucia, wine aficionados in their own right, to experience the wine region of California and compare it to our own in Friuli and the Okanogan Valley in our home province of British Columbia.
The shorter version I submitted is no longer accessible, but the longer, original version of the story is below. After reading about what roots means to me, I'd love to hear what they mean to you so feel free to add a comment at the end.
Do you know how it feels to step out of a plane and onto the soil of a land in which you were not born or have ever lived on yet feel right at home? I do.
The land of my ancestors is Friuli, part of the northeastern corner of Italy. There, in the town of San Daniele del Friuli, I've traced all four sets of my grandparents and their families, who have been there since the mid-1600s. And I'm not yet finished with the family tree so our roots might go back even further. I was surprised to find that no one before the end of WWII, either my mom or dad's side of the family, had ever left Friuli voluntarily. On the paternal side, my father was the first to leave in 1955, to build a new life in Canada. In 1960, he came back to sell the family's home and that's when he married my mother, a week after meeting her. She'd never travelled more than an hour's bicycle ride from home, yet she was moving more than 4000 miles away to be with her groom. This marriage was the seed from which sprouted the first emigration of our family out of Friuli.
Though I grew up in Canada, I never felt truly Canadian. Canada may be a melting pot, but as I look back, the temperature of that pot was never right for me. The first time my father took us to Friuli, I knew I had been there before even though I couldn't explain how. In Friuli, I fit in. As a first-generation Canadian, Friulian was my first language and when I spoke it in my ancestral land, I was immediately recognized as una friulana, one of the tribe. In Canada, no one outside my family understood Friulian. In Friuli, over one million people spoke the dialect that I had only ever heard in our house. It was as if my roots just got a whole lot longer and wider by that first visit. I instinctively knew Friulians were my people, even if I wasn't raised among them. Their customs were and are my customs, and no one in Friuli thinks those customs are strange, unlike Canadians.
I love my fellow Canadians, yet I feel a kinship with Friulians even when I meet them as complete strangers. The strangeness quickly disappears and we're soon trying to discover how we might be connected, either through a shared Friulian locale, family, or profession. It rarely takes us long to find out we each have centuries-old roots in Friuli, and from there, all kinship is possible. Within the marrow of their bones and the blood in their veins, Friulians know that you can never take Friuli out of a Friulian, regardless of where we live in the world.
Like my mother, I left my native land (Canada) for love and moved to the northwestern United States, where I now reside as a permanent resident. My identity, though not my Friulian loyalty, has been in limbo ever since. As a dual Italian-Canadian citizen living in the USA under a green card, I feel a bit out of sorts when people automatically think I have dual Canadian-American citizenship. I try to explain I’d have to give up my Italian citizenship for American, and how unthinkable that is. I tell them about my Friulian roots and show them my passion for my people, but I often found that Americans are always Americans first. Even Canadians maintain that their Canadian citizenship is secondary to their birth country. As for Friulians, the roots of our family trees are not buried or forgotten; they are alive and well and visible every day of our life, even if we now mostly walk on foreign soil.
When we are fortunate to walk on Friulian soil, we know we’re walking in the footsteps of our elders. I call it the Elderwalk.
Many of us still regularly walk the land of our forefathers and mothers because most Friulians still own land and/or homes bought by our relatives just a few short centuries ago. By walking in their footsteps, we honor them and keep them close to our hearts always. Contemporary Friulians are putting down roots in the same homes, properties, and communities as their ancestral Friulians. That staircase and acacia tree and garden gate and courtyard and driveway have been touched by generations whose names can be on the tip of our tongues in the blink of an eye. The proximity of our elders is palpable.
To me, those physical touchstones are like talismans. When I run my hand over the bark of a tree my five-times great grandfather planted or a stone embedded in the side of the house that my three-times great uncle dug up a few feet from where he built his house, my skin tingles. My heart quickens. My breath deepens. My smile widens. My ancestors are always near—in the ethers, in my conversations, in the color of my hair and eyes, in the gesture of my hand, in the limp in my leg as I walk down the same garden path they did to check on a new generation of bees living in the same spot their ancestors lived in harmony with mine. The vines we grow on our Friulian farm produces grapes that were picked and made into wine for my great-grandmother, her daughter, my mother, then me. Different glasses, different vintages, same roots.
A Friulian recognizes another when they see the telltale sign that unequivocally marks us as kin: the deep troughs that are the lines in the palms of our overworked hands. Friulians toil mostly in soil—vegetable patches, rose parterres, vineyards, corn rows, and orchards galore—because those elements of nature are what we know in our core. I know this mark of the trough even if I don’t wear it myself. Instead, I’m a carrier of a different sign. A motto that marks my genes no less than that of the troughs. A motto on which I would bet money is prevalent in my family tree as far back as the when the first roots took hold.
Our family motto, like that of many a Friulian, is, "productivity is in our DNA". That DNA, those roots, my family—this and more is in my very pulse. A tangible, beating presence. Shared blood. Shared experiences. For better or worse, they are mine. And yet this blood and those experiences belong to all Friulians. The bond forged in Friuli—through her precious land and people and culture—sustains us. Through the mists of time and from a land far away, I witness and contribute my energy to that DNA, those roots, and those footsteps so that future generations of my Friulian family will walk with respect and wonder when they walk the Elderwalk.