We had never seen our name on anything. Never had it appeared out of the blue. I’d not run across or into another Perdoni in my life — except the few who came from the first divergent branch of the tree.
My great-grandfather, Angelo Perdoni, born in the village of Vezzolacca, in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, 1898, came to Ellis Island, age 13, in 1911. His daughter, Amelia, first generation American and namesake of the region of his birth, was my great-Aunt.“Auntie Me,” we called her — a most cherished relative. She was jovial, other-wordly, understanding, compassionate. And my son, Amilio, Lio, is named after her.
One night driving home from his dad’s recording session in Omaha, pregnant and starry-eyed, I turned from the window’s dark abyss to his father. “If it’s a boy,” I said, “I’d like to name him Amilio, after my Auntie Me.” At that moment, his father’s face shone against the light of an unknown ray; mouth open, he pointed across my chest and back out the window. I had time to turn, to see the long arc and bright trail of a magnificent golden shooting star, the trace of it burning across the night sky until out of sight. That settled that.
In Europe, I remember thinking, These are the ones who stayed behind. Why had my family sold their land to embark on a ship via a port in France to a new place, joining millions of other outbound Italians? Politics? Poverty? So they didn’t want to be chestnut farmers anymore? After Ellis Island, they settled in New Jersey, to birth the first generation, there born and raised; then the second, my parents’; who hopped across the Delaware River and settled in Pennsylvania. We lived in a house on Chestnut Ridge Road. Is this a coincidence?
Though it skipped a generation, my family still became farmers. The occupation felt unnatural, a brutal opposite of our east coast life in 1991. A child of the 80s is furthest from a remote and storied tiny Italian village. There’s no scrunchy or thermal print or neon in the village. It is a place too beautiful for anything that is not completely raw and of natural vibrance. Gray stone. Red flowers. Green vines. That’s it. Nobody said to me, “Your grandfather was the son of rural farmers.” Maybe that would have connected the dots. Because you can’t change your DNA; you will just become removed from it, and not understand yourself until you make an effort to return.
Which is what we did. At seven, when asked where he’d like to take next year’s vacation, Lio said, “I want to see where the Perdonis are from.”
When Lio was born, my Aunt Faye, best friend of Auntie Me, had created, on request, a family tree of heritage tracing back to Vezzolacca. We turned to this scrapbook to plan our route. With its images of chestnut woods, gallant stone homes, communal natural spring waters, and rolling green hills, we dreamt. Aunt Faye connected us to distant cousins who had also made the trip, a decade before; together, we located a woman in the village who was also perhaps a distant cousin. She spoke English, and was excited to meet us.
We found a cottage the next village over, a twenty minute drive to Vezzolacca, at the tip-top of a rugged hill, for twenty euro a night. We flew to Paris, took an overnight train to Milan, roamed and ate, rented a car, and collided past and future into present destiny by way of a tiny, five-speed, shiny black Fiat.
Everything in Italy is efficient, quick, simple, intuitive, and to the point — driving, coffee, conversation, human relation. The assumption is good will, reverence, and a type of respect that borders on dignity. I feel relief to be in a culture where senses are honored. Driving in Italy is a dream come true. The left lane is only for passing. All semi trucks stay firmly rooted in the right lane, and drive normally — that is to say, courteously — steady, solid. They can be relied on not to rush jarringly.
The road to the village where we’re staying is more of a sidewalk. Everything is one-way and even the Fiat barely squeezes through the arches. The roads are steep and curvy and narrow. What if more than one car needs to pass? Our friend Adele flings the wheel and honks her horn as if announcing a prince when she takes us around the villages, shouting and praying and laying her arm on the wheel of the jeep in case someone is coming from the other direction. I guess it is all literal blind luck.
First gear for ten minutes delivers us to the cottage. There are several scary stop-starts with the manual as I glance at the GPS and then the corresponding “road,” perplexed, and realize, Oh no, this is where I’m meant to go; I need more of a running start; I won’t get it; gee, I hope we don’t fly off this steep cliff in reverse before I have enough gas to gun it up this ninety-degree-angled path.
The proprietor of the cottage has business in Rome, and left a key with Giovanna at the only place in town, a large, gorgeous, airy restaurant and bar and home looking over the hills to the villages across the valley. One of these villages is ours. Lio points it out after we’ve been there a few days, and have learned the lay of the land — the weight of the importance of history now bears on our shoulders. “That’s our village,” he points, through the open window and its breeze, chomping on a homemade breadstick, and he is correct.
