Of all the places in the world to open an inn and tour company, we are doing so in beautiful Abruzzo, Italy because my wife Lisa’s Italian roots are there.
The events that led us here started in the fall of 2005, when we decided we would take a three-week trip to Italy in April 2006 and invited family members. Eventually, our gang included Lisa’s mother, sister, brother, sister-in-law, and my mother and sister, and we all survived.
Early on, we decided we would try to find the small village Lisa’s grandfather Domenico Grassi left in 1905 to come to Canada. We knew it was in Abruzzo, an Italian province just east of Rome yet still off the beaten path of mass tourism, but that’s about it.
(A quick note here to explain how it’s possible Lisa’s grandfather was born in 1885. Domenico and his aptly named partner Domenica had 14 kids. Lisa’s mom Nita is the 13th. Nita had four children and Lisa is the youngest by almost a decade. Also, both families involved children later in life. Hence, this huge gap in ages.)
Lisa’s family had lost contact with their relatives in Italy, but they knew the village was called San Sebastiano and it was in the L’Aquila region of Abruzzo, basically in the Apennine Mountains in the middle of the Italian peninsula east of Rome.
So I did some research and after a few days in Rome, we set out for Abruzzo with a map indicating the four different San Sebastianos in Abruzzo that roughly fit the description and had at least a few Grassis living in them. The list included one village that seemed the most likely, and we went to it first.
We drove across the mountains, and got off the main highway for lunch near Pescina. Right away, we figured we were close because Lisa and her sister said the pasta sauce tasted like the traditional one their mother made. After lunch, we drove up the stunning Giovenco Valley and arrived in the middle of San Sebastiano dei Marsi with our list of the names of Domenico’s long dead brothers. When we got out of our cars and asked a man in his 40s if there were any Grassis in the village, “Tutti sono Grassi” (They’re all Grassis) was the reply. We showed him the list and he didn’t seem to know the names, but then he went and got an older woman and we knew we were in the right place when she said:
“Salvatore – morto, Cesidio – morto, Rocco – morto, Domenico – In America. No lo so.”
We were able to explain that Nita was Domenico’s daughter, and watched this dawn on a growing and excited group around us. Suddenly, somebody grabbed Nita and shoved her into a car and drove her a few blocks to where they were introduced to Nita’s 93-year-old first cousin Ricardo Grassi, one of Rocco’s sons. Wine and songs and tears soon followed. Later we met other first cousins Giofreddo, Liliana then Anatolia. Turns out there were five first cousins of Nita’s still living.
We spent the rest of the day walking the village, checking out the valley, and hanging out in the one bar. It was here that Ricardo told us how when he was 19 years old he wrote to Domenico in Canada and asked if it would be OK for him to come over and live with them for a while. Ricardo smiled and said he was still waiting for the reply.
It was an experience I’ll never forget, and it was the genesis of our amazing Abruzzo adventure. Still, this whole thing probably wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for the actions of a second cousin we met the next day.
Next Blog: Cesidio Grassi changes our future.