My first trip outside of North America was to visit Italy; I had always wanted to visit the country that my great-grandparents left behind a century ago. I didn’t know much about them, but an interesting thing happened that made me delve into a quest for my family roots: on that first trip, many of the southern Italians reflected glimmers of my family. A smile, a tilt of the head, or a pose while standing in a piazza reminded me of my grandmother or one of her relatives. Not a striking resemblance, but flashes of familiarity that made me realize where their mannerism came from and why they did certain things.
I returned home and jumped into the murky waters of genealogical research. First-hand information proved sketchy and unreliable; my grandfather said the family came from Calabria but no documentation backed that up. Names were changed wantonly and unofficially, leaving no paper trail to follow. Online searches left me bleary-eyed and confused. I turned to the Ellis Island site where I finally hit upon the right spellings and found my great-grandparents’ ship manifests. There, handwritten on the documents one hundred years ago in scrolling script, I learned that they came from Basilicata.
We booked airline tickets the next week. After a year of searching I wanted to see for myself the town that my family left behind. We found a rugged landscape of deep valleys, forested mountains, and rocky peaks where shepherds still roamed the hills and tended their flocks, and where tourists- even Italian visitors much less foreigners- were not a common sight. We got out of the car to see the town, but quickly realized the town came out to see us! The old men evacuated their tables at the bar to assemble in the piazza. In an instant we became the spectacle of the small hamlet.
We wandered the streets, chatted as best we could with very limited Italian skills, and departed content that we had found a lovely, traditional place with stunningly pretty countryside. We didn’t find family on that trip, nor did we know where to look or how to ask, even if anyone had remained behind.
It wasn’t until we moved to Italy that we revisited Basilicata, this time accompanied by my visiting cousins. By then I was able to speak the language, and this time we truly discovered our roots. An off-hand comment to the barista over a cappuccino was all it took; recognizing the family name he dispatched a friend to find the town vigile (cop). The policeman bore the exact name as my grandmother’s oldest brother, and had a striking resemblance to her youngest brother, as well. A trip to the records office confirmed our family connection, and before we knew what was happening we were being shepherded off for an enormous meal, not unlike the feast for the prodigal son.
As we wound our way down the mountain that night with a sky-full of stars blazing forth, I felt that I had made the trip of a lifetime, and I knew with absolute certainty that I had found a place I would return to for the rest of my life. I had found a home, so to speak.
To say that it was an incredible experience is an understatement. We were overwhelmed; even now, my heart bursts with emotion at the thought of that day. That is why it has been so wonderful to have clients visiting Italy who are searching for their roots. Their travels, like mine, retrace arduous journeys made by desperate souls who left everything familiar to cross an ocean.
These descendents are drawn to Italy to walk the streets and take in the scenes that their ancestors knew well. Helping them find those places and their family documents has been the most rewarding part of our work here. Together we have visited records offices and talked to parish priests; we have inquired of old-timers about family surnames; and, on a few serendipitous occasions, we have managed to locate family members still living in the ancestral towns. For one of our clients, it was the records clerk himself who was related to her!
For others, no family remained in the area but their journeys brought them here to absorb the atmosphere and, like my first trip to my ancestral villages, to see that resemblances and mannerisms do still reside in the old country.
Surprisingly, I have talked to many Italian-Americans who have traveled to Italy without visiting their families’ towns of origin. While I can understand that some of these places are relatively remote, it saddens me when I think about the experience they are missing. There is really nothing like the emotion and soulful bond that you feel when you visit a place where your roots dig deeply into ancient soil. It truly could be their trip of a lifetime; it certainly was for me.
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Valerie Schneider is a travel professional turned freelance writer and tour guide who moved to Ascoli Piceno in the beautiful region of Le Marche in 2006. She and her husband Bryan operate Panorama Italy, planning personalized journeys so travelers can experience the colors and flavors of lesser-known parts of Italy. Walking tours, winery visits, and genealogy trips are just a few of their offerings. Visit Panorama Italy for more information on this beautiful place and how Valerie and Bryan can help you experience it personally.