Sunday, March 18, 2018

A happy confluence of events leads me to another surprise cousin encounter

God blessed me with another little miracle, in the same remote city where He had done His handiwork seven years ago. At that time, through a series of remarkable coincidences, I met Rosa Spadoni, a 99-year-old fourth cousin in an encounter that blessed both of us (read Little gift from God).

That incident left me wondering why God would go so out of His way to help me discover my Italian roots. I still don’t know why, but if I had any doubts about His intentions to bless me, they were erased today, when I stumbled into another sequence of fortuitous events.

Erin and Yan on a wet day in San Quirico di Valleriana.
We have three friends visiting us, and I saw a sign advertising a sagra from 2 p.m. to sunset in San Quirico, a little hill town in the valley above Pescia. Because it had rained hard all morning, we figured the sagra was probably postponed, but by around 3 p.m., the rain had decreased, so Erin, Yan, Susy and I decided to give it a try while Lucy stayed home to rest.

The rain had returned by the time we arrived, and the parking lot was nearly empty, so our chances of participating in a festa were slim. Still, San Quirico is a beautiful ancient village, so we pulled out our umbrellas and took a stroll. When we reached the central piazza, it was quiet and empty, and by then we were positive there would be no Sagra of the Necci (a chestnut flour crepe) this day.

However, Erin needed to use a bathroom, and the only way to do that in an Italian town is to find a bar—which may not exist in San Quirico. However, we did hear some laughter coming from a nearby building, so we ventured closer and found that it was not a public bar but rather a circolo—a social club for the locals. I went inside and found a group of about 20 people gathered around a couple of tables, talking, laughing and playing the card games scopa and briscola.
The San Quirico social circle (Circolo ARCI).

I asked about the sagra—postponed until April 8—and if my friend could use the bathroom. Of course, they said, and one of them showed us the way. Just as we were about to leave, it occurred to me that since we were in the city where I had met Rosa seven years before, some of the people in this club must have known her (I doubted that she was still alive, since she would have been 106 by now).

By chance, the second man I spoke to not only knew her, he was one of her sons, Giorgio Dinelli (we had met his brother Avio in 2011). I explained to him that by pure chance, I had met his mom some years before, and I had since discovered how we were related. Giorgio and I are fifth cousins. I also met Giorgio’s wife, Erminda. They informed me that Rosa had passed away at the age of 102.

Giorgio Dinelli and Paul Spadoni, 5th cousins.
We exchanged some information about our families, and before we left, they invited me to drop by their house in the future. It turns out they live in Marginone, just down the hill from us in Montecarlo. In future days, I’ll draw up a chart showing Giorgio how we are related and provide him some Spadoni family history dating back to the arrival of the first Spadonis in this region in the 1400s.

This meeting would not have occurred had the sagra not been rained out, nor if Erin had not needed to use the bathroom. In fact, I wouldn’t have gone on such a rainy day if weren’t for our guests. I came on the right day, at the right time.

Our main goals in coming to Italy are to learn the language, learn to live like Italians, research my family history, meet cousins and make friends. I’m grateful for the happy confluence of events that God orchestrated to bring me in contact with this pleasant branch of the family a second time.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Lost and found Italian cousins add to enjoyment of research and history

I recently found at least two Italian-American cousins while researching in Italy, although we’ve only met online. And until now, we weren’t 100% sure we were cousins. Now I’ve confirmed we are all descendants of Giovanni Lorenzo Di Vita, born in 1680, who is the great grandfather of my great grandmother Maria Marchi.

Agostino Di Vita, right, with his
daughter Anna Di Vita.
Why does this matter and why do I spend so much time researching my ancestry? Great questions, and I periodically ask them of myself. But then, why does anybody have any hobby? It’s just fun to piece together puzzle parts and make connections. It also helps to make history more interesting. When I read about the decline and inglorious end of the Medici dynasty in Tuscany during the early 1700s, I wonder how this affected Giovanni.

Cousins Nick Binotti and Suzanne (Di Vita) Louis found me online through this blog and We each had a Di Vita in our ancestral line, and they all came from Pescia, so it was quite likely we had a shared ancestor. Last spring, I tried to find the connection myself. I made some progress, but in the end, I lost the trail.

Most cities only started recording birth certificates when Italy became a country in the 1860s, so I had to rely on church documents—baptismal and wedding records—to find the connection. But there are many different churches in Pescia and the surrounding areas, and I had been looking in the wrong ones.

