Thursday, April 23, 2020

More evidence that Ancestry.com’s formula for Italian ethnicity is skewed

It’s official. Ancestry.com’s formula for determining Tuscan ethnicity is seriously fouled up—and I now have DNA ethnicity tests and genealogical data I needed to prove it.

I’ve written about this before in Are new Ancestry algorithms ignoring northern and central Italians? But even as I criticized the company, I wondered what would happen if one of my Italian cousins from Tuscany took the test. I and all of my first cousins in America can be considered tainted because each of us has one parent who came from somewhere other than Tuscany. All of our parents who were born to Tuscans Michele Spadoni and Anita Seghieri have passed away, so we can’t test them.

Most of my Italian American cousins come out more French than Italian, which is confusing, since I’ve researched most of Michele’s and Anita’s family lines back to Tuscany from at least the 17th century, and many lines much further—some even to the 1200s. I have found birth records for every Italian ancestor on the Italian side of the family going back to all 16 of my third great grandparents. Each one was born in the same valley in Italy, the Valdinievole (roughly between Lucca and Montecatini), or just a few miles away. All of the surnames are common to our little region of Tuscany. All of my first cousins should be approximately half Italian, but none test more than 11%. One tested 0 percent Italian and 45% French.

Anna Giuntoli Hughes
However, I recently made contact with Annamaria Giuntoli, a second cousin of my dad. She was born in Italy, and her parents were also from families rooted in Tuscany. Names in her family history fill up the Valdinievole regional archives: Giuntoli, Magrini, Grassi, Capocchi, Montanelli, Pinelli, Pieretti, Bellandi, Pucci. Six of those names are also in our direct line of ancestry.

So what does Ancestry.com say about Anna’s ethnicity, which should be close to 100% Tuscan Italian. It says she is 49% Italian and 51% French. The ethnicity estimate becomes even more inaccurate with her son Marco’s test. Anna married a British man, so one would think that Marco would test around 25% Italian and 25% French, right? Nope, his Ancestry.com test says he is 54% British, only 2% Italian and 35% French—indicating that the genes he inherited from Anna were actually much more French than Italian.

Another cousin who should be close to pure Tuscan is Joan (Seghieri) Reiling, born to Dante Marcucci Seghieri and Maria Luisa Togneri. Both surnames have long roots in Tuscany. Joan tests 50% Italian, 44% French and 6% from Greece and Balkans. Her grandson Michael tests as 0% Italian and 10% French.

Still another cousin Vilma Ferranti Mott, now deceased, was born to Gabriella Montanelli of Montecarlo and Giuseppe Ferranti of Villa Basilica, both small towns in the province of Lucca. Her results: 44% French, 54% Italian.

This explains a lot about why the ethnicity results for me and my cousins are so skewed toward French. Somehow, Ancestry.com’s algorithms find Tuscans to be roughly a half-and-half mixture of French and Italian. History does not support this odd admixture. Except for the invasion of the Gauls in the years 200 to 400 BC, inland Tuscany has never received an influx of French immigrants. If anything, the opposite is true, as social scientist Robin Cohen reports: “About 5 million French nationals are of Italian origin, if their parentage is retraced over three generations.” And according to official Eurostat data for 2012, the number of Italian citizens residing in France was 174,000. Wikipedia says of Marseille, France, that “in the first half of the 20th century, up to 40% of the city’s population was of Italian origin.”

Why is this discrepancy important? I find it disturbing that so many Italian Americans with Tuscan roots, most of whom speak proudly of their heritage, are disappointed and shocked to be told they are more French than Italian. No offense meant to our French neighbors, who also have good reason to be proud, but isn’t it better to know the truth of our origins and have our pride placed in the right country?

Another sad result of the problem is that some people now wrongfully suspect their grandparents of infidelity. One of my cousins commented, “My mom and several of her siblings have had their results come back as French, with no trace of Italian. It has us all flummoxed. We we were thinking my grandfather must have had a different father (out of wedlock).

I’ve experienced a lot of pleasure from my hobby of genealogy, and I give credit and high ratings to Ancestry.com for its researching tools. It has been a kick connecting with new relatives that I’ve found through DNA matching. But I sincerely hope the company irons out the problems in its methods of determining Italian heritage.
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Update (Sept. 17, 2020): In the summer of 2020, Ancestry revised its formula again. Big improvements! They now recognize the ethnic group of Northern Italy. They still have too much France in there, but Anna Giuntoli is now listed as 69% Northern Italy and 5% Southern Italy, a total of 74% Italian. The French is still in there at 21%, but this is a major step in the right direction! In addition, her son Marco is now listed as 18% Northern Italy and 10% France.
Even more encouraging is that Vilma Ferranti was changed from 44% French and 54% Italian to 84% Northern Italian and 14% Southern Italian. Keep it the good work, Ancestry.



Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Lucca under lockdown is compared to a desert, or life in a monastery


What would we be doing every day if Lucy had not slipped on the stairs just a few days before we were set to fly to Italy? We think about that most every day, while we enjoy the slow life in our Gig Harbor country home. Had we gone to our Montecarlo apartment, we’d be confined inside, restricted to weekly shopping trips. We’d be paying a daily fee for a rental car (essential for trips to the supermarket) that sat mostly unused.

Instead, we can shop online at Safeway and Home Depot and pick up supplies in the parking lot for our food and home improvement projects. We have an abundance of private streets to walk, as well as trails in the forest, and our five-acre lot has plenty of room for vegetable, fruit and flower gardening. My sister, brother, daughter, cousins and several long-time neighbors live next door, and we can visit on porches or on the streets and trails.

