I’m leaving in the morning, so today was my final full day at my Bed & Breakfast in Matrice. (I’m staying two more nights in Campobasso because they have a big festival this weekend.) Today was also my favorite day.
Last night, the owner of my Bed & Breakfast took me to the town cemetery. I don’t think I found any direct relatives, but saw many surnames I’m familiar with. After that, she said she’d take me to the town center to look at the town’s monument to the World Wars. (I had already seen this monument, but I didn’t tell her that because she was being very hospitable.) I mentioned to her in conversation that I wanted to visit a final town, San Giovanni in Galdo, home to more great-great grandparents and also 4 miles away from here.
At night, the town center was much more lively than it was the other day when I said it was eerily quiet. My host ended up running into some friends who lived right on the main strip and she got to talking with them. It turned out her friends’ daughter works in the City Hall in San Giovanni in Galdo, in the records office… which is the exact office I needed to visit. It was decided (without much input from me… or the daughter, who wasn’t even present) that the daughter would take me to work with her in the morning.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about this. I thought, I only need about an hour in the town, and then I’d be stuck there all day until she was done working. I also didn’t want to impose on anyone. But, they persuaded me to wait in front of their house at 8:15 the next morning.
So, this morning, at 8:15, I walked down the street and sat in front of this house. I actually couldn’t remember exactly which house it was. I figured I’d wait for 20 minutes and if nobody showed I’d head back to my B&B.
At about 8:30, the man I met the night before, Pasquale, came out of the house and said hello. He introduced me to his daughter Francesca who took me to San Giovanni in Galdo. They explained that today’s workday ended at 1:00 because this weekend is a big festival in Campobasso, so I’d have 4 hours in the town and then Francesca could take me back to Matrice.
Francesca was very nice and about my age. We had a nice conversation (in Italian of course – none of would be possible if I didn’t improve my Italian tremendously over the past few months) as we drove to the town and she stopped to let me take a picture as we approached. I explained that I was probably the first in my family to visit these places in 100 years.
When we arrived in the town, she helped me look for more birth certificates. We found my great-great grandmother and my great-great grandfather. The birth certificates themselves are very cool. They are kept in every city hall in Italy and they are handwritten journals of births which date back to the 1850s and often earlier. Unfortunately you can obviously only take copies – the originals are amazing to look at. Think about how old that ink is.
Supposedly churches have even better records, but it is more difficult to get to them. City halls have more regular business hours than these tiny churches. Maybe one day.
After we found what I was looking for, I went for a small walk around the town and took some photos. For a town of about 600 mostly older residents, it was relatively lively. There were tons of retirees hanging out on benches watching the day go by, and there was also a market in town that day. I finished getting the photos I wanted to get and walked back to the city hall. I told Francesca I could just sit and wait for a few hours, but she said we could go get a coffee. There were two other younger guys that worked in the town hall and they came with us.
We went to get a coffee and I tried to pay for all four… it was the least I could do for their hospitality. I put 5 euros on the counter. A few minutes later Francesca grabbed my euros and gave them back to me… she went behind my back and paid! I was a little annoyed but I took the money and put it back in my wallet.
After the coffee we walked down the street some more. It was nice to walk down the street with people who knew everyone. I was introduced to many of the locals who were interested in why I came. We walked back to the area near the city hall and sat down on a bench. All of a sudden, I was talking to all the locals.
There was one woman, maybe her name was Carmelina, I didn’t get it exactly. But she was 90 years old and said she knew who my ancestors were. She smiled as she talked and also she told me I had one relative now who lived in Campobasso, but that he isn’t healthy anymore. It was hard to talk to her because she spoke in a mix of Italian and dialect, but I was happy to know her. She got a delivery of bread and gave us some. She also expressed concern over what I was eating for lunch that day. When I told her I packed some sandwiches and apples (“Ho portato panini e mele!”), I could tell she was a bit worried about me.
There was another man who came down the street who had travelled around the world a lot. He said he had some relatives in Cleveland. He said their name, and I know of them. My jaw dropped to the floor. He told me he had some things for me and went to his house. He came back in 5 minutes with 4 books that he himself had written. I told him I could pay for them but he said they were a gift. One of them was the history of the village and even had some parts in English.
I spoke to the other two guys my age also, and we had good conversation. I told them all about my current travels in Italy and in Europe, where I’ve been so far and where I planned on going next. Francesca went back in the city hall to work for a bit and I had about another hour and a half to kill. I sat on the benches in the Piazza and watched the day go by with the locals. It was a quintessential day in a small Italian town, a town of my ancestors, and an amazing experience I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
At 1:00 Francesca took me back to Matrice and invited me to lunch with her dad, her aunt, and her cousin. They were interested in my reasons for being here and listened as I told them about my roots and why I wanted to visit here. I told them about Cleveland and how there are many people who descend from here and they listened with interest. They gave me some local cheese and taught me about local culture, and we had a great meal. We’re now Facebook friends and when I get home I’m going to send them a few pictures of some things I told them about. Also I think we’re going to meet up on Sunday morning at the festival in Campobasso.
This was the experience I wanted when I decided to come here. I found the towns of my ancestors, made some friends, and had a lunch with them. I visited all the towns I came to visit, and I learned facts about my ancestors and am coming home with documents and souvenirs. I accomplished all my goals in coming here and I leave without regret. It’s easy to go to Rome and Florence, but coming here was not easy. There were moments of doubt when I said “what am I doing here?” But it was worth it in the end.