A further complication is the fact that the family could have been listed under three different surnames: Di Vita, Vita or Viti. I don’t know why, but it could have something to do with the fact that our early ancestors were all farmers, quite likely illiterate, and they lacked written documentation of the origin of their surname. I had been searching only for Di Vita, but then I found that a father’s birth name may have been recorded as Viti, while his son was recorded at Di Vita or Vita—or vice versa.

After my fruitless search, I moved on to plan B. Would Nick and Suzanne be interested in paying someone to trace their Di Vita ascendancy? If so, I knew the man for the job, the premier researcher in the Valdinievole. I sent what info I had to Andrea Mandroni and asked how much it would cost to search back far enough to connect Suzanne’s ancestor Ferruccio Di Vita, born in 1892, to Nick’s ancestor Agostino Di Vita, born in 1901. I sent Andrea’s price quotation to Suzanne and Nick, and they agreed to share the cost. We waited a few months, and Andrea succeeded where I had not, sending us his research in February.

His chart shows how Suzanne and Nick are related. I had held a secret hope that his research would somehow also shed light on my own ancestor, Maria Luisa Di Vita. I knew from her marriage record (which Andrea had found for me a few years ago) she had been born in 1799 and her mother’s surname was Cinelli.

I had unsuccessfully searched for her baptismal record last year, but I hadn’t realized two things: She was baptized as Maria Luisa Viti, not Di Vita, and it was at Chiesina Uzzanese, a church about five miles distant from Pescia (thanks to Andrea for that tip as well). The church record shows that her father was Francesco and her grandfather Michel Arcangelo (sometimes spelled Michel’Angiolo, Michel’Angelo), who was of the Pescia parish of Castellare. With a little more research, I was able to confirm that this Michelangelo is the same as the one on the chart Andrea made for Nick and Suzanne.

This makes Nick’s grandfather my fifth cousin (with Nick being my fifth cousin two generations removed). Suzanne’s grandfather Ferruccio is also my fifth cousin, and she is also two generations removed. However, Suzanne’s grandmother was Quinta Seghieri, who was first cousin of my grandmother Anita Seghieri, so from that line, she and I are third cousins and in the same generation. Not only that, Suzanne also has a Marchi and a Cinelli in her line of descent, as does my family.

Okay, I know that sound complicated and the details may be boring, but when it’s your own family you’re finding, somehow it’s fascinating, even addictive. I may never meet Nick or Suzanne, but knowing that we share a respect and passion for our Italian heritage, along with a few inherited genes, I can’t help but feel the camaraderie. Alla fine, siamo cugini.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

We are now one level closer to heaven

We prepared ourselves for the worst. Last winter, we authorized Juri to hire contractors and supervise the installation of a stairway to our attic. I had left him a drawing of where we wanted it and some photos of stairways we had viewed at a store in Lucca.

The previous year, I had left him drawings of the size and placement of the skylights for our roof reconstruction, but the drawings were seemingly taken only as suggestions. Now we wondered if the stairs would be vastly different than what we expected. And whatever else could go wrong, we imagined it.

Juri had mentioned that we might need a door at the top of the stairs to keep out rats, which are able to travel from attic to attic, since all the houses on our street are attached. He also warned that making a hole in the attic floor would create dust that would settle throughout the house, even if the contractors did their best to set up dust shields.

And so, Lucy and I did our best to paint a dismal picture of misplaced stairs made of rough-cut lumber, along with rubble and dust in every inch of the house, not to mention rats crawling over us at night and leaving other evidence of their invasions. Just in case some of this came to pass, we’d be prepared for the disappointment, though we did it all in good humor.

And it was all for nothing, because the stairway is gorgeous and perfectly placed in our entry hallway. It doesn’t interfere with our passage in the hallway, which it would have done if we had put it in one of the bedrooms as we had planned earlier.

The skylights now illuminate the hallway during daylight hours through the new opening. We also paid extra to have Juri install lights and electrical outlets in attic, which are also just as we wished.

In addition, he added a cement floor to the previously unsupported area below the lower skylight so we can open the window and sit and enjoy the view while reading. Lucy wasted little time in moving an area rug, armchair, table and lamp up there, and I awoke from a short nap today to find her settled comfortably below the skylight doing her Bible study.

As for the rats, we’ve seen no evidence of them yet. But just in case, I brought spray foam insulation to seal off any gaps I find between our attic and our neighbors’ walls. As a backup, I’ve also packed some “Just One Bite” rat poison.

We still have cement dust in nearly every room to clean up, but it’s a small price to pay for the enjoyment that’s to come. In the future, we’d like to cover the cement floor with something softer and more attractive, add some cabinets and close off the open areas under the eaves, but for now we are more than happy.

