Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Searching for Ancestors in Old Calabria

Monday, October 20, 2014

ND and I traveled to Lamezia Terme in the company of Miriam and Domenico, a young Italian couple in their mid twenties with whom we'd arranged a day of exploration in Nicastro and Decolattura, the towns of ND's ancestors on her father's side. We were on a quest to discover what we could of ND's great grandfather Vincenzo DiCello, her great grandmother Rosa Perri, and her great great grandfather, Salvatore DiCello.

Miriam, bright-eyed, speaks quite good English from having worked several years for Lufthansa Airlines in Milan. She lives in the small village of San Floro where she helps raise silkworms. Domenico, a photographer, looks like a young Cat Stevens. He doesn't speak much English though understands a fair amount; he has Miriam explain that he uses film and prints his images in a darkroom he created himself. Fairly aloof, almost bored-seeming, he's the opposite of Miriam's outgoing, smiling presence yet he drives the car all day without complaint, no small endeavor given Italian city traffic and the steep & narrow mountain roads we eventually traverse.

Nicastro was once its own village but has since been absorbed into the greater sprawl of Lamezia Terme, though "old Nicastro" still exists higher up the foothills of the southern Sila Mountains. We go first to the City Hall where Miriam has already arranged for us to view Vincenzo's 1886 birth certificate.

Approaching City Hall, Lamezia Terme, Calabria

In a nondescript office on the second floor, a helpful records keeper brings out a huge old ledger book and lays it on the counter for us to examine. The birth certificate is written in beautiful flowing script of a style no longer seen and reveals that Salvatore was a farmer and that young Vincenzo was born at home on a street in old Nicastro. The functionary makes a photocopy for us but privacy rules prevent us from photographing the entry and ledger.

Outside the office of birth and death certificates

From City Hall we go to something like a cultural library where we look through archived copies of an Italian journal from the 1970s that published articles and photographs about the Lamezia/Nicastro area. We don't find any references to the DiCellos but we do see photographs of Nicastro from the early 20th century and get a visual idea of what the town was like in the years just after Vincenzo left for America in 1898.

Before embarking for old Nicastro and the search for Vincenzo's neighborhood and birth street, Via Casalnuevo, we pause for an apertivo of Campari and prosecco at a local cafe, the Bar Mexican.

Fortifying ourselves before the venture into Old Nicastro

Neither Miriam nor Domenico know exactly where to go in our quest to find the street so we start asking people, beginning with two Italian policemen. Belying the image of gruff and perfunctory street cops the world over, these two guys are happy to offer directions and engage in chit chat. It turns out that one of them actually has a DiCello in his family.

Getting closer to the old neighborhood, we ask a pedestrian for clarification on how to find Via Casalnuevo. With authority, he offers concrete directions. Great, we think, we're getting close. Then we ask another person who, also with the voice of authority, directs us in a completely different direction. This happens several times and we realize that everyone knows exactly where everything is, even when they don't. Eventually, we abandon the car and set out on foot.

Downhill proves to be the wrong direction

The consensus is to go up

After more animated discussions with various locals we come to realize that, though we're asking about a particular street, "Casalnuevo" these days actually refers to an area rather than a specific Via. It's not uncommon, Miriam tells us, that over the course of a century not only do neighborhoods change physically but so do identifying names and references. Nevertheless, Casalnuevo, street or locale, lies uphill so up up uphill we go.

It seems like we're getting close

The neighborhood is an Escher-like labyrinth of two and three hundred year old houses of stone, tile, crumbling mortar, little windows and weathered wooden doors. The aura of Medieval time suffuses everything. I imagine myself wrapped in a sackcloth parading through the byways swinging a smoking censor, intoning plainsong.

Eventually, we pinpoint a few houses on what is now Via Niola and conclude that this is Vincenzo's block. The birth certificate had referenced # 3 but as we stand there deliberating which house is which, an old woman emerges from # 9 and Miriam starts talking with her. Then a man appears from around the corner and a lively conversation ensues. Though neither can say for certain if this street was indeed Via Casalnuevo, in our hearts we accept that it is.

In Vincenzo's neighborhood

Vincenzo's stoop?

Far above, crowning the neighborhood hillside, are the ruins of a Norman castle (circa 1500) that exists in the same state of decay as when Vincenzo lived here. We marvel at the thought that these 116 years later our eyes take in essentially the same sight as Vincenzo's eyes ("nothing changes here," Miriam declares). Could such images and perceived phenomena be somehow passed down through DNA or through some heretofore scientifically unknown means? Could ND in some way possess the "knowledge" of this place by having descended from the blood and sinew of her great grandfather? We gaze around with hungry imagination trying to absorb this place that in ways we don't really understand must be part of ND, and she part of it.

The Norman castle seen from the road leading out of Nicastro
and into the Sila Mountains

Then it's on to Decollatura, a commune (as such places are known in Italy), sort of an amalgam of little hamlets high in the Sila Mountains. Decollatura is the birthplace of Rosa Perri, ND's great grandmother, an ancestor about whom ND knows almost nothing. Winding winding winding up up up into wild forest, chestnut trees in abundance, crazy switchbacks, steep! Behind us the valley falls away, a wide swath of the Lamezia Terme urban expanse and, far in the hazy distance, the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea. After an hour or so of pretty much steady climbing, we level out and then descend a short distance into a valley in which sits Decollotura.

Before meandering the town in search of the old streets where Rosa Perri resided, we go to the Hotel Caligiuri which has a restaurant offering a "menu tipico a base di funghi." We are in the heartland of porcini mushrooms. The restaurant includes mushrooms in every dish. We eat porcini carpaccio, porcini risotto, tortellini in a porcini mushroom cream sauce, a thick bean soup with chunks of mushrooms.

