Before I begin this last post about our trip to Europe, I have to preface it by saying that in a million years I could never have been as warm and kind as the people I’m about to describe.
I know myself. I love having guests, but I need to know they’re coming first. Also, I like it better if I have a clue about who they are.
With that, let me tell you the miraculous and wonderful story of our day in Roccabascerana, province of Avellino, Italy.
My paternal grandparents came to the United States around a hundred years ago. Growing up in our big family, I knew that they had married in the little village of Roccabascerana. I knew that my grandfather’s brothers married my grandmother’s sisters, and that all of them came to the Boston area.
I have always wanted to go there, to see the place where our family has its roots. At last, a few weeks ago, that wish came true.
Now, I have to tell you that I had reached out on Facebook to try to find relatives still in the area, and I had connected with one man who thought it possible that we might be related. But he didn’t speak much English, and I definitely didn’t speak much Italian. We exchanged a few messages, then lost each other.
So when I got to the village with my husband, my sons and their girlfriends, I didn’t plan to try to find any actual living relatives. I was content to see the streets, the church, the piazza where my family had once walked. I took pictures of the war memorial where the family names were inscribed.
I was happily crying my eyes out as I thought about my Dad and his parents, and all of my family who have gone. I hugged my boys and listened to the church bells in the peaceful air of the town. The only living thing other than us in the whole village, it seemed, was a sweet little street dog who came to greet us.
As I was thinking of heading back to Pompeii to process my experience, the kids noticed a building that seemed to be the local Town Hall. “Let’s go in!” they said, “We can ask about the family.”
I didn’t want to. I didn’t want the embarrassment of my bad Italian or the bad manners of showing up on someone’s doorstep unannounced. But as I was trying to back out, the kids and my husband kept pointing out much I’d regret being so close to my family and not meeting them.
We were in a little tug-o-war when a car drove up and parked. A well dressed, dark haired woman got out and looked at us. There I stood, sweaty and tearful, surrounded by my kids.
“Prego?” she called, opening the door to the building. She gestured me inside. So I stepped in.
When the woman turned to me with her perfect dark brown raised over her brown eyes, I stammered out the fact that my family had originally come from this town. I told her my last name.
“Si,” she answered easily. “Antonio.” She named the possible relative I’d found on Facebook so many months ago. She lead us all into another room, where she explained to another woman that “This woman from the US is a cousin of Antonio.”
“Ah, si!” said the second kind woman. “His family lives in the village of Squillani.” I had heard this name my whole life, too. It was where my grandmother’s family had lived, I thought. “His mother was Maria Domenico. Who was your grandfather?”
Then she picked up the phone and dialed without even looking up a number. My kids were delighted, as was Paul, but I was still internally thinking, “Wait!!!!!”
Antonio didn’t answer his phone, so the kind woman (who kept speaking rapid fire Italian as if I might learn it if she tried hard enough) indicated that we should all get in our cars and follow the two young men who worked with her and who were sitting wide eyed over the whole thing.
So off we went. The boys didn’t speak English, either, so we weren’t exactly sure where we were headed. I was hoping that we were going to the village of . Squillani, where we could look around, have lunch and take photos. I was both thrilled and afraid that we were actually headed to Antonio’s house.
And you guessed it, I bet.
After ten minutes of hairpin turns over beautiful, tiny, mountain roads, we stopped in front of a lovely big house and the boys hopped out. As I cautiously got out of my car, I saw them knock, and heard them tell the young woman who opened the door, “The American cousins of Antonio are here.”
I was really embarrassed to be banging on the door of a total stranger! There were six of us, none of us fluent in Italian, and all of us nervous and excited.
With a show of grace that I could only dream about, the woman smiled at us all, thanked the boys, and invited us in. She called to her husband, who came in with a puzzled look on his face. We stumbled through introductions, apologies and welcomes.
The next three hours were an amazing, life changing and really fabulous affirmation of every stereotype you’ve ever heard about Italians. It was proof of the power of family, of food, of shared laughter.
I could never, ever, ever have pulled off what this family did for a group of strangers on their doorstep. Antonio and his wife, and his brother Mimo and his, took us in as if we had known each other all of our lives.
They sat us down, gave us cold drinks, offered coffee. We looked at pictures, finding similarities in our faces and in shared stories. We got to know a bit about each other.
At some point I realized that the women had disappeared, and being Italian myself, I suspect that there was a meal being prepared in spite of our attempts to assure them that were not here to disturb them or to drop in for a meal.
I was right. As predicted, after about a half hour a door opened, and Antonio’s beautiful wife, Angela invited us upstairs to eat.
And we shared one of those meals that you know you’ll dream about for years. Without any plan or preparation, these amazing women put out a “lunch” of spaghetti with homemade sauce, sausages, zucchini frittata, olives from their property, a bowl of bread the size of a bathtub, cheese, salami, wine, fresh figs, watermelon, home made lemon ice and delicious sweet esspresso that will haunt my dreams forever.
We met Antonio’s daughters, who are charming, funny, interesting and who speak English! My sons played with his young son. We all laughed, we shared jokes somehow.
We all friended each other on Facebook.
It was amazing. Amazing and humbling.
We found out, Antonio and I, that we share the same great-grandfather. We are indeed cousins.
But before we knew that fact, this family welcomed us in just because we were there. At one point, when I was once again trying to explain that I hadn’t intended to bother them, Antonio asked in a gruff, no-nonsense voice, “Why? What are you sorry?”
“I didn’t mean to bother you….”
He gestured around the table to where our families were eating, laughing and drinking together.
“Do we look bothered?” I think he said.
He raised one finger, and both of his slightly pointed eye brows. Exactly the gesture that my Dad used to make. Exactly the same expression on his face.
“Il mondo è piccolo.” Yes, I agreed, the world is small.
“Tutti una famiglia.” We are all one family.
I can never express how profound and moving it was for me to see my sons laughing with some of the cousins who never left our home place. My deepest wish now would be for some of them to come here to visit us, so that I could cook for them, and tell them how my connection to them and to that beautiful place has shaped me for my whole life.