By Alex H. Nagler

With the economy in the shape it’s in, the dollar doesn’t buy much anymore. At press time, a buck fifty is worth around one Euro, and gas keeps going up. Airlines keep slapping new charges on flights, charging more for checked bags and carry-on luggage and raising the fees for food, drink, and pillows. Getting to Europe has become harder for everyone, especially for those who can’t simply put down five thousand dollars plus in spare cash. That’s where programs like the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF) and their Voyage of Discovery come in.

The Voyage of Discovery (VOD) is a free program that sends college students between the ages of 18 and 23 and of Italian descent to Italy to experience the land that their ancestors immigrated from. All it requires is a transcript, two letters of recommendation, and two essays. It’s simple enough to enter, with a quick form to fill out online and promises of notification in March for a June trip. So, with nothing to lose and a potential windfall to gain, I decided “What the hell, why not.”

Those of you who recall my Issue 14 feature on the Sicilian Crossings exhibit at the Wang Center may remember the fact that, though I don’t always look or behave like it, I am actually Italian-American. My father’s family is from a tiny seaside town in Sicily called Sciacca, founded in the 5th Century B.C.E by the Greeks. As my initial pleas for studying abroad at Oxford for the summer could not be accommodated (parents don’t seem to like it when you spring expensive trips to London on them without any recourse on how you would financially contribute to it), my father IMed me during finals week in December and suggested that I try for the NIAF’s VOD.

He learned of this program though a friend at the New York City based Congress of Italian American Organizations, CIAO.  I already had a letter of recommendation on file from the head of the organization for some volunteer work I did with them back in high school, so all I needed was a letter from a professor to go with it. I asked Professor Videbaek for the second letter, knowing full well that her letters have some magical abilty of getting the people who bear them exactly what they want. As for the essays, the topics were simple:

Why should I go to Italy and what would I do if faced with a truncated three-day vacation. Two essays, a week worth of Yuletide revision time, and an envelope later, I had submitted everything and didn’t think about it in the months that followed.

One day in March, I returned from an astronomy class on the roof of the ESS building and was greeted by an email in my inbox simply reading “Congratulations.” I would later learn that nearly 500 people applied and they accepted 40 applicants, but the ratio wasn’t the important thing. What mattered now was that I was going to Italy.

Did I mention that it was free? All that talk earlier about the uselessness of the dollar wouldn’t matter because I wouldn’t be paying for any of it. Airfare, lodgings, transportation, food- all were covered. All I had to pay for was my own personal expenses and souvenirs. Originally, we were scheduled to go to Florence, but in May, that was changed to Naples.

Now, I was originally looking forward to Florence. The city itself is home to the Medici family and contains the tombs of many noted historical figures, such as Dante and Machiavelli, as well as one of the largest synagogues in Italy, and the David. So when the switch was made, I was at first disappointed. I wasn’t initially happy about Naples, but promises of a buffalo mozzarella factory tour quickly appealed to my more gluttonous instincts and persuaded me that everything would be fine. This, and the itinerary mentioning something to do with Italian silk, but more on that later.

Term ended and the big day finally arrived to head out to Italy. The plane left from JFK and it would take roughly eight and a half hours to get from New York to Da Vinci airport, right outside of Rome. That meant eight and a half hours of sitting in a cramped coach seat, attempting to sleep, surrounded by 39 other late teen to early twentysomethings I didn’t know, and knowing my nature, would more than likely have difficulty getting along with. I didn’t go into the trip with this mindset, mind you; I attempted to be nice. But my nature just seems to forbid me from enjoying myself. Ask anyone I’m friends with. Odds are the first time I met them, I did something that could be construed as mildly insulting.

As I shook hands with strangers whose names I don’t recall, I tried to make nice. Really, I did. I even used the “You know, you’d think that since they’re sending a Brooklynite on this trip, they would send the right stereotype instead of sending Woody Allen” line. It seemed to fall flat. I would later learn the reason was that not many of them were versed in Mr. Allen’s directorial bibliography. But at least the host, Giuseppina Spillane, was nice. Gusi, as she had us call her, was the Program Assistant for Youth at Educational Programs at the NIAF and had been roped into serving as tour guide, despite the fact that her job had nothing to do with this. She wasn’t ready for 40 kids, but she did her best to accommodate the rapidly changing plans that seemed to shift around her daily.

These plans, which were supposed to be set before we arrived in Naples, changed every day thanks to what I can only imagine was the most incompetent travel agency ever. Every morning, Gusi would have to phone Rome to find out what the days’ activity was, and only then would we be told what to do. Needless to say, it made for a somewhat frustrating environment. But more on that later. First, there’s a three hour bus ride into Naples to recount and the realization that maybe New York City cabbies are sane drivers after all.
Italy’s highway system isn’t the most clearly demarcated. Road signs only appear right before their exits, and motorscooters roam the roads freely. As you enter Naples, they become more frequent. Eventually, they outnumber the cars and the pedestrians. These motorscooters are driven by insane individuals who would most likely kill people if they drove in the States. The simple act of crossing the street was a death-defying maneuver, especially with a sandwich and bottle of wine in tow. The light system didn’t seem to make any sense, and I nearly got run over three or four times in the same intersection. I’ve jaywalked Times Square, but never have I felt as unsafe as I was crossing at the corners in Downtown Naples. These motorists made New York City cabbies look like safe, sane drivers.

