Ancestry kits have made it to the top of the Christmas gifts lists this year. Have you ever wondered about your roots? Where you came from? I have been thinking about this since high school. I dreamed to trace our roots back to our hometown back in Sicily. I knew we had more family out there. My dad is one of six kids, my grandpa one of six and it goes up from there. Could they be living right next door to you?
I remember a conversation I had with my father when I was in high school about our Italian roots and the history of our family. I was intrigued by our Italian culture and wanted to know more about our family’s history. Why did we come to America? My Father’s side of the family is Sicilian and originate from Corleone (yes that Corleone, the one from the Godfather’s Movies.) My Father is from a large Italian family, He was one of 6 siblings, my Grandpa one of twelve, and it goes up from there. When I was growing up, I only knew about my Grandfather’s family, his six children, my cousins. I knew of distant family back on the east coast, but that was all. I had many questions. For starters, Is there any family still living in Sicily?
Years went by and I had put it on the back burner, for life responsibilities, but the desire remained. The dream was to take this trip with my Dad. I believed this would be an epic trip. Going to Italy with my Dad to research our family tree. I dreamed that we would be like private investigators and travel around Italy like a treasure hunt. I began the research. My Dad had told me My Aunt Lucy had started a tree and I could go from there. I needed to get that tree but she had passed away years ago. I did not know if I could find where it had gone.
Fast forward to a few years ago, I found the tree. I began to compared to what I had found. The tree I had started had massive holes in it, particularly in the upper branches. Higher branches than my Grandpa and His Siblings. My tree was pretty bare up there, hardly any branches, no leaves. The package that my aunt sent, contained My Aunt Lucy’s tree and various pictures of My Great-Grandparents that were photocopied. My Aunt’s tree was much more complete and had plenty more dates then my Dad could remember.
From there I went to Ancestry website to try and fill the remaining holes. I found some of my Grandpa’s and his Brother’s military records. All the brothers had been in the war. I filled up most of the branches and leaves all the way up to my Great-Great-Great Grandparents. Not bad, right?
We arrived in Catania one a beautiful sunny afternoon. Catania is one of Sicily’s big cities which would be our home base for week one. Sicily is beautiful and the afternoon we arrived the town square was alive with activity. A large square with buildings all around. Locals and tourists filled the square with music and cleaning up the days busy fish market. I was beyond nervous and excited at this point. Years of research, we were finally here! This is my culture, where my ancestors came from. Now I am standing here in the middle of it.
After exploring busy Catania for the day. That evening, after a beautiful dinner, we walked around town. We observed this red glow in the sky. Tourists were more excited than the locals. The night before we were to go to Nicolosi, Mt Etna decided she was excited and starting giving us a show that could be seen in Catania an hour away. Mt Etna started to erupt or throw lava into the dark sky. I thought, Oh no! I came all this way! Would Etna stop me in my tracks? We would see what it would be like in the morning. The locals seemed calm, we would see what it is like in the morning.
That next day, We got up, Etna was a large smoke stack, all seem well. Life continued in the city. No warnings. Let us go! We drove out to Nicolosi about an hour away from busy Catania. (Driving is interesting in Sicily, but that is a whole other blog post.) The drive out of the city was chaotic but then as you left the city in the background. Mount Etna filling up the view in your windshield as a lush green landscape took over for city streets.
I planned this trip to include Carnevale in February, which is a busy time in Venice, not so much the case for the rest of Italy. In fact it's off season. I love traveling in the off season. You often obtain a more local experience, it is not crowded, and it is a little more budget friendly. The one possible downside is that not everything is open as it is during the season. Especially in the smaller towns. Restaurants and hotels maybe closed or under construction. Most of the time I find it to be touristy things anyways and I am not bothered by that. As I come to crave a more local experience.
This made the town of Nicolosi noticeably sleepy. It's not a town that has a high tourism rate anyway. Nicolosi’s claim to fame is that it is the gateway to Etna. Most of the tourism of Nicolosi is people seeking an adventure to explore Etna. It's one of those small towns you can drive through in a minute. Upon arrival, I went straight to the tourist office, it had been raining off and on that day. I hoped it would provide a good start.
