In May, after researching my mother’s family ancestry in Sweden, I went to Sicily with my husband for a family wedding, to ancient Carini where my father was born.
Sweden and the gracious Swedes were new to me. Going to Carini was like coming home.
One of the best decisions my husband and I ever made was to travel to Sicily with our boys to reconnect with my father’s family in Carini. Over the years, we went back when we could – a couple of times with my father, and once with extended family. We watched my cousin Giuseppe grow up, along with several of his cousins.
Last spring we were thrilled to receive Giuseppe and Eloisa’s wedding invitation in the mail. Since the wedding was to be shortly after my Sweden trip, I decided to make it an extended journey.
Giuseppe and Eloisa’s wedding reception was within view of Segesta, built around 420 BC and one of the best preserved Doric temple in all of Europe. Overlooking the Gulf of Castellammare, the temple is a mystery, because it appears to have been abandoned before it was completed. And although the Greeks claim it was built by an Athenian architect, during that time period the area was likely inhabited by people indigenous to Sicily, and not the Greeks, though they were elsewhere on the island.
(Some scholars believe that parts of the epic Greek poem the Odyssey are set in Sicily – that Odysseus encountered Cyclops off the eastern coast, for example, and Scylla and Charybdis in the Strait of Messina.)
At any rate, I was thrilled to see the temple of Segesta once again; our first time in Sicily, in 2001, Giuseppe’s family took us there on a sightseeing trip. At the reception, the sun setting behind the illuminated temple gave an air of timelessness to the festivities. I could imagine the spirits of the ancients looking down on us as we celebrated with Giuseppe and Eloisa, and their friends and families.
This is what I read when I was in Sicily:
Our airbnb was in the old city of Carini. It had a small, shuttered balcony that opened to the noisy, busy, colorful street, almost like another room. We made friends with the neighbors across the strada and chatted with them from our balcony in the evening. Here, a mamma and her figlio, with the neighborhood dogs chiming in:
We’ve been lucky to have been able to travel to see extended family and our ancestral lands. I feel as though I have a second home far away and a fuller, more complete identity, anchored in a specific time and place in history. I hope we’ve given that to our sons, too, and that the younger generations – in Italy and Sweden – will someday come to visit their cousins in America.
“Take a moment and look at your life from the perspective of being an ancestor. You are with those who came before you and those yet to be born looking back at your descendants as they live their lives moving forward in time. Imagine that you can see your entire lineage from the first born to the last in your line. Imagine yourself as an ancestor, one of the thousands whose love expresses itself and is embodied now in your descendants. Who we are at this moment in time is a result of the countless generations that have come before and a response to the generations that will follow….. – Sandra Easter,Jung and the Ancestors
I was writing this post about my Sicilian cousin and his favorite children’s book in Wegmans when I heard the strumming of a mandolin. It was the theme song from The Godfather. Today, the cafe was featuring Italian folk songs along with Italian food.
Then, I heard someone speaking Italian. At a nearby table, a young girl was giving an Italian lesson to an older woman.
I’m not in Italy. I’m at a Wegmans in upstate New York.
But to get on with this post: My cousin Giuseppe, who lives in Carini, Sicily, recently graduated from the University of Palermo with a degree in translation. (Actually, he is my much younger cousin. His grandmother and my father were cousins, making him my third cousin, I think.) Giuseppe plans to further his studies in literary translation. Recently, he was the translator for Susan Vreeland when she was in Sicily speaking about her books and her passion for Italy.
Now that he’s finished his studies, Giuseppe had time for some literary discussion. He told me his favorite American writers are Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote, and Stephen King. Currently, he’s reading E’ Stato il Figlio, (loosely translated, “It Was the Son”) a book about the Mafia by the Sicilian writer Roberto Alajmo. Giuseppe calls Alajmo a “wizard” of a writer; the book was recently made into a movie.
When I asked Giuseppe if books had made a difference in his life, and if there was one in particular that was special to him, he said:
“I can’t imagine my room without my personal bookcase, or a world without books. One of the first books that I read when I was a child was Cuore: An Italian Schoolboy’s Journal, by Edmondo de Amicis, which left an indelible mark in my life. I believe this book must be read during childhood, with the sensibility and imagination of a child, when one can physically enter the story and share the characters’ feelings with one’s own heart.”
The books was written by de Amicis during the unification of Italy in 1866 and is one of the most famous books in Italian children’s literature. It has influenced generations of Italians and has also been widely read in East Asia (where it was published as “The Education of Love” in China) and Latin America.
Some modern-day readers may find it didactic and sentimental, but I’m fascinated to know more about books that my grandparents and great grandparents may have grown up with. I wonder if my father read Cuore. I wish I could ask him.
If you read reviews of Cuore on Amazon you’ll find that people have revisited this book later in life and have been as moved by it as when they were young, if not more so. The best children’s books resonate at any age.
Perhaps someday Giuseppe will return to Cuore with the full heart of an older man.
An English translation of the book (also known as Cuore: The Heart of a Boy), can be downloaded from Project Gutenberg. The translation leaves something to be desired and the format is difficult to read, but you might want to sample a few chapters, especially if you have Italian ancestry. (Or Latino or Asian)
Giuseppe told me that for his thesis he created a medical glossary of terms related to the heart in Italian, English, and French. He said he had no particular reason for choosing this topic. But I wonder.
State-of-the-art genetic testing can trace ancestry ten or eleven generations back, by looking at a man’s Y-chromosome DNA (which he inherits unchanged from his father) or the mitochondrial-DNA of a man or a women (which they inherit unchanged from their mother.)
Many people interested in genealogy are now supplementing their research with DNA testing of this kind.
As I read about Lone tracing her ancestry, I thought about trips to my father’s birthplace in Sicily I’ve taken with my family. My father was a baby when he crossed the Atlantic Ocean with my grandmother to Ellis Island. I heard the story many times growing up. My grandparents kept in touch with their relatives and returned to Sicily several times to visit.
Because they did, I’ve been able to travel to Carini to meet my father’s family, and my sons have had the opportunity to get to know their Sicilian cousins. That connection with the “old country” is continuing into the next generation, and I hope my children will keep it going with their children.
On our first trip, when we were exploring the cobblestone streets of Carini, we stopped in a bakery. There, we met a man who had my last name (my maiden name.) My family’s surname name is common in Carini.
That day our cousins took us to a nearby castle that had been built around 1075. In the evening we gathered for an elaborate, home-cooked meal at my father’s cousin’s villa in the old section of Carini. Like most Sicilian homes, it is walled off and gated. We sat at several picnic tables end-to-end next to a large, well-tended garden and talked late into the night.
I was steeped in antiquity but surrounded by modernity. Vespas and other traffic passed by outside the garden walls. I felt a sense of completion. Here were my roots, or half of them, anyway. I looked at the faces of my family and thought about the fact that Sicily has been conquered repeatedly, by the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Muslims, Normans, Spanish, and probably others. We have the blood of many races, and who knows what parts of the world our earliest ancestors came from.
I think people are looking for this sense of identity when they do genealogical research and probe their DNA for ancestry. We are, each of us, unique. Yet when it comes down to it, we all come from the same human family.
Have you had your DNA analyzed for ancestry? Are you considering it? If so and you’d like to share your thoughts and experiences, please do in the comments below.