Saturday, January 24, 2015

Annie Hawes Extra Virgin tops my list of favorite Italian memoirs

I read Frances Mayes Under the Tuscan Sun shortly after it was published in 1997, and that hooked me on the genre of memoirs about people moving to Italy, buying homes in Italy, or visiting Italy for extended stays. Now I have read at least twenty of these, and I would like to name my favorites, starting with my top choice. More will come in successive entries.

Extra Virgin, by Annie Hawes, 2001
While Frances Mayes did a nice job of describing menus, fabulous foods and landscapes and the joys and pitfalls of buying and remodeling a home in Italy, Annie Hawes goes deeper. While she and her sister do not easily assimilate into the small community they try to join, the book tells the often amusing story of their attempts to do so. In the process, Hawes tells far more about the authentic Italian characters she encounters than does Mayes. Hawes made plenty of mistakes; she comes across as a naive English girl, which she initially was, and the stories she tells entertain while revealing insights behind the seemingly strange peasant beliefs and the everyday life of a small Italian town on the Ligurian coast. It helps that she lived in the town for twenty years before writing the book, which gave her plenty of time to accumulate stories and understand the people and their culture.

Amazon reviewer Gothamannie writes: “Whereas the Mayes series focus on the earthly pleasures of Italy, Extra Virgin is about character—from the social protocol amid the local gentry at the village coffee shop to the laughs the sisters endure when they take another helping of antipasti or primi (shame on them!) Here is an outsider’s honest, non-academic attempt to dissect the prejudices between Northern & Southern Italians—to probe their grudges and prejudices—and maybe even bend the rules a little (never too much!) Yet the reader never gets the sense that the Italians aren’t warm to the author—on the contrary, despite the occasional playful ridicule, they are portrayed as kind, generous, resourceful, rugged and hardworking . . . It serves as a terrific and necessary guidebook cloaked in a travelogue—it has the fantasy aspect of moving to Italy, but it’s done with a heaping dose of reality.”

Hawes writes descriptively without being flowery or poetic, and her wry and witty observations will keep the reader smiling. She comes across as neither infatuated with nor cynical about Italy, but one can see that the country gradually reveals its charms to her. Hawes has written two follow-up books about her later experiences, both of which continue in the same style, so if you like Extra Virgin as much as I did, you can move on to Ripe for the Picking and Journey to the South.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Franca’s Story tells tragic saga of Italian suffering during World War II

What would it feel like to have your country join in a war on the side of one of the most evil dictators in modern history, and then have his fanatic soldiers occupy your country, killing and starving your family, friends and fellow citizens? This is a question answered by author Diane Kinman in the true story of teenager Franca Mercati, who lived in Italy during the years of World War II. The conflict shatters Franca’s childhood and devastates her family, but she finds the strength to overcome obstacles with courage and ingenuity.

Franca and her family flee their home in Florence to escape Allied bombs and settle in their beach home at Viareggio. One brother is soon killed, and a second is missing in action. She watches in horror as her school friends die in a bombing at the Pisa train station and narrowly escapes from a visit to her sister in Buggiano with a deserting Nazi doctor. Shortly after this, she and her family narrowly escape death when their home is destroyed in a bombing raid. Franca and her friend must scavenge for food to feed their families and many other people, since the occupying German army has less interest in the business of two small girls than they would with older members of the families.

The story is narrated in a matter-of-fact voice—without anger or bitterness—but with ample descriptions to bring the characters and drama to life. It is particular poignant to Italian-Americans, like me, who had relatives in the same region forced to live through this frightening and brutal time. I highly recommend it to anyone who want to understand Italian history and events of the last century which shaped today’s Italian people.

Other blogs about Italy during World War II:
Mario Seghieri, World War 2, Montecarlo and the Gothic Line
Surviving Facism and the war, Gig di Meo thrives on geniality, good fortune

Friday, January 16, 2015

Early Spadoni families of the Valdinievole survived wars, famines, ice ages, epidemics and poverty

The earliest known ancestor in our branch of the Spadoni family lived during the 1400s in a remote village called Marliana, about seven miles north of Montecatini in Toscana’s chestnut-covered lower hills of the Alpi Apuane. This isolated location may have helped Bartolomeo Spadoni avoid the plagues and wars that decimated the more populous locales. In the mid-1400s, Bartolomeo’s son Francesco moved seven miles southwest to Stignano, next to the larger towns of Pescia and Montecatini, and only three miles east of the Seghieri family. Though geographically close and sharing the same profession—farming—it is doubtful that the Spadoni and Seghieri families of the medieval era were well acquainted. The Spadoni family would have gone to market in Pescia or Montecatini and the Seghieris in Montecarlo or Altopascio. Additionally, the three miles between Montecarlo and Montecatini for some centuries was a borderline between the kingdoms of Lucca and Firenze, further dividing the neighboring communities.

