Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A little gift from God for Rosa and us

Tuesday, April 26
Fascinating, providential, serendipitous—these words all describe one of the events of the day. First must come a background story, though.

Several years ago, while doing research on the family by using and, I found the names of thirty or forty Spadonis from Ponte Buggianese and surrounding areas who came to the United States from 1900 to 1920. Most went to Chicago, but some to San Francisco, Minnesota and, of course, Washington state. One I noted in particular because, although he went to Chicago in 1911, his draft registration card says he was living on S. Washington Street in Tacoma in 1917. His occupation was listed as car repairman for Northern Pacific Railroad. Both the ship’s record of his crossing and his draft card say he had a wife, Orsola, still living in Ponte Buggianese.

I have always been curious about this mysterious Guido, wondering if my nonno Michele knew him. Michele’s father was born in Ponte Buggianese, and Michele was born about three miles away in Pescia. Tacoma and Gig Harbor are right across from each other on Puget Sound, and Michele worked at the Asarco smelter in Tacoma (technically it was in Ruston, but Ruston is pretty much surrounded by Tacoma). It is extremely likely that Guido and Michele were related, although they may not have known exactly how because of the long Spadoni history in Ponte Buggianese. Anyway, right after 1917, Guido disappeared from the records, and I have always wondered what happened to him.

Now we are back to today. Lucy is cooking in preparation for tomorrow’s rinfresco, but the rest of us take advantage of the fact that we have a rental car and can travel to places inaccessible by train or bike. I use Google maps to find a little city in the hills about 20 minutes above Pescia. It becomes our destination on a drive up a rough, winding and narrow road through a scenic valley covered with green grass, olive trees and multi-colored wild flowers. Of course there are also ancient stone farm houses and arching bridges and terraced gardens.

We arrive in San Quirico and walk around for forty-five minutes, admiring the view of the surrounding hillsides and the winding, narrow and hilly streets. It is a community with only a centro storico; there are no new buildings on the outskirts. The houses, though ancient, are well maintained, and pots of fragrant flowers abound in the streets and courtyards. Just before we are ready to leave, Randall notices a door sign that reads: Dinelli Avio e Spadoni Rosa. I snap a photo and we are about to move on, but Lela has seen a man coming out the door. She greets him with a “Ciao,” and says there are some Spadonis here, motioning toward us. He comes to the gate, and I explain that we are italo-americani and are interested in the sign because we share the same name. I ask for his name, but unfortunately it doesn’t stay with me, only that his surname is Dinelli but he is also part Spadoni.
He immediately invites us in to meet his mother, Rosa Spadoni. We learn that Rosa will turn 100 years old this October, and her husband is no longer living. Her son, the man who has invited us in, grew up here, but he has been in Germany for the last forty years or so. He comes down often to see his mother, especially around the holidays, but apparently Rosa lives alone when her son is not visiting. He explains to Rosa that we are Spadonis and that we are looking for possible relatives. What is her father’s name? Guido, she says. And her mother’s name was Orsola. Guido and his brother Attilio went to America when Rosa was young, but during World War 1, they returned. Guido lived the rest of his life in Italy, but Attilio went to Argentina and the family does not know what became of him.

Suddenly I remember. This is the Guido who was in Tacoma in 1917 and worked for the railroad. “Did your father go to Chicago and then Tacoma?” I ask. Yes, she thinks he went to Chicago and then somewhere else, but he was concerned he would have to fight in the war, so he and his brother returned to Italy. I explain that I have seen records of her father when he was in America, and he was practically in the same city as my nonno. I also tell her my great grandfather was born in the same city as her father, so it is likely that we are distant relatives, though neither of us can go back far enough in the records to prove this conclusively. After fifteen minutes of conversation and some coffee, we are content to go home, but it is obvious that everyone has enjoyed this chance encounter.

As we walk to the car, we can’t help but be impressed by the incredible sequence of events that had to occur for us to meet this super-distant cousin. I picked a city out to visit at random. We walked down the right street, and Randall just happened to glance at the name on the gate. We came by at the exact moment that Rosa’s son came out the door, but only Lela saw him. Thankfully, Lela hung back and said something, because the rest of us were already walking away. And then we find that this is not just any Spadoni, but one who has ties both to Ponte Buggianese and also the state of Washington, and it is a family about which I have some information. I feel as if God has indulged me in my hobby of family research by leading me to Rosa and her son, a little gift to brighten up my day, and I think He has brightened up Rosa’s day as well.

Postscript: While going through the parish archives in 2014, I found out how I was related to Rosa. We had a common ancestor Lorenzo Spadoni, born in 1723 and married to Caterina Mariani. Rosa descended from their son Francesco, and my family came from another son, Leonardo. Counting down through the generations, that would have made Guido and Michele, both in Tacoma in 1917, third cousins. My dad would have been a fourth cousin to Rosa, so she is my fourth cousin once removed.

