Southern Italy's Campania region holds a special place in my heart. I'm not referring to the Campania that is home to world-famous travel destinations such as the Amalfi Coast and Capri. Though, of course, the allure of these places is undeniable. I mean the other Campania. The one tucked deep into the economically depressed countryside, where many Italian-Americans have roots, but few travelers venture. The one of contrasts, where leafy vineyards are interspersed with abandoned buildings strewn about the sprawling hillside. The one where my grandparents, with little savings or knowledge of the English language, left with their young children for a life of opportunity so many others sought at the time.
This side of Campania was largely ignored on the international stage until recently. With high illiteracy rates throughout the region, no one could tell the story. My grandma, for example, only finished third grade before she stopped to work on the farm. My grandpa didn't get that far.
That started to change over the past decade, when international best sellers Gomorrah and My Brilliant Friend brought Naples into the public spotlight as an impoverished city known for the Camorra. The part of Campania I have roots in, at this point, is sheltered from violence because of its distance away from the commercial center. Still, the destructive effects of organized crime reverberate beyond Naples, exacerbating social issues that shape the shared history and identity of the collective south.
I didn't always love Campania. It was the summer of 2006 the first time I visited, when you could still feel the buzz of Italy's last World Cup win. As a 13 year old visiting Europe for the first time, I had little interest in seeing anything beyond the aforementioned glamorous tourist destinations. Only a city or beach could be beautiful, I thought.
I remember resenting my grandma for turning down my cousin's offer to drive us to Amalfi, insisting Capri, which we had just visited, was the "same thing". Instead of exploring the fabled coastline, she dragged me around to meet elderly relatives I had never heard of, speaking a language I couldn't understand, in crumbling houses without air conditioning in the oppressive heat of late July. I felt miserable. Frankly, I was a typical bratty teenager who rejected the reality of where my family was from.
Over time, a sense of curiosity and connection to my family's culture and humble origins replaced my earlier resistance to it. I started to study the language again, feeling frustrated that my mom didn't speak it with me when I was younger because she saw no point. I wish I could say that I'm fluent now, but I've since given up on my daily Duolingo sessions. When I was planning my summer trip to Europe last year, I felt more drawn to the south than the affluent cities in the north I felt like I missed out on as a teenager.
There's no denying the subconscious influence social media had on my shift in mindset. It's hard to believe that the bombardment of photos showing idyllic beaches and pastel-hued towns didn't contribute to the strong pull I felt to Southern Italy and the leisurely Mediterranean lifestyle.
But Campania, my Campania — the one you don't see on social media— felt different the second time around. I looked forward to it this time, yet I still didn't anticipate how connected I would feel to it until I experienced it again.
A conversation with my cousin a few months before I left planted the seed. I asked her what she thought of Campania when she visited a few years ago and she described it as beautiful. I wondered...is it? Could it actually be beautiful there? I hadn't seriously considered it.
Looking at it through a new lens, I saw that it was. It felt novel, like I was looking at it for the first time. I felt wonderstruck exploring cultural sites, like the Royal Palace of Caserta and Castle of Gioia Sannitica, that I overlooked the first time around. I loved the simple pleasures of late dinners on my family's patio, and gazing at the rugged beauty of the Matese mountain range on our drives at magic hour. That is, until I nearly threw up in the car from driving through windy roads on our way to lunch at a local Agriturismo. Thankfully, one of the workers let me rest in an open bedroom until I felt well enough to eat their daily regional specialty.
I came out of my week in Campania with a deeper appreciation for it, despite the visible systemic flaws that still grip the region today. Not to mention the minor annoyances. Shops and restaurants, which are few around here, are closed for hours in the middle of the day and sometimes several days a week just because. Good luck getting the wifi and credit card machines to work. The stereotype rings true: life runs at a slower pace in the south.
Over that summer, I filled in some of the gaps in my family history I didn't know about. I learned of families separated for years while husbands and fathers left to work in the north, Switzerland, and Argentina. Stories of struggle that made it possible for future grandchildren like me to eventually become first generation college students.
Looking back, I wish I built more time into my itinerary to learn more about my family and slowly savor this tranquil corner instead of overstuffing it with activities elsewhere in the region. I went from anxious to move on from this part of my trip 13 years ago, to disappointed that I didn't have more time to spend here.
My purpose in writing this is not to encourage travel to this undiscovered pocket of the Mezzogiorno. Romanticized descriptions aside, there is little of tourist interest in Campania's interior other than the Royal Palace of Caserta and scattered religious sites and ruins.
It's about finding, or rediscovering, those places that light you up and feel truly meaningful to you. For me, Southern Italy will always be the place that holds special significance rooted in my family history and the evolving journey of self discovery that it spurred. It has become a second home to me that feels different than anywhere else, even as I slowly explore new corners of the globe.
It's about finding, or rediscovering, those places that light you up and feel truly meaningful to you.
What I value most about travel is how it forges deep, lasting connections to particular places that spark transformative experiences, shaping who we are. When we explore a place, we also explore ourselves, whether or not we want to at the time. We all have our own Campania, wherever in the world that may be.
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