Finding family in Sicily

Here in the mountains of upstate NY, one can’t help but dream of warm sunny places during the long dark days of winter. 30 years ago, before we could armchair travel on the internet, we had Rick Steves “Europe Through the Back Door” series on PBS to transport us to beautiful destinations in Italy. Watching these shows on Sunday mornings inspired us to plan a trip to Italy and have our own adventure.

My husband’s grandparents were among the more than 4 million Italians who immigrated to the United States between 1880-1924. Paul’s grandfather Antonino arrived on his own, and after finding a job and a place to live, he sent for his wife Caterina, their two children and his father. Three more children were born in Albany NY and one of them was my father in law, Giuseppe, who we always knew as Joe. Many of Joe’s cousins had remained in Sicily and fortunately for us, the Italian cousins had stayed in touch with Joe’s older brother Santo over the years. However, seventy two years had passed since Santo had departed from Sicily as a small boy, and the connection to the old country was growing tenuous. Uncle Santo scribbled the only information that he had to help us find the Italian cousins on a scrap of paper; he wrote down the names of two villages and the name of his cousin Peppina.  Not to be deterred by the lack of an actual street address, we flew to Italy with a great sense of anticipation in April of 1993. After spending a week or so in Tuscany and Rome,  we boarded the train south to Sicily. As we journeyed  south of Naples, the sounds of the voices around us became more animated, alive with the sound of dialect. The villages that the train passed through were not like some of the well groomed Tuscan towns we had just spent time in, but refreshingly real. We met wonderful people in our train compartment who were enthusiastic about our mission to find our Italian family. They even tried to teach us a few phrases of Italian…we were SO unprepared to meet relatives who spoke no English!

Much to our surprise, when we got to Reggio Calabria, our train was laboriously separated into sections and loaded onto a ferry for the passage across the Straights of Messina.  Due to this area being very seismically active there is no bridge across the 1.9 mile span of water.   We showed the note that Uncle Santo had provided us with to the ticket seller at the Messina bus station. and explained that we were searching for our cousin Peppina . Confusion ensued of course because we didn’t know which town she lived in! (We later learned that Uncle Santo had meant to indicate the township of Castroreale, and the town of Terme Vigliatore).

We soon we found ourselves on our way along the coast with a busload of very kind people who were very interested in our story and  who earnestly wanted to help us to find Peppina. The bus driver assigned us  to the custody of a group of middle school age children, fellow passengers, who were instructed to help us. The kids took their job very seriously and asked everyone that we passed by if anyone knew a woman named Peppina. As we followed them through the town, our pack of escorts kept expanding and eventually included a bright young lady who suggested that we go to the Municipio or Town Hall for assistance. Success! Soon we had a street address and the children excitedly led us onward. Finally we turned down a side street and our escorts pointed to a small doorway in an ancient building. With both excitement and also a little trepidation, we knocked.

The door opened and there stood a very small woman with twinkling eyes and a warm smile. The children competed with each other to explain that we were cousins from America, and then off they ran with their own story to tell. Peppina spoke the local dialect,  not a word of English or Italian, but she knew just what to do… call for reinforcements! Her next door neighbor, like so many Sicilians who had fled poverty in the early part of the 20th century, had spent her working years living in Australia and as a result spoke English very well. She was able to translate back and forth, explaining who we were and how we were related, which was wonderfully helpful, but then she had to leave and we were briefly on our own.  More phone calls were made and relatives poured into Peppina’s living room from the surrounding streets to meet the Americans. Soon there were more than a dozen  people of all ages,  all talking at once with great merriment and much confusion. Of course we could understand very little and spoke even less. Peppina’s great niece and I bumbled through some basics with both of us straining to recall high school French, and a plan was thus formed for cousin Bartolo to escort us the next morning to the little hill town where my husband’s grandparents grew up. The piles of relatives then dispersed and Peppina prepared us a wonderful spaghetti dinner, the leftovers of which were fed to the pet turtle who resided in her walled garden. We couldn’t  understand a word of what she was saying, but she erupted in peals of  laughter every few minutes and was completely charming. The following morning Bartolo came with a car to pick us up for a tour of Bafia and then on to his home village of Rodi.