Suzye finds a very large grasshopper and uses it to entertain us all, Micah included.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Festa with family at Pescia

Monday, April 25
Easter Monday is a special day in Italy when people go on picnics with their families and take walks in the country or though the cities. Pretty much everything is closed, so we spend a relaxing morning at home. It is very quiet, since the agriturismo owners and workers have the day off. In the afternoon, Lucy and I drive to Pescia to pick up Suzye, who is tired but happy to be here. She arrived in Milano early this morning and then took a bus to the train station and then a slow regionale train to Prato. She transferred there and arrives at Pescia at 3:10 p.m. We take her home to eat and wash up, and then we all go back to Pescia for a community festa.

The festa features several bands and a group of jugglers parading around and performing in the large central piazza. At the same time, there are booths selling antiques, and we buy two framed prints, one on silk cloth. I also buy some Tex comic books to help practice my Italian reading skills. One of the nice things about these small events is the opportunity to get up close to the performers, and, as always, we enjoy people-watching; in this case, we see lots of Italian families enjoying themselves together, and there are many older people, faces lined with character.

The gelato at our favorite gelateria is a minor disappointment, but only because it is nearly sold out and we don’t have the usual large array of choices. What is left, though, is still delicious, as is the whole evening. We return home and find that Bar Grazia is closed for the holiday, but we try out for the first time San Salvatore’s other pizzeria. It is slightly more expensive, but the pizzas are roasted directly over wood coals for added flavor. We carry the pizza home and find it to be a satisfying conclusion to a very pleasant day.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Driving in Italy can be an adventure

Saturday & Sunday, April 23-24
Most of Saturday is taken up with traveling from Georgia to Latvia to Rome, and then back “home” to San Salvatore. We have reserved a car in Rome, because now we have Randall, Lela and Micah with us. It has been three months since I have driven, and it takes me a few minutes to feel comfortable, but I have driven in Italy before and am not apprehensive. We did not pay extra for GPS, because we will be on main highways almost all the way, and these are well marked. We have ridden our bikes all around the local area and I can find my way around here just fine. However, if we had planned to go to a number of new cities, I would not have hesitated to pay the fee for GPS.

A few years ago, we had to maneuver through cities such as Roma, Milano, Prato and Modena, and we wasted a good deal of time getting lost and asking for directions. We had printed out online maps with driving directions, but in many cases they were useless. It’s not that the directions were faulty, but Italian streets can change names multiple times in a single mile, or they fork off into two parallel streets that run side by side, and you must decide which fork to take before you have a chance to see any street signs. And speaking of street signs, that is probably the worst problem with using online directions, because the directions might tell you to turn right on via Carciofi, but there may be no sign for via Carciofi at your particular intersection. Actually, they may very well be a sign, but it is thirty feet above your head, engraved in aging stone on the side of a building, and you will never see it because the cars behind you are urging you ahead with honking horns.

Now as we drive up the coastal highway from Fiumicino to Pisa, I am reminded of the trait that most stands out about Italian drivers: They drive at very different speeds. I am driving at about 115 kilometers per hour, and I am passing about two thirds of the other motorists. The others are passing me, some at speeds that that must be around 150 kph. It is growing dark, and the roads are generally well lighted and the edges marked with reflectors, but there are some dark spots and unexpected twists and turns. I want to find someone who is going my speed and follow his taillights at a safe distance, but everyone is either going faster or slower. Once in a while I find someone going at my speed and follow until he exits, and then I search again for another leader.

Drivers in Napoli know how to maneuver round-abouts
without slowing down unneccessarily and causing traffic jams.
I have driven mostly in Central and Northern Italy, but we did rent a car in Roma two years ago and spent most of our time in the narrow streets of the Amalfi Coast. This was challenging, but I learned by watching other drivers to manage the tight and sharply curving streets. I confess that I was among the slowpokes during that trip, however. I think the only place I would be hesitant to try would be the streets of Napoli, where drivers have a different set of rules. I have watched the traffic there, and it is scary, but it actually flows amazingly smoothly. If two cars are approaching the same intersection at the same time at 90 degree angles, it looks like a collision will occur because neither car is slowing down. However, as they get closer, it will be apparent that one car is about five feet closer to the intersection than the other. The car that is behind will brake just the slightest bit, allowing the other driver to enter the intersection first, but then the second car will continue at almost the same speed and zip just a few feet behind the first car. It will look like a narrow miss, but both drivers understood the rules and the traffic flow continued with only an imperceptible interruption.