A cycle of wars, famines, ice ages and epidemics that started in the 1300s continued with varying severity all the way into the 1800s. Periods of peace alternated with renewed warfare as various rulers battled to control the fertile Valdinievole, the valley of the Nievole River. The city walls of Stignano were destroyed by warfare and subsequently rebuilt several times, until the citizens finally gave up and stopped rebuilding.
Cosimo I de' Medici
The castle of Montecatini Alto contained twenty-five towers and two fortresses surrounded by nearly two miles of stone walls, but Cosimo I de’ Medici, angered because the city’s inhabitants refused to side with him, ordered that the city be destroyed in 1554. Of the wall, only a single door remains, and only two towers were left standing. Obviously, some of my ancestors and their family members and friends would have fought in these battles, as historians estimate that around ten to fifteen percent of the population participated in armies during the Middle Ages. Piero Spadoni, born in 1617, is listed in church records as a corporale in 1661, and by 1664 he had been promoted to sergente. The cessation of a war brought celebration: A document from Buggiano, a sister city half a mile from Stignano, announces a community festa for the cessation of a war in 1544, to be celebrated with great bonfires.

Cosimo also struck a more indirect blow to the region in 1548 when he ordered dams built to stop the outflow from the swamps in the southern Valdinievole, turning the marshy ground into a lake that buried forests and farmland and prompted frequent epidemics of malaria commencing in 1550. Buggiano, Stignano and Montecatini were particularly hard hit in 1554 and 1557, but malaria outbreaks continued well into the 1800s. The bubonic plague which had devasted Italy in the 1300s also returned to claim more lives throughout the centuries. The Italian Plague of 1629-31 killed another 28,000. It hit hardest in the north, but a similar outbreak, focused in Florence, occurred from 1630 to 1633. 
Stignano and Buggiano instituted a quarantine prohibiting commercial activities with Lucca and dozens of other cities in an attempt to keep the plague away, but it had only moderate success. Parish priest Francesco Pellegrini wrote in 1631: “In Pescia certainly more than 2,000 people have died, and in Massa so many have died that now there are no more than 300 souls remaining, big and small, and maybe fewer in this community of Buggiano . . . and it is the same in Stignano.

It was during this time that my descendants moved out of the hill village of Stignano and down into the flats of the Valdinievole. Most relocated only as far as Borgo a Buggiano and Ponte Buggianese, both within a few miles of Stignano. The reason for the movement appears to be a combination of limited area for farming in Stignano and abundant vacant fields in the plains below—an area prone to flooding but gradually becoming more usable through the construction of networks of canals and levees. Two Spadonis, Michele and Battista, are listed as attending the first Mass of the church of San Michele Archangelo in Ponte Buggianese in 1602. Antonio joined them in 1623. The church did not have a baptismal font until 1634, so children were baptized in either Stignano or Buggiano. The first Spadoni baptized in Ponte Buggianese was Lorenza, daughter of Antonio and Bartolomea, in 1637. Her cousin Lorenzo was born next in 1638, to my ancestors, Lionardo and Agnola. Within the next twenty-five years, numerous other Spadonis moved from Stignano to Ponte Buggianese, including two Giovannis, two Pieros, two Domenicos and an Andrea and a Carlo.

Le lagon gelé en 1708, by Gabriele Bella, part of a
lagoon which froze over in 1708-9, Venice, Italy.
They chose a difficult time to start over, as the peak years of the Little Ice Age occurred shortly after, during a period of weak solar activity from 1645 to 1715 called the Maunder Minimum. Italian researchers Nazzareno Diodato and Gianni Bellochi reported in a 2012 study: “Extreme cold with snow occurred in sixteen of twenty-five winters between 1675 and 1700. Especially the years 1665, 1677, 1684, 1687 and 1692 temperatures fell sharply and rivers on the Italian peninsula froze. The Venetian Lagoon froze over in 1684 and 1709.”

A priest in Angers, France, wrote: “The cold began on January 6, 1709. The crops that had been sewn were all completely destroyed. Most of the hens had died of cold, as had the beasts in the stables. When any poultry did survive the cold, their combs were seen to freeze and fall off. Many birds, ducks, partridges, woodcock and blackbirds died and were found on the roads and on the thick ice and frequent snow. Oaks, ashes and other valley trees split with cold. Two thirds of the vines died. No grape harvest was gathered at all in Anjou. I myself did not get enough wine from my vineyard to fill a nutshell.”