But life in the province of Lucca is another story, and something I think about often. I periodically check the page of Facebook friend Jonell Galloway to see how she is doing, and to imagine my own life had we been there instead. She recently wrote a long and informative post on life in Lucca that is well worth sharing:

Jonell enjoys caffè alla nocciola, made with
hazelnut liqueur, in earlier times, when
she could go out to a nice coffee bar.
I have spent some 40 days and nights in the Italian desert. That’s what 40 days of lockdown in an ancient city surrounded by stone walls feels like. The only green is the inside bank of the Renaissance city walls around the corner, but looking at it through the window gives me a crick in the neck after a few minutes.

If I walk 50 meters down the street, I can listen to the birds tweeting in the prison yard and experience spring a bit. We hear the nuns singing vespers every night in the convent next to the clinic. I count minutes and hours and days and heads these days. That’s how I pass my time on this velvet sofa, reading how many new cases and deaths there have been due to coronavirus. I live the enclosed life of a nun without the habit and the vows and with the addition of a few sensual pleasures. I take delight in architectural details, cooking, eating, and simply slipping under the sheets at night, and in getting to know my husband better than I thought possible.

The first declared cases of coronavirus in Italy were on January 31, when a state of emergency was immediately declared, and then on February 20, when 16 new cases were found in Lombardy. The north was put in quarantine on March 8 and declared a red zone, meaning that it was on danger alert and its borders were closed. The next day, the entire Italian population of 60 million was locked down; two days later, all businesses except pharmacies and food shops were closed. On the 21st, all non-essential businesses and industries were closed. Twenty-four thousand six hundred forty people have died, there are now fewer new cases, and ICUs have had some relief, and though the numbers are going down, there is still far to go. Lombardy is still suffering badly.
Source: https://www.worldometers.info/

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte confers with Minister of
Heath Roberto Speranza. Gotta love those Italian surnames.
Speranza means "hope."
Prime Minister Conte gave a long speech in front of the Senate today. I didn’t hear it all, but he seemed to be preparing us for a very long road. The total lockdown we’ve been living under will gradually be lifted as of May 4, he said, but things will be far from the old normal. He was somber and weary and it was the first time I’ve heard him falter when speaking. He looked tired, as if he hadn’t slept; the poor guy is overworked. It’s gray and rainy and not the day to hear this. Italy has suffered too much for too long. Even though the numbers are going down, we’re nowhere near the end. Lombardy has to get beyond this. Conte refers to the next phase as cohabitation, that is to say living with the virus in our presence. That will be our new way of functioning and it will be full of restrictions. European governments are already talking about a second wave of coronavirus as if it’s a given.

Since Monday, we’ve been able to pick up free masks at the pharmacies. We are now required to wear them in public. Truth is, most people already were and many food shops required them. There was a shortage of hand sanitizer and masks the first week or so, but that was quickly managed. Most shops provide free gloves and sanitizer. The supermarket outside town offers free sanitizer, gloves and masks and takes your temperature before you enter. In the hygiene department, Italy is doing very well.

The rate of Covid is higher in cities such as Turin and Milan with historically poor air quality because their inhabitants often have impaired respiratory function, but now there is less pollution from automobiles thanks to the lockdown. They say that you can now actually see the Alps clearly from the top of Milan cathedral, and air quality has improved all over the country. Milan is already planning to create large pedestrian and bike zones in its downtown, closing them to car traffic. Cities are in the process of rethinking urban planning. The future will be different, and I suspect many of the shops will remain closed, leaving lots of empty buildings.

Paris has stopped hosing down the streets every day because they found there were microparticles of Covid in the water. Apparently, this could work for or against us in that it could possibly help build up our immunity over time, or it could make us sick. Until they know, many streets that are normally disinfected every day remain full of dog doo, at least in Lucca, the only place I’ve known these last 40+ days.

If I were prime minister, tiramisù would
definitely be on my list of essential services. 
Although Lucca is far from a food desert, there are luxuries I miss. The only tiramisù is the one in the freezer, which dates from 44 days ago. There’s no dark chocolate in the house because all the chocolate shops are still closed. I truly thought chocolate was essential, but the government obviously doesn’t agree. All the pastry shops are closed, as are the restaurants. There’s not a cannoli to be had in all of Lucca. On the television news, I saw a pizzeria spacing out tables for a potential reopening. In these old European cities, restaurants are small, so the 2-meter distancing leaves them with few tables; it is dystopic.

My quarantine project has been to research the traditional food of Lucca. Those local ingredients are plentiful and easy to get. I might end up becoming a specialist, although I doubt many outside Lucca and Tuscany would be interested. We eat well, we eat locally — lots of polenta, pici, artichokes, and meat. Fava beans, white asparagus, agretti (saltwort), and peas are delicious this year. Dried beans of all types are a staple food in Tuscany, most often seasoned with garlic, sage and olive oil and sometimes with a bit of tomato paste. They are often used in soups along with stale bread or farro.

I am among the lucky ones. I never forget that. I have plenty to eat and live in a spacious, comfortable house. It’s a strange feeling to watch the world through your own barred windows (that’s part of the architecture here), not experiencing social contact, and looking at pictures of long lines for food banks in your native country. It’s strange to know the world only through news sites. It’s strange to be confined to four walls that are themselves surrounded by more walls.

I see the world before me quickly becoming comfortable for only the rich. Poverty sits around every corner. The middle class is quickly disappearing, even though most Italians have savings to get through hard times. There’s a long tradition of "spesa sospesa," which allows you to leave some groceries at checkout so they can be donated to needy shoppers. Hunger might seem hidden, but many posters around town are requesting food donations. Unlike in the U.S., the Italian media aren’t showing us the vivid images. Unemployment, well, we can’t even put numbers on that for the moment. Even when restaurants open, due to social distancing, they will have fewer customers, so prices will inevitably go up. The same will apply to shops, cinemas, theatres, and flights. The main budget airlines in Europe stopped all flights weeks ago. Going to a movie or out to eat, travel, will become a luxury. The rich will get all the tiramisù and we’ll be eating dry bread.

