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Living Slow in Italy - Family Ties

Valerie Schneider

We stood silently in the chilly, high-altitude air under a vibrant blanket of stars listening to the musical sound of the cow bells, staggered by this astonishing day. We were tired, for while the car trip to reach this place had been only a 2 1/2 hour drive, our journey spanned several generations and traversed two countries and an ocean.

It all started about six months ago with a simple email in my inbox. "I saw a link on a genealogy website to a trip report you wrote for Slow Travel about your family tree and I think we're related," the writer proclaimed. I immediately called my mother who confirmed the family connection. The letter-writer was my cousin; her grandfather and my grandmother were siblings. I get muddled over the "second cousin once removed" kind of jargon, but clearly we shared a familial line and she began to share stories about my grandparents and great-grandparents via email, wonderful tales I'd never heard before and by virtue of which I took an immediate liking to her.

"I'm coming to Italy and I want to go to Basilicata," she announced a few months later. No need to ask me twice, we immediately set about making plans to meet and travel together to the towns from whence our family came. She would be bringing along another relative, eighty-two year old Rose who was my grandma's cousin (another genealogical brain-teaser requiring a family tree diagrammed on paper for me to see the lineage). Celia from South Carolina and Rose, now living in Barcelona, were coming to Italy. I was astounded; meeting two "new" cousins because of an article I'd written on Slow Travel. How cool is that? I thought.

Valerie and her cousins

They entered my heart immediately. We would spend the week in our peaceful vacation villa near Agropoli laughing and eating and looking at photos together. We all recounted our own tales, both funny and tearful. A few days after our first meeting when we made the drive to Basilicata, I had one of those inexplicable moments where I felt I had known them always.

Bleary-eyed in the early morning cool we drove sedately – one might say groggily – upward and inland, away from the coast and the gentle hills into the mountains where the panoramas made us gasp. As we climbed the mountain roads in our little rental car our excitement mounted with the altitude. Three cousins from different parts of the world but connected by a blood-line were forming a new bond by revisiting the family's origins in an ancient, time-worn town in southern Italy.

We drove into Anzi confidently. Bryan remembered the street and piazza where we had parked on our first visit three years ago but it was under construction and Cousin Celia had to deftly maneuver this way and that to park the car, gathering a crowd of onlookers who were trying to give her directions. "No, no ... back up over here. Not there, over here, right here ... mamma mia!"

We entered the nearby bar for cappuccinos. The barista warned us that the parking area was for limited time and, as the vigile was out and about, we could incur a ticket if we stayed there too long. We said we were immigrant descendents come to see the town and would be heading to the Municipio for records. He showed polite interest and inquired about the family name. "Cutro! Ah, the vigile, he is a Cutro." He quickly popped his head outside the bar and sent someone scampering in search of the cop, and firmly instructed us to wait as the cop would be arriving soon.

The cop, when he introduced himself as Michele, surprised us as he bears the same name as Celia's grandfather, though he assured us there are several others in the area with that name. He coolly steered us to the city offices, took us inside and told the woman behind the desk that we were American Cutros searching for records. Then he set about to examine us. "You," he said to me, "you look Italian. That cousin looks American." He repeated this several times during the morning. Celia's blond hair and blue eyes didn't strike him as bearing any semblance of Italian blood in her gene-pool. Rose would have to wait as her family ties were on the other branch of the family tree and the other town across the valley.

The city employee sat at her desk smoking despite the "smoking prohibited" sign right above her head, assuming that it was her damn office and she'd smoke if she wanted to, and/or knowing full well that the cop who could (presumably) enforce the anti-smoking laws standing in her presence wouldn't issue her any type of citation (being a smoker himself, we later found out). With the cigarette dangling from her ruby lips she calmly pulled out old record books and perused the entries to find the one we needed. Michele then instructed her to bring out more books, and they put their heads together searching and talking quickly for several minutes while figuring out the family connections among us, apparently wanting to confirm that he was, in fact, our cousin before allowing himself to warm up to us. We laughed and hugged saying, "cugino!" and "che incredibile, siamo cugini," and took a photo tutti insieme.