On a positive note, the Valdinievole during the 1600s and 1700s experienced a respite from the frequent major wars, even if the ruling foreign governments of Italy changed fairly often. In the early 1800s, the area succumbed with almost no resistance to the governance of Napoleon Bonaparte, a rule which lasted until his defeat and abdication in 1814, at which time the area again became part of the duchy of Tuscany. When Italy finally united as one country during the mid-1800s, the people of Tuscany voted overwhelmingly in favor of joining the new government, and the transition took place peacefully, with little interruption in the daily routines of the common people.

In fact, throughout the hardships, warfare and changes of loyalties between the 1300s and the 1800s, for the farmers in the region, life changed very little. Each family would have kept donkeys, oxen or cows to help plow the fields, which were planted with wheat, olives, grapes and fruit trees—Biblical products, common food for all peoples of Mediterranean stock. Every family threshed its own wheat with heavy wooden flails, which can still be seen today in some remote Tuscan farms. Likely my ancestors wore the common dress of peasant farmers of the time, a short gray tunic of coarse homespun wool called a bigella.

From the writings of Francesco Datini, a wealthy merchant who lived in the late 1300s in nearby Prato, we can see foods that were common during the era, which are largely the same today. He wrote of eating lasagne, ravioli, minestra, mortadella, eggs, cheese, bread made from finely ground wheat flour, fish, pork and a wide variety of fowls, both wild and domesticated. Datini’s stuffing for ravioli consisted of “pounded pork, eggs, cheese and a little sugar and parsley, after which the ravioli were fried in pork lard and powdered with sugar.” It is likely that ravioli made by Spadoni and Seghieri women were simpler, though, as they were not as well off as Datini.

A cookbook of the day describes a red sauce made of raisins, cinnamon, sandal and sumach (a substance now used only for tanning). These were pounded together and mixed with wine and meat. A white sauce used sugar, cinnamon, cloves, bread and vinegar. Of course olive oil, wild herbs and nuts were probably used frequently to complement pasta as well, especially by peasants.

A typical contadino would have produced all the food needed to feed his family. Four or five people could survive on the produce of one ettaro of land, about two and a half acres. Their gardens would have grown a large variety of vegetables the same as are seen in farmers’ markets today, including carrots, potatoes, beets, garlic, onions, leeks, radishes, turnips, artichokes, eggplant, asparagus, fennel, chard, spinach, broccoli, cabbages, cauliflower, peppers, basil, beans, lentils, chickpeas, zucchini and other types of squash and another handful of verdure, quite a bit of which also grew wild. Included in the latter category were fungi, wild mushrooms, of which there were dozens of varieties to seek out in the hills. Then they would have had fruit trees: apples, pears, apricots, peaches, figs. Each year, the farmers would plant a few new olive trees and dig several ditches for new vines. Every family had its own chickens, pigs, rabbits and cows, and they knew how to use every part for food. Extra eggs, milk, vegetables and fruit would have been sold at the markets in Pescia and Montecatini.

While wars and political intrigue often threatened their families, the farmers’ more immediate concerns were providing for their families. They met to establish local laws that would prevent farmers upstream for impeding the waterways, and local committees met regularly to mete out penalties if the cattle of one farmer damaged the fields of another. Fines were doubled if the infraction occurred during the time of harvest. Fines were cut in half if the offending animal was a horse, donkey or under a year of age. In addition, the number of animals was restricted, at least in the area around Stignano. Each family could possess twelve sheep, two goats, two pigs and six oxen, with the obligation to conduct them to the mountains for pasture. Strict laws were also enacted to prevent anyone from cutting herbs or hay on the fields of a neighbor. Festivals revolved around the harvests of the most vital of the crops—grains, grapes and olives in particular.

Some integral foods now automatically associated with Italy were unavailable to my ancestors: They had no tomatoes, corn or coffee. Coffee was not introduced until the 1600s in Venezia, coming from the east and spreading throughout Italy and then into the rest of Europe. When paesano Cristoforo Columbo of Genova reached America in 1492 and imports from the new country began to arrive, two of the more significant changes in the Italian family diet came with the arrival of tomatoes and corn, now considered indispensable in the Italian diet.

Columbo brought corn to Europe on either his first or second voyage. In 1519, Spanish explorer Cortez discovered tomatoes growing in Montezuma’s gardens and brought seeds back to Europe, where they were planted only as an ornamental crop. Italy was the first to cultivate the “pomo d’oro,” or yellow apple, outside of South America. The first reference to tomato sauce in Italian cuisine came in Antonio Latini’s cookbook, Lo scalco alla moderna. Latini was chef to the Spanish viceroy of Napoli, and one of his recipes was for sauce alla spagnuola, “in the Spanish style.” The first reference for using tomato sauce with pasta appears in the Italian cookbook L’Apicio moderno, by chef Francesco Leonardi of Roma, edited in 1790.