In America, both cars would have slowed way down, and then one driver would signal the other to go ahead, in a very safe and logical way, it would seem. However, the Italian drivers have caused much less disruption to the flow of traffic, and since the roads are crowded, traffic would be at a perpetual standstill under American rules. Nonetheless, old habits are hard to break, and I don’t know if I could handle this style. In any event, it is almost impossible for me to figure out the parking rules in most Italian cities, so I will continue to avoid cities whenever possible, and Napoli in particular.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Feasting on Georgian hospitality

Monday-Friday, April 17-21
Here in Georgia, we are completely reliant on Lela for language translation. She can switch easily between English, Georgian and Russian, and she can also speak to her relatives in Ossetian, the ethnic group to which her family belongs. Her sister, Lia, speaks a little English, but her dad and mom not any, so when Lela is not busy taking care of baby Micah, she helps us communicate with her parents. Her dad, Boris, could probably entertain us for hours with stories about his country and his days in the Soviet army, if only Lela were available for hours to translate.

Lela's sister Lia does her best to serve as interpreter while Lela is off feeding Micah or putting him to sleep, and Lia gives a good effort but often ends up calling on Lela when the vocabulary gets too complicated. I joke with her that she can do what Roberto Benigni did in "Life is Beautiful," when he voluntered to translate the German guard's instructions to the imprisoned Italian Hebrews. That is, she can make up whatever translations she wants and nobody in the room will know any differently. After a couple of efforts to explain this, she understands, and explains this to her dad, who laughs and then has a story to tell which must wait for Lela to translate.  We hear a story about a Georgian man who responded to a job offer in a far-away region in the north of the Soviet Union. He was supposed to teach English, and he really wanted the job. He figured that in such a remote region, nobody would know if he were teaching English or not, so instead he taught his students to speak a little-used Georgian dialect. What were the odds, he thought, that people in this poor and isolated village would ever have the chance to travel and use their English anyway. He almost got away with it, but just before he was to retire, one of his former students had the ambition to apply to a university in Russia, where he had to take an English language placement exam. The student failed the exam completely and then reported the teacher to the authorities. The teacher had to serve a jail sentence, but he sounded unrepentent, because as Boris tells the story, the teacher said, "If it weren't for that one smart student, I would have gotten away with it."

What we will remember most about our time here is Lela's welcoming and gracious family. Unlike Italy, where we are served multiple courses, all the food is put on the table at once, and there is so much and so many different varieties that nobody could possibly try each type, unless maybe you take just a spoonful of each. When we visit the farm of Lela's aunt and uncle, the table is so full that some dishes have to be stacked on top of each other. I count at least fifteen different dishes, and after that we lose count. We also have homemade wine and cherry juice, as well as vodka and soft drinks. All this is made in a kitchen without a sink and no running water. While the dinner is being made, we all help haul water in demijohns from a spring about a half mile away. Lela's dad makes multiple toasts throughout the meal--to the cousins, to the ancestors, to the children, to the visiting Americans, to the cooks. Of course, we toast our hosts and our thankfulness to God for finding Randall such a remarkable wife with such a warm family.

One of the sights we see is a statue high on a hill overlooking Tbilisi. It is Mother Georgia, Lela explains. In one hand she holds a flask of wine, and in the other a sword. The wine symbolizes how Georgians welcome their friends, with generosity and hospitality. The sword demonstrates that Georgians are ready to fiercely defend their land from enemies. The saying goes something like this: “We greet our friends with wine and our enemies with the sword.” If they show as much passion with the sword as they do with the wine, we are indeed fortunate to have come as friends.

Friday, April 22, 2011

How (not) to become an Italian citizen

Wednesday, April 20
While we are taking a timeout from living the vita bella, I have some time to give the back story about how I obtained Italian citizenship for myself and my family. To do so, travel back in time with me to 1997. I have just finished reading a book about an Italian American who went to considerable effort to find his Italian grandfather's birth certificate, so that he could apply for Italian citizenship. Intrigued by this possibility, I find a website that explains how this is possible. I discover that I can do this because I know where my grandfather was born and that I will be able to obtain his birth certificate. The other key is that my grandfather must not have renounced his Italian citizenship before my dad was born. Some Italian immigrants during the big migration of the late 1800s and early 1900s renounced their citizenship when they joined the American army during World War 1 (although renouncing Italian citizenship was not a requirement, many chose to do so), but my grandfather was not among those. He did become an American citizen just before World War 2, since there was some talk of sending Italian and German aliens to concentration camps with the Japanese, but this was well after all of Nonno's children had been born.

As I read the website, I discover that I technically am an Italian citizen, because my dad was born of an Italian citizen, making him automatically a dual citizen. What remains, though, is the difficult part of convincing the Italian government that I am Italian. Using information from the website, I begin a process that will take me twelve years. It is easy to blame this delay entirely on the Italian bureaucracy, but the fault is at least half mine and a little bit of the American bureaucracy and then other members of my family. Had I hired an agency to prepare the documents needed, I probably could have been a citizen within a year or two at the most.

