October 28, 2015
Facebook has its good and its not so good side. This is definitely a story of its good side. While on my recent trip to Europe, which included a few stops around Italy, I was able to meet some of my extended family that live there, and it was all made possible from one seemingly simple photo being tagged on my Facebook wall.
I celebrated my birthday the week before my European adventure was to commence. While having brunch with my mother, my brother, my aunt and one of my cousins, the obligatory family picture was taken. As I usually do, I uploaded the picture to my Facebook wall and tagged those of us that exist in the social media world (I still have’t been able to convince my Mum why she should have a Facebook account. She has Instagram though, so I’ll take that as a win). The next few hours would lead me through a series of events that I never contemplated, nor thought possible.
As I was doing this trip on my own, and due to my basic Italian speaking abilities (I know words and can read street signs and menus, but don’t get me in a conversation as it’ll be mostly one way), I was not factoring in an opportunity to travel to my Mum’s home town of San Severo, a town in the beautiful province of Puglia, which is in the south-east corner of Italy (pretty much the area that makes up the heel of Italy, if you think Italy looks like a boot). I also wasn’t factoring in a chance to meet family there. However, after tagging my aunt in this photo, the family that she is friends with promptly starting adding me as a friend, and then the (Italian) conversations started to flow on Messenger. They consisted of brief but incredibly warm and friendly greetings and introductions to each other. I could understand some of the messages, but to be sure, I utilised the wonderful resource that is Google Translate to navigate my way through these unexpected yet fantastic conversations. I didn’t mention that I was about to travel to Italy, as I didn’t think it would work for me to go visit them without being able to speak fluent Italian, but I knew that once they saw that I was in Europe, they would want to meet at some stage. As I later discovered, English is relatively common in parts of Italy, but south of Rome does not appear to be one of those parts.
When I did arrive in Rome one week later, I received a message from my cousin in Italy, and as expected, she wanted to meet. I was heading north to Venice the next day, but had the final four days of the trip planned for Rome. I suggested we meet when I returned to Rome in a few weeks time and we made plans to do so. In the meantime, I pondered how I was going to manage this, however, any doubt was quickly consumed by the excitement of being able to visit my Mum’s home town and of course, meet some of the family.
When I returned to Rome at the back end of my trip, I decided to make a day trip out of the journey to San Severo, as it is close to a three-hour train ride from Rome. I worked out that I was able to get a train first thing in the morning and arrive in San Severo around 11am. I would get about six hours there before having to board the last train back to Rome that night, and while it wasn’t ideal to only have part of the day to spend with them, it was better than not going at all. You just never know when you’ll be able to go back, so I knew I had to take this opportunity.
When I arrived in San Severo, I looked around for the face that I’d only seen in pictures on Facebook. Suddenly, I hear an excited “Stefano!” from behind, and there she was – my cugina (cousin) Soccorsa and her partner Luigi, there to pick me up and take me to my Nonna’s brother’s house for lunch (of course) and to meet the rest of the family. There was no awkwardness – only hugs, kisses, smiles and laughing. Sure, there was some silence as they figured out pretty quickly that my Italian wasn’t exactly up to scratch, but we didn’t need words in this moment – we had the universal language of smiles and hugs. We walked to their car with some feeble attempts from me to string a sentence together, before we were on our way.
The town was much bigger and busier than I had pictured. There’s a story of my Mum having two birthdays and no birth certificate because of being born in a small town (and it taking four days for them to reach the birth registration office, which resulted in the two birthdays – the actual birthday, and the official birthday), but San Severo was bustling. Old streets and older buildings took centre stage, as did some very questionable driving from the locals, although this seems to be the norm in Italy – no order on the roads, but it somehow works. “La citta grande” (the city is big) was my best attempt at trying to convey my surprise at the larger than expected city I was being driven through. The roads were quite rough, pot holes were common. I got the feeling that affluence wasn’t synonymous with this part of Italy, but that’s what gives this area its charm. Many a story from my childhood involved upbringings where things were tough, and you made the most of what you had. Food was never wasted, and there was always a meal to be made by whatever ingredients you could get your hands on – something my Mum managed to do really well at home too. These parts don’t need polish – they have what’s most important to them already – family.
About 15 minutes from the train station, we arrived at our destination. Vladimiro, my Nonna’s brother, was standing on the porch as I got out of the car. He had lived in Australia for three years, but returned to Italy in 1965. Surprisingly, he can still speak some English, and this was much appreciated at times when I wasn’t able to get any conversation going. I went to greet him in the usual Italian way, but he seemed hesitant. My cousin explained who I was and suddenly, a big smile appeared on his face, followed by a swift tour around his house. I found it amazing that a mere 20 or so minutes later, the kitchen was a hive of activity and a steady flow of new arrivals continued to walk through the door. I was seeing first-hand what an actual Italian family feast looked like, and I somehow was a part of it all. As each family member would walk through the door, they’d approach me with the same warmth and affection as the person before them did, and they’d speak to me until they either realised the only reply they were going to get from me was a smile and a nervous nod, or someone else would let them know that I didn’t speak Italian, and they’d just laugh and hug me anyway. To top it off, they were cooking one of my all-time favourites – orecchiette (a local style of pasta, which as kids, we called “little hats” given its hat-like appearance – a picture of it is at the end of the story). I tried to help with the cooking, but was promptly told to return to my seat. I knew that would probably happen, but I felt I had to show some attempt to help anyway.
As we all sat down to eat lunch, I was struck by the moment. Here I was, in San Severo, travelling alone, but now finding myself surrounded by family that I had just met. Welcomed into their home and given an incredible meal to celebrate. The language barrier was gone – we were just enjoying each other’s company, and you don’t always need to speak to do that. There was robust discussion about various news stories that were on the TV and I tried to follow along with them. The vino rosso (red wine) was flowing freely too – it was a local drop, of course. When it came time to clean up, I again tried to help. Again, I was promptly told to return to my seat. The traditions are still very strong here, but there doesn’t seem to be any discontent on the way things are.
The final part of our day together was a delight – they took me out for a gelato! I probably had enough gelati on this trip, but when you’re in the presence of a food at its best, you indulge. I made my usual selection of Nutella gelato in a waffle cone (and yes, it was amazing!), and we walked the cobbled street back to the car. Almost as quickly as the events had unfolded, they were about to end. It truly was a whirlwind day, but it was an amazingly surreal experience. From the first sight of my cugina at the train station, to the energetic celebration around lunch, and to all the thoughts I was having about what life would be like here, this was a phenomenal experience – one that I am truly grateful for having the privilege to have had. There really is something so incredibly humbling about seeing where you’ve come from, even if it’s a distant connection. It certainly gives me an urge to ensure these wonderful traditions are maintained too. It might just be time to rekindle the sauce making, as well as the wine making. Even if it doesn’t taste all that good, it’ll be an excuse to get the family together, just like we did on this day that will be a fond memory for a long time. The simple things in life often are the best.
Pictures: Top – a sneaky snap at San Severo train station as I was about to meet my cousin. Above – the action in the kitchen was just getting started before the family arrived for lunch. Of course, the vino rosso is ready to go. And more chairs were about to be added to the table as well.
Below – it wouldn’t be right not to include a picture of the first course of lunch. The very yummy orecchiette! If you think the serving size is huge, I had to ask them to stop adding more to it!