Tomatoes were initially thought to be poisonous by wealthy Europeans, who used flatware made from pewter, which has a high lead content. Foods high in acids, as tomatoes are, would cause the lead to leech out into the food, resulting in lead poisoning and death. But the contadini, who ate off wooden plates, did not have that problem. Pizza, though, was not invented until the 1880s in Napoli, and it was unknown to many 20th century Italian immigrants from northern and central Italy, including my own grandparents and their children, who first tasted pizza in America.

While the first members of the Spadoni family in the Valdinievole were landowners, there was not enough property for all of their children. Parents could usually leave the family property only to the eldest child, and the younger ones would have to move out and seek their own fortunes—which usually meant starting out as sharecroppers under the mezzadria. Under this system, land was divided into poderes, varying in size from seven or eight to thirty acres, sometimes even more. A padrone would provide a house, barns and stables, plow animals and other livestock, presses for oil and wine making, and carts and other tools. Instead of paying rent, a colono would give one half of every crop harvest and half of any profit made from the sale of animals, vegetables, eggs and milk. A manager known as a fattore kept the accounts. Some fattore were said to skillfully manipulate the ledgers to make a profit from both padrone and contadino, as is expressed in this old saying: “Fammi fattore un anno e se non mi aricco, mi dannó.” Make me a fattore for a year, and if I don’t get rich, I’ll be damned.

The system strongly favored the landowners, though, because of the abundance of peasants struggling to survive. Landowners could require additional payments beyond the fifty percent, such as extra meat and other produce for holidays, and the contadino might also have to provide his own tools. Most coloni never saved enough money to buy their own land, and the cycle continued from generation to generation, with the landowners staying rich and the workers barely surviving. This was the situation for my branch of the Spadonis, which is obvious from the fact that the family moved to various locations from time to time. They moved because mezzadria contracts typically lasted no more than five years before having to be renewed, and the contadino or colono might find a better contract at another farm. Either that or the padrone might demand a more favorable contract for the right to continue farming his land.

A few Valdinievole Spadonis did receive some prominence—Emilio Spadoni was mayor of Ponte Buggianese from 1896 to 1903 and Astolfo Spadoni from 1925 to 1931, while Elio Spadoni was mayor of Montecarlo from 1959 to 1974—but the branch of the Spadoni family line that I descend from had no property of its own in Italy from at least 1800—probably much earlier—until the mid-1950s. In 1863, my greatgrandfather Pietro Spadoni of Ponte Buggianese married Maria Marchi of Pescia and signed a contract to work a farm in San Salvatore. Pietro brought his aged father Pellegrino and mother Faustina, then sixty-eight and sixty-six, with him. There, Pietro and Maria gave birth to seven children. The first, Maria Luisa Zelinda, died at age eleven on October 28, 1875. One day later, second-born Zelinda, age nine, died as well. Historical documents show that an epidemic of cholera swept through Italy in the late 1860s and early 1870s. Cholera is caused by bacteria that thrive in stagnant water—something the swampy Valdinievole had in abundance. The disease killed 113,000 Italians in 1867.

Some historians have speculated that the high infant mortality of earlier times desensitized parents to death. Others dispute this claim, including historian Sophie Oosterwijk, who writes: “It seems inconceivable that, in a period when the most popular image was that of the Madonna and Child, there was little or no understanding of or affection for children in everyday life. High infant mortality rates do not seem to have prevented parents from being fond of their children, however likely they were to lose at least some of them to diseases or accidents. Miracle reports and other types of documents attest to the lengths to which parents were prepared to go to obtain healing, rescue or salvation for their children, as well as to their grief when their efforts proved futile.”

Pietro and Maria had three boys born in the 1870s: Enrico, Eugenio and Michele, the latter being my grandfather. Pietro and Maria gave birth to a second Zelinda in 1880, and then to Giuseppe Giovanni Lindoro in 1883, the same year Anita Seghieri was born, just two miles away in San Salvatore. Giuseppe died when he was only two, and Zelinda met a tragic end at age seven when she died in a house fire (The sad story of Zelinda Spadoni).

Seven years later, Enrico married Eufemia Banchieri and she moved into the Spadoni household. Eufemia gave birth to Adolfo in 1995 and Alfredo in 1997 and then they named their first-born daughter Zelinda. It’s worth noting that this Zelinda not only survived childhood but lived to age eighty-six. They had four more children as well: Ferruccio, Pietro, Maria and Rina.

