By Christine Galeone, Contributing Writer
Marlborough – Boyhood memories of Sunday afternoons in New Kensington, Pa., will always have a special place in Bob Alessio’s heart. They were filled with the warmth of home-cooked Italian cuisine, the music of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra and, above all, “famiglia” (family).
Occasionally, at these big family dinners, his uncle, John, would sing a song in the Piedmontese dialect. It was about a soldier who had just finished his rotation guarding one of Italy’s northern borders, coming down the mountain to bring his sweetheart a bouquet of wildflowers. The song had been passed down from Alessio’s great-grandfather, who – like other soldiers from the Piedmont region of Northern Italy – wrote and sang a cappella songs to pass the time until he could return to his village.
Now, more than 100 years after his great-grandfather came down the mountain and shared that song, Alessio is sharing his Italian heritage. He does so through music and language. Not only does he sing and play traditional Italian music, he teaches people how to speak Italian at the Assabet After Dark Center for Adult Continuing Education.
Although the Marlborough resident admitted that when he was growing up, he used to ask his parents to only speak English around his friends, he has great admiration for his beloved parents. Despite being born in the United States, they spoke both the Piedmontese dialect, which was the Italian dialect of their parents, and English fluently. They also learned to speak standard Italian at a continuing education program similar to Assabet After Dark. His parents were able to communicate with and understand their fellow Americans and Italians.
Alessio remembers watching his mother as she sat at a table and wrote out Christmas cards in both English and Italian.
“She would always start with ‘Cara mia (my darling)…’” he recalled. “When I remembered her doing that, it touched me that she had the ability to do that.”
But despite being in awe of the abilities of both of his parents, his interest in the culture and country that his grandparents emigrated from didn’t present itself right away. It evolved after business trips to Italy in the 1980s – during which he took vacation time with his wife to experience the beauty of the country – and because of his love of music. In 2006, the accomplished, life-long musician started an Italian acoustic folk group called Amici Della Musica Italiana (Friends of Italian Music) to preserve Italian traditions.
Shortly after, the gregarious father of four and grandfather of nine said he began asking himself “the big questions in life” and started investigating his Italian heritage. He began studying the language in 2009.
“I took my first Italian class at Assabet Valley,” said Alessio, who had been teaching students how to play stringed instruments there since 2004. “I started valuing why it’s the language of opera, and why some people say it’s the language of love.”
Those classes led to others at Mount Carmel Church in Worcester and Fitchburg State University. His appreciation for the culture grew so much that he even hosted a radio show about it and Italian music for WCUW in Worcester from 2011 until 2014. He also attended local Italian discussion groups. After years of studying the language, he began teaching it at Assabet After Dark.
“If you really want to learn something, teach,” Alessio advised. “It inspired me to learn more.”
He noted that teaching is also one way that he can “give back to society.” While he said that he enjoys seeing his music students “light up when they start making music,” he said that it’s also fun to watch people learn a language as a hobby.
“It’s rewarding to see these people learning something they really want to learn and giving them this opportunity,” he said.
When Alessio reflects on how he would describe what he loves about Italy – everything from the architecture to the cuisine to opera – he would use the words “la più bella cultura nel mondo,” which means “the most beautiful culture in the world.” But – the retired engineer joked -“Red, white and blue are my favorite colors!”
In fact, in 2002, his patriotism fueled an astonishing feat. He spent nearly a year running across America, stopping at many police stations and fire departments along the way to offer his gratitude. He ran to honor the Sept. 11 victims, their families and the emergency response units.
“I’m proud to be an American and everything America stands for, but I truly value my culture and people who truly value their cultures,” said Alessio. “Everybody comes from somewhere…that’s part of who they are. If you really want to understand who you are, you need to understand your culture.”
For information about upcoming Assabet After Dark classes, visit www.assabetafterdark.com.