“How can we connect with relatives we don’t know, who live in villages we’ve only heard about but never been fortunate enough to visit?”
Hubby D and I often get questions such as these from friends wanting to trace their roots in the Piemonte Region of Northern Italy, an area we’ve visited many times. My advice would be: Do your homework. Find out as much as possible about the village your family emigrated from. Talk to elderly relatives. Too late, they’ve already passed? Then visit the cemetery and photograph their headstones. Same goes for those crumpled immigration papers, the passports with tattered edges, the faded black and white photographs stuffed in a cardboard box. These travel with you to Italy—confirmation of who you are.
What about that family connection you only know from the stories your grandparents told? The Internet carries a ton of geographic and demographic information, including the surnames of people living in specific villages. Going into a foreign village without a single connection can be iffy at best. Although it did work for one couple we know, good friends who ventured into the Dolomite area in northeastern Italy with no advance notice. He gave his grandfather’s surname to a local resident who happened to know a family with the same last name and bingo!—the beginning of a lasting friendship between the Americans and their Italian counterparts.
Speaking or at least understanding the Italian language is a definite plus. As are the local dialects that are making a comeback but those change multiple times within each Italian region. Many young Italians learn English in school and love to practice on Americans but first you must connect with them.
Still want to slide in under the radar? Okay, be sure to take those family history documents you’ve already gathered. Once you get to that special village, make one of your first stops the local cemetery. Someone is bound to be there—decorating a grave or chatting with another someone decorating graves. Approach with a smile and say, “Buongiorno.” (Good day). Introduce yourself. If the person seems receptive, and most likely will, ask, “Come ti chiami?” (What’s your name?)
Who knows, you might be speaking to someone with the same surname as yours. Or your mother’s. Or her mother’s.
Now that’s connecting the Italian way.
What about you? Any stories you’d like to share about connecting with relatives in a foreign country?