To Italy, for Family

Travel Stories: After unearthing her great-grandmother's bridal gown, Valerie Conners traveled to Puglia to grasp the story of its origins. She found much more.

Lino is short, maybe 5’5”, with a shock of white hair, tiny, round John Lennon sunglasses, dressed head to toe in white linen. From the moment he breezed into the office, it became evident Lino was a man of style and confidence. He blew kisses to the people in the office and looked every inch like a small-time Versace. He spotted me and swooped me into an enormous hug. I tried to babble introductions, tried to convince him I was who I said, but Lino paid no attention.

“You are hungry? Great, because we are having lunch,” and with that, he grabbed my hand, introduced himself to Bob and hopped down the tourist office steps and through the piazza.

Lino chattered away with ease, as though he had been expecting my visit all along. He led us down the Via Vittorio Emmanuale and apologized for making us stop at a cheese shop to pick up some extra mozzarella for lunch.

As we walked through the maze of winding streets and whitewashed buildings that comprised the old city, Lino explained that he was the editor of a regional paper, Il Voce del Popolo, the voice of the people. His son Angelo (another relative!) was one of four managing editors at La Repubblica and widely considered one of the top 10 journalists in the country. His other son Pepe (and yet another son!) was a reporter for Corriere della Serra. They were all journalists like me—I wanted to shout, cry, jump up and down.

Soon we rounded a bend and came upon Lino’s whitewashed house; a woman in a red housedress was leaning out an upstairs window and shouting down the street, “Did you get the Americans?” This would be Franca, Lino’s artist wife, who I would learn was a spitfire with a penchant for chunky amber necklaces.

They brought Bob and me into their house, hugging and kissing us, insisting we stay in their downstairs apartment, showing us pictures, pouring homemade limoncello, and never once questioning my credentials as a relative.

Franca served lunch, an immense concoction of salad, mozzarella in olive oil, tripe, sausages, cucumber, bread and wine. I tested my rudimentary Italian skills and learned quickly that I can speak Italian quite well, I just can’t understand much at all. Cue Bob. Unexpectedly, Bob understood Italian almost perfectly. He just couldn’t speak a lick of it. Laughter ensued as Franca joked that I was the mouth, Bob was the ears, and together we were a whole.

Lino occasionally yelled at me to eat more, shoving forkfuls of food into my mouth like my own grandfather used to do. The Italian laws of forced family eating are, apparently, universal. I loved it.

We moved onto the rooftop terrace after lunch, and it was then that Rita and Teresa arrived—not quite the spinsters I’d expected them to be. Certainly, they were unmarried and in their 50s, but with college educations, fiery personalities and fabulous jewelry. Teresa taught preschool, and Rita was a professor of classics. Rita smoked long cigarettes and laughed a raspy chuckle, while Teresa stayed quiet but smiled at me often. 

Everything I had been told and believed about my family and even Martina Franca slowly dissolved as I learned about my newfound relatives who lived in a town that was far from being a village.

An early evening tour was planned, and Franca led Bob and me along Martina Franca’s web of streets, past palazzos and piazzas, past the theater and the opera and churches filled with elderly women kneeling on pews and saying the rosary. We tried to guess which one Donata was married in, but no one knew for sure.

I waited until dinner at the restaurant Il Refugio to broach the subject of my great-grandfather. By the time I did we had been eating for more than two hours, gorging on plates of orrecchiette with fresh tomato sauce and horsemeat stew, a local delicacy. The vino had flowed, and now Lino was enjoying a succession of after-dinner shots of coffee-flavored liquor. I took the plunge.

“Lino, do you know why my great-grandfather left Martina Franca? What happened?” I asked.

“No jobs, everyone was very poor at that time, so he had to leave,” Lino replied.

But I pressed on. “Could there have been legal problems?”

“Oh, legal problems, of course, si, si,” he said sheepishly. Details of my great-grandfather’s wanton ways remained fuzzy, but it seems he got a girl pregnant—not Donata—under dubious circumstances, landed in jail and was told he must leave Italy. Lino knew nothing more.

And so the mystery of Martino’s misdeeds, and the exact details of the family’s departure from Italy would remain a mystery. As for Donata, Lino knew even less, except that she had been an orphan, with little choice but to marry. It appeared the closest I’d come to anything tangible related to their life was that molding wedding gown in Pennsylvania.

I still wondered what sort of life they would have had if they hadn’t left town. The town and my family there looked wonderful, kind and quaint and filled with culture. I told Lino it seemed a shame that anyone would leave Martina Franca.

With that, we left the restaurant and he led us toward the town’s main piazza, Piazza Plebiscito, and into the back door of a bar, into its back stock room. I couldn’t imagine what Lino had up his sleeve until he pulled me toward some black and white photographs hung on the walls. I stared at a series of drawn, unsmiling faces, men leaning on hoes in the midst of arid fields, wrinkled women crouched over tables and crocheting lace, a shoe cobbler sitting on a broken stone step, a little boy in dirty, tattered shorts alone on a dirt street before a furniture repair shop glaring at the camera.

“This was the Martina Franca when your great-grandfather lived here,” Lino explained. “These photos were taken around 1910, right before he left. This is why he had to leave, why he should go to America.”

The next day, Lino and Franca squeezed Bob and me into their car and took us into the countryside to meet the rest of the Aquaros: Lino’s two brothers, Fernando and Pepe, and their families. The entire Aquaro brood totaled more than 20 people. We traveled first to meet Fernando’s family, eating mountains of pasta, meats and cheeses, then headed to Pepe’s.

