'The tip of the boot': A visit to Italy and my Calabrian heritage

Posted by On 2:52 PM

'The tip of the boot': A visit to Italy and my Calabrian heritage

Sunday

Sep 23, 2018 at 5:00 PM

EDITOR’S NOTE: On a recent trip across the Atlantic Ocean, much faster and easier than the difficult passage his grandparents made by “boat” nearly a century ago, Times copy editor Jim Pane traced his paternal roots to a small town in the south Italy region of Calabria. He was delighted by what, and whom, he found there.

BELCASTRO, Italy â€" Postcard to Nana and Nanu: Having a great time. Wish you were here.

A recent vacation with my wife, Lynne, brought us to Italy and the small village of my grandparents’ birth. Belcastro, in the country’s southern region of Calabria, is as far from the marquee cities of Rome and Florence and Venice as anything on Earth, but as close to home as I could ever want to be.

We sandwiched our visit between tour stops in Rome and took in some of th e famous delights there. The Colosseum was magnifico. Sistine Chapel, glorioso. Trevi Fountain, bellissimo. And a Steelers bar, la Botticella birreria (beer house) and vineria (wine bar), just a first-down toss from the vibrant Piazza Navona, was everything a Yinzer might expect on a football Sunday in September.

But the ultimate destination on this 5,000-mile journey lay many miles, or kilometers, away. Literally, figuratively, emotionally.

Nana and Nanu, I remember, never lost touch with their heritage and spoke often of their days in the Old Country â€" “on the tip of the boot,” they’d say of Calabria. They told their stories of crossing the Atlantic on “the boat” and making a life for themselves in America. They took great pride in the role they played in helping their many younger siblings, and later generations, do the same.

Much of my youth was spent at Nana and Nanu’s house, and in their world. It’s where I learned, early on, some of life’s important lessons. It’s also where I learned a little â€" very little, “molto poco’’ â€" Italian.

“Jimmy, vieni qui. Mangiamo,” Nana would tell me to come when it was time to eat.

Yes, the food, and actual sit-down dinners with family, was important in Nana and Nanu’s world â€" plenty of pasta and pane (bread). Its tradition continues throughout Italy today. Every meal is an event.

Years ahead, when I became a grandparent myself, I chose not to have the grandkids call me Nanu, and the reason is simple: I could never hope to fill those shoes â€" or tip of the boot, as it were.

So off we ventured, Lynne and I, to Belcastro, to discover these Calabrian roots. And this was not quick or easy travel â€" by all contemporary standards surely, not to mention the conditions endured by my ancestors. Today, of course, much of Italy is easily accessible by train. But Belcastro, no.

From Rome, a six-hour ride by rail along the Tyrrhenian coast to Lamezi a Terme led to one hour more by car to Tropea, a lovely resort town where Tania Pascuzzi would serve as our attentive hostess for the next several days. Rising 200 feet from the sea, Tropea offers spectacular clifftop views of beaches below, as well as Sicily’s Aeolian Islands in the distance, including volcanic Stromboli (emphasis on the first syllable).

Accompanied by Pino, our driver; Francesco, a local artist and ancestry researcher; and Antonio, a much-needed interpreter, we then traveled two hours more by car from Tropea toward the opposite coast and our final stop. Higher and higher we drove into the hills of Catanzaro, one of Calabria’s five provinces, before finally we arrived. Belcastro: elevation 1,755 feet, population 1,400.

To be geographically precise, Belcastro is situated on the sole of the boot, on the country’s east coast near the Ionian Sea, south of the Adriatic. The comune (a political and administrative subdivision roughly equivalent to our bo roughs and townships) and its province are part of the larger Calabria region of southern Italy, the tip of the boot that kicks Sicily off the Italian peninsula into the Mediterranean.

From Belcastro’s town hall piazza, one marvels at a panoramic vista that unveils all of Catanzaro below and, about 10 miles into the hazy distance, the Ionian’s Gulf of Squillace. Higher still, on the edge of town, sits the tower of Castello dei Conti di Aquino, a centuries-old castle that served as a lookout against invaders and where communication into the surrounding hills was done by fire, smoke and reflecting mirrors. As some of today’s town officials boast, the message was delivered “faster than the internet.”

