With a couple of clicks of the mouse and a decent internet connection you can find nearly anyplace on earth. But that wasn’t true in the early 1980s. Trying to find Macchia Albanese—the town I had reason to believe was the birthplace of Nanny, my father’s mother’s mother—was going to take some work.
My first naïve attempts involved travel books like Frommer’s and Fielding’s, which turned up nothing. I’d been to Italy a few times, visiting places from Venice to Sicily, so Ihad some more locally-focused books around that contained information about smaller towns. Nothing there either. I moved on to atlases and library books and although I don’t recall which combination of things worked, I did come up with what I thought might be Macchia’s general, if not exact, location. It was time for another letter.
This time, I wrote to one of my great aunts. Although she was on my father’s father’s side, she had been very close with his mother’s family and I thought she might remember hearing something. At the least, she could tell me what she knew about her own branch, the Fazios. She sent back some information, leading to overconfidence on my part that we were ready to go.
So in early summer of 1983, my husband and I planned a trip. We would start in Sicily, drive through southern Italy and end up in Florence. We were going to spend a few days tracking down Macchia and make a discreet visit or two, just to get a sense of what the place was like. As with most plans, they changed. In this case, my mother- and father-in-law asked if they could come along. This was not a huge surprise since they had done this before, most notably on our honeymoon to Senegal. I really can’t complain, though, because while many people have serious problems with their in-laws, mine were pretty great—with a couple of quirks. Their belief that any trip was better with a few relatives along was one of them.
But their joining us, and adding my sister-in-law to the roster, did have some consequences. We had to change our rental car from a snappy little thing that would navigate the small streets with ease to a car big enough for five. With luggage. The rental company gave us a Volvo wagon that, in the landscape of Sicily’s narrow roads filled with Vespas and tiny cars, looked like a beached whale. More than once, it got stuck in streets that just couldn’t accommodate it. One memorable example was in the lovely town of Orvieto, where we managed to get utterly jammed and provided 20 minutes’ worth of entertainment for quite a few people.
More seriously, we were no longer free to spend time as we wanted. Everyone needed to be happy with the plans and in the end, we had only a day and a half to locate Macchia. We visited Catanzaro and Cosenza and got some basic directions—that didn’t agree—and late morning of the second day, we set out to see the town that Nanny came from. We drove through beautiful mountainous areas, by lovely lakes. We had a very nice picnic lunch. It was going great!
As the population thinned, the roads increasingly preferred to remain anonymous. There were almost no signs to tell us which of the conflicting sets of partial directions we might—perhaps—be following. In one place, we found a sign with “Alb” written in by hand after “Macchia” and a single turn, or so it seemed, to our destination. Later on, we reached what it would be generous to call a T intersection, where a very narrow road dead-ended into a very, very narrow road. A small shrine marked the spot along with a thick, rectangular wooden post. Back before it gave up and lost its grip on things, the post had contained eight or ten signs, each with a place name on it and a point on one end indicating a direction. The problem was, all the signs had snapped off where they extended past the body of the post. Vandalism? Really strong wind? I don’t know, but the post stood tall, its face decorated with the center few inches of all the signs, like a shy, minimalist totem pole. The left and right portions of the signs lay on the ground, allowing you to pick them up and try to play a matching game with the post. This required more than a little knowledge of locations in the area, but after a while we stopped yelling and reached a sort of consensus, striking off in the chosen direction. We drove and drove and couldn’t help noticing that the sun was getting low in the sky.
Finally, we came to what I was pretty certain was the place. The village was tiny. Even today, its population numbers only in the hundreds and just two roads wind through the center. We stopped the behemoth of a car and looked. A man walked by with two children and I heard him speaking what sounded like Albanese. “This is it!” I said. I felt like Nancy Drew. At that point, an older woman came out of the first house inside the street and began to sweep. She swept a lot, keeping one eye on us. It was close to sunset; it was now or never. So we sucked up our embarrassment and drove in, a modern Swedish parade float of a vehicle gliding through a lovely little medieval-looking village. People sitting outside to enjoy the late afternoon watched us go by, puzzled. I felt like I was on display and not for any kind of a good reason. As experiences go, it was silent and surreal.
And that was it. That was our visit. We had to leave, now vaguely terrified at the thought of driving back on all those mountain roads in the dark. My husband and I vowed right then that we were returning, and soon. But the next time, we’d be alone and more prepared.
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