Where are you from?

Italians have a long and strong memory of place. My family’s ancestral village is Scigliano, but my great-grandmother left there about 115 years ago. Only a handful of her hundreds of descendants have ever been there, and to my knowledge she never returned.

Malito, with the Sila rising in the background.

Malito, with the Sila rising in the background.

When we visited in August 2013, we found a vacation rental house in another small town about 30 minutes away, the town of Malito, across the Savuto valley, and across the A3 motorway. In Malito we wandered around the town, shopped in the local market, and had some beers in the bar to cool off.

The people were very friendly, always wondering why strangers have chosen to stay in their town, and we told them our ancestors came from Scigliano. Since we couldn’t find a place to stay in Scigliano, we stayed in Malito, and we would go to Scigliano to see our distant cousins there.

Several times, after explaining this, I heard the same comments among them in Italian: “Oh, they aren’t from Malito. They are from Scigliano.” Still friendly, but I could almost see their interest wane as they nodded knowingly to one another. They’re strangers, not our own people.

I translated for my husband and brother, and we thought it was funny that they considered us to be “from” Scigliano–a description I would apply to someone who had at some time actually lived there, but not someone three generations removed from that experience.

John, a native born man from Malito who moved to Canada with his family at 14, heard us speaking English as we walked around Malito and invited us in for a drink. John spends a few months every year, now that he’s retired, in a house inherited from his parents. His wife doesn’t come with him. She’s from Marzi, he explained. She doesn’t like to come and stay in Malito. Marzi is another small town across the motorway–about 25 minutes by car from Malito.

On our visits to Scigliano, when we explain our local heritage, we have been welcomed warmly by pretty much everyone, whether related to us or not. They also think of us as being “from” Scigliano. Their bright-eyed curiosity kindles, and they have more questions. It’s a very warm and embracing experience, the kind I wish for every visitor to an ancestral place.

Where Francesco’s life began: Palinudo

Bianchi-Palinudo (960x1280)In family history, every answer, every discovery, prompts a new question or search.

My great-grandfather, Francesco Aruri, was born in Serra di Piro, and “frazione” or hamlet near Bianchi, Calabria, in 1846. Here is a summary of the recorded information about his birth:  The birth of Francesco Arcuri was filed on 1 August 1846 in Bianchi by his father, Pasquale Arcuri, age 47, a peasant farmer residing in Bianchi. His infant son was born at home in the Serra di Piro District, on this day to his wife, Maria Innocenza Perri, age 35, and was given the name Francesco. Francesco Arcuri was baptized on 1 August by the parish priest of the Church of San Giacomo, in Bianchi.

The Serra di Piro district near Bianchi.

The Serra di Piro district near Bianchi.

I found the Serra di Piro area on Google maps. It is just north of Bianchi a mile or two, and very close to Palinudo, where Pasquale Arcuri was born. The records say: The marriage of Pasquale Arcuri and Maria Innocenza Perri was filed on 31 August 1830, in Bianchi. The groom was 26 years old, a peasant farmer born and residing in Palinudo. He was the son of Giacomo Arcuri, a peasant farmer residing in Palinudo, and Saveria Mancuso, residing here. The bride was 28 years old, born and residing in Bianchi in the Serra di Piro District. She was the daughter of the late Francesco Perri, a peasant farmer, and the living Concetta Cosco. The couple was wed on 3 October in the parish of San Giacomo, in Bianchi.

San Giacomo church, where Francesco Arcuri was baptized, and where his parents were married.

San Giacomo church, where Francesco Arcuri was baptized, and where his parents were married.

So Francesco’s father, and both his grandfathers, were peasant farmers in little hamlets in the foothills of the Sila. What does “peasant farmer” suggest? I headed to Palinudo with that question in mind–would we find a group of huts along a dirt track? Scattered houses among hillside vegetable terraces? Both of Francesco’s grandmothers were cotton spinners. What kind of textile industry supported their work? Who paid them? How far away were the weavers who used their cotton, and what did they make from it? Was the cotton also grown nearby?

A simple home in Palinudo.

A simple home in Palinudo.

Of course, more than 150 years has passed since those descriptions were written in Bianchi’s town records. And whatever Palinudo was in the 1840’s, it is now a small but thriving ‘suburb’ of the town of Bianchi. In the half-hour or so we spent there, I saw a Mercedes, a BMW, even a Jag. The roads were paved (not fancy, but paved). There is a small, but rather desolate, church in the hamlet. I wonder if it was desolate even in 1846–is that why Francesco was baptized in Bianchi? What were the options and factors that went into the decision about where to baptize a child?

