The morning of October 19, a beautiful black Mercedes pulled up in front of Hotel Il Nido to whisk me away from Sorrento to a town over two hours away. It was a big extravangance by my standards, but this old lady did not want to schlep her one carry-on and one personal item onto the train and then the bus, which would take several hours and.......okay, I am a wimp but it was close enough to my birthday that I decided to give myself this gift, and I am so glad I did.
Giuseppe and I had a lively, sometimes confusing, conversation with his limited English and my limited Italian, but it was interesting and a lot of laughs. When we pulled off the autostrade, he said, “Here is Grottaminarda!” I got a completely unexpected emotional flutter in my heart and a little welling of tears. This is the town where my mother's father (last name Marchillo) and her mother's parents (last name Colantuono) were born.
We found my little AirBnB without much trouble and my hostess, Clementina, came out to greet me. I hugged and cheek-kissed Giuseppe as Clementina, whose picture shows up in the dictionary next to “petite”, grabbed my heaviest bag and started up the two flights of marble (?) stairs. The little studio was perfect for me, and Clementina was a doll. I told her I was there to search for family roots, and she said she had a friend who could help by looking up local records. Terrific!
After getting unpacked I walked down the street in search of something to eat. A big slice of pizza with zucca (winter squash or pumpkin) and a bottle of water fit the bill, and the total was only 1,50 euro, or $1.65. Wow! I decided to walk to the old centro area to look at the church where I knew my great-grandparents had married and found it easily. That day, and every other day I was there, the church doors were locked so I never saw the inside. In hindsight I could have faked being Catholic and tried to go to mass, but times were not posted and the church may have collapsed.
According to Clementina, much of the centro got damaged during an earthquake in the 1980's, and that was in evidence. I was surprised to see an old castle nearby and enjoyed walking the narrow roads (except when cars came whizzing by) and just getting a feel for the town. It is not a prosperous town but neat and clean, except for some litter and cigarette butts, which seem to be everywhere in southern Italy.
The next day I walked to the cemetery, which I found fascinating, and spent two hours looking at headstones. Just as I was about to leave, I spotted a familiar name. I was excited because thanks to the limited research I did before I left home, I knew that Sabato Colantuono was a brother to my great-grandfather, Nicola. Unlike some of the markers, this one did not have a picture of Sabato, although there were pictures on two other markers, one mounted above Sabato's and one below. Thanks to a connection I made on 23andMe, I knew that Anna was his niece and that the man on the bottom marker was her son.
Next on my search was a stop at a candy store. Another 23andMe connection had given me the name of Franco Cataruozzolo, a well-known torrone and chocolate shop owner. Our connection was through the Marchillo side of the family. Franco was so nice, and even though he did not speak English one of his employees did. He gave me his brother's phone number as he was more informed on the family history, and smiled and said in Italian that, “we might be blood”. I bought a box of his specialty, Spanbocconi, which is liqueur-soaked cake surrounded by almond nougat and coated in chocolate. Yes, it is as good as it sounds.
On the way home I stopped by a small fruit and veggie store for dinner fixings and snacks, including fresh pasta, cherry tomatoes, a jar of amazing olives and a big plastic jug of vino rosso. (Please don't judge, lol. My studio did not have a corkscrew and it was actually very good and only 5 euro. I left at least half of it for Clementina's father.)
Monday I set out early and discovered that it was market day! It spread all over town and appeared to be organized by products. All the clothing and shoe vendors for several blocks, then household goods down the side streets, then the fresh veggies and homemade cheese, and further away the baccala and other fish vendors were set up. I spent a couple of hours looking at all the stuff but only bought a pomegranate, broccoli rabe and some fresh mushrooms. After a homemade lunch I relaxed and watched some Italian TV, which can be very funny, especially their Food Network, as well as very sexy, especially their game shows.
Tuesday with Clementina's advice I went to the bar (where everyone drinks espresso standing up) to buy a bus ticket to Naples as I was leaving the next day. That evening Clementina brought her friend Raffaele to give me a genealogy report. He had gone to Avellino (kind of the “county seat” of Campania) and looked up documents. I learned a lot from him. My grandfather, James Marchillo, was actually named Vincenzo. His father, Rocco, drove around in a wagon and sold stuff; he was a “cenciaio”, a traveling salesman. My great-great grandfather Stanislao Colantuono was a “fabro”, an iron worker, as was his father Gennaro. Sabato was born Antonio. The name difference was a puzzle, but today I decided to look up his date of birth, and sure enough, September 10, 1864 was a Saturday (Sabato).
I loved these discoveries, and there is so much more yet to be learned because the last names of my great grandmothers (Giava and Musto) point to them being from surrounding towns. But somehow it is enough that I got to see the area my ancestors lived, the beautiful Irpinia valley.