I don’t know if everyone else feels this way, but I’ve always had a maddeningly insatiable thirst for knowing where I come from. There’s a deep, visceral part of me that still belongs in Italy, in Germany. I took Italian in college in order to feel closer to the culture; with my mom, I poured over old family photos, trying to decipher who was who, and how we were related. On both sides of my family, we’re either in contact or have been at some point with extended relatives. We can trace our ancestors back, and we know names and dates and places – except for my great grandfather’s relatives.
My great grandfather (my mother’s grandfather on her father’s side) came to the states in 1916 from the Piemonte region, specifically a place called Settime right outside of Asti. He’d been born in 1893 – or so we thought. He was the only one in his family to leave for a new life in America, where he met my great grandmother who’d grown up a mere 16 miles from him. We knew the name of his mother, and that his brother was the captain of the guard to the King of Italy at the time. When he was alive, my great grandfather didn’t talk about his life in Italy that much, at least to my mother. And when he died, contacting this part of our family fell to my grandparents, my nonna and my nonno. And when we lost my nonna, we lost the letters and the contact information as well. We lost that side of the family in one fell swoop as they sat on one side of the world, and we hopelessly stared back across the ocean.
What all that amounts to is that we hadn’t spoken to this side of the family in nearly 20 years, and had never had the chance to look for them. None of our family members in the states have been to Italy in that time. So when Em and I decided that we’d spend 2-4 weeks exploring the land of our ancestors, my mother posed an important question: would we go find them? Would we go reestablish the link between our families? She needn’t have asked; I had already assumed we would try. Since we weren’t planning our trip more than 2 stops ahead, we had the freedom to make a detour. But where would we start? How would we look? Asti is not a big place, but I wasn’t about to go into every shop or restaurant and ask, “Do you know anyone with the last name Roggero?” It could take days, and we were only staying two nights.
Settime is a small community of houses on the outskirts of Asti, so I figured that we could start our search in Asti and ask for regional information. Our Airbnb host recommended we try a public building which turned out to be somewhere they stored information and could help find things. The first day we were there, they had just closed, so we wandered around this tiny city that I was from, knowing that we’d have to wait a little longer for answers – if there were any to be had at all.
The next morning, we returned to the public office. At first, it seemed like nobody spoke English well enough to help. My Italian is garbled and halting, and I didn’t know how to explain what I was looking for. Never had I more regretted not taking more Italian classes or continuing the study of the language. They fetched a nice Italian woman from her office, and she explained that she knew some English, enough to understand. Apart from her surprise that there was a young American woman sitting in her office, looking for long lost family, she seemed eager to help, and soon she was on the phone with a contact in Settime. She asked me questions, asking if I knew a name or another date that would help with the search, but I had next to nothing. Her friend on the phone, a cop, did not have much to go on.
How her contact found the information, I don’t know, but the ensuing onslaught of facts was like a bright ray of sunlight filtering through dark clouds. She confirmed the date my great grandfather was born, and from there the information sounded too similar to what I knew; it couldn’t be coincidental. His parents were Louisa and Giovanni. His brother was Filippo, who had been in the military and then a mayor. And then: I had a cousin in the area! And it was only seconds later that she was telling that he would meet me back at the building at 6pm, and would I like to spend the evening with him and the rest of my (newly re-found) family?
There are very few moments in life that feel like a movie script. Your mind tells you, “This is crazy. This does not happen to people. Real life does not work this way; you can’t go searching for family with just a last name to go on. This is not happening.” Except, after we had profusely thanked Vera, our new friend and helper, and left the building to walk back through Asti, it was happening.
That evening, we met with Tullio back at the office. He didn’t speak any English, and as he drove Em and I through the countryside to his home in Settime, I tried to understand him as he spoke. I would estimate that I understood 30% of what he said. When we reached the house – where, as I later learned, my great grandfather had been born and raised – there were people waiting. Tullio’s sister was there, as well as her daughter. Tullio’s own daughter was there, not even 10 years older than me. Any suspicions floating around that I was not who I said I was, or that we had found the wrong family, were dispelled the second that pictures were brought out: I had pictures of Annibale, my great grandpa, and they looked nearly identical to the pictures of his brother. They also brought out old pictures of one of the women in the family, and pointed out how I shared her eyes, her lips, and her jaw bone. “Roggero eyes are always blue, or green.” This was it; this was my family.
They showed me lots of pictures of my great uncle; he stood at attention in his captain’s uniform, the tallest man in any room at 2 meters (about 6 foot 7). As I looked around at Tullio and the others related to me by blood, I began to see the resemblance between them and Annibale. My mother, who I’d called earlier to relay the good news, told me that she cried when I posted a Facebook photo of the whole family; Tullio was practically the spitting image of her grandfather.
After trying to explain the lack of contact all these years, and catching up as best we could, they drove us to the cemetery, where we saw my family’s crypt. Then, we ate dinner at a local restaurant, where the food was locally grown – and had 7 courses! We tried to trade stories, and while we had limited success, there was one thing we all knew and agreed on: we were happy. We had found each other again, and it was nothing short of amazing. A miracle, indeed.
Unfortunately, we had to leave the next day for Milan. Now that I know what I do, I feel a sense of belonging in Asti. It was hard to say goodbye, but I know that I’ll be back someday.
Look out for my next post about Milan! I spent most of our time there sick and not feeling well, but it’s still a beautiful, awesome place.
Ciao Asti e Settime!