It seems one of the big questions people ask in January is about travel. “Any good trips planned for 2013?” Whatever vacation we may take this year can’t possibly top our summer 2012 trip. My family and I had a once in a lifetime adventure that was exciting, educational and deeply emotional. We met our relatives in Italy for the very first time.
This was a trip that was really many years in the making, decades in fact. I had been told about my Italian ancestry for as long as I can remember, but I knew few details about it until 2010. As a boy, my mother Marilyn talked with great affection about her late father Crescenzo Chully; the surname being an Americanized version of Chiulli. My “Nonno” was killed in a horrific hornet attack at the age of 38, when my mother was only twelve so many questions she had about her ancestry went unanswered. She remembers his father, Paolo, but he died a few years before his son taking his stories of the old country to his grave.
Our exposure to our Italian heritage came through Paolo’s other children, Crescenzo’s siblings, but they too were in the dark about where our forefathers had lived and really who they were.
My best source of information was my great-aunt Angie, who died just a few years ago at the doorstep of 98. Her knowledge was limited though, all she was ever told was that her father (my great-grandfather) was from “Abruzzo,” and my great-grandparents stressed American culture and the English language in the house. We knew he emigrated to the North End of Boston, and settled in Norwood, Massachusetts, where I grew up, but to this day don’t why he chose to come there.
When I was in junior high, a teacher assigned the task of researching our geneaology to coincide with the landmark television event, “Roots.” I did pretty well on the other branches of my family, but when it came to the Italian branch, I couldn’t learn anything beyond my great-grandfather, Paolo Chiulli.
Life happened and I put researching my Italian heritage on the back burner, and picked it up now and then with zero luck.
While in Italy in 1996, I checked the telephone books for people named Chiulli, but I didn’t speak Italian so I never called the names listed. But as I walked through Rome, Venice, Florence, Pisa and Milan, I could feel it: I had family there.
I returned to Italy three more times in the following ten years. My wife Kara and I honeymooned on the Amalfi Coast, Portofino and Lake Como, and again, being in Italy felt like being home. I also returned to Rome to cover Pope John Paul II in 2002, and his funeral three years later.
During that period I searched for my great-grandfather’s name in ship manifests, scoured websites where I connected with other people with Chiulli ancestors who were also looking for relatives, but I never found anything. I figured my great-grandfather must have changed his name, or perhaps someone misspelled it in the list of passengers heading to America. I wanted to know, why did he come here, and who did he leave behind?
In 2009, I had a stroke of great luck. I joined the website http://www.ancestry.com and later got a message from a man from Utah, named John Nelson. He had been researching Chiullis in his family tree at the Family Research Library in Salt Lake City, when he stumbled across my grandfather’s name, birthplace, parents and siblings. For the first time, we aso learned that Crescenzo was also the name of Paolo’s father, my great-great grandfather. Crescenzo and his father Antonio were from a small town called Cugnoli, and Paolo was born and raised in Alanno. As it turns out, what John had discovered was a dead end for him, but the holy grail for me. It cleared the path for me to answer questions that had stymied my family for decades. John’s work in Chiulli research was invaluable. Oddly, as it turns out, the Chiullis in John’s family tree don’t seem connected to mine. By the way, any budding genealogists should most definitely sign up for ancestry.com.
Armed with that information, I stepped up my search efforts, but on a sporadic basis. As a working father with two young children, I had little time to sit down and finish my Italian family tree. I would occasionally try to e-mail someone named Chiulli in Italy on Facebook, but never found any relatives. I got some pointers from Dr. Riccardo Ambrogio, the former consulate to Italy based in Hartford. He advised me on what to do and who to contact.
I also began a fruitless attempt to e-mail folks in the town hall of Alanno, Italy, birthplace of my great-grandfather. I hoped to locate some records, that would hopefully lead me to some cousins. I didn’t get any responses, and when I called there once, no one spoke English, and my Italian wasn’t cutting it.