The door has been opened to new kinds of crime. A local pizzeria that does home delivery — the only one in town that I know of — delivered a pizza last week and the customer refused to pay. The "customer" took out a butcher knife and tried to rob the delivery man, who fled. When the police arrived on the scene and entered the guy’s lodgings, they discovered that he was illegally renting out bed space to 15 people and advertising it online. He has now taken up residence in the prison across the street from us. Several European countries have received faulty test kits and masks from China. One hospital received fake N95 masks. I have heard that the mafia is hard at work and finding new ways of extorting money, such as offering money to small businesses that don’t qualify for emergency government subsidies.

This week the government started a new program of testing for antibodies. They began with health workers, policemen, and other essential workers. The plan is that everybody will eventually be tested for either the virus or antibodies. Chile is already issuing Covid passports, and that was initially an Italian plan, but you don’t hear much about it these days. It would make sense that those who have antibodies or who test negative should be the first to go back to work and to school. I will follow that with great interest. We’ll all certainly have to install a tracking app on our phones so that our exposure to the virus can be traced if necessary. The government said this would not be forced upon us, but we know it must be generalized if it is to work. It makes sense as long as they don’t use it for nefarious purposes.

In the beginning, the situation felt surreal. Little by little, it all sank in and everybody seemed to agree that strict lockdown was the only rational solution. Now it’s the new norm; we know we’re going to be living in some similar way for a very long time. Some people disobeyed the rules as the numbers kept going up, and as a result, restrictions were tightened. Our lockdown has not been light in any way. From almost the outset, gatherings of any kind have been forbidden. We have to stay near our house — no drives into the countryside or hills — and only one of us can go out at a time. Peter and I can’t even walk down the street together. We have to fill out a form each time we go out stating our purpose. We’ve gotten used to it. There’s a sort of consensual agreement among most Italians that this is for the good of all. Even though the police are constantly patrolling the streets and can ask to check our forms, it in no way feels like martial law. They feel more like our allies rather than our enemy.

This “prison” makes me understand how much I value freedom, yet oddly enough, I don’t resent this confinement. It is, I think, the only logical way to fight the virus, and I want more than anything to do what’s right. I read a Harvard study that said it’s likely we’ll be in and out of lockdown for the next two years. I can deal with that. I’m experienced now. The worst part is the monotony, the repetitiveness of the days that all run into each other, since there is nothing to mark one from the other. I sometimes find myself sighing under my breath like my mother did. When Peter asks me what’s wrong, I say the same thing as her: “life.” It is a momentary sense of despair that passes as quickly as it comes.

If I have one word of advice, it’s that this is no time to be separated from your own ones. I say that with my entire family scattered around the globe. Videoconferencing has become our normal way of communicating. Sometimes the kids even call us from bed or while cooking so it’s almost like being together and sharing day-to-day life again. We say, “I love you” more often. We send virtual kisses and hugs. Reach out to the ones you love now, not later. Learn to say, “I love you” out loud. You just don’t know what tomorrow might bring, even if it’s just more of the same. After this long writing, I am starting my 44th day. There will be no leaving this “desert” anytime soon.


Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Italians subject to checkpoints, fines for leaving home, crossing boundaries


The COVID-19 lockdown in Washington state is inconvenient for most of us and devasting for those who are out of work or own businesses that have been shut down or restricted. But the lockdown in Italy is much, much more severe.

Police cars patrol the streets, even in pedestrian areas, and the army has also been called on to help. Checkpoints ensure that people who are out have good reason. If you get stopped, you must show where you’re going on a form printed from the government website. Whatever you declare is subject to verification, and if it’s found to be false, you could end up with a jail term of three months or a fine of up to 3,000 euros. Anyone out in a group will be fined on the spot.
 
Claudio Del Terra, poliziotto for the Tuscan city of Altopascio, signals for a car to pull over for a document check.
Newspaper accounts say that police stopped and checked 700,000 citizens between 11 and 17 March, 43,000 of whom were found to have violated the stay-at-home decree. Many of those accused of violating the lockdown have justified their behavior based on ambiguities in the decree, claiming they did not understand the restrictions. Police have also been testing the people they stop for the COVID-19 virus, so imagine the double-whammy of getting a fine and discovering you have the virus at the same time.

My cousin Claudio Del Terra in Altopascio is one of those officers on the front lines, stopping people who are out to make sure they have valid reasons. It is not permitted to cross from one municipality to another except for “cases of absolute urgency,” Claudio wrote me. Because he is in a position where he could be exposed to the virus, he does not visit his elderly mother, who lives nearby and is undergoing chemotherapy, to avoid the risk of accidentally contaminating her (his brother Marco is able to check in on her).

Hats off to the brave Italian police officers who must enforce the regulations despite resistance and confusion from some citizens. And let us hope and pray that we don’t have to take such extreme measures in Washington.


Monday, March 30, 2020

"Days and nights run into more days and nights": Life under Italy lockdown

Because we are living in historic times, I am again posting an updated account of a friend about life under lockdown in Lucca. It is well written and will help people understand the emotional aspects of living under a strict quarantine. Note: This was written before the hopeful figures from today came out. More from Jonell:

I could call these missives Love in the Time of Coronavirus. Living in total lockdown in Italy for three weeks is not all negative. Lockdown has become a way of life and we find ways other than museums and concerts and sports to amuse ourselves. Some are newfound; others are simply enhanced.

My husband and I were already madly in love, and confinement has reinforced it. The only argument we’ve had was about placement of a comma in a sentence I wrote, and we argue about commas even in normal times, so I’m not worried. We were already in the habit of cuddling every morning before getting out of bed. Now we spend more time at it. We have longer, more serious conversations, ones we probably should have had before. We’ve rediscovered what an incredible complicity we have. Liking your spouse or partner helps in these hard times, as do tolerance and adaptability.