Instead I try to do everything myself. I write to an Italian cousin, who goes to Pescia and sends me Nonno's birth certificate. Lucy does the research needed to obtain birth certificates for me, my dad and mom, and our children. We also find marriage certificates for everyone who is married and Nonno's naturalization papers, to show that he had not renounced his citizenship until after my dad was born. I ask my brother and sister if they want to get their citizenship at the same time, since it would only add a little more time to add their documents to the mix. My sister and her two chilren provide me their certificates as well, but my brother's family says they don't want to hold up the process by making us wait for them to get everything together. Once I get all documents in hand, next comes the need to translate the English language certificates into Italian. With the help of a dictionary and two Italian exchange students who live with us in 1997-98 and 1999-2000, I prepare my own translations.

We mail everything to the Italian Consulate in San Francisco in 2000. Since at the time the Consulate had a website written almost entirely in Italian only, I even write my cover letter in Italian, again with generous help from others. In the spring of 2002, we receive our first response, which explains, in Italian, what mistakes we have made. One major oversight is that we did not have each American document affixed with an apostille from the State of Washington. Even though the certificates of birth, death and marriage have the stamp of the appropriate counties, for international documents, an apostille is needed to ensure the county documents are authentic. How I missed reading this regulation at the time I don't know. The website I used as a reference no longer exists, so I don't know if this rule was not stated or I just overlooked it. In any event, Lucy takes all the documents to Olympia, pays a fee and we have our apostilles. The next problem is not so easy. Nonno's American death certificate says he was born October 8, but his Italian birth certificate says October 9. I have to provide proof that he is truly the Michele Spadoni who was born in Pescia, Italy, on October 9, and not some different Michele Spadoni born October 8. In 2002, it is impossible to call the Consulate in San Francisco for advice or even to use e-mail. We have two choices. We can coorespond by fax, or we can go in person and wait in line. I have a business trip to San Francisco in 2003, so I take my turn and ask in person what can be done.

"You must change the American death certificate," the clerk tells me. "It is the only way. The birth certificate cannot be changed."

Back home at the Pierce County Health Department, I am told that it will take a court order to do this. I am given the address of the court I must use, and this leads to more than a year of procrastination on my part. When I finally go to the court office, with the encouragement and accompaniment of sister Linda, we are told that I was misinformed; the Health Department has the authority to issue a new death certificate, a court order is not required, and I must go back to the Health Department and tell them this. So back we go, and after some discussion among three different clerks at the Health Department, they agree that they can indeed issue a corrected death certificate. I need to give them a copy of Nonno's Italian birth certificate, along with an English translation, which I can do quite easily. Within a couple of days, we have a corrected certificate and are ready to re-submit our application.

Oops, not quite, because in the meantime, my niece has had her name changed (which did take a court order), so she must fill out a new application and we need to include the order for the name change and a translation into Italian, along with another apostille.

By the time we re-submit everything, it is 2004. Two years have passed since our first rejection letter. Some months after we mail in our revised documents, we receive a letter from the consulate. The director is on maternity leave and there is no replacement. We will have to wait. Then another letter a year later. She is back from leave but has a large backlog of cases and won't begin looking at our application for another nine to twelve months. At least this time the letter is in English, and we can easily understand it. In 2007, we receive our second rejection letter. Most of the problems are minor--a page is missing from one form, we didn't fill in an address on another form--but two problems require some extra time to solve.

To get my niece's name change document approved by Italian authorities could take years, we are told. It would be far easier if we could just get her birth certificate changed by American authorities and re-submit her application under her new name. The other problem is with the translations. While they are mostly okay, the rejection letter says, there are "some irregularities" that need to be corrected. We are given a page with names of professional translators, but I decide instead to use an Italian acquaintance who works in Seattle as a translator. I offer to pay her, but she refuses payment. However, she also takes ten months to get the work done. Eight months into our wait, I send her a gift card to an Italian grocery store in Seattle as a thank-you for the work she is doing for us. It is also a subtle reminder that we have not heard from her. In the end, she makes about fifteen changes and also returns the gift card, saying it is not necessary.

I might have fretted over the translation delay, but in the meantime I have also been waiting for my sister to get me a copy of my niece's new birth certificate, which takes even longer. During this wait, my son has married, and we have to get his wife's birth certificate and their marriage certificate. Not wanting to risk further delays, I finally break down and pay for professional translations, which come back within a week. By this time, some of us have changed addresses, so I have nearly everyone fill out new applications and submit new photo identification cards. In March of 2010, I submit everything for the third time.