In early 2011, I decided to contact a fellow journalist in Italy. I figured we reporters can pretty much track down anyone here, surely someone in the old country would be able to get through to the town hall in Alanno. Reporter Marirosa Barbieri of the magazine “Prima Da Noi” suggested that she write an article about my search for my Italian ancestors. The story was a big success. The day after the article went on-line, I received a call from a woman here in Connecticut, whose cousin called her from Italy to say she and I were related. The woman, by the way, is not related to me, but her cousin is. Within days, through e-mail and Facebook I had connected with a handful of people, my people, my family! Marirosa had also been contacted by a few others.
Through my newly discovered family, I learned the reason I couldn’t find any cousins named Chiulli, is because there aren’t any, except for distant cousins. My great-grandfather had five sisters and a brother who died in childhood. Those sisters all married and so when Paolo Chiulli emigrated to America, he took the Chiulli name with him. Truth be told, there are plenty of Chiullis in Abruzzo, and they are probably cousins a few generations deep.
The first few weeks of our cyber-reunion were exciting. I swapped pictures and information with my newly found cousins, Donatella, Paola, Andrea, Cristina, Mauro and the list goes on. And just like I always felt I had cousins in Italy, my Italian cousins told me they always knew they had family in the United States. They had heard stories of their Zio (Uncle) Paolo leaving Abruzzo, never to return, but didn’t know anything about his descendents in America. In fact, shortly after we connected, my cousin Paola e-mailed me a family tree that they could now fill in with the 26 people descended from their long lost uncle. We had long been the missing link. The family pictures they sent to me were remarkable because of the strong resemblance to members of my family.
It was a no-brainer to call Alitalia immediately and plan a trip to the ancestral homeland for a huge family reunion. Ideally, it would great if all 26 American Paolo Chiulli descendants and their spouses could go, although I knew it was unlikely. In the end, there were 9 of us who made the trans-Atlantic trek: Kara, our children, my mother, brother Chris, sister-in-law Jodi, and their two sons.
Overseas, the planning was masterminded by cousins Donatella, Miriam, Paola and Cristina, who coordinated a week of activities like no other we’d ever experienced. They also took care of inviting dozens of other cousins. Sure, flying with four children under the age of 5 can be challenging, but once we arrived in Italy, we all focused on the upcoming festivities and this momentous event in our family history. We stayed in Rome before heading to Abruzzo to get our bearings. Kara and I had been to the Eternal City before, but my brother and sister-in-law had never been on a Roman holiday and wanted to see the sights of one of my favorite places. 48 hours at the Hilton Garden Inn near the Villa Borghese was just what we needed.
I’m a big fan of traditional European hotels, but we chose an American one partly because of its king-sized beds, great for a mom and dad weary from a long flight and herding children. King beds are rare in Europe, and they are a welcome change from the tiny twin beds many hotels overseas have. Best of all, for the somewhat fussy youngsters: the Hilton served American breakfast, waffles, eggs, nutella and the works. There was even nutella gelato at a shop nearby. There would be plenty of time for traditional Italian food when we reached Abruzzo.
With our body clocks now on Italian time, we loaded up our Ford Transit van and began our two hour journey to one of the most anticipated destinations of my life. By the way I was the only one who drove a stick shift, so the burden of navigating narrow medieval streets was all mine for 10 days. The mountains were amazing and the Adriatic Sea a Caribbean aqua that looked like an instagram. The quaint villages were something out of a postcard, the drive through narrow, hilly, winding roads in a less than nimble van was something out of a carnival ride.
Our home in Abruzzo was a mountainside villa called “Casa Mimosa,” and it was the ultimate retreat. It was an old barn of stone at the top of a hill accessible by a steep, winding road in the town of Castiglione Messer Raimondo. A couple from Britain bought it and refurbished into into an idyllic getaway to rent to tourists. The views were truly awe inspiring, and we spent as time much outdoors as possible in the pool surrounded by apricot groves and in the shadow of the Appennine Mountains and the legendary Gran Sasso, one of the highest points in Italy.