As we left, we discovered that news had spread quickly and just beyond the threshold of the municipio office we were greeted by another man who smiled broadly and Michele proclaimed him to be a cousin, too. There was another round of hugs and smiles and photos before bringing out some more shirt-tail relations. Is there no end to the Cutros in this town? As we bought postcards, things got a little jumbled. I could tell they were talking about us and I wasn't sure what was happening, but Michele was taking full charge of us and we were clearly meant to go along with the flow. We reminded him we also needed records from Laurenzana and he nodded his knowledge of this fact and walked us toward our car where we thought he'd be saying goodbye, but instead he told us to follow him, and he entered his police car. A police escort to search for genealogical records?! We laughed at the incredulity of it all and followed him all the way to Laurenzana, where he shepherded us into the city office, barking orders to the employee about what records we needed. During our exchange with the records clerk he disappeared for several minutes and we thought he went outside for a smoke, but when we again met up with him, Michele was in conversation with the mayor, who presented us each with a lovely book about the history and architecture of the town.

Police escort

Police escort to Laurenzana

In a tabaccheria in Laurenzana Rose entered to buy postcards and came out with a cousin of her own in tow. A woman there inquired about our presence, her curiosity evident in her kindly face, and incredibly, when we told her our story and listed the family names, said, "Mah! We are related!" Could this possibly be happening? So surreal were the occurrences of this day that it still seems dream-like.

The excitement and excess caffeine made us hungry and we asked Michele if there was a place to eat lunch. He simply nodded. I waited for a response and a restaurant name that wasn't forthcoming. I looked at him expectantly and he mouthed, "con me". Why the whispering I wasn't sure, but it was clear that we were still under his care. We were his new-found relatives and he captured us for the day.

When we arrived back in Anzi we were introduced to Michele's wife, Milena, and they guided us just outside the town to a restaurant where we found a table laid out waiting our arrival. The owner explained that all the dishes we'd be eating are typical to this area, not just to Basilicata, but to this particular pocket and that some wouldn't even be found across the valley in Laurenzana. All are prepared with local ingredients that are traditionally and freshly made, she said. We were seated and the plates began to flow out of the kitchen, and there we remained for three and a half hours. It was like a celebratory meal as course after course, plate after delectable plate, graced the table. We were treated like the prodigal son who returned home to a feast; we were the distant family members who spanned the globe and drove across the harsh but beautiful countryside to reach this place to search for the roots of the family tree that had branched itself out to plant an orchard in far-away land.

Celia wanted to slide her credit card to the waitress to pay for this enormous feast, but the waitress wouldn't touch it, looking at it as if it were poisonous. "Nooo, I can't," she quickly responded, glancing in Michele's direction. "No," she said resolutely.

We said our goodbyes promising to return again soon, issuing invitations, offering profuse gratitude. After a stroll we left reluctantly; we needed to make the drive back to the coast as the evening was deepening and our energy was flagging. We followed the windy road outside of town where the darkness was encompassing and the stars sparkling overhead.

And so there we were, on the side of a mountain, stopped along the roadside in quiet reflection, looking at the vastness of cloudless sky, amazed at the beauty of this place and this day. We'd found a home in a foreign country among strangers who are our family, cousins meeting for the first time in this place yet still bound together and feeling deeply connected. I shivered at the giddiness of it all and at the cool night air. Siamo cugini!, echoed in my ears. More than we'd ever expected to find in this out-of-the-way town, our search for records and a family connection carried us along, almost like a magic carpet ride, to a most delightful experience and gave us the gift of new familial ties.

Countryside outside Anzi

Countryside outside Anzi

Trip Report 704: Climbing the Family Tree In Basilicata's Hilltowns, Spring 2003


Valerie Schneider is a freelance writer, who lived in New Mexico for twenty years before trading the high desert for the medieval hill towns of Italy in May, 2006. She is a regular contributor to Slow Travel, pens travel agency newsletters, and has written for Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel. She and her husband, Bryan, currently reside in Ascoli Piceno where they conduct small-group tours called Panorama Italy. Read more on her blog, 2 Baci in a Pinon Tree. See Valerie's Slow Travel Member page.

© Valerie Schneider, 2006

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