In the summer, I check the consulate's web site and find a disturbing statement. There is a new director, and as of this year, applications by mail are no longer being accepted. Applicants must make personal appointments to have their paperwork reviewed. I send an e-mail explaining my situation, and to my surprise, I get a response within a week. Since my application was already in progress, it was okay to submit by mail. I just need to wait until they get to my application, which should happen within a few months. I send another e-mail in October, and I am assured that my paperwork will be reviewed well before I leave for Italy in late January of 2011.

Finally, in mid-January of 2011, the letter arrives. Our citizenship has been approved! I have a document in hand stating that I am Italian, and we can fill out applications and come to San Francisco to get our passports. No one is home when I first get the news, but I put on the theme music from Rocky and shout, "Lucia, Lucia. Yo, Lucia, I did it!" I am charged with enthusiasm and energy, and not knowing what else to do with myself, I go outside and start vigorously spading my garden. I tell myself I must be trying to get in touch with my inner contadino, now that I have confirmation of who I am.

In any event, we have no time to go to San Francisco, as we will be leaving for Italy in two weeks and we have too many things at home to put in order. We will likely not need our passports this time because we are only staying three months and don't plan to make any major purchases. We will see if we can get passports in Italy, but if that fails, we can always go to San Francisco during the summer or fall.

In retrospect, I would certainly not recommend that anyone do this the way I did, but I can't say I have any regrets. I had no deadline to meet, and I feel better knowing that I was able to navigate the bureaucracies of two countries by myself while saving money along the way. I feel the same way about doing family research. I could pay a professional to do it, but what would be the fun of that? Some people like to solve crossword or Sodaku puzzles, and they surely wouldn't pay anybody for the solutions. The fun during the voyage is often equal to or greater than the joy of arrival.


Footnote: A middle ground and more economical way than professional services for your citizenship would be to purchase the book An Italian-American Guide to Seeking Dual Citizenship as Blood Right, by Valerie Winkler.
There is also a Facebook page where you can obtain advice from many other people with more experience: Dual U.S.-Italian Citizenship ( It includes an excellent forum you can search…

Short side trip to Latvia

Sunday, April 17
Thinking that we will never find a better time to visit Lela's family in Georgia, we have bought tickets on airBaltic to fly from Rome to Tbilisi, with a six-hour layover in Riga, Latvia. We decide to spend our extra time in Riga seeing the historic center, so we walk into the airport parking lot to explore the transportation options. A line of shiny new vans will take us for 5 euros, but we walk farther and see an older van full of people. The driver honks his horn and motions us to get in, but we find he doesn't speak English and we don't know where he is going. A passenger offers to translate, but the driver is impatient and pulls out. The van behind us is empty, and we study the map painted on the side. It will take us where we want to go for only 1 euro each, but the driver is not leaving for twenty minutes.

At this point, a middle-aged Latvian woman named Luda takes us under her wins. Only sixty meters away is the city bus, and Luda will show us where to get off. The cost is the same, 1 euro each. Latvia is part of the European Union, but apparently it is in a transition phase between lats and euros, and the driver doesn't want our 2 euros; he will only accept lats. Luda comes to our rescue again, paying for our tickets in lats while I hand her my euros.

The half hour bus ride gives us a chance for some quality people-watching. Latvia is in Northern Europe (I confess I had to look on the map to find it when I saw where the airline route would take us), and the people are mixed fair-haired and dark-haired. The dress style is more casual than in Italy, so Lucy and I blend in perfectly. We do notice a complete lack of Africans and very few Eastern Asians, and we think that might have something to do with the colder climate and more isolated position. The trees are just barely starting to show hints of green, and there are no blossoms. Italy's temperate climate and central location make it a prime location for the immigrants which are currently crowding in daily by the thousands.

Old town Riga turns out to be a very welcoming place, with modern bands playing and singing mostly American soft rock in two of the central piazzas. We also find a mixture of foreign-themed restaurants--Asian and Italian especially--and besides the usual McDonalds, there is also a TGIF Friday's doing a steady business. The young people we meet or overhear seem to speak English quite well, and we think it would be very easy for Americans to live here without learning Latvian, probably easier than it is to live in a little village in Italy, though it's unfair to compare living in the largest city in Latvia to a small town in Italy.

Thanks to perfect instructions from Luda and an office where we exchange some euros for lats, we take the bus back to the airport and catch our midnight flight to Tbilisi without a hitch. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Older Italians connected, but not online

Saturday, April 15
Ah, the wonders of technology. Even though we're not flying around in jet cars like George Jetson or traveling to other planets like James T. Kirk, the promise of easy communications has come true, making it so much easier to live abroad. It seems like just a few years ago that Sandy was an exchange student in Poland and we went months at a time with little contact. Yesterday I filed my taxes online and transferred money from one bank account to the other to cover the payment. We just talked face-to-face with Randy in Georgia (the former Soviet state, not the one next to Alabama) and then Sandy in Washington via Skype. I can get my phone messages from my Gig Harbor house and use my computer to call clients to line up appointments for my summer asphalt sealing work, and I can keep family and friends apprised of our daily doings with our online blog.

