I went to Ellis Island today for the first time. I took advantage of our summer Friday, left work a little after two, and went down to Battery Park (I had to walk; the subway wasn’t running) to get in line for the boat.
I cannot explain why someone as obsessed with immigration history as I am has never been to Ellis Island before. Anyway. Now that “never have” is part of my past.
I did like that I had to endure some very small discomfort (walking from the broken subway in uncomfortable shoes) in order to get on the boat. Obviously my discomfort was nothing at all, compared to etc etc. But it seemed like a worthy part of the homage.
Most of the people got off at the Statue of Liberty, which was the first stop. I was sitting on the top deck, sunning my white white legs as we waiting for the boat to fill up again before heading off to Ellis Island. Eventually, a group of eight vivacious tourists sat in the seats on either side of me. I got up to move so they could all sit together, which struck up a conversation.
Guess where they were from.
My main interlocutor, Paola, asked me why I spoke Italian. (By the way, I speak about 20 words, and not very well, but Italians are really generous about this, I have found.) I don’t know why, but what I answered was, “My family is Italian.” (Ok, I do know why I said that–it was the only thing I could think of to say in Italian.)
Paola did not then ask why my Italian was so bad. Instead, she asked me where my family was from. I told her Calabria.
“Calabrese, they are a very jealous, envious people,” she told me. (Later she would tell me Ligurians are really tight-fisted, mano cuso, when she found out my boyfriend’s family is Genovese.) “Calabrese always want to know what other people have so they can be jealous. But you probably already know that.”
I laughed. I did.
She reached over and rubbed my wrist. I wasn’t the write color to be Calabrese. Bianchissima.
I admitted I was only half. “Mezze,” I said, artfully. She nodded. I got ambitious. “Ma il cuore e Italiano,” I said.
This was the best thing I said all day; it made her very happy.
As for Ellis Island itself, obviously I cried a lot wandering around. But I didn’t read anything I didn’t already know.
Which was nice, actually. Because it means I’ve been reading the right things.