Americans (or United Statesmen as we are actually called) are all obsessed with telling people what European blood they have in them; where their family roots originated. You may hear someone say they are half this and half that or 1/3 this, that and the other. Unless it’s the 4th of July, and then they will only tell you they are full blooded American. For the most part, everyone is really proud of their heritage, even though some know absolutely nothing about it.
I too grew up telling people I am half German on my dad’s side and half Italian on my mom’s; even though I am third generation United Statesman. I've always had a curiosity about Germany and Italy and about my family. Why did they come to the USA? In what part of their respected countries did they immigrate from? What was their quality of life like? And, Do I still have relatives there? I always wanted to know the answers to these questions, but similarly to everyone else, I had almost no way of getting these questions answered. All but one of my grandparents passed away before I was born, and my one surviving grandmother (my mother's mom) doesn’t like to talk about the past. My last option was to try sites like Ancestry.com but the cost was astounding and did not necessarily answer the questions I had. I thought I might never actually know anything about my family’s European heritage.
…Fast-forward to June 2017 where I was 11 months into a Round the World trip with my fiancé. Our wedding was in two weeks time and our friends and family were starting to fly to Europe. We were having our wedding in Santorini, Greece. Every person who attended our wedding took our advice and traveled a little bit through Europe before making their way to Greece for the ceremony. My mom was going to visit Italy. She had recently got in touch with one of her cousins named Michele who had within recent years become fascinated with finding out the answers to the same questions I had. After a year or so of research, she successfully located our family that was still living in Italy. She made multiple visits over the course of the next couple years to visit them and bridge that gap between our separated family.
My mom (Lisa), brother (Preston), and my second cousin David and his wonderful wife, Jennifer, who were all attending our wedding made plans to visit the family, or famiglia, in Italy. Our long lost family is located in a small town in the south of Italy called Pomarico, about a two-hour train ride from Bari which is located on the east coast of Italy. I decided I was going to meet my mom, little brother, David and Jennifer in Italy so I could see where our family came from and hopefully find out some answers to my questions.
I took a local train from Bari to a beautiful and picturesque old city called Matera, located about 30 minutes from Pomarico by car. Matera is claimed as the third oldest continually inhabited settlement in the world after Syria's Aleppo and Palestine's Jericho. The city of Matera has been occupied for the last 9,000 years and is famous for its Rupestrian Churches and the two Sassi districts, which are intact, cave dwellings from the Paleolithic era (better known as the Stone-Age).
I met my mom, brother, David, and Jennifer for breakfast at their hotel overlooking the Sassi the following morning. From here we were going to take a cab to neighboring Pomarico where we would finally meet our famiglia. The cab ride was an adventure in and of itself; driving by ancient towns, surrounded by an open landscape of valley and mountain views. We arrive in Pomarico, which is welcomed by a long single street with shops, restaurants, and government buildings on either side. Looking out the backseat window of the cab, seeing things for the first time that my famiglia has always known. We pass by a group of locals who start to wave. That must be them.
The cab pulls over and we all jump out of the car and are immediately greeted by Rosa and her daughter Giulia, Antonella and her daughter whose name is also Giulia and Giuseppe, and Antonella’s father. We are greeted with hugs and kisses, like we have known these people our whole lives, treated like family. We are taken to a local coffee shop just up the road to enjoy a cafe freddo before we take a quick tour of the area. We were greeted as soon as we walked in as the owner had been awaiting our arrival. We were the talk of the town and everyone knew who we were. Like most of the town, a family friend owned the café; everyone seemed to know one another. We drink this delicious sweet coffee that almost has the texture of ice cream and we start our tour to our first stop. We come by a memorial that has a statue at the top. We are given an explanation that this is a war memorial, not unusual for Europe, but then our attention moves to a name on the memorial, Domen Ferrandina— our family name. I have seen a lot of memorials in my travels, but to see one that had my family’s name on it was pretty surreal.
Pomarico is a very long and narrow town. At the end of the town is a hill, which is where most of the 4,000 locals live. We get into Antonella and Rosa's cars and start the very quick drive up the hill. This is where we meet five more relatives: Antonella's husband, mother, and son, Antonio, Rose, and Giovanni, and Rosa's husband and son Vincenzo and Giuseppe. We head out for a tour of the local neighborhood our famiglia has always lived in since my great-great-great grandfather. We walk through a couple narrow cobblestone streets and we are given the history of the buildings we see. We pass by churches, houses, a market, and a couple viewpoints of the town. Then all the sudden, we pass by a building I would have otherwise thought nothing about until we are told this is the house my great-great-great grandfather grew up in. We are taken inside for a quick tour of the house even though it has more than likely been remodeled.
We make our way back to Rose and Giuseppe's house, completely in awe of the beauty of this town and the history we just learned about our family. When we arrive we are greeted with local wine and a table already full of food. We are about to join in on our famiglia’s weekend tradition of sharing a 7-course meal together. The first course is homemade lasagna, which is absolutely delicious. It's real homemade lasagna made by a full-blooded Italian. I finish my plate and I'm already full. Conversation starts around the table but with little talking. My mom, brother, David, Jennifer and I don’t speak any Italian and our famiglia doesn't speak any English, apart from Giulia. She does her best to translate but without being fully fluent in the language and having 10 people asking her to translate for them at the same time, I'm sure it was an overwhelming task. There was a lot of sign language and Google translate happening at the table to try and converse.