Italian young people are are tech savvy as anyone, but it is rare to find any Italian of my own generation or older who is connected. I have tried to talk to some of my relatives here about how nice it is to be able to talk and share pictures easily with family, shop online and look up information, but they have no interest. Their family is all around them, and it is nicer to talk in person, they say. I can't argue with that. I recently saw two women in their sixties taking a walk with a woman in her eighties, probably two daughters walking their mom. The sixty-somethings were on each side of the mom, supporting her while they took a turn around the town, and it is scenes like this that make me glad to be a part of this country. However, I still think that when I am not able to get around so easily, in the times that my own delightful children and friends aren't entertaining me, I will be very happy to be connected to the rest of the world.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Dinner and plans for a rinfresco

Friday, April 14
With a dinner tonight with Loriano, Gabriella and their son Pietro, we have now visited with nearly every relative we know on the Spadoni side of the family. Raffaello is the only one we have missed, but we think we will see him before we go, for we have invited him to a rinfresco, the Italian version of an open house, at Casolare dei Fiori April 27. The idea of a rinfresco is that we can invite Spadoni relatives that we have not met as well as those we have met to come to our agriturismo during the time that Randy, Lela, Micah and Suzye will be visiting. The beauty of an open house is that people can drop in for a short or long time, and we will not be on the spot to speak Italian for two hours with just one family. Guests can meet our family but there will also be other Italians there to talk to. We also plan to invite Seghieris that we have met and a few people from San Salvatore who have been friendly and helpful, such as our butcher, Luigi, and his wife, as well as their son, Matteo, who runs the little local general store.

The featured food will be dolci tipici americani--apple pie, chocolate chip cookies, gingerbread, magic cookie bars, cherry cream cheese pie, brownies and apple salad. Lucy has already e-mailed a shopping list to Suzye to bring ingredients that we can't find here, such as graham crackers, condensed sweetened milk, finely ground brown sugar, brownie mix and shortening. Luca and Roberta have given us permission to use the oven in their kitchen to supplement the little oven in our apartment.

We have a great time catching up with Loriano's family, whom we have not seen in ten years. As always, we encourage them to come visit us in America, but they seem very content with their daily routines here. Pietro, who is 33 and single, says he may come when the time is right. Well, we love it here too, so we can't blame them for wanting to stay home.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The value of a good name

Thursday, April 14
“A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches.” Proverbs 22:1

Having grown up in Gig Harbor with many wonderful uncles, aunts and cousins, I have recognized the value of a good name from a young age. One time I stopped to help a stranger who was stuck in a ditch, and he said, “You must be a Spadoni.” Whether he was relying on my dark hair and brown eyes or the fact that I stopped as an identifier, I don’t know. I asked him how he knew, and he just shrugged, but I grew accustomed to this throughout the years. Most people who have been in Gig Harbor very long know a Spadoni, went to school with a Spadoni or at least have heard the name. Even better, most of them have a high opinion of the Spadoni they know, so in a way, I have made a good impression on people before I even meet them, and I know the family name has given my little asphalt maintenance business a lot of jobs that I might otherwise never have had. Once, while on a waiting list for a flight in Chicago's airport, I was bumped to the top of the list because the airline hostess knew a pair of Spadoni dentists whom she said were "wonderful people." To all my cousins out there, thanks a million for doing a great job upholding the family name.

It is equally important—maybe even more important—here to have a good family name. While we have found Italians to be friendly and helpful in general, it helps to have a name that the locals recognize. In fact, two names, since once people start asking me questions, I am not shy about dropping in my grandmother’s name, Anita Seghieri. In this region of Toscana, if somebody doesn’t know a Spadoni, he will probably know a Seghieri, and both families enjoy a solid reputation; they have done well both here and abroad. Here in San Salvatore, anybody who is anybody knows a Seghieri. The Spadoni name is a little less known here, but three miles away, in Ponte Buggianese or Pescia, the opposite is true.

Of course, we are not the only families here with deep roots. As I look into the family history, I see the same names over and over again. They have married and intermarried numerous times, so that every old family here is tied to every other old family multiple times. Often I will be looking at names on stores and see a name that I recognize as having married into the Seghieri or Spadoni family at some time in the last couple of hundred years. In fact, sometimes more than once. I see the surname Cinelli three times in the Spadoni line. And back home in Washington, the Spadoni-Seghieri families have married a Natucci three times.