“The opening lights up the hallway that before had no natural light,” Lucy said. “I love sitting in the chair and enjoying the sky and the view in two directions. And from our living room, we can now hear the rain when it beats on the roof and skylights.”

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Did a Venice restaurant really charge four tourists $1,418 for lunch?

What would you do if presented a bill for 1,143 euro—which today converts to $1,418 or 1,001 British pounds—for an ordinary restaurant lunch? That’s exactly what happened to four Japanese tourists who ordered one mixed fried seafood platter, four bistecche (steaks) and a bottle of water in an osteria in Venice December 5, 2017.

This incident has outraged Venice residents, tour guides and merchants, who are concerned that the widespread news coverage in Italy and throughout Europe is damaging the city’s reputation.

The Japanese tourists, who had taken a break from their studies at a hotel school in Bologna for some sight-seeing, were understandably not to happy about the bill either. They reported it to their tour guide, and at her urging, they filed a complaint with the Guardia di Finanza in Bologna. Now the media is reporting a heavy fine issued against the restaurant—20,000 euros, the equivalent of $24,783. In addition, the restaurant has since been investigated by the local police for sanitary and administrative violations and faces an additional 9,000 euro fine.

When I first read about the incident, I had some doubts about its veracity, based on the incredible price tag, but I’ve since confirmed the truth of the initial reports and discovered further details.

The tour guide, who has asked to remain anonymous, said the students showed her the credit card receipt at the end of the day. They thought that there had been an error, that the bill perhaps should have been for 114.10 euro and an extra zero had been accidentally added.

The tour guide called the restaurant and was met with hostility and implicit threats.

With a menacing tone,” she said, they asked me, ‘Who are you? What do you want? Come here, come here.’ ”

Corriere Dalla Sera columnist Massimo Gramellini explained that seven Japanese students originally entered the restaurant, which is just a stone’s throw from the famous Piazza San Marco. ‟Four of them ordered steak,” he wrote. ‟The other three sniffed a rip-off and sought escape in a pizzeria.”

The students were not given a formal scontrino fiscale for a receipt as required by Italian law, but they were given a printed copy of their credit card receipt to show to authorities.

It had become common practice in bygone years for merchants to cheat on their taxes by not reporting sales, but the Guardia di Finanza cracked down on that practice by requiring all customers to be given official receipts, which the customers must retain upon exiting a business. A customer leaving without a scontrino is also subject to a fine, a provision enacted to encourage customers to always request receipts.

Savvy travelers are usually aware that they will pay a premium price to dine near a major tourist attraction. In my earlier days of travel in Italy, I paid both a coperta (cover charge) and a servizio (service charge) while dining in Venezia. Combined with an order of two servings of water, Lucy and I paid almost $20 beyond the already overpriced primo piatti of pasta. Lesson learned for me, but not in such a painful way as that suffered by the unfortunate Japanese tourists.

The four students have since been invited back to Venice by the Venetian Hoteliers Association, which offered them two free nights in one of the city’s luxury hotels in an effort to counteract the “grave damage that the episode is doing to the city’s image.”

Even the three who left the first restaurant endured their own measure of injustice. According to Gramellini, ‟It is not that the three who went to the pizzeria had it much better. They spent 115 euros each for plates of spaghetti.”

The first news accounts held back the name of the restaurant, but social media is relentless, and I found not only the name of the restaurant but a copy of the credit card receipt on a Facebook page frequented by Venice residents. While the locals now know to avoid the Osteria da Luca, tourists are still largely oblivious.

Journalist Igor Petruccioli of Il Gazzettino visited the Osteria da Luca undercover this week. He found it be almost full at lunch time. ‟To see the restaurant from the outside, it would seem more the showcase of a bar, with sandwiches on display,” Petruccioli wrote. ‟It is located on one of the most traveled streets near San Marco. Inside, foreign waiters and a couple of Italians work there. We were received cordially but were asked immediately if we were journalists or normal customers.”

Petruccioli didn’t confess to being there on assignment, but he might have aroused some suspicion when he selected the same dishes ordered by the four Japanese students.

‟I asked for a mineral water, fried lobster, squid and scampi (10 euros per 100 grams) and a beef steak, indicated at a price of 18 euros,” he wrote. ‟At the bottom of the page it is specified that prices will be increased by 15% for the service. The total was 82.80 euro, without coffee and liqueurs: 50 euros for frying lobster and squid, 18 euros for beef steak, 4 euros for the bottle of water plus 10.80 euros of table service. At the time of payment, we put the banknotes in the holder and the waiter immediately returned the change, but without a receipt. On our request, we were then given a receipt.”