Homes throughout il comune di Belcastro are built into hillsides, on narrow, winding streets that rise and fall, except for the locals, on impossible slopes. These paths lead to a town monument, a stone sculpture that lists Belcastro’s casualties from the two world wars.

My grandparents both were born here in the early 1900s. The families of Vincenzo (James) Pane and Assunta Tommasina (Sue) Palazzo knew each other somewhat, though their homes were located in two of three segregated sections of town. It wasn’t until years later, after the Panes and Palazzos had first settled in Sharpsburg, outside Pittsburgh, that my Nana and Nanu got together and married.

Nanu’s father, Salvatore Pane, was the first to emigrate. After earning enough money in America, he returned for his eldest son, Vincenzo, in the early 1920s, and together they repeated those steps to buy ship passage for the rest of the family. A similar tale could be told about the Palazzos, though one of my Nana’s siblings, an infant brother, died on the arduous travel between the ports of Naples and New York.

These stories of American immigrants are not unique. Antonio Libertino, our interpreter, related similar accounts, some harrowing, of families struggling to f ind better lives in America in the early part of the 20th century. As it was told to him, certain evildoers would find the most vulnerable souls on these transatlantic crossings, kill them, steal their money and belongings, and even assume their identities. Those then who made repeat journeys, much like my grandfather and great-grandfather, became savvy to the dastardly scheme and armed themselves with knives and other protection to guard against that common fate.

An understanding of my heritage came to me through many sources. I had handwritten notes in family Bibles, copies of hundred-year-old birth certificates and ship manifests obtained through the American Family Immigration History Center on Ellis Island. Plus, I had the stories told by my grandparents themselves.

Yet that information went back only so far. Precious time spent with a group of Belcastro officials, including town administrator Pasquale Mazza, archivist Vincento Gemelli, and former mayor and resident storyteller Ivan Ciacci, revealed so much more.

Birth certificates and marriage licenses traced relatives from both sides of the family to generations before my grandparents. Handwritten entries from the dusty pages of town archives described in detail all births as they were required to be reported: family name, house location, everyone present during the delivery. From these pages I learned the exact streets where Vincenzo and Assunta Tommasina lived: Via Castellacci on one part of town, Via San Nicola on another.

None of the Palazzos remain in Belcastro today. Perhaps they left to settle in a town nearby, surmised Ciacci, the former mayor. Francesco Caracciolo, the researcher who traveled with us from Tropea, found that the family might have had a touch of nobility in their blood, but sadly, not much more is known of their origins or whereabouts.

The Panes, Caracciolo said, were a family of navigators (not bakers, as the spelling of our last name and Italian in terpretation might suggest). His research also turned up a different branch of the family living to the north. Each branch carried its own distinct Pane coat of arms.

In the town hall, with the assembled local officials and visitors from America, an animated Mayor Ciacci had stories to tell â€" in a quickly spoken Calabrian dialect reminiscent of the family gatherings of my childhood. Thanks to Antonio for interpreting as well as he could keep pace.

And yes, family still walks the cobblestone streets of Belcastro. …

Meet Luigi Pane. Of my father’s generation, Luigi had 10 children of his own, all scattered now. The name of his grandfather, also Luigi, is engraved in that town memorial as a casualty of World War I.

Luigi (the war dead) was the brother of Salvatore (my grandfather Vincenzo’s father). If I’m properly following the branches of the family tree, that makes current-day Luigi my Nanu’s second cousin. He is a distant cousin to me.

We t alked a bit, Luigi and I, despite the language barrier. He showed me an ancient stone wall, on the foundation of one of Belcastro’s historic churches, that he helped to rebuild. We joked about his full head of hair, just like his second cousin Vincenzo’s. Though a bit bewildered, he held the Terrible Towel for a quick photo shoot.

And then, most poignantly, he took me to the house where his grandfather, and others in the family, gathered for Pane social events, quite probably involving meals of Calabrese cuisine. I imagined the times there.

Our visit at an end, Luigi apologized for not having something to give me, and I assured him that was not the case. Just to meet was quite enough.

Then we said our goodbyes.

He offered an Italian cheek kiss.

And I was home.

Source: Google News Italy | Netizen 24 Italy

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