6. Perfect Strangers

With confidence in the full, beautiful day ahead of us, we hit the road at 9:30am. Of course, on the way to the place that was sort of on the way to our destination, we had to make a stop—it might have been two–to admire the spectacular scenery.  The weather was perfect and the river so lovely. And who could ignore signs in Italian and French (!) about hydroelectric power and the possible dangers from “plant manipulation” of the water levels?

(Image of Civita from Mapio)

And so we arrived in Civita, the home of the Arbëresh Ethnic Museum, a little behind schedule. Known as Cifti in Arbëresh, this dramatic comune is cut right into the mountains and rubs shoulders—or maybe ankles—with a deep limestone gorge. Finding the museum, on a large cobblestoned piazza, was no trouble at all. Men of a certain age, wearing dark wool coats and hats, sat talking in small groups. It was so charming, so picturesque, so easy—it felt too good to be true. And it was. The museum was chiuso—closed–with no indication of when it would reopen. We were experienced enough travelers in Italy to know that, sometimes, things were chiuso here for reasons you would never understand. But there was always the temptatation to try. Locating a shopkeeper, I tormented the poor man with my defective Italian until he confessed that he didn’t know why it was not open now, but it would surely reopen at 4pm, maybe 5. That would not work with making it to Macchia so off we went, disappointed, but excited at what lay ahead.

Back on the road, it was only moments before the hairpin turns began and with them what I like to call the Amusement-Park portion of such drives. Everyone else makes it out alive, right? So why shouldn’t you? You might as well scream a little and act like it’s fun. When we approached the San Demetrio area, we headed for the collegio there, the one mentioned in that suspect genealogy report that claimed my distant relative—Antonio Liguori–had been president of the place long ago. Alas, the collegio was chiuso so we walked around and looked at the outside, a mysterious blank wall. Three very nice women approached us and said the collegio was under repair but the key was available if we wanted to see inside. At least that’s what I understood them to say.

The fact that we never located the place with the key makes me think maybe that wasn’t it. Who hands out keys to perfect strangers wanting to visit construction sites? Yet, hopes don’t crush quite that easily, so we tried for a while before we gave up and stopped for lunch. The outstanding pasta fueled and renewed us and we stood on the restaurant patio enjoying the view. I suspected the  hilltop village in the distance was Macchia and the waiter confirmed it, so off we went along roads with even more stunning views, different from those of earlier in the day but wholly able to hold their own.

We parked at the end of Macchia’s main road. At first, no one was around, but when a woman walked by, I got out of the car and with admirable calm explained why I was there. She was Very Interested and this was the moment we lost control of the situation in a big and kind of wonderful way. She led us along the street toward her house, chatting, while I desperately begged my brain to stop feeding me random sentences about umbrella factories in northern Italy in place of sane replies. (BBC Italian lessons, umbrella factories? What were you thinking?) She wanted to find someone to help us. I wasn’t sure what kind of help she meant, because at this point, I was still clinging to the idea that we were here for a walk. In hindsight, that was pretty adorable of me.

Before we even reached her door, eight other women and children joined us. I explained to everyone as best I could about my great-grandmother and the distant relative who was the collegio president–maybe. Everyone had something to say about it all, at least part of which had to do with how much I loved my bisnonna and how this was only right. The children held my daughter’s hand, a little less sure of what to do about my son who, at age 13 was over 6 feet tall. Everyone was warm and delightful and it was great fun! Soon a car stopped and the driver got out to join our now stationary parade. Introducing himself as Ernesto, he was friendly, kind and eager to help, gesturing that we should follow him. We scrambled into our car and gunned it to catch up with him as he peeled out of town. Thus began what was to be an afternoon of high-speed chases, following a perfect stranger to the houses of other perfect strangers, welcoming and friendly to a one.

We headed out of Macchia and into San Demetrio, where we visited people named Liguori, a common name there. We met many, just never the right one. After several hours of scaring innocent Liguoris by popping up at their doors unbidden and unannounced, we agreed we needed someone who could speak more English. Ernesto spoke almost none, and on the other side of the equation you had me, having a nervous breakdown trying to yank vocabulary words out of the depths of my ignorance well and pushing Russian words and phrases back down when they threatened to force me to speak them. We ended up at the home of an elderly man who, Ernesto recalled, had once lived in America. His daughter took us to him where he sat in his garden, holding a cane and enjoying the sun. He was very pleasant, greeting us in Italian with enthusiasm. I said something to him in English and he gave me an odd look. After a bit, we found out that yes, he had lived in America—South America. His second language was Spanish, learned in Argentina decades before.

But, he proved to be the link in the chain we needed, because he knew someone, someone who had lived in the United States—and who spoke English. At last, we might be about to find the perfect stranger and make some headway. By now, we no longer remembered that all we had wanted was a walk. At this point, we were on a genealogical safari, and we were going to find ourselves some Liguoris of our own.

Please leave me a comment with your thoughts. Have you tried anything like this? Maybe you’re a Liguori or a Merenda. Maybe you or your ancestors are from the San Demetrio area. I’d love to hear about that or anything else you’d care to share here. Just scroll down to the comment field below.

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