When we finally arrived at our hostel, we quickly took over the better part of a floor. Despite the fact there were 40 of us, there were only 11 guys. We all split up into bunkbeds and unpacked as much as the small lockers would allow us. We were only staying in the hostel for a few days, as we would all split up and be assigned host families to stay with for the rest of our trip, giving us a taste of real Italy. With the host families, someone was surely looking out for me, as I, the sole opinionated liberal male on the trip, was paired with a genuine Berlusconi-hating, event-planning, university-attending leftist. Things were good. Francesco and I spent our first conversation arguing over who was worse: Bush or Berlusconi. He won on the basis that Bush doesn’t own the three networks: RAI 1, 2, and 3. Technically speaking, Berlusconi’s brother and best friends own those channels and it’s just a coincidence they’re so close to the PM.

Francesco lives outside of Naples proper in Tore Del Greco with his brother and his mother. My Italian isn’t that great and his English is okay, so we got along just fine. His mother discovered that my Italian was passable, though, so I had to speak if I wanted to eat. Later on that first night, after the argument, we went to a piazza located between several academic buildings at the University of Naples’ linguistics department, where he studied. There I sat and drank Italian beer, ate real pizza, and watched as a crazy old man yelled at the 400-something people assembled beneath his window at 2am and threw water on them. Life was good.

Amazingly, this crazy old man wasn’t the best part of Francesco. I was in Italy for the first of the group games of the Eurocup, Italy v. Netherlands. This is the game where the Dutch slaughtered the Italians 3-0. I learned an interesting variety of Italian curses that evening and then had to explain the chronological timeline of 9/11 and the “Loose Change” phenomenon over dinner to a friend of Francesco’s who was a journalist.

From here on in, the days were filled with schedule changes and amazing things. I will never forget some of the things I saw, like the palace that served no other purpose than that of an art gallery to the Bourbon Family. I can still make out the scratched-in “Aiuto,” Italian for “Help,” on the wall of the Greek aqueduct, shut down in the 1800s by a French king, and used in the 1940s as a bomb shelter by the Fascist Italian dictator to shield citizens from American bombs.

Then of course there was Pompeii. I adore Roman culture, so visiting the still intact city of a Pompeii was an amazing opportunity, as it let me see what the land once was. The crumbling ruins were magnificent, and I got some cool photos of me climbing on columns and pretending to be a customer in a Roman whorehouse. The whorehouses, by the way, were somewhat reminiscent of a modern McDonalds.  The areas where you could order were pictographic in nature, showing customers exactly what bang they could get for their buck.
Not all the beautiful things I encountered were Poe’s “grandeur that was Rome.” One of the most beautiful things was more akin to what Edgar would wear, not pontificate on (or bang his underage cousin for). These Naiadian airs were found in the Kiton factory. Kiton is a fashion house based out of Naples that still stitches every suit, tie, and shoe by hand. I had already purchased a pair of chocolate leather loafers earlier in my trip to the Amalfi Coast, but these were things of beauty. A floor of trained artisans deftly crafted the suits to order, putting quality work into each stitch that you just don’t see today. It was an emotional visit for me, but the emotion soon died when I realized that spending sixty euro on a silk tie, even if I had seen it created before my eyes, was a bad idea.

Naples wasn’t all positives. One of the nastier aspects of the city was its ongoing garbage strike. In Naples, sanitation is controlled by La Camorra, the Neapolitan mafia. There has been an ongoing sanitation strike in the region, and outside of the city, trash piles up. Inside the city itself things are relatively clean, but a simple bus ride outside of city limits reveals massive heaps of trash alongside the sides of roads. In fact, while we were there, the New York Times published a front page story on the garbage problem. That same day, we met with various officials in the Unions, who told us to tell our friends and family how beautiful Naples was. While yes, the city was lovely, it literally stinks. Until Naples manages to figure out how to combat La Camorra and the garbage problem, it will have a negative perspective to foreigners. As my grandmother said to before I left, “Say hello to the garbage for me.”

On our last full day there, we went to Rome and did a SparkNotes guide to the Eternal City. I broke off from the group to go find Michelangelo’s Moses, which has the distinction of being one of his most lifelike pieces, even if it does have horns. Oddly, no one else wanted to see this with me. Between the Vatican Plaza, Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, and Italian Parliament building, we packed a lot into one day. I still wonder how the only Cicero merchandise I saw cost 80 euro.

We left Rome the next morning, having nearly missed our flight thanks to Bush visiting the Vatican and a 40 minute bus ride taking two hours, but we all got to Da Vinci alright and made the plane. And I have my pictures and memories.

I’d be at fault if I didn’t end this article with a plug for the NIAF. They’re a good organization and I’d recommend their VoD program to anyone of Italian descent who wants an interesting way to go to Italy. The NIAF can be located here: http://www.niaf.org/ . The information for the 2009 VoD should go up later this fall.