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I was born at a very young age and...bud um boom...

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

My God--I'm Half Hungarian!

For as long as I can remember I have been intensely proud of my Italian heritage. From the time I was a little boy, my father used to say: “Ron, there are only two kinds of people—Italians and people who want to be Italian.” I believed this to be true until my high school girlfriend’s father made her break up with me because I was Italian.

Actually, her dad was misinformed. I am only half Italian. My mother was of Hungarian descent. Unfortunately, her Hungarian heritage was given short shrift by me and my siblings. Why? Because we grew up surrounded by my father’s New York and New Jersey relatives including his mother Angelina, my great-grandparents Amodio and Rose DiToro, my great uncles Don and Mike, my aunt Ann, my five uncles—Leonard, Joe, Martin, Paul and Anthony as well as scores of DiToro and Carducci cousins, half cousins and their paesan friends.

Given that they all cooked Italian, spoke “Ital-glish,” (example: “Pikinickah” for picnic), loved Perry Como and Frank Sinatra and grew plum tomatoes, sweet basil and Italian parsley in their back yards, my mom’s Hungarian heritage did not stand a chance. It never occurred to me to think of myself as anything other than Italian.

Over the years, I bought Italian shoes and Italian suits. I learned to cook, eat and appreciate Italian food. I loved to listen to my Great-Grandfather and Grandmother speak their Southern dialect Italian. I loved the loudness and the passion and the joy of being part of large family gatherings on Sundays at one house or another. I love Italian opera singers and Italian operas--the French operas have too much talking and the Germans fill the histrionic cup too soon—in short, I have been, in my mind, Italian.

This is not to say that I never experienced my Hungarian roots. I visited my Grandma Zsoka in Ohio during a number of childhood summers, and while there, ate wonderful Hungarian dishes and desserts and heard the rhythms of Hungarian being spoken by my grandmother, my mom, my aunts and uncles and friends of the family. My mom also cooked certain Hungarian dishes—pigs-in-the-blanket, cabbage and noodles, chicken paprikash, etc., but for some reason these experiences never altered my solid conviction that I was Italian.

About six months ago all of this changed due to a confluence of events. First, I came across an old audio tape that I had misplaced. On it was a one hour conversation that I and my sister had in the late 80’s with my Hungarian grandmother, Lidia Zsoka, in an old age home, shortly before she died. She discusses her life and she answers a lot of questions put to her by me and my sister. Next, I discovered an old cookbook that my grandmother had made for my mother. It was a small wire bound notebook with a number of her recipes written out longhand and in red pencil. It included a short introductory paragraph in which she named her home town and county in Hungary. I transferred the tape onto a CD and sent it to my sister. I also had the little cookbook interpreted from Hungarian into English and turned it into a little book and also sent that to my sister.

The newly discovered audio tape and cookbook combined to awaken my interest in my Hungarian heritage. Happily, my sister had exactly the same awakening and we began at that point to talk about a “roots trip” to Hungary. We decided that we wanted very much to visit Granda Zsoka’s home town. In order to enrich the trip experience, my sister visited our 89 year old Aunt Irene in order to get birthdates and any other important information she might have. Amazingly, Aunt Irene had both a letter with our Grandpa Ivan’s Hungary address and a 60 page diary written by him which is currently being translated (Grandpa Ivan was Grandma Zsoka’s second husband and her true love). To make a long story short, these discoveries by my sister at Aunt Irene’s led to finding out Grandpa Ivan’s county and home town in Hungary and now we will be able to visit both towns while we are there.

Impressively, my sister has now made contact with a lodge owner in Grandma Zsoka’s home town and is arranging for us to sleep in the little town over-night. Since Grandpa Ivan’s home town is only 40 miles away from Grandma’s town, we can now easily visit both towns over a two day period.

Additionally, Patty and I are now studying and trying to learn some rudimentary Hungarian phrases as well as re-visiting some old Hungarian recipes that my mom and grandmother had written out. This week I made a Hungarian dessert called Gumboc and both Patty and I tried making Grandma Zsoka’s farina dumplings. We have begun using simple little Hungarian phrases in our emails. In short—we are suddenly half Hungarian for the first time in our lives. It feels good to re-discover this part of myself and I cannot but feel that my mother, if she is able to pick up on all of this, is pleased. She was very outspoken and frank and so I can also imagine her saying: “Well, it’s about damn time!”

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