Eugenio married Isola Fantozzi and they had a daughter, Maria Bruna, born in 1907. Michele, meanwhile, had gone to America in 1902 to improve his economic conditions. He returned to Italy briefly in 1908 to marry Anita Seghieri. The couple moved to America in 1909, starting a new chapter in their lives—and that will be a story for another time . . .

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The story of an Italian nickname

I recently met, online, Carolyn Pieri, the wife of a distant relative. Her husband and I have the same great great grandfather, Giocondo Capocchi. Carolyn shared an interesting story of how her husband’s father Julius Pieri, born in Chicago in 1917, earned the nickname Toby. Julius’ father Giulio Pieri was born in Montecarlo, Italy, in 1884 and came to Chicago in 1907.

“It was his (Giulio) habit to sit with the other Italian men in the fresh air markets,” Carolyn said, “where fruit, vegetables and fresh breads were put into large wooden bins. He would often bring his son along. Young Julius would amuse himself by playing hide and seek by hiding in the empty wooden bins. The other men would laugh and point, ‘Ah, a Topo! I see a little Topo!’ (Topo is the Italian word for mouse) The American men, not understanding Italian, mistook them as saying Toby, and that is what the younger Julius went by for the rest of his life. He even named one of his sons Toby as well.”

Friday, December 19, 2014

Sicilian Mafia no longer untouchable, as shown by a teenage rebel in well done 2008 film “The Sicilian Girl”

The Sicilian Mafia’s past and present—and hopefully its future—are all shown at least in part in Marco Amenta’s excellent 2008 drama La Siciliana Ribelle, named The Sicilian Girl in English. It is inspired by the true story of Rita Atria, born in 1974 in Partanna, a town controlled by the mafia.

Rita turns on the Mafia after her father and brother—both mafiosi themselves—are killed by rivals. Rita idolized her father, seeing him as a man respected by all as a benevolent godfather who followed “the old ways” and provided the protection and order the police were unable to offer. This was the role of the prototypical Sicilian clan leader in the 1800s, when bandits were many, police officers were few, and citizens came to depend on their family leaders to enforce law and order. These leaders and their operatives came to be known as Mafia, called Cosa Nostra in Sicily and going by different names in other areas of Italy.

With no checks on their power, many clan leaders became bullies determined to increase their wealth and influence by whatever means necessary. Rita’s father, however, refused to deal in drugs and preferred to settle disputes by peaceful means—at least that’s what Rita believed, although she was only 11 when her father was killed. She and her brother vowed to avenge their father’s death, and since her brother and boyfriend were both active in Cosa Nostra, she took careful notes and photos of mafia activities in the years following her father’s execution.

When her brother’s vendetta plan goes awry, a fiery Rita turns to the law to avenge her losses. However, she still has little patience for the police; she is motivated more by hate for her family’s killers than by a sense of justice and respect for law and order. She is placed in a witness protection program, chafing under the restrictions and clashing with prosecutor Paolo Borsellini.

When the Mafia strikes back violently against the police and justice department, Borsellini takes it as a sign of recognition that Rita’s evidence will be damning—and fortunately, it is—although the cost in lives lost is severe. Rita gradually comes to appreciate Borsellini’s courage, integrity and humanity. She also has to realize that her father’s ways were not as heroic as she once believed, and that there is a difference between justice and revenge. Unfortunately, Rita’s turning government witness creates a permanent rift in her relationship with her mother, who is resigned to the belief that Sicily will always be ruled by the conventions of the Mafia and that it is futile to buck the tide.

Jugnot and D'Agostino, center
Solid script writing and fine acting strike an excellent balance between dramatic tension and believability. Veronica D’Agostino’s portrayal of Rita is convincing, as she alternates between anger, defiance, fear, confusion and determination—what one would expect from a teenager standing against the mob. Some critics have complained that the plot is unrealistic because Rita makes some inexplicably poor decisions, but these things happen in real life. Gérard Jugnot also turns in a convincing portrayal as Borsellini, conflicted between the importance of his mission and fears for his own safety and the lives of his family.

The Mafia is still a powerful and persuasive influence in Sicily, but thanks to the spunk, courage and conviction of people like Rita Atria, Paolo Borsellini and others in the Italian police and justice systems, viewers are left with some hope that the way it has been will not always be the way it is.

You can watch The Sicilian Girl with subtitles on your computer for free at The Internet Movie Database.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

What will happen if you don’t pay your ticket for a traffic violation in Italy?

