Orsogna is a tiny Italian village of 5,000 mostly aging people who all know I’m not from around here. Whenever I step out of my family’s compound, I draw stares, especially from the older crew. They might remember my grandmother, Vittoria. I can just imagine them asking each other, “Was that Vittoria Cerretano we just saw?” or “I must be going crazy. Vittoria Cerretano just walked by. What year is it?” I like to think they saw my grandmother for a moment before they realized that not only did she die three years ago, but they haven’t seen her in her youth for seventy years or so. But those facts did not stop my extended family from reacting similarly.
“You look exactly like Vittoria,” was what everyone said to me, without fail. My dad showed a picture of my grandmother around my age for comparison, to the delight of everyone who saw it. My great-aunt Maria began slipping and calling me Vittoria.
Nicknames are part of Italian culture, especially in a small town where there’s really not much else to do but find other names for things that already have names. Take my dad, for instance.
About a hundred thousand years ago, my dad came to Orsogna when he was fifteen to spend a summer that, from the stories I’ve heard, would make a fantastic movie. His time here earned him the name from Zio Erenio: Castagnette Americano. We didn’t really know what it meant at the time, but I looked it up before writing this blog because I’m astute, and it turns out that “castagnette” means something like “firecracker.” So there you go, Dad, you’re a firecracker American.
The nickname I carry the most when I’m not being mistaken for my grandmother is Facciabbella. This means “beautiful face,” and it’s actually our family’s nickname. So whenever we get together, say at Christmas last year, we call each other Facciabbella. One of the wines our family makes is actually called Facciabbella. It’s, like, a whole thing. I just get called it the most because I look so much like my grandmother. The name itself comes from my great-grandfather Nicolo, who was so legendarily handsome that not only did he earn the original nickname Facciabbella, but his children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren all carry it to this day. The guy had to have been Orsogna’s very own Ryan Gosling or something.
The names we carry mean so much. Every French person I have met has commented on my name, how it’s a beautiful, old French name that they never hear anymore. And I always remind them that it’s an Italian name. I found out later that the French actually stole it from Italy when they invaded and occupied Italy on and off for a hundred years during the Napoleonic era. Which…surprised me. And also dashed my hopes of ever making a joke about the French military again without being reminded that we lost to them for a hundred years straight. Thanks, Napoleon.
Anyway, I loved spending a week with my Italian family, seeing my dad again after five months, and eating so much good food every single day that my cooking now tastes to me like a crime. I’ll be back soon.