Highlight of the Day: Meeting family from 4,460 miles away!
Steps: 10,303 (probably more bumps than steps)
I feel like I need to step back into a little more context before discussing day 14’s events, just so you can understand how emotional it was for all of us heading into Bafia. I don’t really have the rights to John’s story so I’ll tell mine instead. I’m originally from Orlando FL born and raised, but was convinced to move 1,200 miles away to Latham NY to live with John almost 5 years ago. From the moment I showed up in chilly November, I was immediately adopted into his family and treated to the ‘Italian’ way: kiss on the cheek every greeting, home cooked family dinners on Sunday, random grocery drop offs just cause, and the overall family sticks together mentality. They became my second family and nonna (John’s grandma) my surrogate grandmother away from home. Both my granny and nonna were stubborn and feisty as hell, which is probably why I was immediately attracted to talking with her every weekend.
I would walk in the door and after a kiss on the cheek she would say “How are you?! So HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY to see you!” in her sicilian accent. She would immediately go into talking about her day or what she was cooking for dinner, or what she used to cook but doesn’t make anymore, all in sicilian which I had absolutely no idea what she was saying. I would nod and catch a few words and eventually we’d figure each other out and were so excited when she was absolutely sure I understood the recipe. This happened pretty much every weekend. She would also tell me about how great the food was in Bafia, her hometown in the inland hills of Sicily, which inevitably would lead to her just telling me about everything Bafia… and then the pictures would come out. She showed me her wedding photos, her parents and their house, flowers and gardens, but mostly just panoramas she collected over the years – ricordi di sicilia. We brought Tosh (our crazy maine coon cat) over on a leash and she would tell me about her cat that always came and begged for food in the doorway, she was very fond of that yatta. Usually our conversations would go into a lull after she insisted that “you just don’t know”, meaning I couldn’t possibly understand because I’ve never been there before. I would shake my head and tell her I understood what she was saying, but she was set in her ways “no no no, you no understand”.
After a few crazy trips to Argentina then Iceland, I told John it was his turn to choose next country, and instantly he said ITALY! I was very excited at the prospect and sort of daunted in a way. We were finally going to go to Bafia and bring back pictures of her town and tell her the stories of how we got there, what we saw, who we talked to and how much we loved it. I was FINALLY going to “understand”. When we told her about the trip she went into super crazy show me every picture album she had stage. There must have been 20 of them, filled with photos of her street, her town, her house, her church, the cemetery, the nearby town, postcards of larger churches in Catania and Messina, the ports, the food, she even tried to teach me some Sicilian phrases (I had been getting by on my spanish but it turns out Sicilian dialects vary from region to region and sound NOTHING like Italian). She was so absolutely excited that I became even more excited.
Months and months later, the trip was all planned, but her health was failing. She had been diagnosed with cancer and treatments weren’t working. Even though she was 92, she had been getting around like a spry 70 year old, but the disease started taking it’s toll. She hadn’t been so happy happy happy to see me in awhile, but she always perked up when we counted down the days until departure. The week before we visited her, she was very tired, but even eyes closed she recounted all of her relatives we absolutely had to visit when we got there.
The day we drove up to Bafia with police escort (I’ll explain below) the excitement was tangible. I tried to get every moment on video or in photos so we could bring back her town to her as she remembered. We spoke with relatives and ate home cooked meals, we visited houses and fields, churches and cemeteries, we made friends with family we never knew before but now had trouble leaving. I was so excited when we got back that I printed out the album that same week and filled it so she could look at her hometown and see we were there, but it was too late, that stupid cancer took her strength and she was in no state to even open her eyes. She passed away just 2 weeks after we came back.
Perhaps that has been why I can’t seem to finish my blog from the trip – I just didn’t want to put in words how much visiting Bafia meant to me because of how much it meant to her, and she would never know… but now I think it’s even better because I can share with others just how special this place really is. So, in honor of Nonna, I give you Day 14 – Bafia Sicily.
We set off for Bafia from Palermo on a long and bumpy 3 hour ride until we made it to the turnoff to the twisty mountain streets (roads would imply there was more than 1 lane) heading inland. This was the view on the way into Castroreale.
Pano from the top of Castroreale
Our first stop was the ‘larger’ town of Castroreale, located on a quaint hilltop near to Bafia. When I say larger, I mean to say that Bafia has a population of around 819, and Castroreale almost triples that at a whopping 2,702 people. This is where we had to go to find all family records for births, marriages and deaths in the area.
