Piacere, Cugini: Finding relatives on the other side of the world (part 1)

Forget Rome. Italian relatives are the main attraction. Here in two parts is my retelling of my family's magical trip in 2005 when we discovered our life blood in Italy. First written for my cousin Lisa's travel magazine Puddle Jumper (never published).

We flew halfway around the world. We drove the width of a country. We sped the length of the Auto Strata.

Yet we still managed to find ourselves at a McDonald’s.

We were lost, actually. Disoriented. Stranded in a Mickey D’s parking lot in the Italian countryside, trying to use a cell phone that barely worked, in a language we hardly spoke, from a town we couldn’t name, to call relatives we’d never met.

This unfortunate scene happened the first week of July 2005, which was the second week of our family vacation to Italy—an all-inclusive graduation present from my parents for me and my brother Francis. We had just graduated from college and high school, respectively.

While this trip was my first in-depth one to the motherland, it was Francis’s first trip off of American soil, period. So the intensity of our excitement and awe was only rivaled by the stifling heat wave in the region, which we ignored by eating gelato at every available opportunity.

Venice, Florence, Rome. We whirled through these storied cities in a blaze of artwork, restaurants, and church tours. We pointed out sites we remembered studying in dusty Latin textbooks, and gasped at their staggering antiquity. With 35 words of Italian among the four of us, we somehow managed to sleep and eat without interruption, though I’m sure many a cameriere wondered why we kept smiling and asking, “Good day, is my cheese family dear and old?”

But all these wonders paled in comparison to the final leg of the trip: the Meeting of Dad’s Relatives, an event of such import that I mentally capitalized it. We already knew my mother’s relatives, thanks to their correspondence with my grandmother and their occasional visits to the U.S.

Dad’s family, on the other hand, was more mysterious, known only to us through somber wedding photographs that featured outdated ‘80s fashion and tight-lipped smiles. They looked forbidding to me. But Dad was determined to meet them.

With some good old-fashioned detective work through extended relatives, he tracked them down and sent a letter. Imagine our delight when we all came home from work one day to hear a lilting Italian accent on our answering machine. The DiMarcantonios had made contact.

“Hello Pasquale, I’m Laura from Italy,” the woman said. It was my father’s second cousin. “I’m very happy to know you and your family. I speak only a little English, but you don’t worry, because for when you are here soon, we understand, ok? My family and I are very, very happy to receive you and your family for a long time, ok? Bye-bye. See you later!”

Thank God -- she spoke English better that we spoke Italian. This relationship had a chance.

A few excited international phone calls later, Dad and Laura established a day when we would visit them in Fiugni, the mountain village of my great-grandfather Pasquale, for whom my father is named.

And that’s how we found ourselves in a rental car, hurtling east toward Abruzzo and the Adriatic, with the Gran Sasso mountain range looming before us as a craggy welcome mat to our relatives’ world.

Until we got off the highway.

To be continued ...