Food is as always an important part of our lives. Takeout was never our thing and we don’t have that option anymore, and anyway, we feel it’s safer to cook from scratch at home. We eat more carbs than ever — pasta, bread, polenta — and find it comforting. I’ve been researching food from Lucca for a couple years. The food here is meat-based, often slow-cooked, so we’ve been delighting in what is essentially peasant food. It’s a switch from my favorite food, duck à l’orange. Since there are no restaurants open, and no place else to go as we’re restricted to our neighborhood, we also save money. After dinner, we dance a few slows and relish in our good fortune at not yet having contracted the virus (I just knocked on wood). It’s not at all a bad situation.

In this mostly pedestrian city, I can’t shop for food for the entire week because I can only buy as much as I can carry home. I go out 2 or 3 times a week, juggling the times according to the shorter opening hours of the food shops. Since our wine merchant is closed, my husband goes to the supermarket outside the city walls once a week to stock up on wine and a few other essentials. Today, he found all non-food departments except for cleaning supplies cordoned off with red tape by order of the government.

We call those we love more often and have longer conversations. We need to hear their voices. Short, choppy text messages are no longer satisfactory. The subject is almost always about our experiences of coronavirus around the world, but someone actually called me about kale risotto the other day. That was refreshing. There is a new tradition of aperitivo and family gatherings by videoconference or using the Houseparty app. Restrictions spark our creativity and force us to find ways of recreating old traditions.

The odd person I pass in the street makes more eye contact than before and often smiles, even though we’re strangers. It’s a smile that says, “yes, we’re doing this for the good of everyone. No, none of us likes it, but it has to be done.”

One woman opens her windows in the morning and sings opera arias. Another neighbor plays jazz sax with his windows open. Little things count more than in the past. We all become like family even if we don’t know each other’s names or faces.

An emergency fund of 6 billion Euros is being allocated to unemployment, even for part-time and temporary employees. The government is also injecting 50 billion into the economy and is now pleading for aid from the EU. This will be a test of the solidarity and solidity of the European Union.

But all is not well. There is the harsh reality that 10,779 people have died as of this writing and the daily number of new cases, slightly down for a few days, went up again yesterday after 3 weeks of total lockdown of the country, and even longer in Lombardy where it started. Today there was a decrease. The town of Codogno, where this all began, has been in lockdown since February 21. They had two days with zero cases and thought there was hope, then on Friday, there were six new cases. Several doctors yesterday said that the epidemic might peak in a week or 10 days, but it doesn’t end there. Living in lockdown has become a routine and just as well since an epidemiologist on TV last night said we might need another six weeks to get the virus fully under control. The government is already talking about an extension of our total confinement and rightly so.

In the past two days, ten more doctors have lost their lives to coronavirus, bringing the death toll to 51 nationwide, 10 in the virus-ravaged city of Bergamo (Lombardy) alone. The total number of health workers who have tested positive for CV as of this writing is 6,414, approximately 8% of total cases; no data is available on overall fatalities among hospital and nursing home staff, but in all, the virus has infected more than 5,000 doctors, nurses, technicians, ambulance staff, and other health employees. Doctors and nurses are coming out of retirement to help.

And this is on top of the personal suffering we as humans have to bear in the course of our day-to-day lives. Someone in my family in the States is in extremis and I can’t go visit. Our children and their cousins have had CV for two weeks and they’re still not over it, though it’s not getting worse. In Florence, the father of a friend died, and his family was not allowed to have a funeral because funerals have been banned for weeks. Only graveside prayers with the priest and a single family member are allowed. Grandparents haven’t been able to see their grandchildren for over a month. Many older people have been shut in alone for ages in order to avoid catching the virus. Those who are hospitalized are not allowed visitors, so for many there has been no chance to say goodbye to loved ones. I suffer with the Italians and I suffer for my relatives in other countries. I don’t worry much about myself because I take all the required precautions, still aware that that might not be enough.

Meanwhile, a gentle spring has come. We look out at it from behind the barred windows of this 17-century house. Days and nights run into more days and nights. This is the new normal, at least for now. If I were to give advice, I’d say concentrate on those you love. Remember why you fell in love with your partner. Read all the books you haven’t had time to read. Think of funny things your kids did or said when they were young. Savor every bite and every sip and forget the other material stuff. Get to the essence. Life has changed and so have we.
  

Friday, March 27, 2020

The new normal: Living with the Coronavirus boogeyman in Lucca

The number of new COVID-19 cases in Italy rose Thursday, and the figures for today are virtually the same as yesterday. In addition, the daily death total increased to 919, the highest yet. This, despite the fact that restrictions in Italy are much more severe than in the United States. To keep us informed of what life there is like, I have another report from Jonell Galloway in Lucca.

Here in Italy, we’re walking, but we’re not going anywhere. We’ve not lost our way; we’re just charting new territory. Today in the region of Lombardy alone, where the coronavirus outbreak started, there were 3,594 new cases — 900 more than yesterday — and 6,153 new ones in all of Italy. Following four days of gradually improving numbers, the rate of infection has risen. After two and half weeks of total shutdown and even longer self-isolation, we’re feeling more and more like prisoners, yet it’s not like prison because we’re confident that we are doing this for the good of all.
 
A tent outside the hospital in Lucca. Serchioindiretta photo.
The national decrees regarding free movement are revised and made tighter every couple of days. The national government posts these rules online and newspapers try to translate them into a language everyone can understand. Local officials have a right to make additional decrees. Every time we go out, we’re supposed to print out a form called an “autocertificazione,” or “self-certification,” stating the time and purpose of our outing. These forms also change every couple of days, so you can’t keep up with them. The rules of the game keep changing, making it difficult to know what you can and can’t do on any given day, which keeps us reading from morning to night.