One of Palinudo's nicer homes.

One of Palinudo’s nicer homes.

All too soon after Francesco’s birth, this death was recorded: The death of Pasquale Arcuri was filed on 2 October 1846, in Bianchi by Emiliano Arcuri, brother of the deceased, age 22, a peasant farmer, and Carmine Mancuso, brother-in-law of the deceased, age 28, a peasant farmer, resident of the Serra di Piro District of Bianchi. Pasquale Arcuri, a peasant farmer, died at home in the Fiume Corace District on 1 October, at the age of 40. He was born in the Palinudo District, the son of Giacomo Arcuri, a peasant farmer, and Saveria Mancuso, both deceased, and was a resident of Serra di Piro. Pasquale was married to Maria Innocenza Perri.

At two months old, Francesco was left fatherless, and all his grandparents were already deceased. What did an widowed mother of an infant do to support herself? Various other family members are named. Maria Innocenza Perri had a brother who was living when their mother died in 1831. Was he still alive? Did her late husband’s family help her? Did she remarry?

The Sila foothills around Bianchi.

The Sila foothills around Bianchi.

Some of these questions can be answered with more research, but I’m sure many of my questions will never be answered. I recently read an article by Ian Mortimer, an academic historian who also writes historical fiction under the name of James Forrester. In describing some of the different challenges between writing history, and writing fiction, he observed: “You suddenly find that your evidence-orientated knowledge of the period is just not enough; it does not equip you to describe in detail how a man or woman passes one whole day, let alone a number of different men and women across the period of several weeks.”

Even the most detailed historical study won’t likely help me fully understand the lives of these ancestors. I may have to resort to fiction to make their stories come alive.

Digging at the roots in Calabria

Vern (with hat), Glenn, and I exploring Calabria.

Vern (with hat), Glenn, and I exploring Calabria.

After a week in Venice in August, we headed to Calabria for the week of Ferragosto and a visit to my ancestral village, Scigliano. For the first time, my brother, Glenn, traveled to Calabria, and we shared a rented house about a thirty minute drive from Scigliano, along with my niece Sasha and her college friend Anna.

In a way, our Ferragosto week was like that of many Italian families, getting together with family members we don’t often see, and spending some family and recreational time together catching up. Funny that Glenn and I traveled to Italy for that experience, when we live only a couple of hours from one another in the U.S.

And one of our goals for family time was to explore the Italian root-ball of our past. It often seems like a big messy root-ball doing the research, but it is lots of fun to be there in person.

Our Italian cousins: Anna Maria, Francesco, and their father Ottavio.

Our Italian cousins: Anna Maria, Francesco, and their father Ottavio.

Our Italian cousin, Anna Maria, never explained to us how our family trees connect in the past. On this visit I met her father for the first time, and he set out some of his family tree for me, finally showing me where the Gualtieri line intersects. Ottavio is 94, and still lives in the house his mother bought in the frazione of Lupia. She built an oven and ran a bakery from that house, and the oven is still there today.

The old bread oven built by Ottavio's mother many years ago.

The old bread oven built by Ottavio’s mother many years ago.

Now Anna Maria owns the house. Ottavio is a retired policeman, and he understands a bit of English, but doesn’t speak it much, though his children are fluent. Anna Maria’s brother Francesco was in town for Ferragosto too, and we had some great talks with him, ranging from archeology (his post-retirement career) to health care in America and Europe.

A section of the cemetery in Scigliano--typical with its many above-ground vaults.

A section of the cemetery in Scigliano–typical with its many above-ground vaults.

We explored the Scigliano cemetery, and took lots of photos to compare with family records. So many Gualtieris!! And since I recently discovered several other surnames in the family, I took photos of those, too. Genealogy is a hobby that is never “finished” because there are always additional lines to follow. I’ll share more of our fun week in Scigliano in future posts.

One of the Gualtieri family vaults in the Scigliano cemetery--but whether it's 'our' Gualtieri people, I don't know!

One of the Gualtieri family vaults in the Scigliano cemetery–but whether it’s ‘our’ Gualtieri people, I don’t know!

Gaeta and tiella!

Tiella!

Tiella!