It’s truly unbelievable. There are no words. My mind cannot wrap itself around what is happening. The views are literally ancient history. When we find the restaurant, ‘a left at the church’ our only direction, and pull in, we are immediately greeted by three different varieties of small, scruffy Italian dog. Here, you get the feeling of scarcity — of what has been done to survive. Even the dogs and cats have it in their eyes, this wise knowing. Later people will tell us about Mussolini, German thieves, who defected, who came, who left, who hid people in their crawl spaces, who was killed for doing so, allied forces, and prisoners of war released and meant to travel over the mountains to neutral territory in Switzerland on their own accord, 200 miles to the north. This painted spectrum across time, a conglomerate nightmare of war, is like weekend gossip. The way Italians tell these stories isn’t history or even something that happened long ago. It’s yesterday’s news, but not the way Americans say “yesterday’s news.” Here, it’s as fresh as yesterday, and yesterday isn’t old. There is a link. This is what America lacks. This is an opposite perfect scale, really; America’s yesterday seems so long ago; because we are fixated on the new; Europe’s yesterday is often within eyesight, especially here, where the sands of time linger before collapsing in village upon village of abandoned, rotting homes once thriving. In these villages, nothing is ripped apart or plowed over in the name of gentrification to be replaced by a contemporary structure that will date itself within a few years. It’s too difficult to live here. And so, everything stays as it was, then returns to the earth, in crumbles.
But for now, we have just arrived. We find Giovanna and the key easily. She walks us down to the cottage. We are surrounded by ruins of three-story stone houses, many with furniture still intact. Everything contains glorious artisan detail. Abandoned Italian magnificence. We have found ourselves a rubbled wasteland created from a distant time. After laying our things down, and ducking into some of the surrounding abandoned structures in weird awe, we deliver ourselves to the graces of Giovanna to eat. She has anticipated our hunger and has set a table for us, the best one, for we, her only guests. “Should this suit you?” she asks, beckoning to the tablecloth fluttering next to a thrown open window looking out over the valley. She has no menus — this is typical of the villages — she just asks what we want.
“Steak,” says Lio. “Pork chop?” she counters. “Yes,” he says. I order vegetable ravioli. It arrives, hand made, spinach and feta, with mushroom sauce. She places a giant clear bowl of homegrown lettuce and tomato. Fresh bread. Still water. And for me, coffee. A feast. This is mind blowing. Lio and I keep looking at each other, our eyes asking, How did we get here? Is this real? I keep saying variations of how crazy it is to be here — I can’t stop doing this. Sleep deprived, paired with the view, and the vibe, and the strange normalcy of it all; it doesn’t seem possible that we are here. It doesn’t make sense.
She charges us 20 euro for the whole meal, and refuses a tip. She warns there are no tips in Italy, and not to try to offer one, because we might offend someone. She is very serious about this. After dinner we go back to the cottage and freshen up. We decide to take a walk.
“You lead the way,” I tell the young, spirited traveler, and Lio sets up the hill past the church, toward the dense forest. I follow. The magic of letting a child lead the way — it may be my favorite kind. At the top of the hill, we see a large, squared-off building exterior, not immediately pronounced as anything specific. We wonder aloud what this is. We decide to go investigate. It is a rectangle of corridors of mausoleum, and in the middle, a cemetery. I follow Lio toward the gate. Since it is open, we quietly enter.
We begin on the left, the first mausoleum. As we approach, I am in a trance. It is a dream because it is Perdoni everything. Perdoni everywhere. I have never seen the Perdoni name in the wild. Never met another Perdoni in the world by accident, never stumbled upon someone named Perdoni. I had never seen my name printed in public except, fittingly, the wall of Ellis Island. A Perdoni had not appeared out of nowhere. And then, here we were, suddenly surrounded by them. The mausoleum bore photos, flowers, candles, some engraved stories of lineage. We were now, seemingly out of nowhere, staring into the faces of our ancestors. Overwhelmed, I began to cry. Lio tried to comfort me. I have to sit there for a long time on the ground. Lio sits beside me quietly. Then, as we stand and begin to move about the premises, the whole place is filled with Perdonis. We have no idea how this is happening. Here I am thinking we are on something of a wild goose chase, and Lio has led us straight to the reason we came within a couple hours. Of course he has. Isn’t this what children are for? To lead us back?
When I was a teenager first studying Italian heritage, I had a fantasy that someday I would go to Italy and wave my passport around the small towns and say, “I’m a Perdoni… take me to my people…” Oddly, this is sort of exactly what happens. There is a couple in the cemetery walking around watering flowers with the cans that lay on the sidewalk for anyone to use. They turn from the spigot and make eye contact. “Excuse me,” I say. “We’re visiting from America, and my last name is Perdoni. Do you know any Perdonis?” They do. They give me the names of the women who runs a clothing store a couple towns over; they are Perdonis. This woman’s mother is from this village, and has lineage memorized. And so go our introductions, stones across a river. We are hopping to the next and the next, getting across. This person knows this person; the connections are rapid-fire, like brain synapses, and we spend many days then rolling around the small villages, meeting elders, eating, connecting, exploring, and surmising how we might be related. It’s all surreal, and Lio and I never stop looking at each other with awed hearts.