When I received a traffic ticket while driving a rental car in Italy in 2011, I wondered what would happen if I didn’t pay the fine. I read advice in several online forums, but it was just that—advice. No one seemed to truly know what would happen. A few people said they did not pay and nothing had happened yet, but the bureaucracy in Italy works slowly, so I realized that something could have happened later and the people just didn’t update their old forum comments. I have now met a man who was ticketed in Italy about four and a half years ago in Italy and didn’t pay. Mark thought the incident was long behind him, but in the past year, he and his wife have been receiving persistent calls from a collection agency in the United States.
Mark had received four ZTL (limited traffic area zone) tickets; three were in Milan, all in the same spot, as he circled in a round-about trying to determine which was the correct exit.

He did not pay the fines, reasoning that
it’s not fair to give tickets to drivers who can’t read the signs or to give three tickets for the same violation.” Mark didn’t even have to pay the car rental agency a fee when they tried to charge his credit card. The bank called him and said that someone from Italy was trying to charge his card months after his trip was over, and he told the credit card representative that the charges must be fraudulent, since he had not made any recent purchases in Italy. Then he had his credit card number changed.

He realized when he received the traffic tickets in the mail that the attempt to charge his credit card must have been related. Several times he received registered letters sent from Italy, but he refused to sign for them, and they were returned. When he hadn’t received any more communications from Italy for many months, he thought the whole incident was behind him.

But a collection agency started calling earlier this year, sometimes multiple times in a day, sometimes only fifteen minutes apart all through the afternoon or evening. He usually didn’t answer the phone, and occasionally someone at the agency left a voice mail explaining the purpose of the calls. One time his wife did accidentally answer the phone, and she was told that the agency would take legal action forcing her husband to appear before a federal magistrate.

Mark is still not concerned, because even if taken to court, he would ask for proof that he had committed a violation. “All they sent me was a photo of the car license plate,” he said. “They have no photo of me at the wheel.”

He also has heard that once five years has passed, it will be too late for Italy to continue pursuing the tickets and he will be completely off the hook. He does concede that it would be wise for him not to return to Italy, at least until this five-year period is up. “Otherwise,” he joked, “I might be joining Amanda Knox in an Italian jail.” Not likely, since Amanda also has the good sense not to return to Italy right now.

I have written several other blogs on traffic tickets in Italy:

Thursday, November 13, 2014

DNA search for relatives yields little; patience and more volunteers needed

Map indicates heaviest populations of J-M172 haplogroup.
Earlier this year, I posted a blog How are the Spadoni families spread across the world related? explaining that DNA testing could answer the interesting question of whether various Spadoni families throughout the world are related. I am still hoping to find someone else with enough interest in this question to help me coordinate a formal family name project, but in the meantime, there is nothing stopping any male with the Spadoni name to apply for DNA testing. We can still compare results on an informal basis to see if our families are related.

Thus far, only one person from another branch of the family has responded and been tested. Florian Spadoni, descended from the Spadoni family of Bigliolio, Italy, also took a Y-DNA test at Family TreeDNA this year. Unfortunately, a comparison of the results indicates that we are not related. However, we can’t make a firm conclusion based on the results of only two family members. We need more male members of the Ponte Buggianese and Bigliolo families to step forward and be tested. In fact, I welcome any Spadoni from anywhere in the world to join in this endeavor. A Y-DNA test that measures the recommended 37 genetic markers normally costs $169 (but it is on sale until the end of December 2014 for only $129).

At this point, little can be known until more people are tested, so I can’t really say much about my own test results. I can say that my haplogroup is J-M172, sometimes also referred to as J2. People with this genetic footprint have ancient origins in the area between the Caucasus Mountains, Mesopotamia and the region just north of Arabia known as the Levant. According to Wikipedia, “J-M172 is linked to the earliest indigenous populations of Anatolia and the Aegean. The present-day ethnicities who have the strongest amounts of J2 include pre-Arabised Mesopotamians and Levantine peoples, Mediterranean/Aegean peoples, Greco-Anatolians, and/or Caucasians.” Today, it is found in 9 to 36 percent of the Italian population, depending on which region is being considered. It appears to be particularly high in the Central Marche region, but I couldn’t find any statistics that spoke of its frequency in Tuscany.

Outside of Italy, the countries with the highest percentage of people in this haplogroup appear to be Chechens, Iraqis and Georgians. Interestingly, Lela—my son Randall’s wife—is from Georgia, so there is a decent chance Randall and Lela share the same haplogroup. Thus, they could be, in the most liberal use of the term, related.

Florian Spadoni, on the other hand, is from haplogroup L-M20, which is not found in Italy as often. Strong concentrations of this genetic group are found in southern Asian countries such as Pakistan, India and Syria as well as some tribal regions of Turkey.
On the 37 areas (or markers) of our genomes that were tested, Florian and I had 11 identical sequences, which is a very low correspondence.

