Everyone wonders why we went to Sondrio. I mean it’s not exactly on the tourist map, wedged between the Alps, close to the Swiss border, I imagine it’s more of a destination for skiers than anything else. But Jen and Chris wanted to visit, as immigration records (i.e., ship’s manifest) indicate that Carlo Spini, Chris’s great grandfather, came from Sondrio; they wanted to check it out.
Now first off, I’m really telling their story and I hope I do it justice. I also hope once they get home from the rest of their travels, they’ll feel free to correct any facts or impressions I may have misrepresented or misinterpreted.
It’s hard for me to know where to start with this, so I’m going to start with my understanding of the background of Carlo Spini (aka Spene).
Carlo came to America, alone, sometime in the mid to late 1800s (Chris and Jen can provide us with the year but it escapes me now – I think perhaps 1882). On the ship manifest it lists one Carlo Spini from Sondrio. There are two important facts though I need to mention here. The first is in regards to the spelling of the last name. Carlo came through, like so many others, Ellis Island. We can only assume what happened there is when asked to spell his name, he said “esse, pe, e, enne, e.” You see in Italian, the letter “I” is pronounced “E” and therefore that’s why Chris now spells his name Spene and not Spini. There are no families in Sondrio that spell Spini with an E. Chris does have a marriage announcement, from later years, from a local newspaper that does spell Carlo’s last name as Spini. I hope Chris will scan it in and let me post it; it’s actually very funny to read.
The second fact we learned upon arrival is that Sondrio is not just the town in which we stayed, it’s also used to refer to the area around the town. Kind of like we have Middlesex Borough in Middlesex County. So knowing that Carlo came from Sondrio, didn’t mean he came from the town but it could have encompassed a much larger area (and as we came to find out it did), which includes farmland and much smaller towns and villages.
Carlo somehow settled in central Missouri, not far from Columbia where he married a girl some 20 or 30 years his junior (again, Chris and Jen have the actual information and reading that wedding announcement was quite funny). Apparently, Carlo was very quiet (dare I say secretive) about his origins so more than this we do not know. We do not know his parents’ names, or why he left Italy, or if he ever communicated with anyone back in Italy once he arrived in America.
So Saturday morning, after talking with Roberto, who filled in the blanks about the Spini being in the countryside more than the town (population about 30K by the way), he gave us our first clue as to where to find a Spini, the station bar. We headed back to the train station, where Shannon in her best efforts at Italian (she and I got very good at saying, “This man is Mister Spini. He is from the US. He is looking for his family here.” Or something like that – we probably sounded like two year-olds.) talked to the young kid behind the counter. We had the wrong Station Bar – it wasn’t the one in the station but the one across the street, , actually called “The Station Café.” We walked over there, gave the shpiel to the woman behind the counter, and she directed us to the gentleman there (her husband perhaps – we did not know) who surprisingly looked like Chris! Well, with a full head of silver-black hair as opposed to Chris’s crew cut.
He did not seem impressed with us or engaged, though he did allow Chris to take a picture of him (hmm, perhaps I can get these pictures from Chris).
A bit deflated, we moved on.
We spent some time walking around the town, visiting the market, trying to find a place for lunch, and along the way, we stumbled across Spini Alimentari!
It was closed though. Chris took pictures and video of us in front of it.
On we pressed.
After lunch, we decided to trek up to this fort at the top of the town when we walked past a music store. Chris is a musician, so we popped in. They spoke some English (finding English speakers is rare in this area), and we explained why we were in Sondrio. They were very helpful. They gave us the name of the area within Sondrio (can’t remember the town/village name now but Chris and Jen have it), where the Spini come from, printed off a bunch of Spini names and addresses from the phone book and told us about the Spini Alimentari (which we’d already found). Then Chris played guitar there for a little while.
Chris Jamming in Sondrio
By the way, when we started Chris was a bit timid about approaching people because he does not speak Italian. As the day progressed, he really did put himself out there, telling anyone who speaks English his story as well as approaching Italian only speakers. The joke becomes, “Sono Spini!” meaning, I am Spini and we all say it throughout the remainder of the trip with authority and pumping muscles. I guess it’s one of those had to be there things.
Anyway, we climb up the hill, as far as we can, to find the fort closed, and on the way down, we take a different route, passing a wine shop. Well, Shannon needs to take a peek so in we go. The owner speaks a little English (I actually think he may be German, Swiss or Austrian by birth) and Chris tells the owner his Spini story.
“Yes, I know a Spini, Michele Spini.” The owner tells us. He goes further though, he says Michele plays basketball in Sondrio, he knows a guy that plays with him, he is going to call them to tell them we are looking for Michele and he gives us directions to the gym where he plays basketball so that we can find him!
We’re pumped now and we return to the Spini Alimentari an Italian only speaking, tiny hole in the wall of a place (with some good looking pasta and prepared food in the case) and meet a woman (name escapes me), whose maiden name is Spini! Her parents and grandparents owned the store first (it’s been there for 50 years) but they’re from the same area in the country and the same town that has been mentioned to us previously. Unlike the café owner, she’s excited to meet Chris, comes from behind the counter to shake his hand, and Chris gets pictures with her too.
After a brief rest at our hotel, we head out again, following the wine store owner’s directions to bag another Spine. And the directions are, “Under the railroad tracks, go right, past the church, to the Time Out Bar.” Okay then…
And believe it or not, we found the place! It was in a much more modern area of the town, we hadn’t visited but it’s there. The bar is attached to a gym, as we later find out where a basketball club (on which Michele plays) practices and plays. I get the impression this isn’t a Tuesday night pick-up game kind of team but a real organization that plays competitively as we met the coach who showed us pictures of Michael Jordan visiting the facility (twice).
Anyway, we go to the bar keep asking for Michele but he speaks no English so he calls … oh shoot, I can’t remember the guy’s name but he was darn cute, Shannon will remember … anyway, we ask him, and he knows who we are because he spoke to the wine shop owner! He’s about to turnaround to go find Michele in the back, in the gym, when Michele emerges. Introductions are made and Michele seems apprehensive at first (we understood later it’s because he thought his friends were playing a practical joke on him), but when he realized we were sincere, he became very excited!
It was hard communicating at first though because my Italian has suffered in recent years, and the other bartender (whose name escapes me), also has limited English but we manage to convey the entire story. Michele calls his father who arrives at the bar within 10 minutes and much halted conversation ensues (with Jen crying, and Shannon and I drinking wine at the bar). Michele tells us at one point, we should leave Chris in Sondrio and he was going to go to America with us. He’s very cute, young, I’d say mid-twenties. He’s always wanted to go to the U.S. and as he explains, jokingly, he’s so happy to have a “rich uncle” in America now.
After a while, we’re thinking about hitting the road, when they tell us Michele called another friend who speaks English really well (I think he studied at University of Chicago or something), and he’s coming down, and he’d like to take us to see his parents’ home. The girls decline (we’re all kind of tired), but Chris goes off with his new Italian familia (kind of amazing, no?).
Chris returns later that evening, meeting us at the hotel (Michele dropped him off), after meeting Michele’s mom and fiancé. Oh and that gentleman in the bar in the morning, turns out that’s Michele’s uncle. They’ve exchanged email addresses and Michele has promised to do some more research to try to find records of Carlo Spini in Italy. He’s already emailed Chris once, calling him Zio (Italian for uncle), and I think he’s planning a visit to Missouri in the future. He also gave Chris a picture of himself, playing basketball, for Chris to take home.
So that’s it – the tale of our Spini hunt. I hope Chris and Jen keep us informed how things develop going forward.
I was honored and warmed to be a part of it.