Sunday, November 16, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update, March 2017: Mark said: "Five years to the day the calls stopped. We haven't heard from anyone since . . . the courts or credit collectors. The next big test will be when we head back to Italy!"

Read also: Italian traffic tickets are now easier to pay.

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

Thursday, November 13, 2014

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

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

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

At this point, little can be known until more people are tested, so I can’t really say much about my own test results. I can say that my haplogroup is J-M172, sometimes also referred to as J2. Family TreeDNA notes: “Haplogroup J-M172 is found at highest frequencies in the northern Middle East, west of the Zagros Mountains in Iran, to the Mediterrean Sea. It later spread throughout central Asia and south into India. J-M172 is tightly associated with the expansion of agriculture, which began about 10,000 years ago. As with other populations with Mediterranean ancestry, this lineage is found at substantial frequencies within Jewish populations.” Other sources state that people with this genetic footprint have ancient origins in the area between the Caucasus Mountains, Mesopotamia and the region just north of Arabia known as the Levant. According to Wikipedia, “J-M172 is linked to the earliest indigenous populations of Anatolia and the Aegean. The present-day ethnicities who have the strongest amounts of J2 include pre-Arabised Mesopotamians and Levantine peoples, Mediterranean/Aegean peoples, Greco-Anatolians, and/or Caucasians.” Today, it is found in 9 to 36 percent of the Italian population, depending on which region is being considered. It appears to be particularly high in the Central Marche region, but I couldn’t find any statistics that spoke of its frequency in Tuscany.

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

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

I did have two other people who were identical matches, although these people did not have as many markers to compare. Currently, genetic genealogists recommend that anyone undergoing Y-DNA testing ask for results from 37 markers, because it will result in more accurate comparisons. However, many people who were tested in earlier years only had 12 markers tested, including the two people who had results identical to mine. They would need to pay an extra fee to get the results for 37 markers. Probability charts show there is about a 90 percent likelihood that people with 12 identical markers have a common ancestor within the last 24 generations. If either of these two people would upgrade to 37-marker testing, we could state more positively whether we are or are not related.

Neither of my matches is named Spadoni (to protect their privacy, I will not print their actual names). The first identical match is from someone in Izmir, Turkey. Unfortunately, this person did not include any contact information, so all I can do is know his surname and hope that maybe someday he will contact me. The second person did include his first name and his e-mail address, and I wrote him April of 2014 but didn’t receive a reply. Since his name was rather unusual, I decided that I would try to find him on and and found that he lived in California, is 77 years old and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1979. I will refer to him by the name “Jacques.”

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

Jacques said he had hired a company some 15 years ago to learn about his family origins, and they charged him a lot of money and didn’t find out anything. He felt the company had cheated him, which probably had something to do with his reluctance to extend our conversation. Another reason may be that we had different surnames, which indicates what genetic genealogists refer to as a “non-paternal event”—most commonly an adoption or out-of-wedlock birth.

This is something I was warned about when I first read about DNA testing—that it is possible that one may be unpleasantly surprised with the results. Since Y testing faithfully follows the male DNA trail, either Jacques or I may have an unexplained event in our ancestry. I accept the possibility that it could be in my family line, but I think it more likely is in his. I have traced my family through church baptismal records to the 1400s. This does not preclude the possibility of an extra-marital affair, but one has to wonder why the professional genealogist Jacques hired couldn’t find anything out about his family history. Of course, there is also that 10 percent possibility that we are not related, that our perfect match at 12 genetic markers is just a coincidence.

This is also a lesson in patience when it comes to DNA testing. Just as pre-natal testing to determine the gender of one’s child before birth was once rare and is now almost standard practice, so too will DNA testing gain more acceptance and become commonplace in the future. When Jacques had his DNA tested, he was one of the very first to do so; thus it should have come as no surprise that nobody matched his results—and then it must have come as quite a shock when he received my phone call 13 years later (the testing company says it launched DNA tests in 2001). Jacques had not received my e-mail, so it is possible that the address he used has changed or my message went unnoticed or did not make it through his spam filter.

Both Florian Spadoni and I were disappointed to see that we didn’t have more matches to our DNA tests, but we will just have to wait until more people volunteer for testing. Genetic experts say that trying to interpret one’s DNA test results can be like the sound of one hand clapping until more people join the trend. Obviously not everyone shares our strong interest in genealogy and family history, but hopefully we will eventually see a few people in each Spadoni branch who care about this enough to be tested.


Note: Since posting this blog, I have been contacted by the person with roots in Izmir. We are both puzzled by the genetic connection, since he has no knowledge of his ancestors having traveled to Italy, and vice-versa on my part. We hope to continue our research on this mystery.

Also, I have since had autosomal DNA tests at both and Family Tree DNA. This type of test reveals relatives on both maternal and paternal sides, and I’ve made contact with many previously unknown relatives. However, these tests can only predict relations back about 10 generations at best, so they are not adequate to determine if the Spadoni families of La Marche are related to our extended Spadoni family of the Valdinievole.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

I come to a pleasant realization while snacking on snails

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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