One night in the stillness of midnight blue, we walk the whole place with cat treats Lio has purchased at the Italian market for to make friends with the strays and pets. We try befriending all the strays, running from others. We come back up the hill and sit at the bench in the little park between the restaurant and the postal cube, a stone room with a gate, because everything in Italy has a gate. The air is alive and swirling. The bugs are chirping. An old woman across the street moves from her front door to her porch, and as she makes shadows, several cats come out of the shrubs to circle her. Lio and I decide to see if we can give these cats treats. The woman is bright and delighted we have crossed to her. She is no less than 85. We ask if we can feed her cats. After rattling off some dialogue she also finds increasingly funny, she nods and smiles, and holds up one finger, and goes back into her house — a mansion, by American standards, and just a regular home here. When she dies it will crumble to the ground over time like absolutely everything around us. There are only ten people who live in this village full-time. The road swells on Sundays, when all the folks who used to live here drive up the steep hill and eat at the restaurant, keeping it in business. We have eaten there every day since we came, and have remained their only weekday guests. Still, Giovanna keeps full vigilance, as if anyone could walk through the door for a meal at any time. And time has stood still. What are we waiting for?
These are the people who stayed behind. Her door propped reveals one lit room and more infinite color. Tapestries, wine vessels, table runners, mahogany furniture. Where does her money come from? How does she even live? Is she alone? She is gone infinitely, inching herself deeper into the house. She returns with a bag of cat food truly as heavy as herself, and is joyous and pleased to have it, and us by her side. We are hers, like the cats. Like the strays, she has captured our attention and service. She balances the bag of food on her hip and takes one handful and shimmies over to a hedge by the neighboring iron fence. She moves a branch to reveal an empty silver dish. Smiling at us jubilantly, showing us her secret, she tosses her handful of cat food into the dish. The cats purr, and do not eat immediately. They first thank her by rubbing against her legs. Even Italian strays know decorum. She takes care of them. They adore her. So do we. We are strays, and she has cared for us. Lio empties his pockets, giving the cats dessert after their surprise second supper. The woman talks to us jubilantly for a long time. She is iridescent. As long as you love cats, she has all the home and time in the world for you.
We love cats. We are lucky.
One afternoon, a lizard the size of my leg puts the fear of God in me as I am washing dishes. Earlier in the day, we’d opened the door for awhile to hang hand washed t-shirts in the hot Italian sun on the patio. That’s when the lizard must have snuck in. A little while later, I found a half-dead weird cicada-like insect in the windowsill, struggling for its life, and, pretty grossed out, had smashed it fully, leaving its carcass out of sight behind the shade. Later I realized I had probably just interrupted the lizard’s dinner. Rinsing our cups, I felt a presence, and looked up at the windowsill. My thoughts mused, “Oh, that’s such a nice lizard statue.” In the same moment, another, more fearful voice in my head said, “Wait… there was no statue!” I screamed. A lot. This lizard was at least three feet long and as thick as my calf in the middle. He had returned to his feast. We threw the door open in a panic, then grabbed the dust pan and broom and slammed them behind the lizard, forcing him to move forward. He darted and stopped and started. I continued with a series of intuitive slams of the dust pan against various surfaces until the goddamn beast ran through the open door to the outside. Lio watched, half in horror, half amused. We tried not to think about how long the lizard had been in our cottage, where he had been hiding in the meantime, or if he truly hadn’t snuck in, but had been there when we arrived.
There is a tin of espresso in the cottage, and a gas stove, and unexpired milk. We stay up late. Lio finally dozes at 12 am via cuddling and as he presses against my stomach with his back, I think, this child was made in my body, like many children inside many parents. Like my ancestors here.
The church bells ring many times each day and night. What was I just dreaming about? It evaporated in a puff of gas. This experience, finding your roots, listening to your child; is raw, and kind. It’s easy here. I know how to light a stove, and drive a manual. My Italian is coming back. I understand more than I realized. The old women speak slowly; it is helpful; and they discuss the same things every day, an easy vocabulary lesson. Now is the part where they talk about the weather. Now is where they talk about when their children will come see them this weekend, and which children, and where they are coming from. Here they talk about things they might buy when they get a ride down the hill to town. Here is the part where they ask each other, and us, if we are too hot, or getting tired, and should we move inside, or would we like to lay down to escape the Italian heat, or eat cookies or candy?