I did have two other people who were identical matches, although these people did not have as many markers to compare. Currently, genetic genealogists recommend that anyone undergoing Y-DNA testing ask for results from 37 markers, because it will result in more accurate comparisons. However, many people who were tested in earlier years only had 12 markers tested, including the two people who had results identical to mine. They would need to pay an extra fee to get the results for 37 markers.
Probability charts show there is about a 90 percent likelihood that people with 12 identical markers have a common ancestor within the last 24 generations. If either of these two people would upgrade to 37-marker testing, we could state more positively whether we are or are not related.
Neither of my matches is named Spadoni (to protect their privacy, I will not print their actual names). The first identical match is from someone in Izmir, Turkey. Unfortunately, this person did not include any contact information, so all I can do is know his surname and hope that maybe someday he will contact me. The second person did include his first name and his e-mail address, and I wrote him April of 2014 and didn’t receive a reply. Since his name was rather unusual, I decided that I would try to find him on and and found that he lived in California, is 77 years old and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1979. I will refer to him by the name “Jacques.”

I contacted Jacques by phone last week, and we had a short and interesting conversion. His family came from “the Florence area,” he said, but he would not go into more detail. His father immigrated to France in the 1800s, and Jacques was born there; thus he has a French first name and an Italian surname. I would have loved to ask him more questions, but he seemed hesitant to provide more details.

Jacques said he had hired a company some 15 years ago to learn about his family origins, and they charged him a lot of money and didn’t find out anything. He felt the company had cheated him, which probably had something to do with his reluctance to extend our conversation. Another reason may be that we had different surnames, which indicates what genetic genealogists refer to as a “non-paternal event”—most commonly an adoption or out-of-wedlock birth. This is something I was warned about when I first read about DNA testing—that it is possible that one may be unpleasantly surprised with the results. Since Y testing faithfully follows the male DNA trail, either Jacques or I may have an unexplained event in our ancestry. I accept the possibility that it could be in my family line, but I think it more likely is in his. I have traced my family through church baptismal records to the 1400s. This does not preclude the possibility of an extra-marital affair, but one has to wonder why the professional genealogist Jacques hired couldn’t find anything out about his family history.
Of course, there is also that 10 percent possibility that we are not related, that our perfect match at 12 genetic markers is just a coincidence.

This is also a lesson in patience when it comes to DNA testing. Just as pre-natal testing to determine the gender of one’s child before birth was once rare and is now almost standard practice, so too will DNA testing gain more acceptance and become commonplace in the future. When Jacques had his DNA tested, he was one of the very first to do so; thus it should have come as no surprise that nobody matched his results—and then it must have come as quite a shock when he received my phone call 13 years later (the testing company says it launched DNA tests in 2001). Jacques had not received my e-mail, so it is possible that the address he used has changed or my message went unnoticed or did not make it through his spam filter. Both Florian Spadoni and I were disappointed to see that we didn’t have more matches to our DNA tests, but we will just have to wait until more people volunteer for testing. Genetic experts say that trying to interpret ones DNA test results can be like the sound of one hand clapping until more people join the trend. Obviously not everyone shares our strong interest in genealogy and family history, but hopefully we will eventually see a few people in each Spadoni branch who care about this enough to be tested.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

I come to a pleasant realization while snacking on snails

May 2, 2014
It was during a lunch of snails that I realized Lucy and I were close to accomplishing our goals in Italy. I had earlier related to Suzye how I had once encountered Ivo as we walked by his field. His hands had been full of live snails, but—always outgoing—Ivo still stopped to talk to me, sharing his plans to eat the snails later and giving details about how he would prepare them and what other foods he would be having for dinner. As he spoke, some of the snails slid out of his hands, and he had to stop to pick them up while readjusting his grasp on the others.

I sample fried snails for the first time, with Suzye and Linda.

A few days ago, we were showing Linda and Suzye an old house in San Salvatore that was for sale, and Suzye noted a mob of snails milling around on the shady stones of the back wall. Recalling my Ivo encounter and snail’s tale, she found a discarded tin pail and plucked up a dozen of the mollusks, saying she wanted to look up some recipes and sample her first taste of escargot. However, in reading online recipes, it turned out that making escargot is not a simple process. Preparing the snails takes several days using a procedure that involves flushing out their systems and feeding them herbs or corn meal before putting them in salt to remove the slime. We didn’t have time for all this, so Suzye decided to give them to Ivo instead.

We had recently met Ivo’s brother Celestino and his family. In previous years, we had only met Celestino’s wife, Antonella. But about a month before Suzye found the snails, I had seen Ivo out in his field and stopped to show him my research that explained how he and I were related as fourth cousins. As we spoke, a young man working across the field walked over to meet us. Ivo introduced him as Matteo Seghieri, one of Celestino’s two sons. A few days later, we were invited into Matteo’s house, where we had espresso and biscotti with Celestino, Antonella and Matteo.

