In July 2000, I had the incredible opportunity to take part in a documentary-type film for the Ellis Island Foundation. They have built The American Family Immigration History Center TM, a facility on Ellis Island where visitors can use interactive computer technology to find the immigration records on their ancestors who came to this country as long as a century ago via Ellis Island. The film gives examples of how people of six different ancestral backgrounds have done their research, what documents they have used, what successes and failures they had, and in some cases like mine, the film will show a reunion with family members in their native country.
I was lucky enough to have my family’s story chosen. You can read a print version of the short film on the Ellis Island Website in the section marked The Immigrant Experience. Here is my day-by-day account of our incredible journey to Italy and Sicily!
David and I traveled from Pensacola to Atlanta to London and finally to Milan. We rented a car and met Joe (my cousin) at the hotel in Legnano (a small town about 1/2 hour from Milan) and rushed out to meet my Internet friend Mauro at the Santa Maria delle Grazie Church in Milan, where Leonardo da Vinci painted The Last Supper on a wall in the year 1495. It was breathtaking and very inspiring. Words can’t even describe seeing this famous painting in real life.
After this, we walked over to the Duomo, the massive cathedral in the center of Milan, and then to the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuel (shopping mall), and the famous La Scala Opera House. It was a fun walk with the 5 of us: Me, David, Joe, Mauro and his friend Soraya. We ate some little hors d’ oeuvres in a little outdoor cafe near the Galleria and then walked back to the car.
For dinner, we went to a little restaurant that Mauro new about. We sat outside with plants all around us. There are few words to describe how beautiful it all was. It was a little warm but with a breeze. Mauro ordered for us, which was terrific because we didn’t know what to get…We had antipasto (salami, cheese, olives, prosciutto, melon) and then pasta, and then a delicious dessert…Plus wine and I think a drink called Grappa that David drank too quick and almost choked! It is a strong liquor. Thank you, Mauro, for a wonderful evening! It was lovely to meet you and we hope to get to see you again soon….
The next day the film crew met us outside the hotel and we drove to the home of Giuseppe, his wife Teresa, and their daughters Barbara and Katia. (Ciao!) Giuseppe is the son of Francesca, who is the daughter of my great-grandmother’s sister. Ha! Try saying that in Italian! Anyway, it was so wonderful to see all of them, and to meet for the first time Teresa and Katia (I met Francesca, Giuseppe and Barbara the last time I was in Milan in October). I had some pictures from my grandmother that said nothing but “my cousins in Italy”. I am happy to say that I now know who is in just about every picture and I have even met some of the people in them! Then we went to the town of Arona, on Lago Maggiore, a big beautiful lake in their area. It was gorgeous. and we just enjoyed the day. We could see Switzerland from where we were, as this area is not that far from the border. After this, we went from house to house…to the home of Filippo (Francesca’s brother), to Francesca’s house, to Piero’s house (Francesca’s son)…They all have lovely homes and are wonderful people. We felt very honored to be so welcomed by everyone.
We returned to Giuseppe’s home for a massive feast which was really wonderful! The windows were open wide, there was a lovely breeze, it was so much fun to be sitting around a huge table, everyone drinking vino, laughing, smiling, mangia mangia mangia, and enjoying being together. It is what I have always dreamed a big Italian family should be…what I guess my grandmother must have experienced growing up, and one of the things I wanted to experience, one of the reasons for my family searching…We had the whole film crew here (4 of them), me, David, Joe, Giuseppe, Teresa, Barbara, Katia, Francesca, Mauro (Barbara’s fiancée, different from the other Mauro), and Stefano (Katia’s fiancée). It was wonderful.
After dinner, Piero (Francesca’s son) brought his family over, his wife, daughter and 2 sons, and we enjoyed that as well. It was one of my very favorite parts of the trip, everyone being together, one big family. We were having so much fun, I didn’t even realize it was almost 11 pm at night, and we had a 9 am flight to Sicily the next day!
Up early and on the plane to Palermo, Sicily. Sicily is beautiful. Mountains, kind of dry, not a lot of trees, hot, oleander bushes blooming everywhere, palm trees here and there…It reminded me a lot of Arizona/Grand Canyon area….Kind of desert looking. They had crops growing in neat rows right up the sides of the mountains. We rented a car here, a Honda Civic station wagon actually, and boy did that little car get a workout! For those of you who live in Miami, you think the people there drive nuts!? Whew! David is a wonderful and skilled driver (thank God!) The rule in Sicily is this: when you come to a corner there are sometimes no stop signs (if there ARE signs, who cares!) so whoever has the biggest car gets to go first. 🙂 It was fun. Oh, almost forgot to mention, on the main highway (like our turnpike or expressway, but with no lines separating the lanes) we were going about 145 Kilometers per hour, which comes out to about 95 mph. And the speed limit there is about 120 kmp, which is about 70 mph but no one seems to care, just like in America!