Lio repeats Italian phrases with gusto, and we laugh hysterically as we imitate the radio DJs. Our time is blowing my mind. Every second of the trip is astounding. As I chat with the family who now owns the house my great-grandfather was born in, as we sit at their table and eat frittata and drink mineral water and laugh, Lio plays ball downstairs outside in the courtyard with the children visiting their grandparents for the summer. They can’t much communicate, but playing is a universal language, and they laugh and shuffle and run across the way to the playground that used to be a cemetery before health stipulations intervened and a new cemetery had to be created further up the hill. How many playgrounds used to be cemeteries? My notebook is damp because it is so hot. Lio journals with me at night, his hair sweaty from the humidity. Because of the bugs and the lizards, I do not want to leave the windows open while we sleep to catch the slight warm breeze. For some reason there are no screens in the windows. I improvise by tying a sheet around the opening of one upstairs in the cottage, hoping the lizards can’t climb that high, but it doesn’t do much good, and the noise from the bugs is actually so loud in the trees that we have to close it.
The Vezzolacca village church is hundreds of years old. Adele’s mother is the key keeper. She lets us take the key. Beautiful though unassuming, once we enter the church, I am completely taken with emotion. It is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. It is a miniature Sistine chapel. The skill and precision of the artistry is terrifying. How does this exist, here, in the relative middle of nowhere?
Although we feel this culture is a luxury, and appreciate it immensely, everyone is skeptical about our interest. They don’t usually see tourists come through these villages, and keep urging us to explore. They are disbelieving that we would want to spend this time almost completely discovering where our family is from. That we would come all the way from America — by plane, then train, bus, taxi, and finally car — and not want to stay in a hotel by the sea. They don’t know why we care so much. We take day trips, and return. And they are surprised that we have returned. Didn’t you like Florence? Bologna? La Spezia? They are perplexed that we want to continually roam this tiny village where my great-grandfather once roamed, not so long ago. We are always convincing them that yes, this is precisely why we came, and the experience we sought. To see the cemeteries, the church, and our name carved in things that are hundreds of years old. They want to show us the new grocery store, the new ice cream place, and the nearby castle where some movies were made. It’s like they have an Americanized version of what we want to see, and are looking through our experience with the lens of what they think a typical tourist would want. Are they sure we will grow bored or tired or dissatisfied with what we see? I’m confused they don’t recognize how remarkable this all is. How remarkable they are. Why do they think we are tourists? We are home.
We want to do the things you do when you are home. Pet the cats. Play with the kids. Eat lunch in the kitchen of your great-grandfather. Poke around in the basement and touch the wine casks and tractors he once touched. Put our hands on the outdoor brick oven and feel the generations of bread that nourished, that is the reason we even exist! Stare at the chestnut trees, how his family made their living. Why don’t they realize this is enough? And when I go home, will it also be enough? Or will I, then, be the restless one?
Strangely, I do feel I am from here. It is the most normal thing in all the world to go about this daily life. I feel easily in place. I feel less odd in this hand-carved bench eating this hand-made peach pie in this hand-made home than at any coffee shop in Colorado Springs. Here I feel seen, understood, and grounded.
Italians talk about the world — not about Italy, or about Italians. There are no Italian flags flying. Adele says there is a brash fear of nationalism, and flags come out “only during the World Cup.”
“All the world’s a country,” she is fond of saying. Each instance is a micro-stance of the macro occasion. We can’t pretend things are any better or worse anywhere else. The way we treat each other is directly relative to the way nations interact. We rarely get along with our next-door neighbors without serious complaint, yet expect a president to be benevolent to the next country over. If we can’t even do it, at such a small scale, how could we expect it to happen on a global level?
No one cares about time here. People drop in and out on each other constantly with zero problem or anxiety. You just do things in the progression that they naturally occur. Any time I try to nail someone down with a time to meet, they balk. Things just happen as they happen, and precise timing is offensive. No one says “meet you at the restaurant at 1 o’clock.” You don’t stick an appointment in the middle of the day and work around it. The shops close for an hour or two each afternoon so people can go home and eat and rest. Everyone just knows. No one really expects them to come back at a certain time. It is generalized. If a shop is closed, people don’t get mad and take it personally and imagine how sour their day is because the shop is not open for them. They just go on and come back again tomorrow. Everyone just gives the impression that they will see you when you get there. Like there’s a magic clock that can bend and gasp to fit any way you may want to spend your day.
It takes me awhile to get used to not feeling like people are not waiting on me. For example, Adele tells us to come over tomorrow after we are up and moving. “Ten o’ clock?” I say. It seems to have taken the mystery or humanity out of our interaction. I don’t quite believe that any old time I show up is going to be okay. I feel a little uncertain, because I am wary of inconveniencing someone based on my own internal clock. What if our internal clocks are not matched? I forget that there is not really anything going on to plan around. A meal can happen any time. A coffee is always available. The way I live back home, seems to be now, a prison of time. I feel I could learn to be much more accommodating — to myself. To guests, and the spontaneous situations of life. I realize I often dislike surprises — people popping by unannounced — because I feel I haven’t had time to prepare. I am missing the point, here. The point is: There is nothing to prepare. That whenever we show up, will be the right time.