Paul and Lucy Spadoni periodically live in Tuscany to explore Paul’s Italian roots, practice their Italian and enjoy “la dolce vita.”
All work is copyrighted and may not be reprinted without written permission from the author, who can be contacted at www.paulspadoni.com
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.
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
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.
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.
everything and everyone seem to be smiling upon me, I know I’m on
the right path.
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.
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?
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.
simply, I was home.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
documents are cold, and I needed the warm touch of my roots – in
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
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.
soul has found its home.
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
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
move has been the greatest gift I’ve ever given myself.
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.
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.
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.
I am home, and I’m smiling right back at them.
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.