Giacomo Puccini reflects on calmer times
outside his home in Lucca.
The Chinese have sent a medical team of 14 to Tuscany to help train locals in coronavirus intervention. They also send masks and other medical supplies on a regular basis. Today, the Russians airlifted 104 military doctors, medics, and virologists along with 100,000 masks, 85,000 protective suits, and 30 ventilators to Bergamo, the hardest hit town. It was impressive to see images of them driving into town in military vehicles. In Lucca, a local shoe factory has converted its operations to manufacture masks. Prisoners all over the country have been rioting because, like everyone else, their visiting rights have been removed. The local prison happens to be across the street from us and is one of the only ones that hasn’t. As of this writing, Italy has lost 37 doctors and 2 dentists to the virus. Sadly, there are no official figures on the number of other medical personnel who have died of coronavirus in Italy.

The streets are surreally empty. The only humans we encounter are the occasional dog-walkers or odd shopper and policemen in their patrol cars. Unusually, everyone seems to follow the rules now, wanting to do what’s right (and knowing that if they don’t, they face stiff fines), but people interpret the decrees differently. For example, the decrees state that we are allowed to go outdoors alone for exercise (but not for group sports), as long as we stay near home. Yesterday I went Nordic walking in my neighborhood and ventured about 300 meters from my house. The police stopped me and asked for my address, then told me to go straight home, saying they didn’t want to see me in the streets again. In their view, we’re only allowed to go 200 meters from home. Okay, right, but that’s not what’s stated in the local newspapers. A lot of information is left open to interpretation and I can only assume it was the police who arbitrarily decided on this distance. So today, I simply walked around the block about a dozen times and the cops drove by without a word.

The churches, which are normally open until 6 p.m., are sometimes open and sometimes closed. The food shops keep shortening their hours and the main supermarket outside town said it was no longer taking online orders, so I assume home delivery is no longer possible.

I make all our meals from scratch, as I have always done, and viewing the circumstances, we think it’s safer that way. In any case, there aren’t really any options since all the restaurants including takeout have been closed for weeks. I find myself cooking a lot of comfort food like pasta and polenta and, being in Tuscany, a lot of meat. Last night, it was bistecca alla fiorentina with Tuscan country-style roast potatoes made with olive oil, rosemary, sage and bay leaves. Since most food is produced locally — kilometer zero, as the Italians like to say — the shelves are still full. And most surprisingly of all, perhaps not, I crave foie gras and quiche. Before this, I swore I was off French food.

There is no more “normal.” Life changes by the day, sometimes by the hour, but it’s a case of “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” We are consumed by news of COVID-19. In my fervent imagination, there is a boogeyman lurking around every corner, waiting to jump out at me whenever I emerge. Coronavirus is a stealthy, invisible enemy. It feels like the walls of this ancient city are crumbling around us and we have only ourselves to fall back on.



Sunday, March 22, 2020

Update from Lucca: The numbers are down; the first hopeful sign in days

“There is a glimmer of light in Italy. The coronavirus numbers went down today: 3,957 new cases and 651 dead.”  This is how my Facebook friend from Lucca, Jonell Galloway, started her post Sunday evening. The day before the numbers were 4,821 new cases and 793 dead. Following is the rest of her report:


An empty street in Lucca.
Maybe the virus has peaked. Just as well. I was starting to see the world in black. It’s hard when the numbers go up every day and you’ve been self-isolating in your house for weeks on end. Strangely enough, this is becoming the new normal, although if we are indeed past the peak, it means there is now light and some hope.


Jonell Galloway
Last night, the government closed all manufacturing except vital necessities. The food shops and supermarkets are still well-stocked although one of my regulars, the bean, spice and olive oil shop, Prospero, closed down abruptly with no forewarning. I suspect one of the employees caught Covid-19 and they all had to go into quarantine. The same could happen any day in the other food shops where employees are overexposed to the public.

I’ve still not witnessed any signs of hoarding, and the government promises that food and medical supplies will not be broken, but what if the very people who work to feed us fall ill? What if farmworkers and employees in food processing plants go into quarantine?

Both our daughters and their boyfriends in France and Spain are infected, as well as two cousins. They’ve been in quarantine for a week and have very light symptoms, although one has lost her sense of taste and smell a week into it. I have a friend who has asthma and has had it for a month. She’s better, but far from over it. Despite the confinement, our Ana manages to do 10,000 steps a day in the house. Leo still works out at home every day. Their symptoms are not worrying yet they must avoid contact with people less healthy than they.

In Italy, there has been a sense that the lockdown is in everybody’s best interest, so most people are following the rules. They are being responsible because they know it will only get worse if they don’t cooperate. I say that, knowing that the military has been brought to Milan and I think Rome to enforce the rules. My friend in Turin says there are far too many people in the streets, and they will surely have to clamp down. The government’s policy is that lockdown has to be complete to be effective. That makes sense to me.

Sometimes I feel like a prisoner in my own home, and I stand by the window and wave through the bars at the odd passerby. The bars come with the 17th-century architecture of the house which has nothing to do with the real prison across the street. The wait for a sign of life can be long because the streets are empty, and often we can only make facial gestures to each other because their arms are laden with groceries.

All our assumptions about what tomorrow will bring have been turned upside down. Every day is the same in that we wait for the new numbers, announced at 6 p.m. Sometimes we hear that they are going to announce more stringent measures, so we wait for the new decrees to be released to know what we should be doing to support this war on coronavirus. It’s a little like spelunking. You attach the light to your head and little by little you see where the cave takes you. There’s no map to show you your way. You have to be patient and carry on, not knowing what will come around the next corner.