We checked into the hotel, and went for our 2 o’clock
appointment at the Ufficio Anagrafe in Misilmeri. This is
the Civil Records office where I have been sending letters requesting information. When we arrived at the Civil Records office, they had a whole reception waiting for us! The mayor and cultural director were there and gave a speech welcoming us, they had a buffet of the typical food of Misilmeri (little bitty round pizzas, round fried rice balls called arancine (sort of like a Cuban croquette but with rice, tomato sauce and peas inside), fresh cheese, seafood, wine, caviar, and lots more…of course all these things have Italian names, but I can’t remember them) the mayor presented us with huge flower bouquets. it was incredible.
I couldn’t believe it. First, let me say, I think I am literally related to half the people (if not more) who live in Misilmeri. I got some new information while there, and got to see the actual handwritten documents from the 1800’s!!! The mayor said that in the early 1900’s so many people from Misilmeri traveled to America, that almost everyone there has relatives in America even now, so they consider America their second country.
In the center of the Comune di Misilmeri there is a square
with a big fountain. It is called the Piazza Fontana Nouva
and was built in 1772 (I think) in honor of a Catholic prince
who “liberated” the people from their oppressors. The film crew wanted to film this connection between my Grandmother’s photo album and the real thing. We met some interesting people while at the fountain…one man who had taken lots of pictures around Misilmeri and made them into a calendar, and he gave one to me.
We went to the church (S. Gaetano) that my great-grandparents attended. There was a wedding being held, as it was a Saturday, so we were only able to go right inside the doorway. We saw
the houses where my family lived all the way back in the 1800’s. We then went to the cemetery, the only one for the town of Misilmeri, and went up and down the rows. They don’t bury people below ground here, and the cemetery is only 3 acres, so every 20-25 years, they have to remove the bodies from the tombs and put them in group tombs, to make room for more deceased. I saw the tomb of my great-grandmother’s sister, Caterina, who was Francesca’s mother, as well as Francesca’s father’s tomb, and those of other family members. We went to the Chiesa Madrice (Mother Church) where all the church records for the town are kept. We met the priest, who was very kind and spoke some English. He showed us the actual original books that all the information is kept in, back to 1625. Yes, the year 1625. I was drooling with anticipation, but didn’t have time to sit down and start going through them. I have the address of the church so I can mail requests to them..
We then went to lunch at Antonino’s house. This is one of Francesca’s nephews. What a feast! We ate I think for 3-4 hours! It was really wonderful. We were at their country house, outside of Misilmeri, in the mountainside. They had a garden that was lovely, with green olive trees (for olive oil), squash (several varieties), tomatoes (lots), figs, pears, eggplant, peppers, corn, all kinds of yummy things growing. After this we made the rounds to more houses, to the homes of the Di Pisa side of the family (children and grandchildren of my great-grandmother’s sister, Francesca), and also found an Aiena first cousin who we did not know existed (thank you Giacomo for insisting that she was related!)! It was a very long day and we ate way too much! Thank you to all of my family for the incredible welcome and hospitality!
Our last morning in Sicily, we went to Monreale, another little town on a hill overlooking the city of Palermo, and did a little bit of sightseeing, shopping and filming. Monreale was lovely, and the Cathedral there is very impressive. We also stopped to see 2 churches in Palermo, including the Cathedral where my great-grandparents were married, according to my grandmother. What a place! The churches in Europe are so incredible, large with such beautiful details, statues and paintings.
Before boarding our plane, we couldn’t resist a quick trip back to Misilmeri for more eating and house visiting. After we returned to Milan, we ate dinner at the home of Giuseppe and Teresa again, thankfully a nice light meal!
Our last full day in Italy, for tomorrow we fly home. We went with Barbara, her mom, and future mother-in-law for a fitting for her beautiful wedding dress. Barbara and Mauro are getting married October 14th, 2000. Her gown is being made at a shop, where the seamstresses are actually right there sewing the dresses. You can go and pick out the style of collar, hem, sleeves, bodice, skirt, etc. that you like, and basically design your own gown and it is hand made, just for you. Incredibly beautiful.
We went to see Barbara and Mauro’s house that they have purchased and are working on. The have put in new cabinets, closets (they don’t have closets like us in America, they have giant armoire’s that go down the whole wall), bathroom fixtures, etc., and have done a lovely job. Then we saw the church were they are to be married in October, and we ate lunch at a spaghetteria. yum yum yum! We drove into Milan, went in the Duomo (it was closed that first day we were there), went in some shops, and then did some more shopping closer to Legnano. Finally, we ate again a wonderful meal that Teresa prepared for us, and just spent some lovely time with the family.
The next day we flew home, and reflected on what a wonderful trip we had, how fortunate we were to have been able to take part in the Ellis Island project, and how happy and delighted we felt overall!
What a trip! Thank you Eric, Jeannie, and The Ellis Island