Bartolo’s little car climbed up and up into the hills, traversing hairpin turns and passing through the beautiful terraced countryside and the occasional small village. All throughout the ride he earnestly tried to tell us everything about the family which unfortunately we understood very little of. It was abundantly clear to us that when we returned home, we needed to learn to speak Italian. Bartolo was a wonderful tour guide and devoted his whole day to ferrying us around.  We saw the house where Paul’s grandparents lived when they first married in the village of Bafia which straddles a ridge, with ocean far below on one side and view into the beautiful Madonie mountains on the other. We went on in search of the tiny village which was the birthplace of Nona,(grandmother), Catarina. Higher and higher we climbed, twisting back and forth on a tiny dirt track which hugged the mountainside. When we were almost to the top of the mountain we finally arrived at our destination. There were just three houses remaining there and sadly now all of them were in ruins. We pushed aside the vines that were engulfing the houses and peeked inside and saw what looked like a piece of a Roman column. There were archeological excavations in the area, and we wondered if perhaps this piece of antiquity had been scavenged to use a a press for grapes or olive oil. After looking around we descended back down the hairpin turns to Rodi and drove across the dry river bed for the next stop on our tour, a visit with Bartolo’s cousins Peppino and Angela.

Peppino and Angela’s house is located on a bend of the road to Bafia and is surrounded by orchards of both olives and citrus. Inside the house, Peppino’s elderly mother sat in a chair with a tray of hot coals in front of her to fight off the chill. In the local dialect, she recalled the day that Nona Catarina left the village to go to America. I wish we could have understood more of what she said as she was one of the last remaining links to this piece of history. Angela invited us into a small shed which to our surprise housed a large grain mill. She easily hefted a huge sack of wheat berries and dumped them into the hopper.  She uses this flour to make a hundred or so loaves of whole grain sourdough bread which is  delivered to local stores twice weekly. Thanks to Bartolo, our timing was perfect, the bread was just coming out of the wood fired oven! They served it to us on a plate drizzled with their own delicious olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt and needless to say, we ate most heartily. What a fine and special lunch we thought to ourselves! Because of our poor language skills, we had no idea that while we were devouring great quantities of fresh bread, Bartolo’s wife Marguerita, and his daughter Giuseppina were very busy preparing a midday meal, (cena), of epic proportions. We were whisked back to the beautiful village of Rodi where we were welcomed warmly into their spotless and elegant home. Cena was ready and soon we had in front of us  us a large bowl of tortellini which was absolutely delicious and which more than filled up the small remaining spaces left in our stomachs. But true to the Italian tradition, after the pasta entree, more was forthcoming….much more.  A huge platter of sausages, veal and meatballs arrived at the table. We don’t normally eat a lot of meat, so this was a LOT to digest and quite delicious. But oh how we wished that we had not eaten all that bread, because every time our plates were near to being emptied, more meat appeared on our plates. The food was absolutely amazing and we ate everything including  salad and  bread followed by cake and espresso! Overeating on Thanksgiving could not hold a candle to this day of overeating, I don’t think I have ever been so full in my life! After the meal was over, we were taken on a tour of their beautiful little grocery shop or Alimentari which was in the building next door. Everything was perfectly neat with cans and bottles perfectly aligned, it was one of the most charming alimentaris I have visited anywhere.  Unfortunately, our oohs and ahhs of admiration over the store and the freezer display of ice cream treats were misinterpreted to mean that perhaps we were still  just a bit hungry. Before we knew what was happening, Bartolo had popped two cones out of the freezer…and we ate those too!

The perils of overeating aside, it was a fantastic day and we vowed to return as soon as we could. Meeting our Sicilian relatives has been one of the most rewarding and fun adventures that we have ever had and we have returned many times over the years.