5. Prepare for Take Off: Project Macchia

“We left at 9:30 this morning for THE TRIP to Macchia Albanese.” Those words are from my travel diary of 21 April, 1998.

We hadn’t been back to Italy or any part of Europe in well over a decade, confining our vacations while the kids were very young to places that involved shorter flights and less angst if (when) we had to cancel for ear infections, twisted ankles and such. And how things had changed! Now, the agriturismo movement was gearing up, and the Internet had come into its own, that magic key to all the locked doors–and soon to be the source of new addictions worldwide. In fact, I learned about agriturismo from the Internet. With farming becoming increasingly less profitable in Italy, as in so many places, agriturismo was an idea that aimed to help farmers. They would offer vacation accommodations on their farms, producing extra income while at the same time enabling visitors to appreciate the unique value of these often surprisingly beautiful locations. In fact, the Italian agriturismo movement in the 1990s is one of the important elements in my upcoming novella, Children of the Salt Road.

As of the date of that diary entry, we’d been at our place, Masseria Torre di Albidona, for several days. Just outside Trebisacce, a comune in the Calabrian province of Cosenza, the setting and the entire area was very beautiful—high in the mountains and with views of the Ionian sea that changed mood with the weather, often several times a day. Fields of flowers were in bloom everywhere we went. As we drove around, exploring the ruins and other local sights, we passed people busily picking carciofi—the tasty artichokes that were now in season. To our delight, we were almost always the only visitors to the small museums and other sights we chose. The down side was that almost no one we met spoke English, and all the informational signs were in Italian only, but we managed. We all loved the region. It didn’t hurt that we’d found a wonderful, small restaurant in the town of Trebisacce where delicious lunches and dinners were served by a young woman with a baby on her hip. She also did much of the cooking and simply made us feel at home, even sneaking us in one day when the place was closing early for an afternoon party. “If you could be finished by three?” she said and of course we were

We’d chosen this particular place because it was not too far from Macchia Albanese, the suspected birthplace of my great-grandmother. Well, not too far was, at that time, looking to be about an hour and a half by car. Today, Google marks the drive as under an hour; there must have been some road improvements. Our time estimate came from a helpful local resident, the chef, waiter and generally helpful guy at our agriturismo. Torre di Albidona, in addition to its dozen or so bungalows, had a main house—the casa—with a restaurant. We had dinner there some evenings and breakfast every morning. American visitors were unusual enough that the chef, who was one of the nicest people you’d want to meet and who just about did handstands to get my daughter to eat breakfast, asked what brought us to the area. I told him about Macchia and that we would like to walk around and see the place. His immediate reaction was, “Oh. Your family is Albanese? So is my wife.”

His wife was not from Macchia, but he knew how to get there. He agreed that it was a good idea to explain who we were and why we had come so he jotted down how to say, “My great-grandmother was born here and we would like to take a walk in and around your town.”  Just for reference if (when) I opened my mouth and panicked. I knew it wasn’t reasonable, but part of me believed there would be someone in town with a photographic memory who remembered us as the lunatics who’d engineered our drive of shame all those years ago. He mentioned that if we had time after our walk, we might want to head to the church in San Demetrio Corone, the home comune (like a town) for the frazione (smaller “hamlet”) of Macchia, and ask to look at their birth or baptismal records. He also recommended  that we stop on the way—in what turned out to be a stunningly loose use of the phrase “on the way”–at the relatively new museum of Arbëresh culture in Civita. He even went so far as to write down for us the names of the towns we were looking for in Italian and Arbëresh: Macchia Albanese is Maqi, Civita is Cifti, and San Demetrio Corone is Shën Mitri. All this before one more attempt at getting my daughter to eat breakfast, offering her a slice of fancy-shmancy cake as big as one of the six white puppies that roamed the property and stole my kids’ hearts.

We had a goal, a reasonable sounding goal. We weren’t looking for cousins, or a family reunion or even a personal welcome. We just wanted to see Macchia and San Demetrio in a way that went a little beyond our previous drive-by view. And the museum sounded like the perfect bonus. The only way we would miss our walk this time was if (when) something unexpected happened.

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