Thursday, March 19, 2020

Update from a cousin in the coronavirus hotspot of Bergamo


Knowing that Bergamo is one of the hardest hit cities in Italy, I recently reached out to see how our cousin Matteo Seghieri, who moved from Ferrara to Bergamo a few years ago, has been bearing up during the current epidemic. Note: This is not the same Matteo Seghieri who lives on via Mattonaia in Montecarlo. This Matteo is the grandson of Giuseppe “Beppino” Seghieri of Montecarlo. Here is his report, sent in the early morning of March 19, with a little editing for clarity.

We are fine but Bergamo is bleeding, with more than 400 people dead from complications related to the coronavirus. The vast majority, more than 90%, were more than 75 years old and had other health problems. The hospitals are collapsing because of too many people in need of treatment. In the last few days, we are sending people to the Southern Italy (Sicily, Puglia, etc.) on military flights.

If someone of your family get seriously sick and needs treatment, sanitary measures do not allow you to follow them to the hospitals or visit them. And we are not holding funerals to avoid people gathering, so the terrible reality is that the day you see a friend or family member taken away for the hospital is the last moment you see them.

We stick super strictly to social distancing. My daughter and my wife have been closed in the apartment since February 22, when cases increased sharply and schools were closed down. We literally only got out to try my new company car, for 45 minutes. We walked in secondary streets for 10 minutes in the open air, after the first 10 days of lockdown in a sunny Saturday afternoon. That was the 7th of March. We do not go near anyone. We did not enter any bar or anything else.

We got our food home delivered from February 22 until March 9. Then home deliveries were halted. So now I am going once a week to a supermarket. We clean every package with some detergent before putting it on the shelves. We clean everything immediately behind our door. We leave our shoes at the door (we always did this even before; we walk barefooted in the house).

We are not scared for ourselves about the virus. If you are healthy (and luckily, we are) and you respect restrictions, there is really little to worry about. But you have to take care you do not give it to your relatives. It is mostly dangerous for older persons.

My parents as you know passed away years ago, but Zia Elsa and Monica (Elsa's daughter) live in Bergamo. Zia Elsa is 85 years old, and we are worried. She is under strict quarantine now, to avoid contagion, and Monica is taking extremely good care of her. My mother’s parents live in a city called Borgomanero, and for the time being it is less affected, a bit safer, and they also stick to the rules.

My suggestion is to follow higher restrictions than needed for you and your family, as soon as you can. This is what we have done. This keeps you safer, and at the same time it gives you the possibility to “test” new habits and adjust your life better. It is not a big sacrifice, especially for the average American house, considering you have big houses and rooms and there is quite adequate space for everybody! I am happy to know you have space enough to move around without going out. My regards. Stay safe and all the best. Matteo


Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Italian Americans embrace DNA testing: Is it for you?

Ambassador magazine has purchased and my article on DNA testing for Italian Americans and published it in the spring 2020 edition. It was around 2,800 words when I submitted it, and it had to be cut to 1,400. Much of the editing improved it by changing some long direct quotes to shorter indirect quotes, but important concepts had to be cut as well.

If youre interested in reading it, you can chose the longer text version below, or read the shorter version that was published in the magazine, which is also included below.

Testing Your Ancestry DNA: What a Saliva Sample Can--and Can't--Tell About You

By Paul Spadoni

One or more of your parents, grandparents or great grandparents came from Italy. That makes you Italian, right? For some Italian Americans, that’s all they need to know—but millions of others have submitted their DNA to popular testing companies—paying as little as $59—to fill in gaps in their knowledge or see if science confirms what they already believe to be so.





One or more of your parents, grandparents or great grandparents came from Italy. That makes you Italian, right? For some Italian Americans, that’s all they need to know—but millions of others have submitted their DNA to popular testing companies—paying as little as $59—to fill in gaps in their knowledge or see if science confirms what they already believe to be so.

More than 26 million people—mostly Americans—have taken genetic ancestry tests, according to MIT Technology Review. Ancestry, the market leader, has tested more than 15 million alone, and the numbers roughly double annually.

The two main reasons for the burgeoning popularity of these tests are curiosity about one’s ethic origins and to find previously unknown relatives. Some companies also provide health information, such as predisposition to specific diseases.

In many cases, little information about “the old country” has been passed down from one generation to the next—and is this limited information even accurate? Is it possible that one’s earlier ancestors immigrated to Italy from some other country before subsequently leaving for America?

“I wanted to know where I came from and who my ancestors were, and then pass that information to my son and future generations,” said Nicole Gallant Nunes of Danvers, Massachusetts. “My great-grandfather left Italy alone at age 13 to live with an uncle in Boston to learn how to be a barber. He never spoke much of his life in Italy, so we weren’t really sure of his origins. My DNA confirmed that both my grandfather and grandmother had deep roots in small towns in the Avellino area of Italy.”

While some just seek confirmation of their ethnicity, finding relatives is a strong motivation for others, especially those seeking to create or add to their family trees.

“I cherish my ethnicity, and DNA testing is a way to confirm, share it and find relatives,” said Frannie Myannie of Cranston, Rhode Island. “I tested 80% Italian, which was not a surprise, since all my grandparents were from southern Italy. But I was surprised to see percentages of Arab, Egyptian, Spanish, Portuguese and Asian. I lack knowledge about Italy’s history, and this has inspired me to learn to understand it better. It has also piqued my interest to visit the comuni (hometowns) of my ancestors, and I did visit three of the four. I made some wonderful acquaintances, and it was the best experience of my life.”

“I know exactly where my parents and grandparents came from,” said Gae Nastasi of Brisbane, Australia. “For me, the DNA test allowed us to find relatives who had left Sicily early in the 20th century and gone to the USA, and with whom we had lost contact. We found a whole branch of the family which we had always wondered about. They had left before my mother was born, so all she knew was that they had gone to America.”

