I write this to remember. I share, just in case, you need the inspiration to give yourself permission to go on an ancestor pilgrimage.
Beauty can be so hard to put into words. I received so much of it in my journey to Italy. I went in search of fresh perspective, and have returned overflowing.
I traversed the physical world to reach the land of my Grandfather and experienced family in a whole new way. I was humbled to be embraced by strangers who called me family. This Journey was for my ancestors, who kept calling out in the spirit world that I must come to visit my bis bis Nona (great great Grandma). She never got over her daughter and grandson leaving and never returning. She told me so with a feeling of such deep heartbreak and longing it was clear I must make the journey.
And so I did.
My Grandfather left Orsara de Puglia when he was 5 years old. His memories of the place were of starvation and suffering through World War 1. Back in the days of our living conversations, he would tell me he didn't recommend going there, because it took a week in an ox cart to get there from Naples. For him, It was a place of trauma, that he had no interest in returning to.
Almost exactly 100 years later, I began my journey of returning, on a 14 hr flight. I ate ice cream in the sky, binge watched movies, and recognized the miracle of this time I live in. The rest of the journey took a little more effort, and a little discomfort, trains, and rental cars. But no ox cart, or boat across the ocean.
When we landed in Orsara, after many adventures to get this far, my friend Valerie and I arrive at our Air B&B. As we were getting settled, the host asked why we were there. As I was telling him the stories of my Papa, he stopped me, asked for names. "Micheal Bolza" I answered. He knew someone in town had the last name Bolza. Then he wanted other names. "Rocchina Mastrophiri was my Great Grandmother" I said. This got his attention. It was one of his family names. He called his Grandma over to tell her. She got so excited and gave me the hug of an Italian Grandma with a kiss on each cheek. Masterphirie you are my family! I had never felt so instantly accepted and wanted in my life. It was truly amazing. That hug alone was worth all the money, and time, and travel.
TThe Wedding Creepers
The next day Val and I left the air B&B to explore this town.
We drove through the narrow streets and came to the natural stopping point of the church of Archangel Michael. I had discovered info on this church when doing internet research. It is built over a cave that several people had direct experience with Archangel Michael aka Abbazia di Sant'Angelo. When I first read about this online several years ago I was struck by the connection. Archangel Michael is a strong guide for me and I named my son Michelangelo long before I knew anything about this place.
We arrived to an empty church. There was a flyer on the wall saying there was going to be a wedding that day. We thought "That’s sweet, we will just go in and be gone before that happens". As soon as we entered the church, people started arriving. We were being wedding crushers! We decided to get out of the way real quick. We found a stairwell that was out of the way. We could see and hear everyone arriving. We watched what I believe was the whole town arrive to this ceremony. All wearing their Sunday best. We listened to the babies crying with Italian accents. MaaMaa
After a long time of being in our hidey hole it seemed that the flow of people had slowed and we could escape without being seen. The ceremony was starting and it seemed safe. So we got up and started towards the car, and promptly ran into a big group of latecomers. We put our heads down and scurried out of there.
Of course, the car was blocked in since we were the first ones there. So we started walking.
Giggling about that experience we walked for a little ways down a random street and walked straight past city hall. We turned around and walked in. Val asked for the “Anagraphe” office. We had learned that word the night before from the Air B&B host. I suppose it translated to family records.
There were two people in the office clearly working on things. The woman was on the phone for several minutes before she hung up. When she saw us she immediately started talking in Italian, telling us her stories of who she was just on the phone with. The gist of it was that some German guy was wanting her to look up all kinds of info that was way more work than she got paid for. I don’t know how I understood that. But I did. She did not pause for breath for at least 5 minutes. Finally, she paused and we expressed that we did not understand Italian.
Val did amazing at speaking enough Italian to get the idea of why were there across.
My goal of going to this office was to find out where my ancestors might be buried so I could leave an offering for them. The goal this woman heard was to connect with my living relatives. I had no idea this was what was happening.
She got on the phone and made a phone call to what I thought was a coworker who spoke more English or something. She had us sit in the hall after introducing us to who I think was the Mayor. We sat there for a few minutes and I started feeling antsy. I was hungry. I was only there for the day and I really wanted to see more of the town. Mostly I had no idea why we were sitting there. I told Val I wanted to leave. She told me she thought we were waiting for someone maybe related to me. What! I felt completely unprepared for this. I didn’t even speak Italian. I really wanted to leave then. We got up to go. We tried to tell the lady that we were going to leave. The look on her face was of complete disbelief. "Why would you not want to meet your cousins" is what I now understand it to mean. She went and pulled a file that was yellow and hand written clearly at least 150 years old. The official record of the family Bolza. Just as this came out the people she had called showed up. As I look back on it is now clear that these people had responded to a call from city hall saying your long lost relatives are here come down and meet them, and so they did. At the time I really didn’t fully comprehend what was happening. Just some nice people looking at old records with me asking for details of my family tree.
There were many things lost in translation. What is clear to me is that Family has a different meaning in Italy. It means you are willing to drop everything and come down to city hall and meet a random stranger who might be part of your family. I am so touched that I experienced this connection.
Josephine Thomason is an artist, healer, teacher.