Over the years I have become aware that many of the culturally shocking aspects of my life here in Italy cannot actually be attributed to living in Italy, but instead to living in a small town. In fact, there is sometimes a far greater similarity between small towns in two different countries than there is between rural locations and urban locations in the same country. Me, in my big city ways, managed to misread a lot of these small town normalities for “Italian”… when, really, a small town in any other country might operate in much the same way.
Case in point, this past weekend I voyaged to rural Ireland and found it shockingly comparable to small town life here in Italy.
How did this trip come about?
Well, I happen to come from a family whose ancestral tree resembles more of a thicket or some kind of rapidly multiplying invasive plant species, then a tree with normal branches. While I am technically an only child, I have step and half siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, and more coming out of all corners of the earth (5 continents at last count). To add to it, I’ve very recently become acquainted with a whole biologically connected branch of the tree in Ireland that I didn’t even know existed. This recent discovery was part of what led to a quick 2-day stop over in southern Ireland, in search of my biological grandfather’s hometown and gravesite.
The resulting saga was one of hilarity and familiarity, as much of the story could have taken place in a small Italian town.
1. There was the geographic isolation…
When setting off from the main town (population 9000) in search of the village where my grandfather was supposedly buried, I asked some locals if it was too far to get there on foot. They found that suggestion absolutely hilarious and repeated it to others around them: “She wants to get to the village on FOOT!”. Guffaw, guffaw. When I finally found a taxi and asked him to drop me in the tiny village, the driver found it absolutely hilarious and repeated it to someone on the phone: “She had me drop her at the village on FOOT!” Guffaw, guffaw. When I went to the church cemetery to try to locate my grandfather’s headstone, the caretaker asked me if I really came by taxi, “like in a film”? When I replied yes, he found it absolutely hilarious, and took me across the street to introduce me to the locals as “the woman who arrived in the village on FOOT”! Guffaw, guffaw.
As happy as I was to be bringing laughter to this small town, I couldn’t quite understand why this was so hilarious. I suppose they don’t get many visitors. While the actual population of this village is 661, most of the inhabitants are out in rural farms in the surrounding countryside. The “village” itself was made up of 2 churches, 1 pub, and 5 houses.
2. There was the man behind the curtain…
When I couldn’t locate my grandfather’s headstone, the cemetery caretaker immediately pointed me towards the man behind the curtain of this village – the pub owner, Tom. “He knows everyone around here. He’ll be the one to help you.”
And that he did. No sooner had I arrived, than Tom and his lovely wife had asked me all about my trip and how on earth I ended up in this tiny village on FOOT!! (Guffaw, guffaw). When I dubiously gave him my grandfather’s name, thinking to myself “there’s no way he knows every headstone in the cemetery”, he immediately walked me across the street and pointed it out.
Very useful guy, this Tom.
3. There was the town detective agency…
Upon our return, we entered the pub to find that his wife had relayed my story to the gentlemen who had stopped in for their pints of Guinness on the way home from work. In my short absence, they had already begun to map out my family tree (a feat which I have yet to fully comprehend). Within about 30 minutes, they had discovered that one of them was married to a woman whose cousin was married to my cousin. Got that?
Phone calls were made, the story of me arriving on FOOT was shared multiple times (guffaw, guffaw). And five minutes later my father’s biological first cousin walked through the door and gave me a big hug.
4. There was incredible warmth and hospitality…
Without knowing me, without know my father, without even knowing that our branch of the family ever existed, I was immediately welcomed into my cousins’ home. We spent the evening talking about my grandfather – who he was, what kind of person he was. And they could have been describing my dad, the similarities were so uncanny. They showed me photographs and I discovered why I’m taller than everyone else in my family. The next morning, I was given a tour of the area, with an historical account of the region and how my family fit into it. I saw the house my grandfather grew up in and the city he called home throughout his youth.
5. And now, there is family!
I don’t know how to describe the power of genetics. It’s an amazing thing.
I always believed that socialization has the most profound effect on a person’s personality. But then I walked into a room full of people I’ve never met before, in a totally different country, in a totally different social situation from mine…. and they all look like me, talk like me, and even THINK like me. It’s an amazing thing.
It’s hard to describe.
And I really don’t know if it would have gone the same way, had it not been a small town. I tried to imagine what would happen here in our small Italian town if some foreign woman showed up on foot, looking for a branch of her family. Then I realized… I’ve done that! Not here in Emilia, but a couple years ago in Sicily.
My mother’s side of the family thicket has an equally complicated past, and one summer we ventured to a small town in the province of Messina in search of information about my bisnonni (great grandparents) who immigrated to the US at the beginning of the 20th century.
A very similar story unfolded.
- There was the geographic isolation (although the density here in Italy is higher and the distances smaller).
- There was the man behind the curtain (who knew everyone in a 50 km radius of the town).
- There was the town detective agency (who ended up tracking down a distant cousin of my mother’s living in Messina)
- There was incredible warmth and hospitality (we still exchange gifts with the lovely ladies in the Comune office)
- And there is family… our cousins descendant from my great grandparents siblings (it sounds distant, but in Sicily “siamo cugini!”)
So, you see… really, I’m a small town girl at heart!