Thanks to my Facebook friend Nicola Tarallo, Vern and I enjoyed a fun afternoon in Gaeta, Nico’s home town and home of the savory pie called tiella. Through his website and books, Nico is doing all he can to put Gaeta on the map and tiella in your kitchen.

After corresponding via Facebook off and on for a year or so, I was happy to stop in Gaeta and finally meet Nico in person. Vern and I visited Gaeta several years ago, but this time we had a one-man public relations firm showing us around. We strolled along the oldest street in the original townsite listening to his steady patter of details about the history and life of Gaeta. Nicola studied English in Washington state (where I now live).

Gaeta 3 (768x1024)Our first stop was a tiella bakery, Antico Forno Giordano–in business more than 120 years according to their sign. There was a line out the door when we arrived–always a good sign for any food place, right? Inside, Nico introduced us to the baker, explained the different kinds of tiella, and we had a photo op with the baker.

Nico, me, and the baker.

Nico, me, and the baker.

We bought four different types of tiella, 1/4 of a pie each, for Vern and I to have a late lunch. Octopus tiella? We thought we should try it, even though neither of us is big fans of octopus. Next, escarole tiella. That’s right, not just a fluffy addition to your salad, escarole is often cooked in Italian dishes, which reduces the slight bitterness. Next, zucchini and onion tiella. Yummy! The fourth, I think, was eggplant–more delicious flavors!

But before we tasted any of them, Nico asked what we’d like to drink with our lunch. Wine! (What else?) He led us down a side street (more like a little alley) to what looked like the back door of a shop, where a couple of men were busy working. In a blur of Italian he conveyed our request, and they invited us to step inside. On a waist-high shelf, four giant vats of wine awaited bottling as the need arose. We were offered tastes, and made our selection. Grabbing an empty (previously used) liter bottle, the younger man began filling it for us, but the older stopped him when he saw Vern taking a photo. He called me over, put the bottle in my hand and invited me to open the tap myself for the picture you see here. Oh, the price? About two bucks.

The wine shop.

The wine shop.

We’d parked near a park, and decided to head back there to eat, hoping to find a dry spot after a rain squall passed through. But along the way, Nico took us into his favorite pizzeria: Pizzeria Rustica. Another line out the door, even longer this time, but moving quickly. Inside, three or four men with cleavers hacking large square pizzas into pieces to sell. If I had a video, it would be a blur with the activity going on back there! Unfortunately, we had more than we could finish with the tiella, because I would love to have tried some of the great looking pizza too.

At Pizzeria Rustica, where hunks of pizza were flying out the door!

At Pizzeria Rustica, where hunks of pizza were flying out the door!

We did find a park bench, and continued to visit with Nico. He’s excited about a new Russian translation of his cookbook, Mangia Tiella! which is already available in English and Spanish. He has written a travel guide to Gaeta, and hopes to publish more books in that vein. You can also find him on Facebook.

Vern and I continued down the road to Caserta, still feeling the buzz of energy from Nico’s enthusiasm for his home town.

“First mother of Italian cooking in America”

That’s how one New York food expert described Marcella Hazan, whose six cookbooks are prized classics of Italian cooking and eating.

Thank you, Marcella, and rest in peace.

Readers, enjoy this New York Times story about Marcella.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/30/dining/Marcella-Hazan-dies-changed-the-way-americans-cook-italian-food.html?smid=fb-nytimes&WT.z_sma=DI_MHC_20130930&_r=0

Favorite day in Venice: Brenta Canal

La Malcontenta, designed by Palladio.

La Malcontenta, designed by Palladio.

Not really in Venice. Not really a canal. But a really great day of relaxation and effortless sightseeing!

Cruising past an open bridge on the Brenta Canal.

Cruising past an open bridge on the Brenta Canal.

I found the website for Il Burchiello while searching for how we’d spend five days in Venice with another couple, longtime friends of ours. It looked so relaxing, motoring along in an air-conditioned modern boat, stopping along the way for three villa tours and a lunch, then back from Padua at the end of the day on the train or bus.  Il Burchiello lived up to its claims, and the tour guide and boat staff were accommodating and informative. In four languages!

Turtles and ducks along the river.

Turtles and ducks along the river.