Nicolosi is not a tourist town. There was not a lot of information online. The office on the corner of a square. There were only two people in the office. For a tourist office they seemed surprised that we were there. They were less than friendly when we asked about the history of the town. They didn’t offer any history or know of where we could go. I was discouraged, especially after hearing stories of how friendly and welcoming this town was. Most of the towns in Sicily that have last names were because of a resident being a mayor or priest. In my family he was a priest. This is my family's hometown, I was here and could find nothing. Feeling defeated, I explored the town, in which the majority was closed and locked up, except the tourism office, a cafe and few stores. We left the town of Nicolosi, with only a few photographs, and no new information. I hoped we would find more information in Palermo and Corleone. The other cities that came up in my research.
My family is from is Corleone. Yes, that one, the one made famous from The Godfather's movies. Corleone is located on the north east side of the island an hour drive from Palermo, the capital of Sicily, and the home base for week two. My excitement returns, we have to find something here.
During the tour, Marc had ask the group where we were all from? Why were we in Italy? Standard group discussion. I begin to explain that we are looking for family, and have not had any luck. Marc asks if we brought our info with us and asks us to send it to him. As he picks up his phone and calls his friend, who lives in Corleone. The friend then tells Marc, that he helps a couple with some errands that have the same last name. Could they be the family we were looking for? Wow! Just wow! Are you kidding me? Then asks us to email the information. and he will see if it is a match! We finished the tour and I hurried back to the hotel to send him all the information we had. The tour was amazing. I highly recommend Steaty tours. Not only did Marc help me find family. The tour was delicious!
That next morning, I received an email saying Marc's friend was in contact with the couple. I responded that we would head to Corleone. As we had already planned to go to Corleone that day. I was stoked! The hour long drive was filled with lush green rolling hills, the green, green kind. So vibrantly green that you think, it might not be real. Again, it was raining on and off the past few days. When we arrived in the tiny town,it started to sprinkle. The town is small with a main road. I still was unsure, if we would find our family that day. We drove around in circles looking for anything that was open, again being off season and raining, it looked as if it was a ghost town. I drove around the town for anything that would pop up. I was looking for open churches. I found two street signs with my family’s last names. One with my Grandma’s maiden name.
By this time we were hungry, by that time so I found a place to park near a square and there was one pizza restaurant open. The smell of pizza filled the square mixed with the smell of fresh rain. We walked in,to a lady was standing at the tall counter, we ordered our pizza and began explaining our journey. Hoping she help us or send us in a direction, heck, it's a small town, maybe she knows them.
Oh! She says excitedly, "There is a church right up the road, and they probably could help you, but they close rather quickly. I will save your pizza, run up there and check." She hurries us out of the restaurant and up the street. Okay, here we go!
As we exit the square, a small white European car is coming down the hill towards us, a woman stops right by me, rolls down her window and says “You Nicolosi?" In English. Shocked, anyone would know me in this town. Ok, maybe I do look like a tourist. I said yes, yes I am! She says in English I am too! Points at us to get in her car. Marc’s friend had called her to tell her we were coming. I had no way of knowing. I did not have any cell service.
We get in and she drives us to her house. Francesca is my Great-Grandfather’s Brother’s daughter. In other words, my Great-Aunt. My Aunt’s Aunt. You can tell by the picture, there is no denying they are family. Now Francesca, My Great-Aunt doesn't speak English and I had completed my immersion classes, two weeks prior. I was far from full fluency, but I was comprehending well and conversing where she could at least understand and I could understand her. Like a true Italian she started feeding us, as soon as we walked in the door. She made homemade biscotti and was pouring lemoncello to go with the biscotti. It was a amazing afternoon reconnecting with family, with promises of a return and a longer stay. We have been in contact ever since. It was an amazing adventure.
Mission complete! I plan on trying this with my Mom's side. I have already started the process. Have you found family? Tell me your story below in the comments.