After a short 2 minute walk to the courthouse, Rosey promptly pulled out the records straight to John’s grandparents. She had called ahead to arrange everything, thank goodness for translation and genealogy tours!
She also spent a good 15 to 20 minutes arguing with the guy to get photocopies. He wanted us to take a picture and repeated there was no machine big enough to make copies. Rosey pestered him until he walked his lazy butt upstairs for the photocopy, and continued to ask until he had done it 3 more times for the rest of the records. She even got him to stamp the copies. Apparently with this documentation, John could apply for dual citizenship.
This sign pretty much sums up all work hours in Italy. It says they are open from 9am to 1pm and then 1.45 hours more in the afternoon but only on Tuesday & Thursday and closed on Saturdays. This holds true with everything, not just the government offices, even food and retail shops. It’s best to plan ahead if you have your mind set of something specific.
After completing our mission at the courthouse, we headed outside to explore the town. We were headed to the main square when a few people approached us one after the other, asking if we were the Americans coming to visit Bafia. Indeed we were. It turns out not much goes on in these parts so news travels fast, the editor of the local paper even searched us out to meet us and ask for any pictures of our visit to feature in John’s grandma’s favorite publication Bafeus. (Below is the town square in Castroreale)
Next a policewoman approached us and wanted to escort us into Bafia where John’s extended family happened to be waiting to meet us in the square. It turns out she was also a relative that lived there. (I’m pretty sure John is related to about 80%+ of the town in some way or another)
This is a pano of Bafia as you come in from the road.
We arrived in the main square to the most tranquil little town we had visited yet (OK Soglio was pretty tranquil as well). The birds were chirping and we were literally in the clouds when Angela came right up and introduced herself. Angelina is the daughter of Carmelina, who is John’s grandfather’s niece. Melina is one of the spunkiest 79 year olds you’ve ever seen, running around town, up stairs, cooking and just being happy. She gave everyone a warm welcome and invited us in for lunch.
While she was cooking, Angelina took us to John’s grandparent’s old house and we even got to go inside. The new owners has really spruced it up, I would totally live there. Their house is the pink one on the end.
The funny thing is, we didn’t see a lot of cats the entire time in Italy, but when we got to his grandma’s house, this little cat was so loving and came up and rubbed all over us. It just made me think of all the stories about nonna’s cat that always came up to her to beg for food at the door.
During our stroll, we encountered what we thought to be very friendly neighbors. They ushered us inside and shoved cookies in our faces and were SO excited to see us, but in the hoopla of the moment, we had lost our translator and all sat staring at each other understanding nothing…
As it turns out, these were actually relatives on John’s grandma’s side. We had to leave the house without knowing this because no one could speak to each other, but now we really wish we could have stayed or gone back to meet with them some more, they were extremely nice.
Everyone wanted to talk to John, he was famous for a day
One of my favorite pictures of the trip, they were so cute waving goodbye.
We walked around town, and I managed to get a door picture 😉
John walking the same streets as his ancestors
Before heading back for lunch, we took a tour up to the church where his grandparents were married.
John and Angelina posing together
After all the walking around, we headed back to Melina’s for some lunch. The smell when we entered the house was so amazing, fresh garlic hung in the room – she was making delicious spaghetti.
Unfortunately for me she slipped some mussels into the pasta so I had to pass, even though the smell was almost too much to give up.
When they saw I didn’t eat my food and found out I don’t touch seafood, they quickly (as any Italian can attest to) shoved as many alternative options in my face as possible. I ended up eating a plateful of THE MOST FRESH ricotta you’ve ever seen. Still warm, mmmmm. Angelina put some sugar on it and it was like a sweet dessert. Nonna was totally right, I really did not understand how good it could be!
John and Melina were pretty much inseparable, so adorable!
Coffee and cake time
Holy crap she made a big cake!
Time to go walk all those calories off before we fell into a food coma. Angelina led us to the cemetery where we placed a few flowers for his mother’s grandparents and sister.
This was John’s aunt, she was the first born but passed away when she was only 18 months old
John was overwhelmed by the amount of names he recognized, he wanted to take a picture of every site
It was finally time to head out to our final destination for the day even thought we really didn’t want to leave. The clouds took over the town and there was just a beautiful and calm vibe about this place.
As we said our goodbyes, John and Melina walked down together to the van. I can guarantee you we will be back to visit again, it’s just a matter of time (and time off)
I’m going to put the rest of the day in another post since this is sooooo long – so on to Day 14 Part 2.