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La Patria - The Homeland

Updated: Feb 11, 2021

My first article for In2 Mundus (Into the World) is about my ancestral homeland of Italy and some of the people who have shaped my life. I'm sure that these experiences will resonate with many readers who either had or have the potential for such relationships and experiences.

As I arrived at Leonardo da Vinci airport in Fiumicino on October 3, 2019, it would be my 5th trip to the homeland (la patria) of my maternal grandfather, great-grandparents and all that came before them. The year 2019 is also the 20th year since my first trip to the beautiful country. This trip had many similarities in terms of the places and people that I visited.

In 2019, the destinations were Florence (and other areas in Tuscany), Rome, Caserta and Naples. In 1999, the destinations were similar, but also included Assisi, Orvieto, Terracina and my ancestral hometown of Lenola. Both trips were led by my father's tour management company, Fratelli and Company Group Travel.

The 2019 trip was first thought of in the Summer of 2018 by a group of my neighbors and friends in Sea Bright, New Jersey. Most in this group of 14 had never been to Italy before. The goal of this trip was wine tasting and foodie experiences and predominately took place in Tuscany.

After the Tuscany portion of the trip was completed on October 10, most of the group stayed in the Eternal City prior to returning home. I had decided prior to booking the trip to do my own thing. I departed my Sea Bright friends in Piazza del Popolo and went with my very close cousins, Chiara and Francesco to their hometown of Curti, which is in the Province of Caserta (approximately 21 miles from Naples).

Upon reaching Curti, we arrived at the home of Chiara's father Mario (my paternal grandfather’s first cousin) and his wife Amelia.

Side note: my great-grandmother, Angelina, was the only child in her family who emigrated to the United States. Her younger sister’s children still reside in and around the town (Sant’Angelo in Formis - also in the Province of Caserta) where my great-grandmother and great-grandfather were born and raised. My family is very close to this part of the family and converse and visit with each other on a regular basis.

The evening that I arrived in Curti, Mario’s sisters Anna and Elena came to the house for a short visit. After they departed, Mario was intent on bringing me to enjoy Neapolitan cuisine, pizza and babà (a rum-soaked cake), at a restaurant aptly called Pizza è Babà. Call me biased, but I happen to think that the Neapolitan pizza is the best in the world and very difficult to replicate, especially when it is topped with mozzarella di bufala!

Following dinner, my cousin and her husband drove me around the province to see the sites of Caserta by night. Some of these included: The Royal Palace of Caserta (palace designed for members of the House of Bourbon, who ruled the Kingdom of Naples), Amphitheater of Capua (this is the site where gladiators trained prior to fighting at the Roman Colosseum, as portrayed in the Russel Crowe movie “Gladiator”), and the site where my cousins were married, San Leucio, which is an off-site part of the Royal Palace of Caserta.

The next day was very fulfilling. I asked Mario if he would mind taking me to Sant’Angelo to see the basilica (Basilica Benedettina di Sant’Angelo in Formis) where my great-grandparents were baptized and married. We visited the ancient basilica, which was built in the 11th century and over a pagan temple. The original frescos are still visible, but obviously aged and deteriorated. The curators of the basilica have worked very hard over the past few years to raise money and preserve and restore this old but beautiful basilica.

After we left the ancient basilica, Mario took me to see my grandfather’s eldest living cousin, Salvatore. I last saw Salvatore when I visited in 1999.

We departed Sant’Angelo and visited my grandfather’s other cousin, Gigino (Luigi) and his sister Chiarina. I first met Chiarina when I was very young in the 1980s when she travelled to the United States on a few occasions with her niece (Gigino’s daughter), Lucy. Gigino and his son, Salvatore, run a beverage distribution company. While my visit with them was very short, the resemblance that Gigino has to my grandfather and the long and hard hours that they work every day never ceases to amaze me.

We left Gigino’s residence for the beautiful bay city of Naples ("Bella Napoli"). Upon arriving in Naples, we went to one of Mario’s favorite restaurants, Regina Margherita. I had been to this restaurant in 2013 and could never forget the beautiful view of the Bay and Mount Vesuvius from the outdoor tables. I could not help myself and had to order the same local favorite that I ordered in 2013 - spaghetti allo scoglio! This is pasta mixed in with small clams, mussels and shrimp.

After lunch, we walked around the Bay and then toured the Castel dell’Ovo, which is a fortress (fortifications were built in the 12th century, but a small part of the structure that remains to this day was built in the 5th century B.C.E.). We continued to walk into the city center by the Royal Palace of Naples (also a Bourbon palace) and took a break to have an espresso, gelato and sfogliatelle at the famous Gran Caffè Gambrinus. When in the city-center of Naples, it is a MUST to stop at Gambrinus for a snack.

We finished the beautiful evening by walking through the Galleria Umberto I for souvenir shopping. For those who have been to Milan, this Galleria is very similar to the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.

Following the visit to Naples, it was time to return back to Mario’s house. This also meant it was time for me to return to Rome with my cousins. The following day, I was scheduled for an 11:00 AM appointment at the Vatican for a tour of the Necropolis of Saint Peter's Basilica, which is the spot believed to be Saint Peter’s tomb.

The visit with my grandfather’s cousins, while very short in terms of time, was heartfelt and emotional. In some respects, the family is getting smaller with older members passing away and children moving to other areas of Italy where jobs are better. In other respects, the family is getting larger with those children having children. It is really nice to see these people who I have known and grown with over the past 20+ years become successful in their careers and having families of their own. One thing remains constant, the family tie and close relationship that transcends an ocean.

The experience of roots, whether it be people, places or both is like no other. I hope you enjoyed this short story as again, I'm sure most of you have similar stories. I hope my story is an inspiration for you to learn and understand (maybe even visit someday) where you came from so that you can put that perspective into what you do in your personal life and career.

Bay of Naples and Mount Vesuvius (Personal Photo Taken on October 11, 2019)

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