“I did DNA testing three years ago, and it has seriously taken over my life,” said Annette Gigliotti Steele of Gresham, Oregon. “Oh my gosh, cousins were coming out of the woodwork! It was also really cool to see the test put me smack dab in Calabria, where my family originated from.”

Even though DNA tests don’t show exactly how people who share genetic similarities are related, they can lead to contacts with other relatives who have already done the hard research.

“My father’s dad passed before I was born, and I had knowledge of only three of his siblings,” said Benita Cicero of Alexander, Arkansas. “Though 23andMe, I matched two second cousins. I loved it all, especially meeting and talking with new cousins.”

Joanne Cretella
“I didn’t know much about my mom’s side of the family,” said Joanne Cretella of Naugatuck, Connecticut. “I’ve found many cousins who have given me photos and stories that I never would have known otherwise,”

Despite these happy stories, genealogists and geneticists caution that the tests can lead to false hopes and confusion for people who don’t understand how the process works. This is sometimes fed by overly enthusiastic advertisements from the many testing services, which may, as CRI Genetics does, promise customers “an accurate detailed portrait of your family’s history.”

Lynn Serrafinn at Lake Garda, Italy.
“Marketing campaigns love to focus on success stories of people who were reunited with parents, siblings and close relations,” said Lynn Serafinn, author and professional genealogist from Bedford, England. “For most people, the reality of connecting with blood relations through DNA testing is much more challenging.”

Because of privacy concerns, potential relatives may be listed only by their initials. The testing services provide the ability to send messages, but often people don’t respond, likely because they took the test for curiosity about ethnic origins instead of establishing new contacts.

Another area that critics believe is overhyped is the accuracy of the ethnicity reports. Each testing company has reference groups of people from various countries who have had genetic tests. Scientists then compare the DNA strands to find commonalities, and your DNA will be analyzed against these results to see where your ancestors may have come from. The accuracy of the results depends both on the size of the reference panel and the genetic diversity of the country.

“Ethnicity reports from DNA testing companies do not—and cannot—tell you ‘who you are’ but only who you are most similar to in comparison to other test takers in their systems,” Serafinn said.

Another genealogist, Bob Sorrentino of Bradley Beach, New Jersey, points out that it is important to rely on old-fashioned research.

Bob Sorrentino
“All my grandparents were born in Italy, so naturally I believed I would be mostly Italian, which I am,” Sorrentino said, “but I’m also Spanish, Greek and a bit of Persian.”

Sorrentino has used traditional genealogy methods to trace some of his ancestors back as far as 1,000 years, and he has found roots from other countries.

“DNA is only one part of the puzzle,” he said. “Documentation, to the extent that you can find it, is the other. Through (Italian website) Antenati, I found Swiss and Spanish great grandparents, and through historical documents I found ancestors from almost every European royal family.”

Italian ethnicity results are complicated by the fact that DNA from southern Italians is different than that of northern Italians.
“Of all the European countries, Italy is the most genetically diverse within its own population, which is reflective of its history as a crossroads of human migration and settlement,” said Vincent Palozzi, a professor at Miami University and an administrator of Italy DNA Project.

Southern Italy, especially Sicily, has been invaded more than 17 times in the past 2,000 years. It has seen extensive periods of foreign domination including Greek, Roman, Vandal, Ostrogoth, Byzantine, Arab, Norman, Aragonese and Spanish.

Alfio Di Mauro, right, with travel guru Rick Steves.
“Sicily is in the center of the Mediterranean,” said Alfio Di Mauro of Sicily, a former science researcher at the University of Catania and now a tour guide. “It is a fertile garden-like land and a natural steppingstone between Europe and Africa. No other part of the world so small has had so many invasions. For thousands of years, it was the island to control; it was considered the center of the civilized world.

“You’ll never find such a power-packed, genetically diverse and historically interesting place like Sicily. If you do a genetic survey of Europe, which region has the highest genetic diversity in Europe? It’s Sicily!”

Northern Italy has also had its share of occupiers, but the invaders generally came by land from the North, whereas attackers of southern Italy came by sea from other regions in the Mediterranean basin. Northern Italians tend to have genetic traits in common with their French, German and Spanish neighbors.

DNA testing is not common or popular in most European countries. In fact, it is restricted by privacy laws in Italy, so the data bases are still small, and some companies have found it difficult to differentiate the regions. This can create confusion, doubt and even dismay for people who have identified themselves as Italian and then find out that a testing company has labeled them as something else.

“I’m the state recording secretary for the Sons and Daughters of Italy,” said Gina Natucci of Tacoma, Washington. “But my DNA test from Ancestry came back saying I was 7% Italian, and that has since been revised to 0%. Other members of my family have also been revised to 3% or less. That was a surprising, shocking and disappointing. My great grandparents moved here from Tuscany in the early 1900s. Were they really from somewhere else?”

However, Natucci has done her own research, which involved visiting the parish archives in Pescia, Italy, and thus far she has traced her grandfather’s ancestral line back to 1725. “I trust the paper trail much more than what the DNA testing company says.”

Another issue that irks scientists are marketing claims the companies use, such as “Find out who you really are,” “Reinvent the way you see yourself” and experience “the awesome process of discovering yourself.” While Italian Americans express a fondness for Italy and Italian culture, would someone who takes a DNA test and finds out they are actually more Scottish than Italian suddenly develop a yearning to play bagpipes and wear a kilt? Is an affinity for your ancestral culture inherent or learned?

“I understand that people want to research their family histories and find out more about their heritage,” said Ryan Anderson, cultural and environmental anthropologist at the University of Santa Clara. “Tracing your family genealogy can be fascinating. The problem is that these tests seriously conflate culture and biology. Culture is not genetic. There is no ‘Irish’ or ‘German’ gene or combination of genes. That’s just not how it works.

