I have been reminiscing about reconnecting with my crazy East Coast Italian relatives. The things I remember most . . . Boston in late August and the foliage – yellows, reds, orange flames . . . the lessons on how to eat lobster on the cold Atlantic seaboard; the buttery buns stuffed with chunks of lobster meat and sauce oozing out the sides with each bite . . . the mandatory first stop at the Italian bakery in the North End for cannoli and blueberry muffins.
I remember the festival in Little Italy with old women leaning out their windows, yelling down to the vendors in the street. Oh the delicious fried bread dunked in rich tomato gravy. Reds, greens and yellows of the Italian flag . . . loud Italian crowds.
I wish I could tell my family, “My tender 15-year-old soul was nurtured by each of you and my teenage angst was softened by your gritty New England affection. You are my family. Thank you for rescuing me.”
April 10, 2017
Dear Uncle Tony,
Thanks for offering to pick me up from the airport in Boston. I’ll send my flight details asap. I admit I feel nervous and wonder if we will still know each other. I’m sorry that you and my mom were estranged. I don’t know what happened, but I do remember how close you two used to be.
I have so many fond memories of my trip to Boston as a teenager, especially meeting all those cousins I never knew I had. Gosh, even though it was a million years ago, I can still remember hanging around with my cousins and eating your homemade cheese pizza. Looking forward to seeing you soon.
June 15, 2017
Great seeing u. I will pull together everything I have so far on the genealogy and get back to u soon. Get in touch after you get back from Italy. Have a great trip.
Dear Uncle Tony,
Thanks for the bon voyage wishes and a great visit. Who knows, maybe there will still be some Chiavellis in Southern Italy.
I’ll be in touch when I get home.
August 15, 2017
Thank you for accepting our reservation. On Sept. 14, we will take a train from Florence to Naples and then drive a rental car to Benevento. We plan to arrive at your Airbnb about 5:00 pm, but I will call you when we leave Naples. All we need are directions by car.
Thank you so much. We are looking forward to our stay!
Elena and Scott
September 14 – 5:00 pm
This has been a day of travel hell, and Scott and I almost killed each other during the car ride from Naples. By some divine miracle, we made it to Benevento and are now unwinding at a little Italian pub, waiting for our AirBnb host to arrive. I smell the garlic and pasta cooking and notice the red geraniums and Bougainvillea vines crawling up the fences. My first sip of Southern Italian wine is pure heaven.
It is about 5:00 on a Friday evening and local folks are gathered for beer, wine and visiting. Sweet older couples are sitting together, and the Italian women are dressed up in their flowered polyester dresses while their husbands take in the scene like they have every Friday night for as long as they can remember.
I am trying not to stare, but I can’t help but scrutinize their faces. I see my grandmother’s nose and my great uncle’s hairline. These are my people. It is clear that by a stunning turn of events I have landed in the home of my ancestors. Tears are welling up in my eyes as I absorb the ambiance of this scene. If I continue to drink wine, I might get the courage to talk to them and give them big family hugs.
September 14 – 7:00 pm
My dear friend Judy,
I am here! I made it to Benevento and my head is reeling. How are things back in California? Scott and I just arrived at the Airbnb after a hair-raising trip from Naples.
It is difficult to explain the terror of driving a car in Naples. To the uninitiated, like Scott and me, this experience is really beyond words. It is as if God came down with a big eraser and got rid of all the street markings, yanked up all the stop signs and signals and then was gloriously entertained by the ensuing chaos, It is not uncommon to find ten cars in the middle of the intersection all jockeying for position.
I had visions of returning a crunched car to the rental office and enduring the hard stares that would seem to be saying, “Stupid Americans.” No one slows down or makes eye contact; you just keep your foot on the accelerator and go, fast, like the bumper car track. But here, miraculously, the cars glide past each other. It is a crazy, graceful dance where cars and pedestrians weave and bob through the streets as if they are all perfectly choreographed to miss each other by a millimeter.
Somehow through the grace of God we made it out of Naples and to the Autostrade. We just ended up following a guy towing a car behind him with a rope.
Anyway, we are here and I am heading to the supermarket to buy some fresh veggies and pasta so I can cook in this cute Italian kitchen! I’ll try to send another email in a few days, but the Internet is sketchy, so I’ll be in touch when I can.
p.s. I feel like I am home. Everywhere I look, I see my grandmother’s face.
September 14 – 9:00 pm
My deepest apologies for breaking your glass stove top. Please understand that we cook on glass cooktops at home and did not realize our error until it was too late. Fortunately, we were not hurt other than Scott getting a chunk of glass lodged in his toe when the glass exploded. We plan to pay for all repairs and will settle through Airbnb.
