Discovering the heart of Italy

My family had a very heart warming experience this summer.   I wanted to share the story because I believe it demonstrates the importance of family as well as the basic goodness of people.

Our story begins with my great grandparents who immigrated to America from Italy in 1920.  After a couple of generations, contact was lost with the Italian relatives.  After the death of my grandparents, I began to feel the significance of not having this connection.  I also worried that my two sons may never experience, or build an appreciation of, their Italian heritage.

With our oldest son going off to college at the end of the summer, we wanted to do something special and decided to take our boys to Italy.  In addition to visiting famous cities like Rome and Florence, we planned to venture south to the Puglia region where our ancestors are from.  They lived in a town that no longer exists called Canneto di Bari.  I had imagined how amazing it would be to visit this area and to meet some of them.  While I had previously dabbled with online genealogy services, such as Ancestry.com, I was now focused like never before to try and locate our lost cousins.  Using Ancestry.com, I was able to expand the branches of our family tree finding Italian ancestors as far back as 1781.  In addition to Ancestry.com, I tried using DNA family matching services from two other online services.  Despite all of the progress, and many hours of work, I was still struggling to locate Italian relatives that shared the surnames of my grandparents. While millions of Americans have participated in new DNA family matching services, fewer Italians have.  I was finding lots of cousins in America but none in Italy!

My mother and uncle both tried to assist me in my genealogy research.  While they weren’t certain of any living Italian relatives, my uncle explained that he was connected to someone in Italy on Facebook with a matching surname.  So I began to leverage social media to try and locate family members.  I connected to my Uncle’s contact and then in turn with a number of his connected family members.  I invited them all to a closed group I created on Facebook called, “Our Italian Family” where I introduced myself and explained what I was trying to accomplish.  Thanks to Google translate, I was able to post messages in both English and Italian.  I received mixed reactions from the Italian side.  A few assumed we were related while others cast doubt.  I was unable to find anyone on the Italian side that had an extensive family history which has made it impossible to find ancestors in common.  After a period of time, I connected with a family member who was able to communicate in English. We’ll call her Cathy, to protect her privacy.  Cathy was very sweet and helpful.  Before long Cathy and I were working together to try and find a common family ancestor.  My first thought was to see if any of the elder family members would be willing to provide their DNA.  It would appear that these DNA family match services can help determine relationship up to 4th or 5th cousin.

Cathy approached her father, we’ll call him Gerald, who was willing to assist in our efforts so I had a DNA test kit mailed to him.  Prior to our visit, Cathy informed me that she had a surprise in the works.  Many years ago, Canneto di Bari had merged with a neighboring town to form modern day Adelfia.   The city maintains some municipal records that can be used for genealogy research but a lot of information is missing or difficult to come by.  A variety of other factors, including World War 1 and 2, had further compromised municipal records in Italy.   The surprise was that Gerald had planned a trip to Adelfia (two hour round trip for him) to locate historical records to try and find an ancestor in common ahead of our visit!  Unfortunately, he was not able to acquire a great deal of information on his visit but the city said they would keep looking for the records and would contact him in the future should they find anything.  We knew there would not be time to get the DNA  results back ahead of our trip to Italy.  Regardless, we made plans to visit with Cathy, Gerald, and their family while in Puglia.

Cathy had suggested we stay in Monopoli which is a beautiful seaside resort town.  It is located about an hour south of where her family lives.  We took the train from Florence to Bari and rented a car to drive to Monopoli.  We had booked an extra room at our hotel and invited them as our guests.  We arrived in the late afternoon and visited with Cathy, her husband, and their two small children.  On our arrival, Cathy’s husband spoiled us with appetizers he had prepared including Italian meats, cheeses, bread, and even sparking wine!  Cathy’s young daughter presented us with a drawing welcoming us to Puglia.  Later that evening, we went out to dinner and, before I realized what had happened, her husband had picked up the tab.  They made us feel welcome and very special.

Cathy’s daughter’s drawing

The next day, Cathy’s father Gerald had arranged a special lunch at a local restaurant.  The whole extended family attended!  Gerald, his wife, and all of their children and grandchildren – in total around 17 family members.  I sat next to Gerald and used Google translate to engage in conversation.  It wasn’t perfect but it worked well enough!

I haven’t experienced a meal like this since the holidays when my Italian Grandparents were still alive.  Food is a form of art in Italy and course after course of amazing artistry kept coming out of the kitchen until our eyes were popping out of our heads! Mussels, Oysters, Octopus, Swordfish, Shrimp, Pasta, Zucchini, Fritters, Bruschetta, Fruit, Gelato, and so much more!   Cathy had told me in advance that this meal was Gerald’s treat but I had not anticipated anything approaching the lavishness of this meal let alone the warmth and hospitality of this family.  I found myself overwhelmed as I tried to wrap my head around what was happening.  Forget family trees and DNA test results, this family had decided to embrace my family regardless.

After spending the afternoon together, and sharing the most wonderful meal, we had a lovely picture taken of our new Italian family.  While Rome and Florence were nice, we found the true heart of Italy in Puglia.  It was represented by this loving family who so touched our hearts.

Our new Italian family
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