In 2003, my father and brother and I travelled to Barile, Italy, birthplace of my great-grandparents and the town they emigrated to the USA from 100 years before. The trip marked the beginning of my foray in blogging (on a private family site). It is also the prologue to what promises to be an amazing return trip this summer.
For years my family discussed our great-grandparents, Giuseppe Tolve and Grazia Botte, who had come to America. We knew little because they both died relatively young after having a bunch of children (one of whom was my grandfather), so there was no one with first-hand knowledge to ask about their roots. We came to believe that my great-grandfather himself was an orphan and that he was from a small town in southern Italy called Barile. My grandfather’s and parent’s generation was far more interested in the American dream than in mining the past — especially a past in rural, poverty-stricken southern Italy. But my siblings and cousins were curious and adamant, and as the older generation left us, my father also realized the family history that was slowly slipping away.
So we went back. And what we learned was life-changing. If you’re interested in the details, e-mail me and I will point you to the private site with a dual travelogue from my father and I. Suffice to say that many family myths were debunked, much new information was uncovered, new family we didn’t know we had were found, and a love affair with the region of Basilicata was begun. Here’s an excerpt:
Basically the rest of the day became a person-by-person, cafe-by-cafe hunt for Roberto’s cousin Anita Di Tolve. He had never met her, but he knew she lived there and that her family owned a gelateria. It was like a scavenger hunt. We’d go from place to place gathering new information. At each place word of our presence had preceded us. “Oh, Di Tolve! Yes, yes, we heard you were here.”
Finally we found her. She was in her late 70’s and wearing all black because her husband passed away last year. Once she figured out what was happening she invited all seven of us into her tiny cave-like home and started balling. It was extremely emotional. She insisted that we let her take us to her wine cave (there’s a much a longer story about why most Barilesi have caves), the local cemetery, and to cook us dinner that night. We let her do all of the above. She had to put on black stockings before we went out because if the fellow townspeople saw her without them there would be gossip. She was, after all, a recent widow.
In the cave — a good 25 degrees cooler — we sipped homemade spumante that her husband had bottled five years ago. At the cemetery we searched the above-ground tombs just like we searched the yellowing church records for evidence of Tolve, Botte, Urbano, Paternoster, and Schiro families. Anita could not get in to her father’s tomb because she and her sister were having a dispute and her sister had changed the lock. Typical Italian family bickering.
About a year ago I got an e-mail from a Michele Brucoli, part of the external communications department of the regional government of Basilicata. He had come across my infrequent postings on Barile and was interested in learning more about my perspective on his region as a descendant. We’ve stayed in touch over the past year and he’s sent me plenty of information. Basilicata is eager to promote tourism and investment and, independent of Michele, I’ve long supported this. Basilicata could easily be the next Tuscany or Amalfi Coast. The region boasts two separate coast lines (one on the Tyrrhenian Sea and one on the Ionian Sea), mountains, and dense forests. Like Sicily and Cyprus, Basilicata was a waypoint for whatever conquering empires were traversing the Mediterranean so there’s a diverse ethnic and cultural fabric that you don’t often find in Roman northern Italy. In short, I agree wholeheartedly with Michele that the region is ripe for discovery.
Recently Michele mentioned that the city government of Barile had discovered my blog, including the private diary from 2003, and that they were preparing to give me an award and a “day of celebration” this summer, if I could return. I was floored. I don’t exactly know what the award is, but I assume it has something to do with promoting the Lucani nel Mondo (or people of Basilicatan descent — also known as Lucanians — who live outside of the region). So, it looks like my family is ready to head back with me. I’m excited. Details are somewhat scarce right now, but it is obviously an experience I could not pass up. An award for being intersted in my roots! Hard to believe, really. I may even bring my five-year-old son.
As a sidenote, if you live in or near Chicago and want to get a taste of Basilicata there is actually a restaurant on the north side called Anna Maria Pasteria run by two sisters from Ripacandida, a small town near Barile in Potenza. The menu itself is fairly broadly Italian, but the place feels like the rustic kitchens of Basilicata, and if you ask Anna or Maria specifically they will cook you up real local dishes. Recently, as my father, uncle, cousin and I were leaving from dinner there, I mentioned my name to Anna. She grew up with my grandparents and extended family on the south side and seemingly knew more about them than we did. It is a small world when you are from Basilicata.