It’s not like I expected it to be easy. Quite the opposite really, but I never thought I’d come up empty-handed. Yet empty-handed I am. It’s as if when they left Italy, all traces of my maternal bloodline vanished, lost to the mists of time. This has really got me wondering why they left—my gut says it was more than the desire for work—and why, once settled in Pennsylvania, they never spoke of their past. Why did my great-aunt decide to tell me of our “secret” Roma roots? And why, for god’s sake didn’t I ask more questions before she passed? I’m kicking myself for this oversight and lack of focus when I was younger. May my experience be a good lesson for those of you who are bestowed with a family secret: ask more questions, immediately, and even better, record their stories while they are alive.
I’ve had to make peace with the fact that my original plan for traveling to Italy only half materialized; not necessarily an easy thing for someone who nearly always accomplishes what she sets out to do. The door remains shut on my maternal bloodline, although I did find the village where their last steps on Italian soil occurred, walking them myself, or at least breathing the same mountain air, drinking the same water that still flows from the ancient mountains that surround Lago Maggiore, and lit a candle to them in the 12th-century church where they undoubtedly prayed to the Mother.
Baveno is one of a handful of small towns and villages that encircle the lake, one of many in the “Lake District” of northern Italy, close to Switzerland in the north and Austria in the east. Lago Maggiore, the lake upon whose shores Baveno sits, is partially in Switzerland and is the second largest lake in Italy. These Italian towns and villages have more in common with their northern neighbors than in the south and I found the people more reserved and less helpful than I did in other parts of the country. This may have something to do with the weather or simply the influence of the Swiss; I didn’t get to spend enough time to know for sure. But it is beautiful, gorgeous in that storybook kind of way, with low January mists hanging in the foothills of the Pennine, Lepontine and Lugano Alps and the vast lake with three Borromean Islands named after the Borromea Family who acquired them in the early 16th-century.
I visited the Comune di Baveno, the local office for everything from paying bills to public records, looking for the names of my great-grandparents: Bruno, Durante, Pais. I searched online records, I wandered the town cemetery, looking for these surnames. I found a few Brunos and intend to look more deeply into the name, as the woman at the inn where I stayed said it was a local name. The other two she did not recognize and the lack of even one Durante or Pais in the graveyard supported this. My instincts tell me that Pais and Durante must be the Roma/Sinti bloodline, so I will follow this inquiry when I return to Oregon. It will also be able helpful to stay longer than I was able to this time—three days is just not enough time —so that brings me to the half of this journey that was fruitful.
My paternal bloodline, in the southern Italian region of Campania, opened their doors and lives to us. I traveled to Controne with my son and my brother, a year and a half after my daughter found her way there—at my suggestion—as part of a backpacking trip with a friend. No public transportation can get you to this small mountain town, so she and her friend took a cab from Salerno. It’s about a 35 mile journey straight up into the mountains from the beautiful area where the Amalfi coast ends in Salerno.
The small piazza in the center of town can be filled with men of many ages but the women don't frequent the square during the day, although at night I noticed a few younger women hanging out with young men. But during the day, it’s mainly a boys club. I can only imagine the reactions of the men when my tall, blonde daughter approached the square looking for Stellavatos. No one spoke English and she didn’t speak Italian, but there was a man who had worked in Portugal and my daughter had lived in Brazil, so they were able to converse in Portuguese. Eventually she was connected with a man in the village who spoke English. He had lived many years in Arizona and his wife was American, so this couple took them under their wing and both knew the Stellavato-Campagnas (some of our Stellavato relatives have married into the Campagna family). Interestingly, the couple who connected my daughter to our bloodline was a Vecchio and they had, all those years ago, immigrated to the States along with my family, but the Italian knowledge of this had been lost. They both bought houses on the same “hill” in Washington, Pennsylvania and many a family gathering of the two families have occurred during my lifetime. (I feel I should also mention the Faellas as well, as they immigrated from Campania at the same time as my bisnono and my godfather is a Faella—they were all farmers together before they left their homeland, although I didn't meet any while there.)
Controne was like a paradise, sitting at the base of the “Dolomiti Sud,” as the locals refer to them, or Southern Alburni Mountains, with the River Calore, rated as the cleanest river in Europe, winding its way down the mountain and through the village. Twenty-two natural springs feed into the river, as well as the many stone fountains located throughout the area. Campania is known as Oil and Bean Country because 80% of the area are olive trees and they grow a small, pearl-like bean known as the Piccolo bean, a creamy and delicious bean they prepare in a thousand different ways, all incredibly good eats. My cousin took me on a tour of his bean, olive, and grape fields (they grow a Barbara grape) and I am happy to say I brought home a pod of four beans that I will lovingly grow in my Oregon garden. Truth be told, I did not want to leave. I felt comfortable there. It felt like coming home.
I have now nearly everything I need to apply for dual citizenship. All that's left are the international notarizations of the U.S. documents, known as apostilles. These are easy to come by and, like most things American, all you need is money to obtain them. This is the next step when I get back to the states as you must apply from your resident country. I hope to return to Controne, to watch the seasons change and get to know my Italian family better. They laughed heartily, fed us to bursting, and made us all feel welcome. We invited them to come and visit us in the states so that we might return the wonderful hospitality they showed us. I'm not sure Oregon excited them as much as Las Vegas did, where my brothers both live and teach in the public school system. Las Vegas made them smile and I wouldn't be surprised if they visit my brother. When you live in paradise, the paradise of Oregon isn't quite as appealing as the neon empire of Las Vegas might be. It's ok, I can understand the appeal. Whichever way it goes, I look forward to our next encounter and building a bridge between the our two branches of the Stellavato family tree.
An interesting side note: They say if one member of a family dies and another is born within the same year, it is the soul of the one who has passed that enters the new life. If there is any truth to this, my great-grandfather, Giuseppi-Niccola, the family member who immigrated from Controne to Pennsylvania and is the basis for my citizenship application, died in March of 1961 and I was born in August of 1961. Perhaps Giuseppi is trying to get home…