Between the sea and the mountains: my time in Teramo - My Family Travels

            The rumble of tires on asphalt fades as you enter the mountains, perched on your branch between the earth and sky. The bus ride takes nearly three hours: the bustling Tiburtina station fades away nearly with the sound of the engine turning over, and suddenly you realize that you’ve never seen Italy before this moment.

            The mountains rise to your left in the autumn air, dappled in patches of golden red and army green. As the sun sets, a fine mist ekes out of stony passageways and crawls up the slopes, towards the spinning tires and the artificial lights of the bus cabin. You’re squished between a handsome older fellow to your left and a pair of nonni to your right, with their energetic grandchildren in tow. Everyone is bundled against the October air and no one speaks as the bus driver carries you towards your destination. Rome, with all its history and all its tourists seems like a dream you can barely remember upon waking. You aren’t just going into the country, into the heart of Abruzzo; you’re stepping back hundreds of years, before World Wars, before revolution, back to the beginning.

            You check your watch. You hadn’t really planned farther than getting onto the bus but, now, you realize that Teramo is only minutes away. There are multiple stops for this bus and your family—whom you’ve never met, nor seen—promised to meet you at Piazza Garibaldi in the center of Teramo City.

            Scuzi, signori, ma sapete Piazza Garibaldi?” you ask the couple across from you in your halting Italian, who offer an answer that you can’t quite understand. It’s the second stop, they finally get across: it’s the square with the big globe in the center.

            The bus reaches what you think must be Garibaldi and you slowly shuffle off the bus. You stand there for a moment, clutching your backpack to your chest and wondering how often kidnapping happens in this country. A distinguished looking man, in his sixties, perhaps, with a head of thick white hair stylishly combed to the side looks you up and down for a moment. You return the glance, and then both of you look away. Before you can take a step-

            “Julie?” he calls towards the bus. You spin around. That’s you.

            The jewels of Italy lie in its history, but what many don’t realize is that history extends beyond the borders of the Coliseum. Over the mountain range that runs through the center of the country, lies a swath of paese, literally, of “places” that have not been touched by time. Getting up the courage to take a trip to Teramo or towns like it—L’Aquila, Pescara, Giulianova—requires some chutzpah, yes, but the reward is worth more than any guided tour.

            For me, Italy meant connecting with a part of my ancestry that had only, until that moment, been showcased in ethnic food around the holidays. Going to Teramo, where I still had cousins, aunts, uncles of varying degrees removed, meant finding square one.

            My uncle Mario, his daughter Alessandra and his wife Concertina met me at the bus stop that night around Halloween in 2007 and immediately accepted me as family. My cousin Ale is an English teacher and, so, of all of my relatives, she was one of only a few that could speak English to any degree.

            The majority of my family could not understand me when I spoke and, yet, this was far from detrimental. Whatever the world may say about Italians, know this: the harder you try, the more they appreciate it. Even if it’s just, Ciao! Dov’e’ il bagno? the chap you ask will appreciate that you know how to ask for the bathroom in words he understands. There are plenty of affordable language aids available on the Internet, from dictionaries to CDs to online lesson plans offered through schools like MIT. There’s no reason not to try, and you’ll be surprised how good it will feel to make the attempt. Plus, if you please the locals, they’ll most likely be willing to give you tips on where to go and what to do.

            Teramo is so small that I didn’t see any of the public transportation prevalent in Rome. People walk, and they walk everywhere. Cars are used only when you must travel out of the city. Sundays in Teramo City mean children peddling tricycles in the square, church bells ringing followers in and out of their gates and street venders hawking—not knock-off Prada bags, but food.

One of my favorite memories involved breaking through a jostling crowd of Italian men to buy porketta, a slow-roasted pork sandwich. Real Italian food can’t be praised more highly: from tripe to boiled pork leg, from heart-pounding espresso topped with crème to authentic tiramisu. Just like the city, the food of the paese tells a story: what ingredients have been available to them over the centuries, which foods they’ve grown themselves and which might have been worth more than others in barter. More than any classes I took during my semester in Italy, it was the people living their daily lives that taught me the most.

            Unlike me, you want to make sure to travel with at least one other person. While I might joke about being kidnapped, there were times in my travels when I really did worry about how alone I was. Use the buddy system, even if you’re lucky enough to have family or friends meeting you. The extra biglietto is worth the 13.50 Euro fee for the peace of mind. Besides, who really wants to adventure alone?


            Secondly, travel light. Teramo does not anticipate tourists, so there won’t be any souvenirs to load you down. Towns like this are mementos in and of themselves with histories and traditions that no generic history book can show you. Pay a little extra to get to places that are out of reach, like the church of San Gabriele, which rests in the heart of il Gran Sasso, the mountain range. Sometimes Fate throws you a bone, too: when I went to San Gabriele, my aunt and I went to confession. The priest not only knew my hometown, but went to my parish and knew some of my classmates. If I’d never gone up into the heart of the southern mountains, I never would have met him.

            Most importantly, take time to research the location you want to visit. I knew a little bit about Teramo because of my family, but even I have to read up on where it was and how I’d get there. Use GoogleMaps to see it from space, grab a Roman map and chart the metro system and consider asking someone for a map of the bus route. In the heart of Rome there are many who speak English and who can point you in the right direction. If all else fails, there’s always the Internet.

            When the time came to leave Teramo, I could barely tear myself away. From its acres of olive groves to its ancient houses and its bustling city, it was something so unlike anywhere I’d been before. Going to this tiny corner of the Italian peninsula gave me a different perspective on how I saw the world and my place in it. While I still worry about things like school and work, there are moments when I can close my eyes and remember the calm of Teramo, and I realize that whatever’s so “important” at the moment, most times, is not as pressing as I think. There is beauty in living. I am not my PDA, my laptop and my GPA. I am what I make of the world and I am the difference in it.

            So, pack your gear and plan your trip. The entire world is waiting for you.


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