The porcini altar

For dessert, we peel apart roasted chestnuts, warm and mealy, another regional specialty that, Miriam tells us, are just coming into season now. A rich dark cafĂ© (i.e., an espresso) and a chilled glass of Amaro saves me from the soporific daze of overeating and, after photographing the mushroom shrine at one end of the now empty restaurant, we convey our deep satisfaction to the jovial host and step outside.

The cool mountain air instantly refreshes us and we set out on foot in search of old Decollatura. Walking is wonderful though the main road is narrow and lacks a sidewalk. I'm mindful of cars and keep to the farthest edge but Miriam and Domenico walk side by side in the way I've noticed Italians do, as if pedestrian rights come first and passing cars must mind them instead of the other way around.

Though tree-lined the street isn't particularly picturesque - there's a small bread maker, a gas station, a car parts store. Domenico stoops to retrieve several very large nuts, acorns from an imposing old oak tree. He shows them to us and Miriam tells us that it's normal for people to gather acorns in abundance to feed the family pig. Most Calabrian families, at least in the countryside, keep a pig that ends up as homemade prosciutto, soppressata, salami, etc. Most families also grow grapes and make their own wine, and keep gardens with many vegetables - broccoli, chard, onions, potatoes. Fruit trees abound too, figs and lemons, pears and apricots. When you eat with a Calabrese family, "local" means a few steps outside the kitchen.

Local style

We come to Piazza Perri which marks the beginning of old Decollatura. Venturing into the streets just off the square is like stepping back in time - the 19th century, the 18th century, perhaps the Middle Ages. Only the electric lines and the occasional restored facade recall the present. Narrow cobbled streets, deeply weathered stone houses two and three stories high form ancient alleyways. It's late afternoon, the lowering sun casts rich light on the stonework and on the green garden plots that edge the hillside just beyond the neighborhood lanes. It is quiet in the way that predates Modernity. A dog barks in the far distance, a church bell chimes, a rusty door hinge creaks; no motors rev, no television noise leaks from behind the house walls.

From one of the side streets steps an old wrinkled Italian woman who could have emerged from one of the old B&W photographs that we saw earlier in the day, except she's in color; a blue and white cotton dress, a gray sweater, worn black shoes. Her silvery white hair frames a weathered face with deep set, cautiously suspicious eyes.

Because we're seeking any scrap of information about the Perri family, Miriam engages her in conversation. This sets off a spirited exchange in Italian and quickly involves another elderly signora making her way up the street with the aid of a cane, and then still another woman who peers out from a house twenty or so yards up the street wondering what the commotion is. Soon the women are shouting to each other in earnest discourse, an enthusiastic musical banter like course old cellos played with worn bows.

Sharing old knowledge

We move around the corner and another wizened matriarch appears and happily offers her old wisdom to the dialog. She's dressed all in black with a green apron tied around her stout waist and her eyes twinkle with mischief.

Eliciting old wisdom

Apparently we're standing on the very block in whose houses the Perri families lived ("Perri Lane" I think). A voice shouts down from a wrought iron balcony three stories above us; a very rotund woman seemingly missing a few teeth proffers her opinion on the colloquy taking place below.

The Perri Colloquy in old Decollatura

Eventually, a middle-aged man, studious in glasses, appears and joins the conversation. His voice is soft and intelligent and though much of what he says goes untranslated by Miriam we do learn that all of the Perris are gone now, either passed away or long since departed during the three great waves of emigration that took so many Calabrians away to America and Australia. The man had studied this, it seemed; the first dispersal came at the end of the 19th century with tens of thousands heading to the United States (ND's great grandfather had been part of this one); a second one took place soon after, in the first ten years of the 20th century; and a third great departure, with many going to Australia, took place in the 1930s.

This last fact, about emigration to Australia, explains why the first two women we spoke with kept thinking that ND and I were from Australia even though Miriam explained that actually we were from the United States. To these two ancient and venerable Calabrese matriarchs, the distinction didn't matter; Australia or America, there was really no difference, both were a world away from Perri Lane.

Old Decollatura


  1. Personal, picturesque and wonderful experience travelogue. Nice work!

  2. Monsieur, splendido! quel fotos! funnily I'm reading Roth's Portnoy's Complaint (first go at it - was aware of it when it first came out and made a splash, never really didn't want to read it, have read a good deal of Roth and am very fond of him, I Married a Communist, Plot Against America, etc) and just this evening I got through the part where the narrator reports on his visit to Italy with Monkey - I pray that your visit was different and clearly it was as ND is still your amour. Am preparing a reply to your last, forgive the dead air. Hope you are settling into your new surroundings. Avanti! Scrodissimo

  3. I've just read this article and my great grandfather Michelangelo Dicello migrated to Australia also. Alongside his wife and three children, one of whom Govanni migrated to Australia with his wife Giovanna and their daughter Maria Dicello.

  4. forgot to mention they were all from Decolloturra

  5. Small world! We're probably distant cousins.

  6. I've just shown my nonno, and he said that the last photo is the house Giovanna Perri-Dicello who lives in Australia now. Also there was a Salvatore Dicello (who was my cousin) who just passed away two weeks ago (Melbourne)

  7. Oh my goodness! We are related!! Was just looking up info on my Great-great grandparents, who seem to also be your great grandparents. My great grandmother, Angeline DiCello Scarmack was the daughter of Vincenzo and Rosa!I have long-wanted to take this exact trip to see where they were from. Thank you for this wonderful and unexpected gift. I will share your blog post with my family too! I would love to hear more about your experience tracking down our family's roots.

    1. Goodness, I am so sorry that I never replied to your comment! If you want to touch base with my wife Nicole (she's the DiCello) you can reach her at first initial + last name (ndicello) at gmail.

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