“In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage — to know who we are and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning.” — Alex Haley Roots
Interest in genealogy and the desire to learn more about our heritage appears to be at an all-time high. There are many resources available now for researching family history and ancestral origins, and the internet has made it easier than ever. But after the research is completed, those looking to take a deeper dive can journey to the places of their ancestors to learn more.
My own story starts early on. Growing up in a large, extended Italian-American family, we identified strongly with our roots and traditions, but the mother country always remained a mystery. My maternal grandparents immigrated to the United States in the early twentieth century and never looked back. I had always wondered about our ancestors in Italy, who they were, why most of them had left and yet some stayed. The passing of my grandparents when I was at an early age left only the first generation of relatives, including my mother, as a source of information.
When I was planning my post-college backpacking trip, my mother was going to be traveling in Italy around the same time, so I thought it would be an opportune moment for us to do some investigating. All we had was the name of the small village where her mother was born and emigrated from. Armed with the name of the village and a bit of courage, we took a train to Naples and boarded a bus headed up into the surrounding mountains. After one transfer in Benevento and an hour or so later, the whole time being reassured by the locals we were headed in the right direction, we were dropped off on a dusty, deserted stretch of road near Avellino. Looking up the hill, we saw a small church and a lonely cafe situated on a piazza. We entered the cafe and I began to explain, in my elementary Italian (much improved since), to the barista who we were and what we were looking for. After much gesticulating and finding the correct pronunciation of the family name, a light went off in one of the patron’s heads. She called her son to drive us to a house just a few minutes away. Apprehensively we knocked on the door and a woman in her early 70’s answered. Although our driver tried to explain the situation, the woman retained an aura of suspicion about these strangers who had suddenly shown up at her door. She welcomed us in anyway and once again I launched into my rehearsed explanation in Italian of who we were and why we were there. We did not make much progress so she telephoned a neighbor who, much to our relief, spoke fluent English. Within a few minutes we figured out that the woman whose house we were at was my mother’s first cousin. At the moment of realization they both started to cry and immediately hugged each other warmly. Of course this meant that we had to stay for dinner and overnight if possible. Unfortunately, we could only stay for a few hours, but we were treated to a home-cooked meal of pasta with ragu that tasted almost identical to what my mother still cooks every Sunday.
As a result of this auspicious meeting we connected with her son, a doctor in the city of Naples, and his family. When I lived in Rome from 2000 to 2003, I went to see them frequently and return at least once a year. They finally had the opportunity last year to visit us in America, much to the delight of my extended family here. Through these visits we have developed a bond across the ocean that you can only have with famiglia.
There is an intangible sense of history and connection to a place that comes when we step foot in the same towns, streets and houses of our ancestors. Whether direct contact with family occurs or not, the research and voyage alone is a stirring and worthwhile experience.
The next voyage to find my family history will be a visit to the small town of Bachant in France. Stay tuned…
See the following links for some good resources for family history travel:
Scenes from our voyage to Avellino many years ago