Discovering My Italian Relatives

*This post was originally posted on my personal blog and has since been adapted and published here*

It was December 27th of 2015 on a Sunday, my internet tabs were filled with “How to Pack Lightly for Study Abroad,” “Italian Verbs and Their Conjugations,” a google doc my roommate made of all the places we planned to see, and a Facebook messenger chat with my cousin Valeria who lives in Vasto, Italy. Most of my life was spent explaining to people that YES, I am actually Italian by blood – don’t let the reddish-toned hair, pale skin, and blue eyes fool you. Usually, I have to go in depth explaining to people where my family is from and that I do have family that still live in Italy! For years though I couldn’t put any faces to the people in Italy that I spoke about. When I thought about it I sort of just imagined a bunch of people that looked like me, only Italian speaking with much darker hair and tanned skin...and probably just a multiplication of my grandmother asking if I've had enough to eat.

My view of my Italian family was always a distant fairy tale. My long lost relatives that we always spoke of and knew nothing about! How fascinating! I was about to embark on an amazing study abroad journey to la bella città di Roma! The beautiful city of Rome!

Once I finally wrapped my head around this concept I thought...WAIT (in my head my mom-mom repeatedly yelling ASPETTA in her Abruzzese dialect crossed my mind). I have family in Vasto, two hours outside of Rome on the eastern coast, who I know nothing about. And so I set on my journey to discover these long lost distant cousins who I always dreamed about meeting.

After many phone calls to my mom-mom with piles of scrap paper around my desk that I scrawled on trying to get down everyone's name and who they were related to, attempting to search for everyone on Facebook, and holding up their profile pictures next to my face asking my roommate “does this person look like me?” I finally decided I would make an ancestry account. In doing this, I discovered so much about my family: who was in the war, who was related to who, how many brothers and sisters everyone had (think about 6-10 siblings each), and most importantly I built my mom-moms family tree from the roots to discover – absolutely NOTHING. My issue the entire time was that we had no idea what anyone’s married surname was. I searched for all of the surnames of the Italians in my immediate family. Naglieri seemed to be my best bet as it was my great-grandmother’s maiden name. I was determined I would find somebody.

In my many searches of names on Facebook, I came across a Facebook group called “Naglieri Genealogy,” and of course immediately requested to join. It was a group filled with people I by chance was distantly related to through marriages, but no one really by blood. I posted in my butchered Italian (okay let's be honest here I was using google translate at the time) and I asked if anyone knew the names of my relatives. All of the names would run together at this point and I frequently had to check back to my ancestry tree to remember who was related to who again. I mean honestly, how many Saverio’s can we have in one family?! No one could give me the answers I was looking for until one day I was looking through an old photo album at my mom-mom’s house.

la mia famiglia in Vasto about 1994

She pointed to the one image I was intrigued by of a group of older Italians with their kids standing on a balcony. She pointed to each face, “You see, here’s me, and your pop-pop, this is Valeria’s mother, she’s the little girl in the photo, and this is Saverio, (oh, so that was Saverio!), Nicola and Anna and the two boys are their children Luca and Davide!” Oh wow, I felt as though I struck gold. I could feel the excitement pulsing through my blood and into a face that brought my lips to a huge grin. I asked her if I could take the photo and as soon as I was home I was uploading that old film photograph directly to the Naglieri Genealogy Facebook page. By the next day, a very nice elderly man said he knew one of the men in the back of the photograph, he said some words I didn’t know in Italian and finally said that he knows the owner of the restaurant Il Cigno Bianco. My family’s restaurant! I practically squealed with excitement, but I didn’t want to wake my roommate who was letting me sleep on her futon all summer while I saved up some money to go abroad. It was around 1 am when I received this message and I quickly responded. “Do you know my aunt’s last name!?” Was she my aunt? Second cousin? Let’s face it, once you get past second cousins, does anyone understand how it works? His response was shortly after and in Italian “I believe her last name is D’Adamo.” That message right there opened my entire world and brought so much joy and love into my life that I didn't know I was missing. I immediately made another search on facebook and found everyone (at least the one's who had a facebook). In mostly google translated Italian on one of the happiest moments of my life, I messaged all of my Italian relatives and added them as friends. This would be just the beginning of my crazy fairy tale adventure in Italy.

