All in the Famiglia

What did Tolstoy say about families? Happy families are all alike, unhappy families are unhappy in their own way, and Italian families are dysfunctional like nobody’s business.

Maybe he didn’t quite say the last part. And maybe it’s not dysfunctional as much as loud. Into everyone else’s business. Concerned about one another, until someone pisses somebody else off, and then they don’t speak for years.

You know, dysfunctional.

Not this kind of family...

Not this kind of family...

...this kind.

...this kind.

The Italy trip was about the family on many levels. (But not like “the family” a la The Godfather or The Sopranos. Those peasants of the Piedmont who anchored my family roots were about as far from organized crime as you can get. One of the distinctions between northern and southern Italians that the northerners won’t let you forget, though I am not so naïve as to suggest organized crime has not penetrated all areas and strata of Italy. As it does here. Though I do plan on ranting about the stereotypical association of  Italian Americans with the Mob in a future post.) First was traveling with my mother, specifically so she could see the town where her parents were born. Next was meeting Rita and her family, the second (third? second once removed?) cousin who speaks English and helped us navigate through a foreign land. And lastly was the mission my sister set forth for me: dig through records and learn as much about the Italian progenitors as possible.

Traveling with my mother was fraught with the potential for violence. We are too much alike in our anxious ways, though perhaps she is more so. And having been in Chicago the last five years, I doubt I had ever spent more than a few hours alone with her, probably only around the time my father died back in ’06. So this was going to be the condensed-soup version of mother-and-adult son bonding, with nothing at hand to dilute it to a palatable strength.

The Fiat in which murder did not occur.

The Fiat in which murder did not occur.

Yet here I am, writing the latest installment of C?WC?, so we know I did not kill myself as the only logical solution to escaping my mother’s less-endearing qualities. And she, as far as I know, is hale and hearty in her Connecticut home, proof I did not kill her after the third or fourth time I told her to shut the fuck up as I tried to follow the directions of our GPS and navigate another maddening rotary. Yes, we both survived. And for the most part we enjoyed each other’s company, and she got around well for an 83-year-old, and I lost patience only a few times besides the incidents in the car. We were even able to chuckle together over our worst traveling mishaps on a day filled with the ups and downs that mark any European adventure worthy of the name (more in another post).

Rita, I think, I mentioned before. She and her too-patient husband Giovanni guided us through back roads, fed us in their home, took us to meet other relatives, and told tales about distant family that made my mother’s eyes beam with joyful recognition. She insists I come back with Samantha so we can stay with her and Giovanni. An offer I can’t refuse, if the stars align.

Then there was the genealogical hunt. Not sure I did as well here as my sister would like,  but let’s face some facts: We had a huge language barrier. The people in the town halls have lots of other duties besides helping visiting Americans trace their family roots. Not all the info was in one place. Getting the tidbits we did find took a lot of time and energy. I feel like adding one or two names to the family tree was a pretty good accomplishment, all things considered.

My great-grandfather...ok, it's actually from the ceiling of the town hall in Casale Monferrato.

My great-grandfather...ok, it's actually from the ceiling of the town hall in Casale Monferrato.

In the streets of Casale

In the streets of Casale

The first stop was in Casale Monferrato, the seat of the diocese that includes Fubine, our grandparents’ home town. The woman in the municipo was friendly and wanted to help, but we spoke no common language. I did get one good tip — records for births, marriages,  etc. after 1866 would be in town halls, records before would be in churches. The 1860s, of course, having marked the rise of a united, independent Italy and secular, republican government, and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church in civil matters (in theory at least; consider that divorce was illegal until 1971).

The woman also insisted we take a guided tour, for us alone, of the municipal building. My Italian was just good enough to get that “Garibaldi slept here,” the equivalent of Washington bedding down in a small town here in the States. A genial, slow-moving, slow-thinking old man gave us the private tour of what had once been an 18th-century palace. We learned later from a pretty slick book they gave us that Casale has lots of historic buildings, but after a quick lunch and a tour of the outdoor market, we headed back to our base in Valenza.

The church in Mirabello

The church in Mirabello

The next expedition was to Mirabello, a small town not far from Valenza. Our great-grandfather Pietro Zeppa had been born there and then moved to Fubine. We entered the town hall and stumbled upon a woman who spoke decent English; a godsend, since the guy in the records office did not. He reluctantly dug into the archives and pulled out a book from 1869. There, in Italian writing even our helper could barely decipher, we saw some of the milestones in Pietro and his family’s life. His father was Carlo, born some time around 1838, and his mother was Maria Ferrando. Carlo was a contadino — a peasant. At some point, Pietro left his hometown, moved to Fubine, and married Maria Pino. In 1892, they had a son, my grandfather.

Fubine skyline, such as it is

Fubine skyline, such as it is

The search for more information continued in Fubine, and once again, Rita and Giovanni came to the rescue. She went to the rectory and asked the young priest to let us look at the records. Rita has a somewhat forceful way, and I think the guy might have been intimidated. Perhaps his background also made him likely to help. Originally from Togo, he had only been in Italy a few years, and he probably goes out of his way to accommodate the locals. Seeing an African priest in a  small Italian village was the last thing I expected (a sign of the Church’s woes in attracting European and North American seminarians).

The priest brought out several books, and I scrambled to write down names and dates as both he and Giovanni flipped through their pages. Again, more time would have been a plus, but I was aware that we were in this priest’s home, intruding on his time and invading his space, and none of us were parishioners. Since French is his native language, I made a not-too-mangled attempt to tell him that I wanted him to have 10 euros “for the church” for his efforts.

Distant relatives bured in Fubine...

Distant relatives buried in Fubine. And to make things really complicated...

are from a different (but maybe related?) Zeppa family

...Pietro and my grandfather are from a different (but maybe related?) Zeppa family.

I haven’t sorted through all the new info with my sister yet; that will come when we go back to Connecticut. But on the whole, the various family aspects of the trip went well. Though few close relatives remain in the region, I feel like when I go back to Piedmont (yes, when), I will be returning to a place I know well. A place where I belong, even if I really don’t.

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~ by mburgan on June 7, 2009.

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