We move on to the 2nd course. Salad. The salad is simple yet delectable. It goes down easy and fast. Next, we move on to the meat course. Full plates of homemade sausage (which is possibly the best sausage I have ever had in my life) and small pieces of chicken breast and liver wrapped with gizzards. This course was odd at first, but truly delicious. David had to sit this course out, as he is a vegetarian. I don’t think the look of liver and gizzards looked as good to him as it did to everyone else. So while we were all stuffing our faces he took the role of translator. Not knowing any Italian his source was Google translate, an app that comes in handy but is never completely correct in its translations (quite funny translation actually). There were a lot of blank looks and confused laughter. He asks simple questions about the famiglia to try and get to know them better but doesn’t get too far before the 4th course arrives. More meat. There is almost no time for talking, the food keeps coming out and everyone’s mouths are full.
I have never had a 7-course meal before, let alone 2 courses back to back that consisted of only meat. The battle of man vs. food, food was winning. I put my fork down and make a motion that I don’t think I can possibly eat any more. My mom, brother, and Jennifer all quickly follow my lead. The famiglia just laughs, puts more food on our plate and tells us “mangiare,” which means eat. So we eat. Happily.
We start our next course, the 5th course, which consists of various fruits and nuts, we are slowly starting to learn more and more about the each other. There wasn’t any talk about our family history; why they left Italy so long ago or what inspired their immigration, instead we focused on the moment and learning about each other.
As full as I could possibly be, the 6th course comes out. Dessert. I have never seen a dessert selection so grand in my life. Each plate had about eight different kinds of dessert and every piece looked perfect. When a dessert or desserts, in this case, look like a piece of art it doesn’t matter how full you are, you eat the dessert. My mouth was watering throughout this entire course. I had homemade gelato, tart, and a cannoli as well as a few bites of whatever my brother was eating. Before we were even finished with the desserts, the last course was brought out to the table. I was relieved to find out its only coffee; rich, strong, and full of flavor. As we drink our coffee, I look around the table in complete disbelief. Is this really happening? Am I really sitting here with my Italian family that I never knew existed, sharing laughs, coffee, and conversation? This is truly a special moment that I never thought I would have the opportunity to experience.
Sadly, I look at the time and realize it’s near 6 pm; we have to get going. We have to catch our taxi ride back to Matera so we can make it on time to the train station to head for Rome. As we are about to leave, the famiglia embraces us with hugs, a kiss on each cheek, and leaves us with our belly’s stuffed, our minds full of memories, and smiles from ear to ear. We say our final goodbyes to everyone, expecting to head for the town to catch our taxi when Giulia, her mom Rosa and Antonella walk out the door with us. We are not done just yet. They are walking with us into town and on the way we will get one last tour of town; there are a few places we have yet to see.
As we walk into the town center, we see a beautiful church that we are told we have to see the inside of. It is beautiful, but I have seen my fair share of churches in Europe so I head outside to look around while everyone else is still in awe of the detailed paintings and carvings in the ceiling of the church. As I walk outside I see a group of about a dozen older men sitting on the curb. They are talking, laughing and giving each other handshakes like it’s going out of style. I grab my camera start to shoot. A few of them turn around and wave me over. I feel like I am going to get told off for taking pictures, even though it was just of their backs. But instead, as I walk over I am greeted with firm handshakes and stronger smiles. “Take a picture of us,” they all tell me in broken English. Groups of the men embrace each other and pose for a picture. This happens again and again. They all love looking at the photos I have just taken and start to wonder, naturally, who I am. It’s at that moment my famiglia walks out of the church and I point to Rosa and Antonella hoping they will understand that as my answer.
We walk further into the town center, just out of eyesight of the old men who were so welcoming to me, when we stop again. Giuseppe shows up out of nowhere. He is with Rosa's cousin, who is also the vice mayor, and whose name I have also forgotten. His friend wants to show us around a private museum in the last few minutes before our taxi is supposed to arrive. It was a beautiful museum, full of ancient artifacts and history of Pomarico from hundreds of years ago. The rooms were full of art, pots, old books, clothes, and a few farming tools. What a crazy feeling to see these artifacts now as ancient items, when in fact they were new when my family lived here hundreds of years ago. A perfect way to end our trip; a full circle of the life my family lived then and lives now.
Our time is up. Our taxi is here. We say our final goodbyes to Rosa, Giulia, Antonella, and Giuseppe. As I get into the backseat of the taxi and look out the backseat window again, I am completely overjoyed and a little bit sad. The taxi starts to move and we all wave to each other one last time, hoping this won't be the last time. As we make our way back to Matera the car stays quiet. We are all either replaying the entire day back in our heads, or we are too full to move anymore; in my case, it's both.
From the first time I started to have questions about my family heritage when I was a kid, to the moment I arrived at the hotel for breakfast that morning, I never thought I would have the opportunity to see landscapes that my family grew up in, eat the food that my family is used to, walk the streets my family has always known and share in the love that makes our family so special. Ferrandina is no longer a strange name my family used to have. Ferrandina is a name I am proud to say I am from, proud to say I know, and proud to say I am a part of.