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My two cousins, Jeannette and Joanne, and I flew to Bari from Venice on a small Alitalia plane, the flight took about 90 minutes. I told my cousins that relatives from Bitetto named Giovanna and Rosa were coming to meet us, and that Giovanna would be carrying a flower so we would know her. After we picked up our luggage, I started for the exit but was soon blocked by a lady carrying a gorgeous bouquet of colorful flowers. We hugged and I received my first Italian-style greeting - kisses on both cheeks. It took me a moment to realize that the horde of people behind Giovanna were not there waiting for other passengers - they were all there waiting for us.
It felt as though half of Bitetto was there hugging us and introducing themselves. Even 92 year old Mama Grazia was there shouting hellos at us. She took an instant liking to Jeannette, and they were joined at the hip most of the time we spent with them. Mama Grazia kept touching Jeannette's face and saying "Maria Palma!". Maria Palma DeNinno was our great-grandmother - our grandmother Grazia/Grace's mother. According to Mama Grazia, Jeannette bears a strong resemblance to her.
I recognized the names of some of the people, but many were new to me. Giovanna and her husband Pasquale both spoke good English because they had lived in NY for 10 years - they patiently explained all the relationships. Even small children were there, smiling shyly from behind their parents' backs. It was a wonderfully noisy and poignant reunion of family separated for many, many years. There was no awkwardness, their warmth and exuberance welcoming us as cherished famiglia.
JoAnne and I picked up our rental car and followed Pasquale and Franco to Franco and Rosa's house. Their home was spacious and beautifully appointed. Rosa's kitchen smelled very inviting, the familiar aroma of simmering meat sauce filling the air. Rosa is Pasquale's sister, and they are Mama Grazia's children (as well as the siblings of Francesco who I had visited on Long Island the day I flew out of NY). Photos came out, Mama Grazia handing me framed photos of long ago - her mother, her grandmother, a portrait of the family back around 1930 when my Aunt Giovanna and cousin Mary visited Bitetto, many, many familiar faces looking back at me from the faded prints. Mama Grazia remembered my grandmother from her childhood, and everyone in the town remembered our Zio Filippo (my grandmother's younger brother) because he stayed there the longest before coming to NY. He married Zia Jenny (Giovanna) before coming to join his older sisters in Brooklyn. Pasquale smiled and explained they remembered Zio Filippo the best because he always sent packages and money to them during rough times. I had always known that Zio Philip's wife, Zia Giovanna, was a foundling; what I didn't know until that day was that she was raised by Mama Grazia's mother.
I showed them the family tree I had which went back 4 generations, and much gesturing and conversation resulted. When Franco looked at the paper he was surprised to see one of his surnames on it! He declared that we also were related, and everyone was surprised to realize that he was related to us on our great-grandmother's side, while the rest of them (his wife included) were related to us on our great-grandfather's side. Pasquale pointed to the name of our great-grandfather - Francesco Grande - and told us he was called Francesco "Pazziarello". It wasn't clear if Pazziarello was a 'second name' or a nickname.
Four very handsome young cousins - Rosa's and Pasquale's sons - in their 20's were introduced to us - on their way to a soccer game in Bari. Dino was sporting a specialscarf around his neck to cheer on the Bari team - Giovanna explained that at the game it would be held up high while cheering for their team. She confided that her son Dino was 'sick' with soccer. The four cousins were chastised for preferring to go to the game instead of eating with us. We assured them it was ok, that they should go and cheer for us too. We all sat around the dining room table and Jeannette, Joanne and I showed them photos of our families, parents and grandparents while we sipped the ever-present espresso. Then we all piled into the cars again and followed them to the church.
The town's patron saint is Beato Giacomo, and I remembered how my grandmother spoke lovingly of that pretty church. The two huge lions out front reminded me of Grandma's stories. Franco is very involved with the church, and he took us to every nook and cranny; at one time it was a Vescovile (bishop's seat/cathedral), and around the ceiling in an anteroom (which was the original church 800+ years ago) are plaques with the names of all the Bishops who served there. One became a Cardinal, and his plaque was red to indicate his status.
We then followed Franco up a narrow, very dark, winding stairway, all the way up the campanile to the bell tower at the very top. The view was breathtaking, and we took many photos of the town from the unique vantage point. The way down was steep, dark and a little scary. Large chunks of the stairs were simply missing and a misstep could be disastrous. Certainly not a tourist's staircase! My black coat was dirty from leaning against the stone walls where I held on for dear life! Outside the church we met Uncle Vito, who brought over photos for us to see.
Grace Lancieri Olivio, is editor to Communes of Italy Magazine. Her father's ancestry is from the towns of Bitetto and Spinazzola in Apulia. This is an excerpt from the journal she kept during her first visit there in January 1999.
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