If you’re lucky, a couple times in life you meet somebody and have an instant connection. It’s a great feeling. Now imagine feeling that connection with a dozens of relatives you’ve never met.
I watched it happen to my wife Lisa Grassi-Blais, her mother Nita Grassi and my nephew Jordan Tarini in August 2007 during a trip to Abruzzo, Italy, and it was a really great experience. In fact, that trip was a crucial step on a path that led Lisa and me to ultimately end our professional careers in Canada in favour of opening a tour company and inn in Abruzzo, a beautiful and authentic part of Italy.
Lisa’s grandfather was born in the village of San Sebastiano dei Marsi in the Apennine Mountains of the L’Aquila region and went to Canada as a young man. We’d been to the village in April 2006, but like many places in the area, it was almost deserted as over the last four decades most of the population left to pursue economic opportunities elsewhere in the world.
At the urging of Cesidio Grassi, Lisa’s cousin who travelled a great distance to meet us in 2006, the four of us were purposely going in August to take part in the village’s annual week-long Festa. It’s a time when people with ancestral connections to the village return from all over Italy and Europe and even further in some cases, for a party that culminates in a three-day series of religious and cultural celebrations.
We’d booked into a hotel in Pescina, 90 minutes east of Rome and 17 kilometres away from San Sebastiano because the village had no hotel. In fact, it had no stores, one café that didn’t serve food, and one restaurant that was only open sporadically.
When we arrived in the village on a sunny day, it was clear that things were different than when we were last there. The village was packed. People were hanging out on the streets and overwhelming the cafe patio. Kids were bouncing on the playground equipment in the little park, and young men were playing a soccer game on the tennis courts.
We met up with Cesidio and things started happening fast. There was an exposition of photos of the women of the village dating back roughly 100 years. As he was pointing out pictures of cousins, he stopped and introduced us to the Mayor Giovanni Grassi, a former Italian diplomat who spoke English and Nita’s second cousin. Then came Antonino Berardini whose mother was Nita’s first cousin. Then came Lidia Conte, again her mother was Nita’s first cousin. Quickly, it became apparent to me that this was going to be a crush of new relatives, so I dug out a piece of paper and a pen and started taking notes.
Again and again, Cesidio would see a person, stop them, explain we were the Grassis from Canada and explain to us how the person was related. Each time, we were greeted warmly. You could tell these people were genuinely happy that we had returned to the village. You can tell when people are going through the motions during a first meeting. We all do it sometimes. “Hi: Pleased to meet you. Have a good day. See you later. Blah, blah, blah.” And in the back of your head you are saying “I’ll never see you again.”
Not these people. They were not going through the motions. They appreciated that we’d come from so far away to meet them, and they were giving us big emotional hugs instantly for doing so.
It truly was overwhelming. Nita and Lisa always knew they had family in Italy, but they had no idea how many, and they had no clue that many of them returned each year to the village of their forefathers to be together and carry on traditions that were hundreds of years old.
We received invitations to parties, to dinners, for drinks, and we couldn’t pay for anything in the cafe.
It was an exhausting and wondrous day, and as we made our way down the winding Giovenco Valley road to our hotel that night, Nita just kept saying “I can believe this. I can’t believe these people. I can’t believe this.”
At the time, I thought maybe these connected feelings were simply the product of discovering one’s roots, but I was feeling it too, and I wasn’t related to any of these people.
That connected, warm feeling continued for the rest of our trip and it’s part of the reason we ended up living here.
Next Blog: The Village.