The boat has a capacity for 110 passengers, but we had only about a dozen on board the day of our tour. This added to our comfort with a sense of “private” touring, and we were able to get acquainted with some of our fellow travelers. In addition to the air conditioned cabin with a mini-bar selling espresso, various drinks, and snacks, the upper open-air deck provided ideal viewing of the dozens of villas along the canal, most built in the 1500s to 1800s.

We boarded the boat along the waterfront not far from Piazza San Marco, and soon were motoring across the lagoon. The Brenta “Canal” is actually a natural river. We entered the river in an industrial area, but soon came to the first of five locks and several swinging bridges. These were interesting, but the main attraction for me was seeing so many villas, and being able to tour three of them. My love affair with castles and palaces began in childhood, and these villas, the summer homes of the wealthy Venetians, played to my heart. Brenta-Malcontenta2

Lunch along the way was not included in the cost of the tour, and the four of us opted for the “light” lunch, sandwiches, drinks, and a snack. A bit overpriced, but the restaurant was comfortable and clean. They offered a full seafood lunch, and the one passenger who ordered that seemed happy with it.

After touring the third villa, in the late afternoon, we were still 90 minutes from Padua. Our guide offered us the option of returning by Venice by bus from there, rather than going on to Padua and having a longer trip back. Several of us found our way to the bus, and rode back to Venice a little earlier than we had planned. We were very refreshed, and ready to hit the more active sightseeing circuit the following day–our last full day in Venice.

I’ll let the photos tell the rest of the story, and I encourage anyone who needs a day out of the crowds in the city to book a river cruise on Il Burchiello.

Villa Widmann, with gardens full of statuary.

Villa Widmann, with gardens full of statuary.

 

Statues in the pleasure garden at Villa Widmann.

Statues in the pleasure garden at Villa Widmann.

An original Murano glass chandelier at Villa Widmann.

An original Murano glass chandelier at Villa Widmann.

 

Not Villa Pisani--only the stables!!

Not Villa Pisani–only the stables

Villa Pisani. Hitler and Mussolini met here.

Villa Pisani. Hitler and Mussolini met here.

Gondola: An iconic image of Venice

Gondola: An iconic image of Venice

Gondolas at rest

Gondolas at rest

I read somewhere that in 1600 there were 10,000 gondolas in Venice. They made up the entire complement of private transportation, delivery wagon, garbage truck, and most other vehicles you think of as part of everyday travel within a city.

Today, there are a few hundred. They are a tourist business, no longer part of the ordinary life of Venetian citizens. Venice is like that, a city capitalizing on her history, her glorious past, for those of us who find it intriguing and romantic. Tourism with this intensity changes a place. Instead of neighborhood grocery stores, butcher shops, and stalls, the shops are filled with masks, Murano glass, and souvenir t-shirts, hats, shopping bags. One friend likened it to a theme park, a kind of Disneyland, where everything you see seems to be there for the benefit of paying tourists. And a theme park is not like a real city where people live, work, raise families.

Most telling to me was an early morning walk around the Piazza San Marco and then through the neighborhood to the south. We saw almost nobody hurrying to work, no corner bar where people scanned the paper with their morning espresso before starting the day. These were images we had seen over and over again in the non-tourist towns. Not here. We saw a couple of men sweeping the piazza–plastic and glass bottles, wrappers from ice cream and candy, the litter of thousands of tourists. Nobody walking the dog, nobody taking the children to school. In fact, we saw almost no children except occasionally the overheated, oversugared children of tourists.

But I was talking about gondolas. Along the canals there are gondola stands, like waterborne taxi stands, with gondoliers in their striped shirts. Some call out, “Gondola, gondola,” hoping to hustle up business. Others lean against a wall, smoking or reading the paper, but keeping one eye on passers-by for signs of interest. I didn’t hear any of them singing.

We had a conversation with a girl from a family of gondoliers, and when my husband sang the first few notes of “O Sole Mio” she cringed. “That’s a song from Naples. People always sing songs from Naples here,” she added with disgust. When I asked what would be a good Venetian song to sing, she just shrugged, leaving me to think that singing gondoliers were just a myth, another aspect of them park hype.

Though their numbers are shrinking, you just can’t see a gondola without thinking of Venice. Here are some images to bring Venice to mind today.

The Venetian taxi stand.

The Venetian taxi stand.

 

Waiting for a fare.

Waiting for a fare.

Gondolier with cell phone.

Gondolier with cell phone.

A gondola under the Bridge of Sighs

A gondola under the Bridge of Sighs