Thursday, October 25, 2012

My Tuscan Family Reunion

Teresa (Scalora) Borgia and grandson Andrea Farru with picture of her parents in 1921
It appeared to be just a coincidence. We were out picking olives, trying to stay away from the stinging calabrone, when one of the neighbors pulled up in his truck to help. Giovanni owns the sheep farm next door. “My wife’s mother comes from Sicily.” Giovanni came here from Sardegna with his brothers Mario and Bernardo. The terrain is conducive for raising sheep (resulting in great pecorino). Giovanni’s brother Mario also appeared. Mario was more gregarious and joined in the conversation. Mario asked me where my parenti were from. When I told him Sicily and Calabria, he shouted out, “You are terrone, cento percento.” Even in his Tuscan/Nuorese accent, I knew what he meant. He qualified it by saying, “but all of us, we are all terroni in purezza.” Where had I heard that before?

When we delved deeper, we come to find out Giovanni’s mother-in-law came from the same village as my paternal grandparents, Piana degli Albanese. “You must come to Sunday dinner,” Giovanni urged. “Come meet your cousins.” It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

Capo Bastone taking a break from olive harvest
For days we had been on the truffle trail in Piemonte, only to arrive in this area on the rugged edge of the Maremma, where the evolution of terra madre is still in full swing. This area is wild, even feral. The animals and creatures hold sway here. Our last tree was being held hostage by that army of calabrone and we were trying to break their defenses. So a nice home cooked meal after a long week of mental and physical work sounded great.

As we came to the door, Giovanni’s mother in law, Teresa met us. I did a double take. She looked so much like my dad’s friend Mario (whose family also came from the village) that I know I must have looked shocked. Little did I know they were also doing their double takes? When I saw the old family photos from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s I would realize their surprise as well.
Teresa's grandparents, Antonina La Rocca and
Giovanni Scalora in 1895 in Piana degli Albanese

Teresa welcomed us speaking Arberesh, the local language with roots in Albanian. I spoke the few words I knew and she lit up. Teresa is in her late 70’s and came to Tuscany, married a fine man from the area near Volterra and set about raising her family . She still has a sister (now 93) living in Piana degli Albanese. I wonder if I met her one time or another. Teresa’s mother and my grandmother share the same surname, Scalora. Her mother and my grandmother were born two years apart. Now they really had me wondering. I knew I would have to turn this info over to my Scalora cousins in Austin and Houston, as well as in the Carolina’s and California. They will know.

My first trip (tall one on the left) to Hora e Arbëreshëvet in 1971
I asked Teresa about the old name of Piana degli Albanese, Hora e Arbëreshëvet. “Oh you mean Ta Hora. Ta Hora.” Yes, I had heard it called that by Mario Messina in Texas. I almost called him. When she found out my grandmother was from the Scalora clan, she brought out beautiful photos with her women relatives in the traditional dress.

Teresa's daughter, Elena Castellani, holding a picture of
her beautiful grandmother in traditional Albanian dress.
“But what about your paternal grandfather, what was his name?” When I told them Cevola, Teresa knew the name. “They were ‘pastores’ (shepherds) and they became land owners. I knew them, yes, they were a good family.” Good to know.

Teresa and her daughter Elena brought out the first dish, a pappardelle with a meat ragu. It raised the hair on my arm. Stirred, not chilled. Déjà vu. Sundays at my grandmothers down to the decorative wine glasses.
1971 - My grandmother's sister surrounded by her daughters in Hora e Arbëreshëvet

How do these intersections of life and family occur so randomly? We are in the Tuscan countryside, picking olives, away from everywhere, and we run into what most likely are second or possibly third cousins, sharing food and wine over the family table just like I did years ago with my grandparents. Was it an accident?

You pick the olives - the family picks you
Back home, Kim says you don’t always pick your family; sometimes your family picks you. That surely has been the case lately. Since my wife Liz died 11 years ago, what I see as family now is less constrained by genes and blood; it has become more open, more global, more universal. And then we stumble into family on a hill in a corner of Tuscany.

Manifest of the S.S. Italia as it sailed from Palermo on
August 1, 1907 with many Scalora coming to the New World
The main course arrived, daughter Elena bringing the meat, a stew of mutton and a plate of roasted lamb. Just like my grandmother made – exactly. And the vegetables arrived from Teresa, a spinach and egg frittata, served room temperature (déjà vu again) and an assortment of grilled and roasted vegetables. We were drinking wine we had brought from our Piedmont skirmish, a 2010 Barbera d ‘Alba from Vietti and the 2005 Barbaresco from Produttori, a little different than the California wine my grandfather had on his table. But aside from that I was looking over my shoulder for all those who had passed on, knowing they were crowding the room with their good vibrations. Now I was getting goose bumps. Our table overfloweth. Good vibrations.

No vertical or blind wine tastings, no truffles, no scores, no ulterior significance in this happenstance encounter. Just another Sunday family meal as many Italians have week after week, a lifetime full of them. And one I needed and enjoyed and will treasure for as long as I live.
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