Linda with Ivo and his homemade wine.
While looking for Ivo to give him the snails, we saw his car parked by his field, but he wasn’t in the field or his farm sheds. But by now, we had realized that if Ivo’s car was parked by his field and he wasn’t around, it’s because he was visiting his brother’s family in the Casone di Marcucci, which is right next to his field. Sure enough, he was there, and Lucy, Linda, Suzye and I had more espresso, this time with Ivo, Celestino and Antonella. Lucy and I served as translators, and Ivo expounded on one of his favorite topics, which is food from the cucina povera—the poor kitchen—which he explained uses traditional ingredients that can be found in the wild. Before we left, he had given us two bottles of wine—one red and one sweet and white—and some cantuccini, a type of biscotti that he made from his own special recipe. Even better, he promised that next Saturday, we would come back with the snails, cooked in two different meals.

We waited around at the Casolare dei Fiori during lunchtime on Saturday, and when he didn’t show up, we realized he probably expected us to go back to Celestino’s house. Sure enough, he was there with the snail dishes, and we took them home to savor together. One meal was snails fried in batter, but Ivo had also deep-fried pieces of zucchini and broccoli, so only one bite of every three was actually a snail. Linda, Suzye and I downed this course in about five minutes, while Lucy, who has a more sensitive stomach, passed on these delicacies. The other recipe was lumache in umido, stewed snails, which we decided to save for a later meal.

And what was my impression of the snail meals? I loved the fried zucchini and broccoli. As for the fried snails, I tried not to think of what I was eating, which was difficult. The snails themselves had little taste; the predominant flavor was that of the batter and oil, which I liked. But the snails were definitely chewy, kind of like biting into a soft chunk of fat in a steak. Because of the different texture, I couldn’t help but recognize when I was eating a snail as opposed to a vegetable, and I think that spoiled the experience. Perhaps if I had grown up eating them prepared this way, I would have no problem, but I can’t say it is something that I will go out of my way to eat again. As for the snail stew, we never got around to sampling it. We told each other that we had just been too busy, and then we had waited too long and it wasn’t fresh any more, but I think that if we had liked the fried snails more, we would have made time to eat the stew as well. Sorry, Ivo, that we wasted your time making it. Luckily, he doesn’t read English, so maybe he won’t find out. We told him we really enjoyed the snails, which is true in the sense that we greatly enjoyed the experience of finding them, talking to him and eating them for the first time.

The outcome of this experience is that I came to several important realizations. Because I had been learning Italian gradually over the past four visits, I hadn’t noticed my improvement. I could see that even though I still didn’t consider myself anywhere near fluency, I could now communicate well enough to be invited over for espresso. I had once been at about the same level of language ability as Linda and Suzye, but now I can translate for them. I had wanted to make friends and find relatives in Italy and discover how we were related, and now I knew very many, and I considered some of them friends as well.

I also wanted to understand and appreciate my Italian grandparents, who had grown up in this exquisite country but chose to leave their homes so their children and grandchildren could have better lives. I never met my nonna and hardly knew my nonno, but I had come here to explore the culture that had made them what they were. That culture has changed dramatically from what it was when they left Italy 100 years ago, because now my cousins are policemen, chemists, lawyers, professors, business owners, dentists, hair dressers and employees at stores and factories. Those raised on the farming life of my grandparents are either long gone or retired and on pensions.

But it dawned on me as I munched on the snails that there is one relative who still lives the life of a contadino, a humble farmer like my ancestors before they immigrated in the early 1900s. Ivo has been raised to embrace the old ways, and if I want to know the kind of lives great grandfathers Pietro Spadoni and Torello Seghieri may have led, I need look no further: Ivo is the very embodiment. He forages for wild herbs, vegetables, mushrooms and snails. He raises and slaughters his own rabbits, chickens and ducks and makes wine from his vineyards. His fields supply him with fruits and vegetables and grain for his animals. Anything he can’t provide with his own hands he finds at local open air markets, and he loves to work outdoors and talk about his food and recipes.

I have come to San Salvatore for four winters now, a total of ten months. Lucy and I can speak passable Italian. We have a few friends and many acquaintances, and people recognize that we are part of the community. I have found more relatives than I know what to do with, and I have traced my ancestral roots back nearly 1000 years to this very street. We have decided that we don’t want to move to Italy full time; we love our lives, our family, our home in the United States. But San Salvatore called out to me almost imperceptibly through the first fifty-five years of my life, and I finally answered the voice inside of me. This place is also our home.