Luisella Romeo
Venice tour guide Luisella Romeo says she has never dined at the restaurant in question, though she passes it every day.

‟The price they paid is scandalous,” she said. ‟Rents are very high, and quality is the first victim. This happens in all touristic towns.”

Gramellini also pointed out that many restaurants in the town are now owned by foreigners. The owner of Osteria da Marco is from China, and the manager is Egyptian, he said. Admitting that even Italian owners are not above ripping off tourists, Gramellini opined that foreign owners have even less at stake.

‟Almost all the beauty that surrounds us no longer belongs to us, yet the way of mistreating it has not changed,” he wrote. ‟The new owners immediately adapt to the bad habit. They know that even if the seven Japanese should discourage any sane friend from coming to Italy, others will arrive anyway, and others, until the stock runs out. Beauty produces a very bad effect on its owners. You will rarely find a great restaurant in a pleasant place. Where there is a beautiful view, there is often a burnt steak and a hot bill.”

This does not mean that one can’t find a good meal at a reasonable price in Venice. After all, the locals eat out as well, and they’d all be bankrupt if they dined at the wrong places.

‟Many very good restaurants exist that don’t charge you too much and offer an excellent service,” Romeo said. ‟Not too far from the restaurant of the article, there are two places that offer great food and every day are packed with gondoliers and other locals.”

Romeo said that tourists should ask their local guides or city residents for recommendations. My own rule of thumb: The best restaurants are on the narrowest and most obscure streets. They have to be good to survive, and they thrive on good reputations and reviews.

Monday, January 15, 2018

How Living in My Ancestral Village Changed My Life

Note: I first visited Montecarlo, the village of my ancestors, in 2002, exactly 100 years after my grandfather left it to come to America. In 2015, I bought a home there. I’ve thought about trying to describe what that feels like . . . and then I read this account by Michelle Fabio. Beautifully written, it captures many of the same feelings I’ve experienced, and so I’m reprinting it with her permission. Paul

A guest post by Michelle Fabio of Bleeding Espresso and author of 52 Things to See and Do in Calabria.

As the car wound its way up the two-mile serpentine hill, I smiled to myself, daydreaming about how I would feel when, within minutes, I would be the first in my family in nearly 100 years to breathe the air, walk the narrow streets, and step inside the churches of my great-great-grandfather’s village in Calabria, the toe of Italy’s boot.
Badolato, Calabria

Although the logic of avoiding motion sickness told me to focus straight ahead, I couldn’t. I was mesmerized by the groves upon groves of olive trees lining the hillside in perfect rows, their leaves glistening so brightly I could’ve mistaken them for being covered in snow if it weren’t June.

Some of those trees simply had to have been there when Papù made his way down the hill that last time toward his ship of destiny in Naples; many of the thick, gnarled trunks easily showed a century or more. Now I could feel the trees watching me, and I imagined that their shimmering dance in the breeze was the olive tree version of smiling. And I smiled right back.

Whenever everything and everyone seem to be smiling upon me, I know I’m on the right path.

My stomach flipped and flopped around each bend, but it was worth every bit of queasiness to arrive at that random “S” curve halfway up the hill when suddenly, literally out of thin air, it appeared: Badolato and its ancient stone houses clustered together one on top of the next, in support or conspiracy or both, precariously perched on a hill, anchored by a church in the center – just as it had been for a millennium.

Is it possible for your heart to leap with joy and simultaneously sink with heaviness for everything you didn’t even know you were missing just moments ago?

Mine did. And then it did again when I stepped out of the car in the piazza and felt a century’s worth of lost time collapse into a single heartbeat.

Quite simply, I was home.

I know that sounds trite and probably unbelievable, but just as people describe love with the phrase “You just know,” I just knew.

Old door in Badolato
That was 2002, less than a year after the death of my grandmother. She was the first to be born in America, although she was as (southern) Italian in spirit and temperament as they come. Despite having other heritage mixed into our family, Italian always ruled, especially on the dinner table. Never underestimate the power and influence of a nonna.

So there I was, standing in the village of my great-great-grandfather, the one he had left in the early 1900s for a “better life” although truth be told he traded the back-breaking work of a peasant farmer for that of a coal miner; either way he was digging himself an early grave largely for the benefit of someone else.

I’ve often wondered whether he regretted changing his scenery from the brilliant Calabrian sun to the deepest, darkest depths of the earth, but as far as I know, he didn’t – or at least no one ever asked.