Pepe, who barely hit 5 feet, along with his wife, children and their families lived on a 50-acre farm in a restored trulli compound, of sorts. They grew all manner of things—olives, nectarines, plums, almonds, walnuts, beans—and saw fit to feed us an endless stretch of homemade pastries and pies filled with their homegrown fruits. They wanted to know if we had the same fruits and nuts in the U.S., and when I would marry, and they told me they were amazed I would travel all the way to their town from America.

“This is amazing,” Franca said to me. “Yesterday, there was nothing and today we have a new family. Thank you.”

When I returned to America, my grandmother’s condo was officially for sale, her boxes and belongings—and Donata’s bridal gown—safely stowed at my parents’ house. I showed my parents my pictures and told them the stories of Martina Franca and the kindness of the Aquaros.

Every tale I relayed was met with rapt attention and plans to head overseas when time permits. Until they do go, I will tell them the story—my story—that began with a gown and ended with a family.

15 Comments for To Italy, for Family

Kate Hedges 05.04.09 | 11:37 AM ET

A wonderful, warm hearted story that makes me want to get on a plane and go find some relatives.


Terry Ward 05.04.09 | 11:50 AM ET

Fabulous story, Val. Loved it. I also have some long lost family connections to Italy (Sicily) with some alleged nefarious elements, too, but have no idea how to start tracking them down (my long last Italian family also came to PA - Philly). Your story might have inspired me to finally start digging!

Sophia Dembling 05.04.09 | 12:20 PM ET

Gosh, what a wonderful story, what a fabulous family discovery.

Julia Ross 05.04.09 | 12:53 PM ET

Thanks for a great story, Val. I loved how your relatives turned out to be the reverse of your “old country” expectations.

Sophia Dembling 05.04.09 | 12:56 PM ET

It reminds me of the time we rented a villa in Tuscany. We had to meet the owner to get the key. I had nurtured an image of a wizened little old man with a pipe—until a guy wearing a pink LaCoste, collar turned up, with a cell phone pressed to his ear, pulled up in a BMW.

Valerie Conners 05.04.09 | 1:01 PM ET

Thanks, so much for all the kind remarks!

I think it’s incredible to have the chance to dig deep, and find family whenever it may be possible. It was most amazing to me how different the reality was from my supposed perception - though in fairness to the relatives who travel traveled there - they were there in the 70s, so back then, it really might have still had a ways to go to catch up with contemporary times :)

Kathleen 05.04.09 | 2:02 PM ET

In the words of your grandmother, “Thatís a-nice.” Wonderful story. Bravissima, Val!

Kelley 05.04.09 | 3:02 PM ET

Val! What a heartwarming experience, thank you for sharing. I found the opposite in my travels to Ireland to meet my family- the cows and farms, quite the old world villiage I never expected to find. It is an amazing experience to travel and trace your roots. I loved that some of your cousins were also journalists, how interesting!

Kathy McCabe, Dream of Italy 05.04.09 | 3:15 PM ET

I really enjoyed your story. I had a very similar experience returning to my great-grandparent’s ancestral village in 1995. It was so life changing that my entire career is now based around travel to Italy and publishing a travel newsletter on Italy!


Grizzly Bear Mom 05.04.09 | 7:35 PM ET

Great story of Apulia, where I was stationed from 1979-1980.  It was a lovely place to learn to live slowly and learn the sweetness of doing nothing.  The Truli’s were built with conical non mortered roofs to avoid being taxed.  You inspire me to look up my German relatives and take my mom for a visit.  Compared to you my family are newcomers.  We only arrived in 1925.

Jacob Bear 05.04.09 | 8:11 PM ET

What a great story! I lived in Italy for several years, and Puglia was always the most fascinating and beautiful region, even though most travelers overlook it. You’ve captured some of the essence of this magical place.

Whenever I go back to Italy, I always spend some time in Puglia. This time, your story took me back there and I didn’t even need to buy a plane ticket.

Thanks you, thank you!

Kathrine 05.06.09 | 6:03 PM ET

I am 68 yrs young.  My mother’s family was from Calabria.  I would love to travel to Italy to find my relatives.  I have no knowledge of traveling in Europe.  Would like to be a traveling companion and live in Italy for awhile.  I want to see some of the world before my life is over.

Angela 05.10.09 | 8:07 AM ET

Such a beautiful article! The ďDid you get the Americans?Ē shouted from the window is hilarious and SO Italian!
Iím Italian and come from a family of migrants too, my grandparents moved to France in the 1950s and now my motherís brothers and sister still live there.
It’s always fascinating to discover our family’s past as we have sincere tales of how people lived back their time.
Iím a migrant myself now and every time I tell my grandmother I’m heading back to London she cries as she remembers how tough had been for them, and she feels only a little better when I reassure her that today for me it’s much easier.
Only since I left Iíve started noticing even the smallest idiosyncrasies of my country. This article captures them well!

Valerie Conners 05.11.09 | 10:22 AM ET

Thanks so much Angela for your comment - it was such an amazing trip, and I’m glad that it can be appreciated by an Italian - idiosyncracies and all!

Also, Kathrine - I do hope you explore Italy, and Calabria and more of the world. I think that once you start putting it out there that you’re looking for a travel companion, they will start to come out of the woodwork!

I am hoping to go back to Italy this summer, but am not sure of my travel plans, or if I’ll make it to Puglia. Initially, I had thought not, but having just published this story, and getting such great feedback has started to change my mind - I do love Puglia!

A Traveler in Vietnam 05.14.09 | 2:16 PM ET

A very nice story indeed!!! Thank you for sharing here.

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