Here I am in Venafro. It has been nearly 50 years since I first stepped off the train in this small Italian town nestled in between the mountains in Southern Italy.
Back then I was modeling in Milan. It was August so nearly all businesses were shuttered and closed. Most of the international models went home to see their families.
I instead decided to head south to “meet” mine. Discovering my roots was the main reason I headed to Europe in the first place when I graduated from High School a few years earlier. (It was my version of a gap year which actually turned into a gap life...but that’s for another blog)
Growing Up In Providence
Growing up, my sister and I spent a lot of time with our Italian grandparents in the ethnic neighborhood of Charles Street in Providence. Both our parents worked so we were with grandma & grandpa after school, on holidays and over the summer vacation. Going to the butcher, bakery and little grocery store with grandma was such a treat for us.
Not a word of English was spoken.....just the same southern Italian dialect that was spoken at home. Most of the people who lived and worked on Charles Street came from the same part of Italy.
We loved hearing stories about grandma’s sister Caterina or Grandpa’s brother Eugenio. Both were left behind when they boarded a ship taking them to a ‘better life’ in America in the early 20th Century.
We could almost envision the little town piazza where men gathered to smoke, play bocce and make small talk and small children raced around aimlessly in underwear and t-shirts under the watchful eyes of young mothers.
Grandparents of Italy
Our grandparents referred to Italy as “the old country” and they did their best to pretend they were happy with their new lives in America. “It is better here” grandma would say “you can find everything”!
My grandfather would complain that “Italy was poor and there was no work”. But there was a palpable touch of nostalgia in their voices that made us think they weren’t really sure about their choice to head west.
When I arrived In Venafro so many years ago I felt so comfortable. I am sure it was my imagination with the help of all the stories from Charles Street. But it was like I had been there many times before.
I had a piece of paper in my pocket with two addresses: one was my grandpa’s cousin Alfredo who lived in the town and the other was my great-uncle Eugenio who lived in a small hamlet called Conca Casale, which was a 15-minute white knuckle ride on a small road which curved around a mountain.
Going Back to Venafro, Italy
I was the first person in my family to go back to Italy and the reception was amazing. My cheeks were pinched until they were raw and my body was squeezed with happy hugs from everyone who understood I came from the place to which their relatives disappeared many decades earlier.
It was quite emotional and I ended up staying for a month. I loved my early morning rides on a donkey with my great-uncle, Eugenio. I learned how to make ricotta with my aunts Gilda and Angelina.
My favorite pastime was sitting in the piazza with my cousin Angelo and his baby brother Eugenio and musing about how similar life was there to life in the square in front of St. Ann’s Church on Charles Street.
I realized then that although the Italians left Italy for a better life in America they actually transferred the life they knew across the ocean.
(Below - me back then, and my great-uncle Eugenio and my cousins Angelo & Eugenio)
So here I am again. Most of the people I met nearly 50 years ago are gone now. Auntie Gilda is still here. As are my cousins Angelo & Eugenio and their families.
This time I have come for a very different reason. Rather than discovering my roots, I am here with the same quest that fueled my grandparents... the search for a better life.
The Old and New Countries
The fact that my father was born in the US before his father became an American citizen gives me the right to apply for an Italian passport. I will still keep my American passport, but having an Italian passport will give me a great sense of joy.
It’s like a “thank you” to my grandparents who, despite all the hardships they suffered in emigration, gave me the right to make a choice between two countries.....the ‘old’ and the ‘new’.
Below with Auntie Gilda today in front of the house in which my grandpa was born. St Antonio Church, Conca Casale......where my relatives were baptized, married and buried from.