And yet just a few generations later, I was back in his town, feeling nothing but calm and goodness and warmth wrap around me – as if my ancestors had huddled around me, just like those houses on the hillside, and welcomed me home.

I have been fascinated by family history from the time I would stay up way past my bedtime, eyes at half-mast and head resting on my crossed arms on the kitchen table, absorbing my grandmother and great-aunt’s re-telling of stories of the generations that had been born in Italy. The desire to connect only grew over the years as I compiled family trees and meticulously recorded birth, marriage, and death dates.

But documents are cold, and I needed the warm touch of my roots – in person.

Indeed, just a few days into that first visit to Calabria, I knew I had to move there and live as my family once had (albeit with Internet and some modern conveniences). My plan was solidified when I discovered I was eligible for Italian citizenship as our blood line had never been broken according to Italian law. After more document collection and many phone calls to the Italian Consulate in Philadelphia, I proudly reclaimed something my family didn’t even know it was entitled to and now hold all the privileges and responsibilities of an Italian citizen.

In August 2003, I set off, making the return journey Papù never did. The original plan was a year, maybe two, but now eight years on, I can’t imagine leaving this place behind for anywhere else.

My soul has found its home.

A year and a half into my Calabrian experiment, I met and fell in love with my husband Paolo, a true paesano as his family and mine are from the same small quartiere in our village (and it’s where we now live). He’s introduced me to so much I didn’t even know I was looking for when I set off to learn more about my heritage.

We keep a garden, raise goats and chickens, and this past February we made our own sausage, pancetta, capocollo, supressata, and guanciale from a pig we had raised. Wine-making will come in due time (pian piano, slowly, as the Italians say), but for now, our proudest accomplishment is our little piece of land with olive trees – and our own olive oil.

Whenever I walk through our grove, returning the smiles of the leaves flickering in the sunshine, I wonder what Papù would think. Were these the same olive trees he took care of for the Baron but couldn’t dream of ever owning? Could he have imagined that one day his granddaughter’s granddaughter would even have the choice to return and reclaim his family’s heritage?

For the better part of a decade, I’ve gradually entrenched myself in an old-fashioned way of life that has been re-branded as “homesteading” and is all the rage in the United States. But here, eating organically, locally, and in-season aren’t trendy fads but a lifestyle that’s been around for centuries – most of what we consume that we don’t grow or raise ourselves comes from local farmers and butchers, who are the familiar, smiling faces at the weekly outdoor market.

Indeed, one of my favorite aspects of living here is that Calabrian life revolves entirely around being in tune with nature. Even if I didn’t have a calendar handy, I’d know the time of year by village’s activities, whether it’s vendemmia (grape harvest) in September, olive-picking in November, sausage-making in January and February, or brush clearing and burning off in May and early June.

Through this intimate relationship with the world around me, I’ve come to savor the simplicity of it all and realized just how little we truly *need* to survive. With the help of Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness, I have come to identify and name this desire to appreciate and be present in each moment: mindfulness. It’s a wonderful thing.

This move has been the greatest gift I’ve ever given myself.

My journey to discover my roots has helped me better understand where I come from, but it also continues to shape me into the person I was meant to be. It has re-rooted me in this terra that I couldn’t love any more had I been born here.

Though I’ve come up our winding hill hundreds of times, I’m still to this day struck by the vision of the village around the random bend in the road – I can never remember exactly which “S” it is, and I hope I never do; I like to think that such small mysteries, along with thousands of still-hidden secret pleasures, keeps my relationship with this ancient place alive.

I’ll also never know whether Papù regretted his decision to go to America, but I love that just in case he did, I’ve replanted a small part of him back here. I like to think this would make him proud, and in fact, I often feel him, his wife, his daughter (my great-grandmother), and other ancestors envelop me in warmth, just as I did that first day in the piazza – but never more strongly than when I’m among the olive trees in our campagna, drinking in their dancing, shimmering smiles.

Yes, I am home, and I’m smiling right back at them.

Michelle Fabio is an attorney-turned-freelance writer who has lived in her ancestral village in Calabria, Italy since 2003. She writes about savoring simplicity one sip at a time at Bleeding Espresso and about raising goats at Goat Berries.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Italy: Is it a state . . . or a state of mind? A poetic thesis about what it means to be Italian

I’ve written a couple of articles about those DNA tests that help people discover their ethnic backgrounds. The comments I’ve received range from gratefulness to bewilderment to anger.

