I finally got to Italy for the first time in June 2000!

I actually traveled to Italy twice that year. During the first trip, I brought my family to Italy as part of an overall European trip. We traversed Italy from north to south in a rented Renault minivan, stopping and gawking, awe struck at the sites in Venice, Florence, and Rome.

I was so pissed that I had wasted 47 previous years traveling everywhere but Italy. But, now here I was and I was going to milk the experience to the fullest.

After visiting Rome, we headed southeast through the Italian regions of Lazio, Campania, Basilicata and finally Calabria. Miglierina ended up being a five-hour trip on the autostrada from Rome.

The Clampetts arrived in Miglierina around six-o’clock pm on July 9 with the tune of the Beverly Hillbillies resonating in my brain. When we arrived we saw nothing but a bunch of houses and a couple of churches in this town of 800 people. There were no hotels, no coffee bars, no restaurants, nothing! Globalization had yet to arrive in Miglierina.

But, the view was spectacular! At the town square, across from the church where my grandparents were baptized and married, we could see neighboring villages five or so miles away, their bells tolling as if announcing our arrival. Miglierina reminded me of the Sicilian town of Corleone in the Godfather movies and the little Cinqueterre towns lounging in the womb of the verdant Ligurian hills.

At around three-thousand feet at Miglierina’s apex, the Tyrrenian Sea basked in the descending sun a few miles off to our right, its cousin–the Ionian Sea to the left. We were sharing this same incredible view that my grandparents had witnessed decades before and my ancestors centuries before that.

In Miglierina there seems to be only one main street, a slew of three-story houses ganging up on the narrow side streets. We continued on until we dead ended down a dangerously slopping cul-de-sac. There was no where to turn around.

I parked the minivan right there in the middle of the street as the town’s residents rushed to their windows, hanging out to see who the strangers were. Mostly, I saw older women dressed in black, right out of Carlo’ Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli. Strangers are a foreign commodity in Miglierina.

I got out of the minivan and stared up at my audience of miglierinesi. I yelled up in Italian to a resident on the third floor identifying myself: “Good evening! I’m Steve Sacco. We’re from California and we’re looking for relatives. My grandfather Cesare Sacco was born here in 1890.”

To my shock, everyone started yelling from window to window: “Stefano Sacco is here from America and his grandfather was Cesare Sacco. Did anyone know Cesare Sacco?” They all shook their head.

Suddenly they pulled out their cell phones (more modern than mine) and started calling around, asking if they knew any Saccos. People started approaching us, welcoming us back almost as conquering heroes. We got invited into home after home where the residents served us Coca-Cola and some powdered anisette cookies just like my grandfather’s in Chicago. As the reunion was reaching its crescendo, someone entered the house to announce that Caterina Sacco was driving down to meet us.

We were about to meet the Saccos of Miglierina!

Caterina Sacco, a beautiful 38-year old school teacher, was a spitting image of my cousin Joanne back in Chicago. She teaches history during the school year in Milano but returns home for the summer. She is unmarried with no children, which is rare among Calabrian women. Caterina was the first Sacco to finish college as I was the first among the Chicago Saccos. We followed her in our Renault minivan for a couple of miles down the steep mountain rode from Miglierina. Holy shit! We’re about to meet our family!

Two miles from Miglierina is Amato, an even smaller town. We arrived at her house on Via Indipendenza where her father opened the door. I was totally unprepared for the face I was about to see.

Mamma mia! It was Uncle Landy, resurrected from St. Joseph’s cemetery! Gennaro Sacco was Uncle Landy’s twin in a parallel universe. The only difference: Gennaro didn’t greet us scratching his coglioni like Uncle Landy used to do, but everything about him physically was Uncle Landy himself.

We entered their three-story home and met Gennaro’s wife Maria and Maria’s elderly mother. We immediately sat down after warm embraces welcoming us to the motherland. Maria served us Gennaro’s home-made wine bottled in an old Mateus bottle. It tasted surprisingly good for home-made wine and a lot better than my grandfather’s wine that he used to make in our garage on Monticello Avenue.

Soon, we sat down to dinner to a plate of pasta with a sauce that was uncannily identical to ours in Chicago. Freaky! There was, however, one slight difference in our pasta. Maria served the neck bones as a side dish while the Chicago Saccos cooked them in the sauce to enrich its taste.

The one major difference was totally unexpected. The Amato Sacco ate Serrano peppers while consuming their pasta; one bite of pasta followed by a bite of a Serrano pepper. We copied them and were surprised by the positive contribution of the Serrano pepper to the taste of the sauce.

After dinner, Gennaro took out two sheets of paper, one for him and one for me. The assignment’s goal was to write down our family trees as far as possible. When we stopped, we compared family trees. I was floored yet again! Gennaro and I are related on BOTH SIDES of the family! Heelabeelies! It means that Cesare married Giuseppina, his first or second cousin! Later, the Mayor of Miglierina informed me that we were related to EVERYONE in Miglierina. Heelabeelies! If Cesare had still been alive, he would have received a stern lecture from me.

We returned home to our hotel in nearby Catanzaro talking incessantly about our incredible discovery. The next day, Gennaro drove us a short distance to his small four-acre farm. There, he grows all of his own vegetables, interspersed by olive trees and grape vines. Gennaro explained that he grinds olives into olive oil for the residents of Miglierina and Amato. For his services, he gets to keep a tenth of the olive oil collected. His vines account for the wine he and his family consumes for the year, bottled in all manner of bottles, even Coca-Cola bottles.

Gennaro was too young to know my grandfather, but we learned a lot about his family. His uncle had fought in the Italian Army during World War II, falling at the siege of Stalingrad. I saw his picture in one of Gennaro’s bedrooms and again he looked like my dad uniformed in Army khakis or my Uncle Gene is his winter Navy uniform. Saccos had fought on both sides during the War, just like families during the American Civil War. I was pained to learn of his fate even though I had never met him. Gennaro was, himself, close to tears as he recounted his uncle’s fate.

We left Catanzaro on July 11 and headed back to France. I had a conference to attend in Paris and needed to visit our study-abroad partners in Montpellier, France and Barcelona, Spain. On the road toward Naples and later central and northern Italy, I thought of our family. I promised Gennaro and Caterina that I would return next year with my two remaining uncles, Chris and Tony, both in their seventies.


About growingupcalabrese

Professor of French and Italian at San Diego State University
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