TRAVEL: You <I>can</i> go home again

Our first trip to Italy was to Rome in 1991. My wife's maternal family emigrated from Italy in 1800, settling in Cleveland, Ohio. They came from Gildone, a small town in the south central Italian province of Molise. The village is so small it is often left off maps. No one in the family had ever gone back.

On that first trip, we discussed renting a car and driving to Gildone, but we encountered a number of problems with that idea. Gale wasn't comfortable driving in Italy, given the persistent horror stories about Italian drivers, and a car and driver arranged by Antonio, our concierge at the Hotel Cicerone, was exorbitantly expensive, so we left Rome, regretfully, without visiting Gildone.

When we booked another trip to Rome in 2005, the start of a cruise through the Greek Islands, we knew we had to get to Gildone, flying to Rome a week before the cruise was to start.

We love Rome, the people, food, and even the traffic - sort of. There's a vibrancy, and love of all that life has to offer that the Italians seem to enjoy more than any people we've encountered, and we find ourselves filled with that same exuberance as we walk the narrow streets, dodging cars and motor scooters, visiting shops, having a leisurely lunch with wine, eating a late dinner when the tourists have gone to bed, and stopping by what became "our enoteca," the Enoteca Antica, for a late-night glass of wine, or grappa, with the locals.

We reserved a car at the airport for the drive to Gildone, schedule for our second day in Rome. Our hotel, Miro, was in the center of Rome, not far from the Spanish Steps, and better judgment dictated that we not rent the car there and try to find our way through the maze of streets. Our cab ride to the Fiumicino Airport confirmed our decision as we watched our experienced driver dodge in and out of traffic, avoiding the roads blocked by accidents. We'd have been stuck for hours, not knowing the alternative routes around the city.

At the airport, the rental went smoothly, and after a brief orientation to the controls of our Opel Corsa, we started off on E80, the perimeter road that circles Rome, and that would take us to the A1 highway, then south toward Naples, and east to Gildone, a trip of about 180 kilometers.

You hear stories about Italian drivers, and I've never driven along the Amalfi coast, a trip I'm told will test your bladder control, but I can tell you the drivers we encountered were very good, courteous and fast. The speed limit was generally 100 k.m.h., around 63 m.p.h., but the traffic zipped along at 140 k.m.h., or about 87 m.p.h. Drivers signaled as they switched lanes, and didn't cut in and out with only 2 feet between bumpers as they often do here.

The highway was superb, with frequent emergency turnouts, excellent signage, and the road surface was like new. We could take a lesson from the Italian DOT folks.

The trickier part of the trip came when we departed A1, heading east into the hills in search of Gildone. While we had a great little map, the unfamiliar language and territory were daunting.

At some point, we knew we'd messed up. I blamed the navigator, and she blamed the buffoon behind the wheel. We stopped in a small town where I went into the Italian equivalent of Kinko's, trying to explain to this sweet young woman where we wanted to go. She spoke no English, and my "menu Italian" was of little use. Eventually, we were able to converse, and she drew a small map that would get us back on track, and it worked.

WE BEGAN TO climb upward, marveling at the lush vegetation. It was late May, and southern Italy was still green from the rains, the weather having not yet turned to the kiln that defines July and August in that part of the world.

Driving through one small town, we were delayed as they strung lights and decorations for one of the many religious festivals held around Italy. You could travel in Italy for an entire year based on saints' holidays, visiting different towns each week.

We made the last turn toward Gildone, and I could feel the excitement building. With both of us uncharacteristically quite, we rounded a bend and got our first glimpse of the town of around 900 people.

Driving slowly, we marveled at a city established in ancient times, and playing an important role in the Middle Ages, thanks to its powerful lords, Rao Falco Graone, cardinal Orsini, the Sanfromondo family, and Pope Benedict XII who came here to consecrate the churches of San Sabino and Sant'Antonio.

Small curved streets were lined with connected homes, leading to the center of town and the small piazza; a lone tavern, café and meat market, the only visible businesses in town. Across the street from the piazza stood a large, bronze statue of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of Gildone.

At one time, the people, like Gale's ancestors, subsisted as sheep and goat herders, but the changing economy and poverty sent many people to America, Canada and elsewhere in the world in search of a better life. Today, the hillsides that were once covered with herds of sheep are dotted with new homes, as the Italians in the surrounding cities discover the joys of suburbia.

We parked, and walked around the square, looking at a memorial to the townspeople who had died in World Wars I, and II, an inordinate number of souls for such a small village - Gale's family names of Farinacci and Panzera among them. We took pictures, and then wandered into the tavern, hoping someone spoke enough English that we might explain our presence. Tourism is not a major industry in this small hamlet 2,000 feet above the surrounding countryside, possibly nonexistent, and we suspected there would be some curiosity about why we were there. We ordered two bottles of Moretti beer - that much we knew how to do.

A conversation was not to be. We did establish that the young woman tending the tavern was named Maria Angela Farinaccio, making us wonder about the letter 'o' added to the spelling of Farinacci, but unable to ask the question, or understand an answer, the mystery lives on.

Gale came armed with family tree information, a document from the church in Campobasso attesting to the birth of her grandparents, and the address of the house where they had once lived in Gildone.

Our explanation to Maria why these two crazy Americans had shown up was going nowhere. Maria called in reinforcements, one man we guessed to be a town official, but none of them spoke English, either. We had the feeling they were suspicious of our motives.

Finally, they located Patricia, a high-school-age girl who had learned some English. We explained that the family left for America in the 1880s, and that Gale wanted to visit the town her family came from. Patricia translated, what we hoped she understood, to the others. After that, they seemed to relax, and even lose interest as they drifted away.

Gale showed Patricia the scrap of paper on which her grandmother had scribbled "Number 8 Panzera Street." Patricia smiled, and led us through the winding streets. We made a turn and saw a sign on a building that read, "Vico Panzera." A short walk down the street and we stood in front of an abandoned number 8, a mound of sand and bricks from construction on the house next door piled in front of the small arched door that looked as old as the town.

I can only imagine what Gale was experiencing as she looked at the house her family had lived in, and left over a century before. I was choked up, so she must have been in another world. We took pictures in front of the house, and then walked around Gildone, taking more photos along the way.

Late in the afternoon, we wandered back to the tavern for another beer, and then bought a gelato from Maria. Sitting outside under an umbrella in the warm sunshine, slowly eating our treat, we visually devoured the picturesque little town, wanting to somehow stretch this day out for as long as possible. If there had been a hotel in the town, we would have stayed overnight, but there wasn't, so that evening we headed back to Rome.

To this day, we wonder if they thought Gale had come back to claim the family home. With the help of some Italian friends, we did write a letter to Maria, explaining our visit, and how much we loved their town. We mailed that around Christmas of 2005, and have heard nothing back. Perhaps they still didn't understand, or they are in no hurry to respond.

For me it was one of the most memorable days in our long relationship as I watched Gale walk in the steps of her ancestors, profuse tears of happiness cascading down her cheeks as she connected with her past.

We didn't accomplish all that we would have liked, but she had an experience, as well as I through her, that few people ever have, and one that will be with both of us to the end of our days.

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