Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Researching dead people makes for some lively in-person activities

I spend a lot of time with dead people. Lucy pointed this out recently when I told her I was off to the archives to find more dead ancestors and relatives. But sometimes all these dead people come in quite handy when we want to meet some very live and fascinating people.

One of the reason we come to Italy is to interact with Italians, and it’s true that we do this to some extent on a daily basis. Usually, though, our encounters are pleasant but fairly superficial. We know some of the Montecarlo and San Salvatore store and restaurant owners, and we always exchange friendly salutations. I have relatives that we sometimes see and greet at the bank or grocery stores. But often our conversations are short and insignificant, owing both to our lack of language skills and shared experiences. It doesn’t help that we only live in Montecarlo for three months a year, or that Lucy and I are both fairly quiet by nature—but even nomadic introverts get lonely.

This is where the dead people come in handy. Because my genealogical research has made connections with so many other distant relatives, it’s become easier to find live people to talk to. We’ve been visited here by previously unknown English-speaking Italian-American relatives, and we’ve also made contact with Italian relatives that have resulted in some great conversations.

A couple of weeks ago, I was contacted by Rita Spadoni and her fidanzato Giulio. We shared some antipasto and dolce while having a great conversation at a sweet shop in Montecatini. Both of them speak some English, and of course we speak some Italian. The great thing about having friends who speak some English is that we can start talking in Italian (and we always need practice in that), but when the proper words escape us, we can continue in English and still be understood. And our friends can do the same—speak English but switch to Italian at any time—without losing any flow of the conversation while still being understood.

Selfie with Giulio and Rita at La Pasticceria Sweet.
Rita is an distant relative, connected so far back in time that some would say we’re not really cousins. But sharing the same surname and ancient family history proved to be enough connection to draw us together. We left our encounter with Rita and Giulio very happy, and I also found a recommendation for a physical therapist who is helping me with my sore back.

Enrichetta, Italo, Francesco, Marco.
Last Sunday after church, we also renewed our contact with Italo Cortesi and his wife Enrichetta and son Francesco, age 24. Italo’s nonno is the famous Italo Spadoni after whom an important street in Ponte Buggianese is named. We knew that Francesco loves his tractors, and last summer we were given a John Deere calendar by Washington Tractor in Sumner. We also bought a John Deere polo shirt. We dropped by Italo’s house in Ponte Buggianese to give these to
Bistecca alla fiorentina roasting
on an open fire.
Francesco and say what we thought would be a brief hello. The hello turned into a lunch invitation. Francesco’s friend Marco, who speaks some English, was also present. After a while, Italo’s friend Andrea joined in. After three hours of conversation and constant eating (various antipasti, bistecca alla fiorentina, fruit, gelato) and drinking (vino bianco, vino rosso, spumante, vinsanto, homemade limoncello), we could barely move to drive home.

Italo carves the steak into strips.
Italo and Francesco are farmers, planting mostly corn and sunflowers, and it means working from dawn to dusk during the planting, growing and harvesting seasons. They are proud of their business, their tractors, their land and their profession. Although Italo is 66, he has no plans to retire.

‟I can still work 14 hours a day,” he said. ‟Maybe I could sell everything and stop working, but what would Francesco do? When I get home after a hard day’s work, I have a good dinner with my wife and son, I visit with my friends, and I feel completely satisfied with my life. Because of that, I don’t feel the least bit tired. I just start all over again the next day.”
Italo and one of his classic tractors.

Italo proudly showed us the bio-furnace he uses to heat his home. It uses dried corn from his fields as fuel. We saw his six tractors, some of them restored and certified classics that will be part of a special church mass and parade next weekend near Pisa to celebrate the planting season and give thanks for the abundance of the Tuscan soil.
A classic John Deere restored by Francesco and Italo.

We felt privileged to share our Sunday afternoon with a modern Italian contadino, a distant cousin who makes his living from the same soil that supported and sustained our shared ancestors. While looking online for information about the celebration Italo had told us about, I found this fitting quotation from one of the event organizers: ‟The Day of Thanksgiving is a joyous time to find ourselves and be together but also to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the farming sector. We entrust our lives every day to the providence that decides our crops and the fruits of that which we prepare, but we must not forget that the soil, the earth, are non-renewable resources and thus must be protected. Citizens need to defend and protect our agricultural heritage and the availability of fertile land from the advance of overbuilding in the cities and the abandonment of marginal areas. The road that Tuscany is taking now is the right one.”

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