Italy is more than just major tourist destination to me. My grandparents are from a small village in southern Italy, so this a story about the search for my southern Italian heritage, and the family roots I have been dying to explore.
Summer 2016 was special for me for many reasons. I led my first study abroad program, taking undergraduate students to London and Paris for three weeks. That was a major life lesson in patience and organization. Another major first for me was a trip to South America. I never envisioned I’d get to travel to such cool places for my job, but I have realized just how lucky I am. But the highlight of the summer, the trip I’ll never forget, was getting to explore Italy and my southern Italian heritage.
Of all the places I’ve been, the most humbling was visiting my grandparent’s village in southern Italy called Montefalcone di Val Fortore. This tiny village way up in the mountains, 50 miles northeast of Naples, with less than 2000 people is where my grandparents are from. When I began planning our trip to Italy, on the very top of my visit list was a day trip to my grandparent’s village. For a brief moment, I considered skipping it because my dad insisted there was nothing there. He assured me that was the reason his parent’s left to begin with, nearly 100 years earlier.
Despite my minor hesitations, I knew it was important to see where my family comes from. I couldn’t go all the way there and not experience that. The day after we arrived in Naples, armed with a physical map and good ‘ole google maps, my hubby drove us the 2 hours up narrow and winding mountain roads to get to Montefalcone di Val Fortore.
As we drove, I had butterflies in my stomach. The surroundings weren’t all that unfamiliar to something we had seen driving between LA and Bakersfield. Maybe the roads were in rougher shape, but we could have sworn we were driving in California. At one point, we noticed this little, brightly colored village sitting on top of one of the mountain peaks. My husband told me he was sure that was the village. I assumed it was just too small. As we drove up and up we kept getting closer. Sure enough, that was the village.
Once we reached the village, my nervousness remained. There were very few people outside and the village was just as tiny as my dad had said. There was one main road that cut through the middle of town. On either side, there were brightly painted homes. The entire village appeared so much newer and modern than I had envisioned. For some reason, I thought I would be transported back to 1921 when we arrived. Like time had somehow stood still since my grandparents emigrated.
We parked our car and began walking around the village, shooting pictures of the juxtaposition of the old and new, wandering up another mountainous path to reach the lookout over the city. It was extremely windy and cold, much different than the hot and sticky weather we had left in Naples. I was wearing a dress and hat which was not a good choice for the ultra windy weather.
What struck me the most about the village was just how isolated it felt. It was up high on the top of this mountain, overlooking rolling hills of green and farmland. There was hardly anyone around, except for some elderly men sitting on a bench outside of a teeny convenience store. We also walked past a home with a crying child. He was probably 4 or 5 and the minute he saw us walk past, his crying stopped. I’m sure he was very confused to see my husband, who definitely stood out in Italy in general.
After only about an hour, we decided to depart from Montefalcone di Val Fortore to check out nearby Benevento, the capital of the province of Campania. As we drove away, all of a sudden I got choked up. Tears began to well in my eyes and soon were streaming down my cheeks.
At first, I was perplexed by my reaction. Certainly, the tiny village was underwhelming to see in person. It was tiny, there was hardly anything or anyone around, but yet, I was emotional. Why? Well, I began to think of my grandparents.
Just under 100 years ago, they left this place, with nothing, to come to America to make a better life for their children. What struck me was the courage and tenacity they must have had. It is nearly impossible for me to envision my grandfather riding on a donkey from Montefalcone di Val Fortore all the way to Benevento, to get on a train to Naples, to take a boat half way across the world, to end up in Ishpeming Michigan, all in hopes of finding a better job to support his family. That is courage. My grandfather arrived in America in 1920, nearly one year later, with my infant Aunt Mary in tow, my grandma made her way, on her own, to follow my grandfather. That is strength.
I only wish I had known them. Unfortunately, my grandfather died three years before I was born and my grandmother died when I was only five years old. I have some faint memories of her, but mostly I just have the stories my dad has told me. What I do know about my grandparents is that they valued education. That is one of the most important values they passed on to my dad and in turn to me. I am thankful for my grandparents for leaving their tiny little village of Montefalcone di Val Fortore. Even though I didn’t know them like I wish I could have, I value their courage and their willingness to take such a big risk for a better opportunity for my unborn father. Their bravery is truly inspiring, even 100 years later. I’m so glad I was able to explore my southern Italian heritage.