Some are thankful to understand why their own tests came back as less than 100% Italian (or less than 50% for those with one Italian parent). Others wondered why I even bothered to write the articles, since ‟everyone knows” that Italians are a blend of many cultures and ethnic identities. And some feel that DNA tests are a waste of time. ‟Why should I take a test when I already know I’m 100% Italian?” some readers ask.

I doubt that anyone will show up to be 100% Italian genetically (although a few readers did claim their DNA tests proved just that). I suppose a person could make a case that if one’s ancestors have been in Italy since the unification in 1861, they are 100% Italian. But rather than elaborate or argue about the value and purpose of genetic testing, now I’d like to forget the science for a moment and speak to the heart and soul of what it means to be Italian.

I wrote previously that there’s a big difference between ancient ethnic origin and culture. To be Italian, I said, can refer to either a region or a culture—but I may have been leaving something out.

I recently read a splendid thesis by Enzo Camilleri, an Italian American writer born in Porto Empedocle in Sicily, Italy, and now residing in New York. Camilleri is a decorated veteran of the United States Army. He is also a cousin of famed writer Andrea Camilleri.

Porto Empedocle
The thesis came in answer to someone’s comment on Facebook, and I don’t know if Enzo considers it prose, poetry or just a response to another person’s comment—but I love it and consider it exquisite poetry.

He wrote it in Italian, but he’s graciously consented to translate it for me. I’ll include a copy of the Italian version in the footnotes.

Italians are complex people who are quick to complain about their crazy culture—and quick to defend it as well. They are proud. They can be both reverent and irreverent at the same time. But enough of my pontificating. Here are Enzo’s elegantly expressed thoughts. Give me your reactions.

Italy is not a country: Italy is an emotion . . .

There are countries that do not have geography and even less borders. It took several trips to different Italian cities to convince me that Italy is not a country in the conventional sense.

Italy is an emotion that does not leave you even if you are on the other side of the earth. Italy is something you bring inside you. Everywhere you go. It becomes a part of you, a lifestyle, an intoxication that takes you away in the moments when you are in apnea, a beauty tattooed on your eyes that projects you, in the blink of an eye, well above the ugliness that surrounds you.

Italy is a personal score written in your DNA, a hymn to life, a prayer, a permanent reminder that tickles all your senses and invites them to a journey of initiation, even if you do not move. Your body can be placed anywhere in the world, just close your eyes to let the colors, smells, tastes and all the pleasures that Italy offers you flow. Generous, cheerful, elegant, mother of all arts, mad, Roman, Florentine, Tuscan, Sicilian, Milanese or Neapolitan, Italy is a multiple personality that has a unique magical power. When you have tasted the divine, how difficult it is to return to earth!

Italy is an earthquake full of emotions from which nobody comes out unscathed. It penetrates your genes. It flows in your veins. It lives in you. It lights up inside you.

Italy is radioactive, nuclear, titanic, volcanic. It’s a wave that drowns you to enable your rebirth. It is a melody that caresses the eardrums, a masterpiece that leaves you speechless, a sweet that will become the salt of your life . . .

Italy is not a country, Italy is an emotion that hits you in the heart and will never leave you again.

Italy, my love.

Enzo Camilleri

Lonely tree on Sardegna


Enzo’s original version, in Italian

L'Italia non è un paese, l'Italia è un'emozione....

Ci sono paesi che non hanno la geografia e ancor meno i confini. Ci sono voluti diversi viaggi in diverse città italiane per convincermi che l'Italia non è un paese nel senso convenzionale.

L'Italia è un'emozione che non ti lascia anche se ti trovi dall'altra parte della terra. L'Italia, te la porti dentro. Ovunque tu vada. Diventa una parte di te, uno stile di vita, una ebbrezza che ti porta via nei moments in cui sei in apnea, una bellezza tatuata sui tuoi occhi che ti proietta in un batter d'occhio ben al di sopra delle bruttezze che ti stanno attorno.

L'Italia è un punteggio personale scritto nel tuo DNA, un'inno alla vita, una preghiera, un richiamo permanente che solletica tutti i tuoi sensi e li invita ad un viaggio di iniziazione, pure non muovandoti. Il tuo corpo può essere posizionato in qualsiasi parte del mondo, basta chiudere gli occhi per far scorrere i colori, gli odori, i sapori e tutti i piaceri che l'Italia ti offre. Generosa, allegra, elegante, madre di tutte le arti, pazza, romana, fiorentina, toscana, siciliana, milanese o napoletana, l'Italia è una personalità multipla che ha un potere magico unico. Quando hai gustato al divino, quant'è difficile tornare sulla terra!