Alberto Spadoni, who sells real estate in Pescia, gave me a copy of the Spadoni family coat of arms and a little treatise on the historical significance of the name, though I take it with a grain of salt, because it is possible that we have little connection with these famous Spadonis. So far every Spadoni I have found in our family line, going back to about 1750, is listed as a contadino, a peasant farmer, certainly nothing to be ashamed of, but one might wonder how the descendents of the gonfaloniere of Lucca came to be contadini. In any event, I am happy that I have chosen to make this area the base of my Italian experience.

Here is the family background Alberto gave me, translated to the best of my abilities:
An ancient and noble family that flourished for centuries in various cities of Tuscany, where the family has produced illustrious and noble men of renown. Formerly known as Spada, the family flourished in Lucca; in Gubbio and Bologna; in Pesaro; and in Rome and Terni. The head of this noble family had the surname Brando and was nicknamed Spada (sword); he lived in 1010. Many members of this family were of the Council of Elders in the town of Lucca, and some held the high office of Gonfaloniere.* Mino di Gerardo was one of three ambassadors sent by Emperor Charles IV to Pisa in 1355 to help obtain freedom for the homeland (Lucca); Giannino di Mingo in 1370 was elected one of the twelve citizens of a reform council and of the eighteen elected with very broad authority for the government of the republic, and in 1371 he was one of the first three leaders of the city; Giambattista di Gheraldo was a noted doctor of law who went to Rome and was dean of the lawyers of the Consistorial Council** and was a lawyer for the tax department and for the  Apostolic Chamber in the Pontificate of Clement VIII, Leo XI and Paul V.  Another Giovan Battista, grandson of the former, was made a Cardinal in 1654 by Pope Innocent.

Coat of arms: Red, with three swords of gold fanned out with the tips down. 

* A gonfaloniere was a highly prestigious communal post in medieval and Renaissance Italy, notably in Florence. The name derives from gonfalone, the term used for the banners of such communes.
**An assembly of cardinals presided over by the pope for the solemn promulgation of papal acts, such as the canonization of a saint.

Feeling less like strangers

Wednesday, April 13
Lucy bought more fresh fruit this morning from the Wednesday morning market in San Salvatore. Now she is cutting the oranges in half to make fresh squeezed juice. She laughs when she looks inside, remembering the first time she cut into an orange in Italy, ten years ago. Some of the oranges are light orange, like the oranges we get in Washington, but many are bright red, and Lucy comments that the first time she saw the inside of these blood oranges, she threw them away because she thought they had spoiled. It was all part of the learning process for us stranieri that continues each day.

We try to balance our shopping between the big discount stores and the little specialty stores. We have learned how to pre-order pane delle dolomite, the rye bread that we like the best, and Lucy often buys meat from Luigi, our local maccellaio, who cuts slices of turkey or chicken to our order or grinds beef in front of us for hamburger. We are happy to see that even though Italy is becoming more like America, each little village has its own macellaio, bar and little grocery store, even though the villages are only a mile or two away from each other.

The oranges are rich with juice, because like most fruit here, they are ripe and flavorful. We sometimes wonder what the fruit vendors do with all their left-over produce, because the fresh fruit must be eaten within a couple of days, as it spoils quickly.

Today we also visit the library for the first time, and I check out a short book “Viaggio nel Tempo,” which seems to be written for pre-teens. Hopefully it won't be too advanced for me. Lucy makes an appointment to have her hair trimmed with the local parruchierre, Gabriella. We are starting to feel more comfortable each week. It is a pity we only have a couple of weeks more before we have to return, but we know that this is more like the beginning than the end. We have already informed Luca to keep a room for us next year, as we will be coming back for another three months, and after that, probably again the following year. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The difficult life of black emigrants

Monday, April 11
Our doorbell rings today, which is unusual, because we don’t know many people here. At the door is a young black man with a duffle bag full of miscellaneous goods to sell. Lucy says she will buy a package of clothes pins and that’s all, but he insists on taking at least half the goods out of his bag to demonstrate before he finally realizes we won’t buy anything else. He shows us a clock, a radio, a flashlight, a corkscrew, underwear, socks, a bathmat, a tablecloth, a pocketknife and a half dozen other items. His duffle bag is like a bottomless pit, and it must weigh a ton.

I invite him to sit down at the table outside our door so we can talk for a bit. We often see Africans in Italy, and we can only imagine how hard it must be to survive. Even for Italians it is hard to find work, and for Africans, most without papers, it is virtually impossible. They survive by selling umbrellas and tissues when it rains and sunglasses and purses when it is warm, as well as anything else they think people might need at the moment.

Lucy brings him water and a chocolate chip cookie, and I ask him to tell us about himself. His name is Tony, although in his home country of Nigeria he is also called Friday. He has been here for about a year. He has three sisters still in Nigeria, and two brothers who are dead. He came here over land and then took his chances on a small, crowded boat. Luckily it did not sink, for Tony can’t swim.

“Life is very difficult,” he says, and this is a phrase he repeats throughout our conversation.  “I had problems in Nigeria and I had to leave. I cannot go back.”

