Monday, December 12, 2011

Alla Ricerca Di Antenati Italiani ( Searching for Italian Ancestors)

A perfect story for Christy's La Dolce Vita series and the kindness of strangers.

Life is funny and I think the experiences you have sometimes are all about timing and how peoples paths cross, or at least it is for this story.

When I ran into an old friend who I had not seen or spoken to in about 12 years I never expected that a conversation we had about me living in Italy and him wanting to go to Sicily would end up less than 3 months later in a search for his ancestors.  It's not my story to tell , it's his, but I was given the ok, so from my perspective/memory  and to tell it right, in installments" Searching for La Famiglia Lucchese"

I met Joe about 20 years ago ( damn I feel old) through an ex, he was his friend and by proxy at the time was mine. It's weird because looking back I never knew much about him.  Yes, one look at him and you know this guy is Italian but just how strongly tied he felt to his Sicilian roots was something I just discovered on this trip. Thinking about it now, it's not that surprising.

The U. S is the largest recipient of Italian immigrants in the world,according to wiki about 4 million of them arriving in the late 1800's early 1900's. It is said 80% came from southern Italy/Sicily. A walk through Little Italy in NY, the near west side of Chicago, Hoboken or Boston's North End will tell you that, where Italian tradition is alive and well. Well Joe's paternal Grand Dad came during that first wave, and from what he has told me Italian traditions ran strong in his family. From Sunday dinners and his Nonna's cooking to stories about the old country, his heritage was instilled in him.

He told me of how his grand dad loved the U.S., was proud to be an American citizen and really had no desire to return to the  Sicilian town of Aragona from which he hailed. How his dad, sadly now passed, was born in the U.S. and never made it to Sicily and how Joe himself wanted to attain Italian citizenship.

He had been thinking of this trip for many years , a bump into me and my offer to be his guide I guess helped to make it a reality. So he arrived in Italy with his Ipad full of info intent on, at the very least, getting a copy of  his grandfather's birth certificate. What he found , I think, was a whole lot more.

Smack in the middle of a 9 day trip that included 6 cities we found ourselves in Agrigento, Sicily. From Florence we took the ES down to Rome. The day before Thanksgiving we hopped on a flight to Palermo, caught a hour and half bus ride from the airport into town and boarded an almost 3 hr. train from Palermo to Agrigento where we arrived almost 10 hours after leaving Rome. The plan for Thanksgiving day was to scope out the Valley of the Temples first thing ( really not to be missed) and then to make our way to the small town of Aragona located just about 20 minutes away.

So we did just that. After a super rainy morning drudging through the mud and taking in some of the most beautiful scenery we caught a noon time mini bus to Aragona. It was funny because all the other buses at the open air station in downtown Agrigento were normal size buses, but there among them sat a small blue mini-bus , it was on this bus we would meet the little old man that would make the hard task of getting the grand dad's birth certificate a whole lot easier.

Maybe 20 seats on this bus, all but 5 were occupied by teenagers returning home after a morning at school is my guess. Then there was Joe and I , a woman from Aragona and 2 older men. All of them took an interest in us, after all we were Americani and I'm guessing from the response ( a pattern that continued through the day) there aren't a whole lot of Americans passing through. From the guy sitting on a bench at the bus terminal saying how Joe looked Sicilian, everyone was interested in why we were there, and why we were going to Aragona. And so we told all of them.

Now I'm probably not the best choice for translator as my Italian skills are less than stellar especially with the dialect differences down south but I was all he had so my crappy Italian would have to wade us through. The standard line was," Lui, e' da Boston, ma il nonno e' originario di Aragona" ( He is from Boston, but his grandfather is originally from Aragona) which EVERY SINGLE TIME, from the guy in the shop to the guy on the bench to the bus driver and the little old man on the bus was met with the phrase," Qual e' suo cognome?" ( What is his last name)

Well when we said Lucchese, there wasn't a person that didn't respond that they knew that name, and they knew Luccheses in Aragona. The warmth and welcoming of the Sicilians was really amazing, it wasn't even my family we were looking for and I got all goose bumply.