L'Italia è un terremoto carico di emozioni dal quale nessuno esce indenne. Penetra i tuoi geni. Scorre nelle tue vene. Vive in te. Ti si illumina dentro.
L'Italia è radioattiva, nucleare, titanica, vulcanica. E 'un'onda che ti annega per meglio farti rinascere. É una melodia che ti accarezza i timpani, un capolavoro che ti lascia a bocca aperta, un dolciume che diventerà il sale della tua vita …

L'Italia non è un paese, l'Italia è un'emozione che ti colpisce al cuore e non ti lascerà mai più.

Italia, amore mio.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

We’re hoping that our stairway to heaven—and by that, we mean, our attic—will be divine

In a last-minute decision before we left Italy in November, we authorized our friend and neighbor Juri to oversee the construction of a new stairway to our attic. We had planned to install a stairway in a year or two, but Juri suggested that if we did it now, the permit he obtained last summer for repairing the roof would also be valid for the stairway installation.

Our attic with open west-facing skylight.
I’m not sure how that could work, but Juri said he has a friend in the comune who said it would be okay. It seems a little risky, but if anyone knows how to get things done here, it seems to be Juri. In the last two years, he’s been completely remodeling his substantially sized ground floor storage space (which we were under the impression can only be used as storage space) into new bedrooms and living areas for his growing family—seemingly all without permits and inspections.

We live only a few steps from the comune, so it would seem his extensive renovations must be known to the officials there. One can’t help but notice the large trucks coming and going with building materials. Does it make a difference that Juri and his dad are doing almost all the work themselves? What will happen when the property is put up for sale someday and his floor plan is entirely different than what is on file at the comune? However, since homes in Italy are passed on from parents to children ad infinitum, perhaps that day will never come.

In any event, I have transferred the needed money from our bank account to Juri’s. I’m not quite sure if he’s acting as our general contractor or he’s just passing the money on to his muratore friend who’s acting as supervisor. Either way, it’s an act of faith in Juri’s abilities and honesty. We had received a bid from a stairway manufacturer and installer in Lucca, and Juri said he and his friend could do the work better for the same price.

Since we need Juri to be there to open the place for the workers anyway, it made sense to hire him and his friend. Juri is an electrician by trade, and he’ll also install some lights in the attic. And he’ll find a plumber to run our kitchen sink drain into the sanitary sewer system (see The junkyard outside our house . . .).

Our old stairway is a squeaky fold-down contraption that completely blocks the hallway to the bathroom when in the down position. The fold-down stairs also enter the attic right under a low beam, forcing one to enter the attic on hands and knees. The new stairway will start in the front entryway and access the attic at the roof’s highest point. We’ll see what it looks like when we go back to Montecarlo in March.
Ingr. stands for ingresso, or entrance. That's where we want the stairway,
instead of in the dis. (no, I don't know what that stands for, but it's a hallway).

We hope to use the attic for storage, to hang the laundry and as a game and reading room. We could even pull out mattresses and use it as a sleeping area when we have too many guests for our bedrooms. When we open the three new skylights installed last summer, it will allow air circulation on hot days, new spaces to stand up and nice views both east and west.

Speaking of the skylights, while I was in the attic with Juri talking about the stairway, I finally got around to asking why our skylights had been installed differently than the drawing I had left him (see Roof with a view). Structural integrity of the roof wouldn’t allow skylights the sizes and locations I wanted, he said. I’ll have to accept that answer, mostly because its pointless to disagree at this point. It would cost a small fortune to make any changes now.

Installing new stairs won’t be the end of our renovation plans. In fact, we’ll still need some railings inside the attic to prevent someone from accidentally backing into the stairway opening. Then we’ll need more insulation and better flooring. Juri also pointed out that we’ll need to seal off any small holes between our attic and those of the houses that adjoin on the north and south, because rats can pass from attic to attic—and now they’ll have an opening to welcome them into our main house.

All in all, it probably would have been less expensive if we had continued to rent some place during our three or four months abroad, but what price can we put on the feeling of being part of the community of Montecarlo? We have no regrets.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Genetic diversity in DNA testing of Italians should be expected

To people of Italian – and especially Sicilian Italian – descent who have had DNA tests and are bothered that results didn’t show them to be 100% genetically Italian – don’t sweat it. In fact, if anything, these results could just be proof of how Italian you really are!