The next day was the reunion and quite frankly, we weren’t sure what to expect. The cousins had told us not to worry about a thing; they would take care of all the food and drink, and that a caterer would show up first, followed by trays of homemade goodies. What a spread it was. Traditional Abruzzese dishes, homemade wine, garnished with Italian and American flags. The caterers showed up and transformed the villa into an Italian restaurant. Then the doorbell rang.
The first cousins we met were not part of the e-mail conversations that had been going on for the past 17 months. “You are my cousin,” said Carlo Iulianetti, a man in his 40s with rock star hair. He came with his mother, Cesarina de Melis. We hugged, and my mom cried. Within an hour, fifty cousins had arrived, some from as far away as Rome. We studied each other faces, and I definitely saw similarities. Donatella bore a strong resemblance to my great aunt Lucia, Crescenzo’s sister. Even though some of the cousins didn’t speak English we communicated and we connected. I had been studying Italian on my iPad app and I made it a point to speak Italian every where we went.
The highlight of the reunion took place on the piazza when my cousins delivered some heartfelt words welcoming us to their country. I was prepared, and had written a speech that I read in Italian, with the help of my cousin Elisa, who translated a few ad libs for me. Then, three of the cousins of my mother’s generation, Donatella, Miriam and Paola, presented us with a basket of rocks, sitting on red silk. These weren’t just any rocks…they were pieces of limestone, majella stone and ancient concrete belonging to my great-grandfather’s farmhouse where he was born in 1879.
But there was more. Paola’s husband, architect Gustavo Del Rossi, unveiled a gift we will treasure always: the most beautiful and intricate family tree I’d ever seen. It was hand drawn on parchment paper that was 15 feet long. Gustavo had worked on it for months, and it included every relative at the party, and my cousins back home in America. More than a hundred names in all. It went as far back as my great-great-great grandparents, Antonio and Maria Chiulli.
The night was spent learning about each other over copious amounts of food, washed down by homemade wine and limoncello. I got to try out my Italian, but I must admit my cousins speak my native language better than I speak theirs. We also learned for the first time, why my great-grandfather emigrated to America.
Paolo Chiulli had a childhood marred by sadness. He was one of seven children, and his only brother Gennaro, died as a child. His mother died in childbirth as his youngest sister was born. He later served in the Italian military, and played a key role in the upbringing of his family. He finished school, which was uncommon for this rural part of Abruzzo and worked at a vineyard. Paolo is remembered as well liked, and adored by his sisters. According to legend, he left Italy after a dark chapter: he was framed for a crime and fled to the United States. Great. Cue “Speak Softly Love,” please, from “The Godfather.”
The story of Zio Paolo (Uncle Paul) that has been handed down generation to generation among my cousins is that my great-grandfather left after some sort of fight in the summer of 1904. With the help of Maria Odoardi, one of the older cousins who was told the story first-hand when she was a child from Paolo’s sister, my cousin Mauro Morelli, an attorney in Pescara, told the story in great detail, with some legalese tossed in for good measure. “Now, this is not confirmed,” he would say as he recanted the story told to him by his grandmother, who was my great-grandfather’s niece. Apparently someone planted a wallet in Paolo’s jacket, and then a group accused him of stealing it and they pounced on him. During that fight or a brawl, as Mauro put it, someone died. Again, “not confirmed.”
Paolo was later toiling in the vineyard, when he was approached by friends who told him he had to leave the country or go to prison. He hastily said goodbye to his sisters and left Abruzzo never to return. Someone gave him a passport to use, which is why I could never find my great-grandfather’s name in any of the manifests of ships carrying Italian immigrants to the United States. We may know the name on the passport Paolo showed immigration officials that got him into this country. By the way, he never became a U.S. citizen, but certainly became an American patriot. He tried to enlist to serve in World War I and World War II. He was 62 when he went to the recruiting office in Norwood a month after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.