“Where do you live?” I ask.

“Sometimes I sleep at the train station,” he says. “Sometimes I find an empty building.”

He spends most of his time in Prato, where there are many African and Chinese immigrants, and the Italians there are more accustomed to outsiders.

“In Lucca, the Italians don’t like people with black skin,” he says. “They are not friendly. Inside the wall, the police will not let us sell things.”

He tells us that he usually comes to San Salvatore on Mondays. That way the people will get accustomed to him coming and will be more likely to buy something. He goes from door to door with his bag slung over his shoulder. He does not ask for help or money, only that people look at his goods and buy something. I can’t help but think of the museum display we have seen in Lucca, where the impoverished Italians who came to America sold cheap goods on the streets. They, at least, came during a time of growth and opportunity, when day labor jobs were abundant and one could start a new business without difficulty. The Africans we have seen in Italy are hardworking and ambitious, but their economic advancement is glacially slow.

“How much for the clothespins?” I ask. “Five euros,” Tony says. That’s a steep price, and I could bargain him down, but I had already made up my mind to give him that much no matter what he answered. We also give him some fruit, and he trudges down the road to call on our neighbors. Life is indeed very difficult for an African in Italy.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Potluck at our Italian Valdese church

Sunday, April 10
Lucy has made a fruit salad, here called macedonia, and we carefully carry it on bike and train to Lucca, because after the church service is l’agape, a love feast, or in common American terms, a potluck. This is the first real chance we have had to talk to people at church for any extended time. Although everyone has brought food, the meal is still served Italian style, in multiple courses. This has the advantage of extending the meal so the conversation time lasts longer, but it also means that some of the women and men of the church must continually carry out and distribute the various dishes. They do, at least, use plastic plates so that there aren’t 200 dishes to wash at the end.

Lucy and I sit near Eldo, an elderly man who greets us warmly every Sunday, though the first time we met he seemed afraid to talk to us when he found out we were Americans. I think he feared we couldn’t understand Italian, but he is over that now and chatters on steadily, even though in truth we only understand about half of what he says. We find out he is 88 years old and is a retired designer of mechanical equipment, although I can’t swear that I understood that correctly. We also talk to Andrea, a twenty-something who reminds us of my nephew Jacy. Andrea loves classical music and is part of a musical group that performs in a Catholic church near his home city of Barga. He sometimes plays the piano to accompany our congregation in singing, and he and Lucy talk about church music.

We are growing fond of this church, though we would love to see it using more modern Christian songs. It uses hymnals that appear to be full of old English hymns translated into Italian with some changes made so the lyrics rhyme. Andrea agrees with us that the church needs to appeal more to young people, because he is one of only five members near his age. There used to be a Valdesian church in Barga, but it has ceased to exist because the congregation has mostly died, and now Andrea comes to Lucca for fellowship. We fear that could happen to this church as well in another fifteen years, although today the potluck is buzzing with conversation, and the room is packed about as full as it can get. We leave with stomachs full and a couple of new acquaintances.

The photo at the top of the page is of Eldo and Andrea. Directly above shows about half of the congregation. Samuele serves food while standing in the place where I was sitting before I got up to take this photo. 

Sunday, April 10, 2011

A vacation within a vacation

Friday and Saturday, April 8-9                     Above: Poggio. Below: the train nearing Poggio.
Even though our entire stay here could be classified as vacation, our purpose is not that of typical tourists. Our overriding purpose is to discover what it is like to be Italian, even though we know that’s an impossible goal in three months. Now we decide to take a mini-vacation to the Garfagnana valley, which is rarely on the itinerary of American tourists. Italians would make this trip by car, but we are on a budget and must take the train that goes from Lucca all the way up the valley and through the Alpi Apuane to Aulla. This cute little train consists of only two or three cars and runs on gas instead of electricity.

We pick out a town about three-quarters of the way to end of the line and decide to get off there and find a place to stay. We find a little bed and breakfast right at the foot of the Rocca, a small fortress and residence, in Camporgiano. The owner of the bed and breakfast also owns the Rocca, which she periodically opens to the public, and today is one of those days. We enjoy a spectacular 360 degree view of the surrounding hillsides and cities as we walk high atop the fortress walls.

By walking and taking the train, we are also able to see two other little cities, Poggio and Piazza al Serchio. We spend most of the time just walking around looking at farms, people in the piazzas and the lush green landscape. We have brought our bicycles but did not count on every city being perched on a hillside, and thus we do most of our exploring on foot. The trip is sunny, peaceful, largely uneventful and definitely refreshing. 

Lucy atop the Rocca. Pictured below is the Rocca, and the vine-covered building to the right is where we stayed overnight. At the bottom is a view of the other side of the valley, taken from atop the Rocca.