Before I explain, first of all let’s establish that when most of us say we’re Italian, we mean that either we, our parents of our ancestors came from Italy and that we embrace the Italian culture. DNA tests are an entirely different measurement. They try to trace where all of our thousands of ancestors came from in the past 2,000 years. By the standards used, it would be virtually impossible for anyone to test 100% Italian—or for someone with one Italian parent to test 50% Italian.
Sicily actually has more Greek temples than Greece. That's Alfio di Mauro on the right, with our tour group in Agrigento, Sicily.

While on a tour of Sicily in 2015, I interviewed Alfio Di Mauro, whose family roots go back centuries on this beautiful island. Di Mauro has a science PhD and was a researcher at the University of Catania, but now he’s a guide with Rick Steves. He pointed out that a true Sicilian or Southern Italian would have to be a blend of diverse genetic origins.

‟Sicily was in the center of what the Romans called the Mare Nostrum – Our Sea – the Mediterranean,” he said. ‟It was important first of all because it was a fertile land, a garden-like island of the Mediterranean. And second, it was a natural stepping stone between Europe and Africa. Between the western tip of Sicily and Tunisia is only 80 miles.

‟Also, Italy’s long shape divides the Mediterranean from East to West. Sicily is at the end of it, and it’s like the cork in the bottle. So if you were controlling the 80 miles of sea, plus the two miles between Sicily and the Italian peninsula, you were controlling any trade routes between East and West, and North and South. For thousands of years, Sicily was THE island to control. It was considered the center of the civilized world.”

And so the invaders came, saw and conquered, leaving behind traces of their languages, traditions, favorite foods, superstitions and genetic footprints.

‟We’ve had more than 17 invasions in 2,000 years,” Di Mauro said. ‟No other part of the world so small has had so many invasions! You will never find such a power-packed, genetically diverse and historically interesting place like Sicily. If you do a genetic survey of Europe, which is the country with the highest diversity? It’s Italy! What is the region that has the highest diversity? It’s Sicily! It has the highest genetic diversity in Europe.”

What Di Mauro didn’t mention but easily could have: Sicily’s status as a multi-cultural hub of travel and trading also drew many outsiders interested in establishing businesses. When the Jews were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492, for example, many found Italy a safe haven with prospects for making a healthy income.

So if your ancestors came from Italy, don’t expect your DNA results to show anything other than a blend of civilizations. It’s actually additional evidence that you truly ARE Italian.


Sunday, December 3, 2017

Distinctions that make a noun male or female made perfectly clear

Which language is easier to learn, English or Italian? Some may say Italian, because every letter has the same sound every time. In English, letters can have vastly different sounds, and one has to learn how to pronounce each word. One famous example that advocates of English language reform like to cite is ‟ghoti,” which can be defined as ‟a limbless cold-blooded vertebrate animal with gills and fins and living wholly in water.” That’s right, un pesce. How could that be? ‟Gh” can be pronounced as ‟f,” (enough). ‟O” as ‟i” (women). And ‟ti” as ‟s” (motion).

But then, one has to consider those pesky masculine and feminine nouns in Italian—and many other languages as well. For English speakers, grammatical gender is one of the most vexing aspects of language learning. In addition, it sometimes seems that grammatical gender doesn’t match up with the “natural gender” of the person or object being described. In Portuguese, the word mulherão means “voluptuous woman.” However, the word itself is masculine. In Italian, a woman’s breasts are seni, a masculine noun. Virilità, the Italian word for “manliness” is feminine (as is also the case in Spanish, Latin, German, Polish, Russian and Hindi).

However, sometimes the logic is clear, as in the situation with some of these newer (and a few older) words.

FREEZER BAGS: These are male. They hold everything in, but you can see right through them.
PHOTOCOPIERS: These are female, because once turned off they take a while to warm up again. Also, they are effective reproductive devices if the right buttons are pushed, but pushing the wrong ones wreaks havoc.
TIRES: Male, because they easily go bald and are often over-inflated.
SPONGES: These are female, because they are soft and squeezable and they retain water.
WEB PAGES: Female, because they’re constantly being viewed and frequently get hit on.
TRAINS: Definitely male, because they always use the same old lines for picking up people.
HAMMERS: Also male, because in the last 5000 years, they’ve hardly changed at all, yet it’s sometimes handy to have one around the house.
THE REMOTE CONTROL: Female. Ha! You probably were thinking male, but consider this: It easily gives a man pleasure, he’d be lost without it, and while he doesn’t always know which buttons to push, he just keeps trying anyway.
GPS DEVICES: Gender neutral. They are a perfect blend of male and female. They’re always positive they know the best way, yet the voice giving instructions is infinitely patient when we make a wrong turn.