I use this image a lot when talking about Abruzzo and my grandmother's hometown and the reason for this being that this is the image I saw on the walls in her house as I was growing up and which started my lifelong dream of visiting a place I only saw in a painting

Pretty soon I found other cousins, all second cousins once or twice removed, but still related to me by blood. They were all the cousins of my grandmother who hadn't seen her in 22 years. Some of them let me write in my grammatically incorrect Italian, helping me out throughout my fall semester and by giving words of encouragement before my final exams. In bocca al lupo!  They would write to me (Good luck!) in which I would respond Crepi! We shared family traditions, which all turned out to be similar. Such as, fish on Christmas eve, eating Panettone during the holidays, and chatting around the dinner table telling stories for hours. The most magical part for me though was letting my mom-mom read their Italian messages on Facebook and being wished a very special Buon Natale from her relatives. Seeing her face light up from those messages brought me so much happiness.

After a few months of living in Italy I was ready and more than determined to meet my Italian relatives for the first time. I had been messaging my cousin Valeria for a while who had helped both myself and my roommate Emma figure things out and get necessary items from the pharmacy. It was nearing the end of April and we decided it would be a good weekend for me to finally make my way to the motherland. One of my biggest plans when coming to Italy and my dream throughout my entire life was to come to Italy, see where my grandmother grew up, and meet my Italian relatives. That weekend, my dream was finally able to come true. It was my first time traveling completely on my own (apart from a short train ride to Florence so I could meet up with my friends).

Of course, because solo travel is never easy especially for a beginner, the stress and panic happened early in the morning upon my departure. Unfortunately, and something that happens pretty often here in Rome, there was a pubic transportation strike. I remember scrambling in the morning to pack my things and make it to the metro before they stopped running for 4-5 hours. My train was at 10am but the strike didn’t end until noon. So I was up way too early and didn’t even have time to make coffee, but as soon as I was at the Tiburtina train station you know I was the first in line to order an espresso. I waited for almost two hours thinking about all of the possibilities in my head of what was going to happen this weekend. To be perfectly honest, at the time I was nervous! This was my first time meeting my family and we only met over skype once! I was nervous about the language and I was nervous that maybe they wouldn’t like me for some reason. While these thoughts swarmed my mind I made my way over to the bus stop where I would board the 3 hour Dicarlobus from Roma to Vasto. Despite the nerves, I was excited. Confused also because the bus stop was a little hidden and I wandered for about 20 minutes before realizing where I needed to be. I boarded the bus and was on my way.

One of the stops was in Pescara, my poppop’s hometown. A wave of emotion came over me as we drove through and out of pure coincidence the song Chitarra Vagabonda came on my iPhone. I was in shock. This was a song my poppop used to sing often and it reminds me of him a lot. Tears came to my eyes as I thought about him and how I felt that he was with me while I drove though the city he grew up in. One more hour and I would be in Vasto.

The bus pulled into Vasto just after 1pm and I saw familiar faces from the photos that I recognized from Facebook. I walked off the bus with a smile and was greeted with a warm embrace and teary eyes from my relatives. My nervousness began to peak when I heard only Italian coming from their mouths. I remember thinking...maybe this weekend will be really good for me and i’ll be even better at speaking Italian! (I was wrong about this one). They asked me if I understood and I said yes because I did for the most part but I had no way of responding or explaining anything in Italian. My aunt said I look just like my mom. They used to play on the beach and in the town center together when my mom visited in 1978.

I was mostly excited to meet Valeria in person because we had been talking so much on facebook. She was the only one in my family who could speak any English to communicate with me so most of the weekend was looking to her for translations and helping me explain myself. I find this funny because as the years went on she spoke less and less English with me and I spoke more and more Italian!

That weekend was fantastic. The sights in Vasto are beautiful and the food warmed my soul just like a home cooked meal from my mom or my grandmother. My cousins, Luca and Valeria, treated me so well and took me out for drinks and even though there was a huge language barrier - and I mean I literally was still an A2 Italian student that couldn't form proper sentences. Despite all of that, we were able to communicate in a way that I supposed only exists amongst family. I truly felt like I was home.

I had to laugh to myself a lot because my uncle always asked me too many questions and spoke too fast and I had a very difficult time understanding. (Years later and I still barely understand him, but I also realized that they mostly spoke to me in dialect...mamma mia). It’s not always easy to explain the emotions I felt during that weekend but the important thing was that in doing all of this my family back in America thought it would be a perfect time to make a family vacation. They came to visit me in the summer of 2016 after I changed abroad programs from Rome to Perugia. It was the first time my grandmother saw her relatives in 22 years. And although there was such an obvious language barrier we were able to enjoy each others company and laugh at the same things. Laughter is the same in every language after all.

*If you liked this blog and would like to discover more about Abruzzo and how to travel there click here!*
The Localist Abroad
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© Ashley Nicole Weimar.