“Culture is shared, patterned, learned behavior. Humans may have the biological capacity for culture, but the specific expression of that capacity is a matter of social relationships and history. Cultural behavior is not intrinsic or inherent. Nobody is born with a certain culture or set of cultural behaviors–people learn it over time.”

Timothy Caulfield, a health policy professor at the University of Alberta, Canada, said the marketing departments of many testing companies have gone overboard in their claims about DNA testing.

“These companies are really trying to push the idea that this is scientific,” he said in a televised interview with CBC Marketplace. “They present it in a way that looks very scientific and precise. It’s an exciting story. It’s about you, but I think it’s recreational science. People can have a little bit of fun.

“Don’t take it too seriously but know that you’re just getting some information of how your DNA compares to other people. It’s not tracing back your heritage.”

Knowing what company to choose and what kind of test to request can be confusing, considering there are four different kinds of tests and many testing agencies.

Four major companies offer DNA testing—Ancestry, 23andMe, Family Tree DNA and MyHeritage—although several more have started within the last few years.

Four genealogically related analyses can be done, although not all companies perform all tests,” Palozzi said. “Briefly, testing can be done on the y chromosome (yDNA identifies direct paternal lineage), the x chromosome (xDNA, female pattern of inheritance), mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA identifies direct maternal lineage) and autosomal DNA (atDNA, overall ethnic/geographical origins). Which tests a person should order depends on the person’s testing goals.”

Most people choose autosomal, because it gives more information on geographical origins. Because it is so much more popular, the chances of finding relatives is also much higher. Ancestry has the largest database, so one is more likely to find relatives there. Some experts called in question its formula for determining Italian ethnicity, especially for northern Italian regions and Tuscany.

Italian and Italian American Spadoni cousins meet in Italy. An Ancestry DNA test was the key to their coming together. Susan Spadoni, Sauro Spadoni, Suzanne Spadoni, Paul Spadoni, Annette Spadoni Bannon, Sharon Spadoni Marr.
Sorrentino recommends Ancestry for finding relatives but Living DNA for ethnicity. Palozzi favors 23andMe as the most accurate for determining Italian origins, but he added this caveat: “Which companies provide the most accurate results at any given time can change, because each company has its own reference database which is updated from time to time. Additionally, companies may use different mathematical formulas to do their analyses, and the science continues to develop, providing more refined analyses.”

Serafinn, who has extensively researched her father’s northern Italian ancestry, received analyses from four companies: Ancestry, 23andMe, CRI Genetics and MyHeritageDNA. Of these, MyHeritageDNA matched her genealogical research most closely. However, she found comparisons difficult because “no two companies have the same test people in their reference panels, no two companies have the same number of ethnic groups, no two companies label their populations with the same names and no two companies define these populations with the same geographic boundaries.”

Palozzi said he expects the companies to steadily become more accurate and detailed as their sample sizes increase.

“Your testing can help scientists and historians better understand the development of modern Italy,” he said, “and it may help others who are trying to discover their own roots. It’s only because of the people who have tested so far that we can do these analyses, and the more who test, the better the analyses will be.”

Another cautionary note is added by Ancestry on its website: “You may discover unexpected facts about yourself or your family when using our services. Once discoveries are made, we can’t undo them.” This warning is provided because some people discover for the first time that they are not genetically related to a parent, sibling or cousin because of what genealogists call a non-paternity event. This can result from undisclosed adoption, sperm donation, marital infidelity, rape or medical mistakes during procedures such as in vitro fertilization. Estimates of misattributed paternity range from 2% to 12%.

Discovery of a non-paternity event was initially devasting to Steven King, who shared his feelings on Megyn Kelly Today in 2018. King recommends joining a support group, many of which can easily be found online.

“It’s such basic information about your individuality that should not be revealed via email,” King said. “Such personal details should be revealed to you by your family. If you’re going to get a DNA test, be prepared. The information could be life-changing.”

Some people may be hesitant to send their DNA off to a big company because of privacy concerns and fears that their data may be stolen, sold or obtained by the government. However, they all make strong statements about the importance of privacy and the efforts they take to protect it. They have state-of-the art systems to prevent hacking and security breaches.

“Customers can control how much of their information is made available to other users,” Palozzi said. “Privacy and security have always been a priority with the major companies, and since they have European customers, they’re following stricter European Union laws over the U.S. laws.”

23andMe’s website says: “Respect for customer privacy and transparency are core principles that guide 23andMe’s approach to responding to legal requests and maintaining customer trust. We will not share your data with any public databases. We will not provide any person’s data to an insurance company or employer. Unless required to do so by law, we will not release a customer’s individual-level personal information to any third party without asking for and receiving that customer’s explicit consent. More specifically, we will closely scrutinize all law enforcement and regulatory requests and we will only comply with court orders, subpoenas, search warrants or other requests that we determine are legally valid.”

Whatever one’s motivations for testing, if current trends continue, more than 100 million people will have submitted their genes for testing by the end of 2021. And whether one is determined to be 100% or 1% Italian by the arbitrary standards of ethnicity, sometimes it’s wise to set aside technicalities and consider the words of the late poet Enzo Camilleri: “Italy is an emotion that hits you in the heart and will never leave you again. Italy is something inside you . . . 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.”

Paul Spadoni is an author and speaker on the topics of Italian living and genealogy. He writes a popular blog, “Living (with) Abroad in Tuscany,” and is the author of a Readers’ Choice award-winning memoir, “An American Family in Italy: Living la Dolce Vita without Permission.” Spadoni has obtained his jure sanguinis Italian citizenship and lives in both Montecarlo, Italy, and Gig Harbor, Washington.