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Serenella Leoni at Home in TuscanyAt Home in Tuscany

Serenella Leoni was only nineteen months old when her family moved from her native Viareggio, a beach resort on Tuscany’s Versilian Coast, to Northern California — too young to remember anything about the city where she was born and family and friends she left behind. Yet, while she was growing up, she frequently and inexplicably felt something integral was missing from her life. It would take her over twenty years to discover what that missing “something” was...

Serenella’s parents and grandparents did as much as they could to preserve their Tuscan traditions, customs and memories once they settled in the suburbs outside of San Francisco. As her babbo (Italian for “father”) always used to say, “Outside the door, it’s America, but inside our house, it’s Italy.”

Her mother would tell her stories about their many Italian relatives and friends, show her their pictures, and share their long-awaited letters with her when they arrived.

Serenella listened daily to the Italian-language radio broadcasts with her grandmother, Nonna Assida. On Saturday afternoons, they always tuned into live broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera. Nonna, whose family hailed from the same town as Giacomo Puccini, had a great passion for Italian operas, and knew many of them by heart. Afterwards she would often reprise the better-known arias, and dramatically reenact G-rated versions of the librettos for Serenella’s benefit.

From her babbo and her grandfather, Nonno Giulio, she learned about Viareggio’s history and traditions as well as its local sayings, proverbs and folklore. She knew about the sea captains, sailors and deep sea divers, renowned throughout Europe for their skills and bravery in rough seas; about the famous ship yards, where the master ship builders produced yachts, unparalleled in beauty and craftsmanship, for the world’s rich and famous; and about the unique “Carnevale di Viareggio,” famous, not only for its towering paper mache’ floats, but also for the accompanying three weeks of raucous, pre-Lenten celebrations.

At home, Italian was always spoken, coffee was always espresso, and the only oil used for cooking came from Lucca in large tins labeled “Olio di Oliva Vergine.” Now this might not seem so unusual nowadays — but in the nineteen fifties and sixties when most of the other families in her suburban neighborhood resembled the “Nelsons” and the “Cleavers”---Serenella’s family’s eating habits seemed highly peculiar to her friends. At school, she had the often-difficult task of explaining the “exotic” fare that her mother packed in her lunch box such as leftover Tordelli di Carne, Lasagne alla Bolognese, and Canneloni. (If you can’t understand why that’s difficult, try explaining to group of eight year olds that foods containing ingredients like sweetbreads, brains and spinach can be delicious!)

We appreciated your warmth, consideratin and thoughfullsness. - Annie - Hillsborough, CAOn the other hand, Serenella couldn’t understand why her friends seemed to like sandwiches made with white stuff called “mayonnaise,” that came from a jar! The only mayonnaise she had ever eaten was yellow, and whisked by hand using fresh eggs, lemon and olive oil. In fact, her parents and grandparents, all talented cooks, made their own pasta, vinegar, bread, pizza, cakes, biscotti, soups, sauces, olives, preserves, and even grappa, from scratch.

As Serenella got older, like all children of immigrant families, she worked very hard to fit in. She dressed like her friends, talked like her friends, listened to the same music, liked the same boys, but inside she always felt somehow different. As a typical acceptance-driven, angst-filled adolescent this was a source of immeasurable grief — it’s hard to conform to that California blonde, straight-haired, surfer-girl image, when you were born with naturally curly, dark brown hair!

Once she got to college, however, her outlook began to shift. She began to not only accept, but also embrace her differences. And as she took Italian language and literature classes, Serenella experienced her own Italian “renaissance”— a reawakening of tremendous pride for the exceptional contributions which Italians have made to the fields of art, science, literature, architecture, music, commerce, banking, and yes, even politics....

So much so, that when she turned twenty-one, she used her life savings to go to Italy with her younger sister. Her grandparents, now in their late seventies, had moved back to Viareggio six years earlier, so she was very anxious to see them again as well.

Finally, after twenty long years of waiting, after hearing thousands of stories about family and friends, after listening to countless tales of Viareggio and Italy, she was ready to make her triumphant return! Of course, because life rarely cooperates with our plans, immediately upon arriving in Viareggio, she was promptly admitted to the local hospital with a severe case of mononucleosis!

And yet, even though she was very disappointed to be confined to a hospital bed for the first few weeks of her long anticipated trip, Serenella felt strangely at peace. The sense that something vital was missing which had haunted her since she was a small child was suddenly gone!

Maybe it was the endless stream of uncles, aunts, cousins, distant relatives, and family friends of all ages who stopped by to visit her in the hospital bearing gifts ranging from exquisite floral arrangements to small, butcher-paper wrapped packages of prized “sweet” prosciutto from San Daniele? Maybe it was the sounds from the street — the fish monger peddling her fresh catch of the morning; or the clattering of the avvolgibili, slatted, heavy, wooden shutters, being raised in the morning, and again in the afternoon as people awoke from their midday siestas? Maybe it was the smell of the sea just a few blocks away; or the smell of trees from the nearby pine woods; or even the smell of frying olive oil wafting in from the bomboloni stand across the street as they fried up delicious, doughnut-like pastries? Whatever it was... whomever it was... for the first time that Serenella could recall, she felt completely and finally at home — at home in Tuscany.


To be continued... Part 2:“The Heart, Mind and Soul of Tuscany”

 


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