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.