The Italian cousins also solved a few other smaller mysteries. When my mother was a child, Paolo, her grandfather, affectionately called her Mariuccia. After 65 years of not knowing where that name came from one, we learned in Abruzzo in the summer of 2012, that Mariuccia was what Paolo called his younger sister.
A few days after the reunion, we loaded up our van and headed to the ancestral town of Alanno, where my great-grandfather was born. The mayor there was honoring us with a reception at town hall, calling me a “son of Alanno.” Sindaco Vincenzo deMelis gave us a warm welcome and presented us with a plaque with my name on it and literature and information on the town. The mayor is a cousin of a cousin, but not one of my cousins. Capisce?
Italians love food and this day was no exception. After our ceremony at the town hall, were were feted at a luncheon where the dishes kept coming and coming.
Across a small valley from the ancient town center sits my great-grandfather’s farm, which is still in the family. Cousins live in homes on the sprawling hillside, not far from a pile of rubble where Paolo’s birthplace once stood. A fig tree now grows out of it, surrounded by acres of olive trees, some of them more than a hundred years old.
We couldn’t help but be pensive as we walked the grounds that afford spectacular views of the mountains and the medieval town. As my children and nephews played with giant wheels of hay, I tried to imagine what life was like here for my ancestors. My daughter picked flowers, and my mother huddled with her cousins of her generation as they together gazed at the land that is their roots. The cousins who live on the farm, told us we could build a house on the property and live there, too.
The kids were beyond thrilled to be feeding figs and juice to the goats and slobbering sheep, and to climb on a Lamborghini tractor.
At a more modern house at the farm, came another emotional experience. We met my grandfather’s first cousins, whom he had never met, the only survivors of his generation. 90 year old Luciano Odoardi and his sister Guisseppina, age 92. Now blinded by old age, Luciano held my hand with a vise-like grip as he went through the family history. He also shared how his Zio Paolo sent his mother post cards from Boston and Norwood, cards that were lost just recently when he moved in with his son. How I would love to read those.
Guiseppina and my mother fought back tears as they bonded, despite their difficulty in speaking each other’s language. For my mother, meeting Luciano and Guissepina gave her a sense at what her father may have looked like had he not been taken from us so early. Giuseppina, too, added details to the legend of Paolo Chiulli and she had always wondered what happened to him and the family he created in America.
Not far from the homestead is the rustic church of St. Stefano, where my grandfather and his sisters were baptized. It is closed to the public, badly damaged by the L’Aquila earthquake of 2009. There is no money to fix it, so unless a generous benefactor comes forward, it may continue to detoriate. A cousin’s home on the Chiulli farm also bears the scars of the earthquake.
The next day we loaded again into the Ford van and trekked to Pescara to go the beach on the Adriatic with Donatella and crew. We lunched under her family’s giant umbrella, whose American counterpart would be a cabana.
Our sendoff celebration was held on a warm night at the home in Chieti in the town of Ripa Teatina of my cousin Cristina Del Rossi and her husband Mimmo Mangiafesta. Along with Cristina’s brother Andrea, an accomplished mountain climber, they have young children about the ages of my children and nephews. The youngest generation also bonded over toys and cookies.
Cristina is a bakery chef, who created not only a huge cake for the reunion, but another one for this night. My daughter Helena, still talks about helping Cristina with the frosting and decorations.
The highlight of this celebration was arrosticini, a grilled lamb cooked on skewers on a special grill. It is a specialty of Abruzzo, and Mimmo cooked over 300 of them.
We also learned there is a particular way to eat arrosticini.
The goodbyes were tearful, but we left Italy a bigger and stronger family after this life-changing event. We’re planning a return trip to Abruzzo with a larger American entourage of Chiulli descendants in 2014, and our doors are always open for our Italian cousins to come here.
Here are some other images from my visit to my ancestral homeland:
About the author: http://dennishouse.wordpress.com/2012/05/22/marking-20-years-at-wfsb/