Sunday, June 26, 2011

Calabria: Full Circle

I was really wondering what I had just done. On the road with a young family which seemed like an eternity, only to land in some desolate town in the hills of Calabria. What on earth was I thinking, that I could just walk into a village in southern Italy and hook up with my long lost Calabrese relatives? We barely spoke any Italian; our lives were as different from these people as they could be. We had two young children, one in diapers, and we arrived in the midst of harvest, typical Americani.

I looked over to my wife, shrugged my shoulders and said “Let’s walk back to San Fili, take the train and go back to Cosenza. There’s nobody here who will claim us as kin.” She could see the despondency in my eyes, hear it in my voice. I walked hunched over, at a loss to know where to go next. And then.

A fellow on a donkey ambles over in our direction. Kind of gruff and looking like Ray Bolger’s scarecrow character in the Wizard of Oz. But we weren’t on the yellow brick road, were we?

In Italian he asked who we were looking for. I answered back that we were kin to Lucrezia Perri, who we were told came from Bucita. “Veni qua.” And follow him we did, back in the direction we had come. Along the way, another old fellow joined him and led us to an old brick house in the center of the city. An elderly lady, Teodalinda, came to the door and welcomed us in. Was everyone in the town ancient?

Mind you, my Italian was rudimentary, and we were deep in the hills of rustic Calabria, where the dialect was used more often than the vernacular Italian. A mixture of Italian, Greek, Albanian with some Spanish thrown into the salad bowl, making a language folks twenty miles away could barely understand. But we were young Americans, and the folks still remembered the soldiers who came through less than a generation before liberating the country from the Germans and the Fascists. They remembered the kindness of the Americani and we were in a place where hospitality was paramount.

What does one really mean to do when they come upon their roots? Is it expected there be a meaningful exchange that will last a lifetime, or is it simply an acknowledgment of those beginnings and then back to a life as one knows it? In those times, Americans were big into “roots”. We had no wars; the economy was slumbering but moving, albeit at a snail’s pace. It was the 70’s, not one of those decades people long for nostalgically, like the 60’s. The themes weren’t big and heroic. But for a small family and one with limited means at that, this was a way to connect to something bigger than oneself. And it was a theme that would be repeated over the time of my life more than once.

They took us into a room and poured the children some water and fruit juices. To the adults they brought out a demi-john of homemade wine. One of many to be drunk over the next week or so. Another fellow came in from the fields, tired, thirsty, dusty. “This floor you are standing one, your grandfather laid it.” With their broken English and my simple Italian, we pieced together a conversation. Little children stared coming out of their rooms, nap time was over. Before long twenty people were crammed into a room the size of a large pantry. Platters of pastries were being handed around. Come to see the crazy Americani. Of course it didn’t hurt that we had two beautiful children in tow, a little girl of 7 and a little baby boy not yet a year old. Italians love children. They were our bridge between the normally suspicious southerners. We smiled a lot and used our hands, lots of large waving gestures, that type of thing. We were ad-libbing the whole thing, had no idea where this was going, had no plans, no designs. We just wanted to re-connect with our family, our tribe, anything, any crumb would do.

And then they dropped a bomb on us. Out came a box with old letters postcards and photos. My grandmother must have missed her old country and family very much, because she wrote a lot of letters back home. And in one of them there it was, the key to our connection – a letter telling her family of the wedding of her daughter Elissa a young man, Louis. My parents. And a photograph to go with it.

And just like that, we had the connection. We were in. We’d come home. Family.

To be continued...

written by Alfonso Cevola limited rights reserved On the Wine Trail in Italy
Real Time Analytics