It was about 5 minutes into the 20 minute bus ride when we felt a thump. Something was definitely wrong, the little blue bus felt as if it was limping. A flat tire? What had happened? The driver pulled over and and out he went with the little old guy in tow. I somehow felt responsible because anyone who knows me and of my travels this was typical, a magnet for this sort of shit. Never one  to miss a photo -op I got off the bus too, it was a broken axle, we would wait about 15 minutes for a bigger better bus to arrive during which time I snapped some photos and was apparently laughed at by the teen-agers on the bus.

driver and little old guy

While outside the bus I spoke with the little old guy ( whose name we never did get) and told him we were going to the Commune ( kind of a town hall) to try and find the birth record of Joe's grand dad.
Once on the replacement bus the old man made his way back to where we sat and asked if we knew where the Commune was. I told him no and he said to get off the bus with him and that he would take us to see someone there. Sure enough somewhere in the mid of main street Aragona when the bus stopped we followed the little old guy across the street and into the more modern than we would have thought municipal building.

a second unit re-shoot

Now I was skeptical as to how smoothly this would go. Afterall , I live in Italy and dealing with these sorts of things is usually a pain in the ass as other ex-pats and locals alike will attest. I was proven very wrong this time.

We hurriedly followed the man past the receptionist to a back office ( as if he was smuggling us in). A large room with cabinets on the walls, each containing rows and rows of metal bound books that contained the birth, death and marriage records of that town. In the office sat a man and a woman. The old man told the man that we were Americans looking for the records of Joe's grand dad, born in Aragona. The office man was not having it. He told the old man that you can't just be bringing Americans in here in the middle of the day for us to help them, without an appointment, we are busy now. But the old man did not waiver. He told this guy in pretty strong terms, hey, they are here for only a few hours, it's important to get the papers, this guy wants to get his Italian citizenship!! ( I'm paraphrasing the translation of what I heard) I am quite sure had it not been for the old guy we'de still be sitting there.

Begrudgingly ,is putting it lightly, the man said o.k and with a quick grazie and arrivaderci the little old man was gone and we found ourselves alone with the man and the woman in the offce. The woman's name was Rita. She spoke minimal broken English, it was enough. Joe pulled out the Ipad and showed her a photo of the names of his paternal ancestors from Aragona. Next to the names were written birth years. He did not know, his family never did, the actual day of birth for his grandfather. Rita jotted it all down quickly and disappeared ,leaving us with the grumpy guy who only left to get me the restroom key. I was chomping to photograph those books but when Joe said," don't, you'll piss them off, not until I have the birth certificate!"  I didn't.

When Rita returned, about 15 minutes later ( and really she was a god-send) she did so with a list of names, drawn in a tree diagram. She explained how the great grandfathers were named Vincenzo, the paternal great grandfather was a worker in the slate quarry, she spoke of the wife Chiara but most importantly she held a copy of the birth record for Michaelangelo Lucchese, born on September 24, 1906 @ 3:00 am and Joey finally knew his granfathers's birthday.

That was  enough to complete a Thanksgiving day, little did we know it was just getting started. Next, enter Gregorio and Sebastian, the Matthau & Lemmon of Aragona. To be continued in the next post........

It was important to Rita to get a shot of her kicks ( so please note the shoes) :)


  1. OMG....I have goose bumps too! Can't wait to read the next installment! This is a wonderful story Andrea, so glad you could help bring it all together.

  2. Count me in! Goosebumps.
    I just found out on my last trip to Italy that I could try for citizenship because my great grandfather came from Cefalu in Sicily. But it's a long shot and we don't have his birth certificate either. I can't wait to hear more of this story!

  3. Oh!!! I cannot wait to hear how it all unfolds, bravissimi for keeping GOING! That is the only way in Italy. Grazie mille for sharing Andrea! xx Christine