Thank you for your kind offer to take us to the church in Benevento so we can look for family records. It is so sweet of you to make this offer despite our unfortunate kitchen mishap.
Notes: Draft of the first chapter of my memoir.
The first encounter I ever had with a real life, habit wearing, Sound of Music nun was in a church nave in Benevento, Italy in 2017 when my partner and I were stumbling through the sanctuary, our whispers echoing through the vacuous emptiness, looking for someone to help us. Sister Maria, in quiet repose, the white wimple around her face, the full length flowing robes, was sitting alone on a pew bench reading what I could only assume, given the setting, was the Bible. My reluctance to approach a sister so obviously engrossed in her spiritual practice was overpowered by my desperation to get to the next step in my Italian adventure. The neon green running shoes she was wearing that poked out from the bottom of her robes made her a bit more approachable and finally gave me the courage to move closer and whisper “scuzi” in my best Italian accent.
The sister nodded slowly, stood up, and led us to an area of the church where it was more appropriate for conversation. In my awkward Italian, I attempted to tell her we were sent to this church to find birth records for my great grandfather. What would be the first of many miracles during this adventure – she spoke fluent English. She was born in Cuba and raised in Florida. What I asked her how she ended up in Italy, she looked up, smiled and said “It was in God’s hands.”
Sister Maria became the perfect foil in our wild adventure. I know very little about the life of a nun other than what is portrayed in movies and television. My image consists of a woman completely devoted to God, who spends her time praying quietly, helping the poor, completing chores in the convent, and embracing total self-sacrifice.
Sister Maria quickly shattered this stereotype. When I told her I was here from California and wanted desperately to find the home of my ancestors and learn about my Italian heritage, she leapt into action. We squeezed ourselves into her tiny Fiat and with her habit flapping out the open window, we raced through the chaotic streets of Benevento to make it to the City Hall in San Giorgio del Sannio before they closed for the day. When she had to stop to ask for directions, in typical Italian fashion, she spent a good ten minutes arguing and using gestures most unfitting for a woman of the cloth. I fell in love with Sister Maria and her ability to jump between English and Italian, her brash approach to life, her deep devotion, and her longing to come back to America with her fledgling nuns-in-training. I knew our paths would cross again.
Dear Sister Maria,
I can’t thank you enough for your help. After you dropped us off at the City Hall, we met Vincenzo, the director, just as he was leaving for lunch. If we had arrived just a few moments later we never would have met him. Another small miracle. After lunch, with my limited Italian, we were able to communicate that I was looking for information about my great-grandfather, Giuseppe Chiavelli. Vincenzo left the room, and a few minutes later came back with the birth records from 1870. Can you believe it?
Vincenzo, in his sweet, Italian way embraced me and my search as if he was my uncle or brother. He slowly turned the old hemp pages of the birth records that were handwritten in old Italian script. He painstakingly surveyed each entry looking for the Chiavelli surname. Then he quietly said, “Here’s one.” It was Giuseppe’s birth record. I cried and I believe I saw his eyes glisten a bit.
Next he introduced us to one of his coworkers, Rino Chiavelli. Turns out, Chiavelli is a common name in Benevento. At this point it felt like a dream. Rino offered to drive us to the street where my great-grandfather was born. He drove us through mountains and farmland covered with poplars, manzanita, vineyards, and a few scattered farmhouses with orange tiled roofs on rich verdant soil. Due to a massive earthquake in 1962 all of the old dwellings were gone except for one ancient stone building standing all alone in a dry dirt lot with short fence posts jutting out of the ground like so many hairs on an old man’s bald head. I got out of the car to get a closer look and got chills as I stepped onto this hallowed ground. Could this have been Giuseppe’s childhood home?
Suddenly I felt something cold and moist touch my leg. Startled, I looked down to see a little black dog accompanied by a grey cat. They had come to greet me. It felt like a sign from Giuseppe.
This has been life-altering experience, and you played a big part in making that happen.
I know that our meeting was guided and that our paths crossed for a reason. I will pray for you,
I thought this trip would satisfy my curiosity about my Italian family; instead, I have so many more questions. What was Giuseppe’s family life? How did he meet my great-grandmother who lived only 8 miles away? Why did he leave Benevento for the U.S.? I yearn for more information. I have been living on the fringe, on the outskirts of my own life of concentric circles. My Italian roots are at the center.
What’s Ap text message:
Hey Michael, Here is a photo of the view from Cesine Street. Elena’s great-grandfather was born somewhere on this street. Scott.
What’s Ap text message:
Hi Scott. What’s amazing to me is how the view of where Elena’s great-grandfather was born looks just like Sonoma County. Something spooky about her winding up in a similar locale. Michael