As more and more backpackers pop up near my home in Ireland this summer, I'm reminded of my own freewheeling adventures as a budget traveler. One particular episode, though, stands out above all the others.
Twenty years ago I found myself sitting alone on an unfamiliar doorstep in Sicily, comforted by soft sunshine and warm Mediterranean winds. I also found myself questioning the wisdom of traveling 5,000 miles to revive my father's neglected lineage. In the six-unit apartment block behind me lived my father's Uncle Francesco. We had never met. In fact, I wondered if he knew I existed.
From wary neighbors I learned that Uncle Francesco and his family would be returning home in about an hour, for their midday meal. One hour stretched uncomfortably into two. My doubts grew. Why was I here? What did I hope to discover?
My adventure was part genealogical dig, part self-exploration. After my third visit from the United States to Ireland in 1984, I took on the informal role of family historian, examining photo albums and home movies with a fresh eye, listening patiently and carefully to my grandmother's surprisingly clear-eyed memories of her younger days in Cork. She had emigrated in 1930 and settled with my grandfather in Cambridge, Mass.
Yet my father's family remained a mystery. His parents continued to speak Italian throughout the four decades they lived in Boston's West End neighborhood and later in Medford, Mass., only occasionally admitting a colloquial phrase or a few words of English into their conversation. This proved to be an impassable barrier to any meaningful exchanges between us, and they died in the early 1970s, before my curiosity and interest in them was awakened.
As a result, I knew little of their lives. Now I was in Augusta, Sicily, to collect any clues that might help me understand them better.
Uncle Francesco, his wife, Maria, and son, Cesare, finally arrived home. By a process of elimination – all the other residents of the apartment block had passed me already – I was fairly certain of their identity. They got out of their car and approached the front door.
"Signor Rizza?" I asked.
"Mi chiamo Stephen Coronella. Nonna mia...." My fund of Italian phrases was spent after two sentences. I resumed my explanation in rapid-delivery English. "My grandmother was your sister, which means that my father...."
Cesare waved my verbal express to a halt while directing me upstairs to the family's apartment. "Too much, too much," he said with a shrug and a smile.
Once inside, Cesare disappeared for a moment and came back carrying an enormous blue book with a battered front cover. It was an Italian-English dictionary that both of us could use. The book had been collecting dust for almost 10 years, ever since Cesare completed his last university course in English.
We spent the afternoon pushing it at one another across the table in the TV room. Just as soon as we had cleared one linguistic hurdle, another popped up, and it was back to the book.
But in following days Cesare could not always be around to act as interpreter, and it was during these absences that I grew closer to Uncle Francesco. My visit stirred something in him that I still have trouble defining. Perhaps I was a living testament to his departed sister's life in America, a life he had only glimpsed through occasional letters and infrequent photographs.
One afternoon we went visiting together – my sudden appearance had generated much curiosity – and afterward strolled the streets of Augusta, with Uncle Francesco acting as tour guide.
Using a sparse medley of English, French, and Italian phrases, I asked Uncle Francesco to show me where my grandparents had lived before they sailed for Boston. We made an unlikely couple – the old retired gentleman dressed impeccably in coat and tie, careful to doff his hat to passing ladies, and the curious traveler in fading, weathered jeans and conspicuous hiking boots.
We found the building my grandparents had once called home, and we paused for a moment. But in the bustle of late afternoon, it was hard to imagine the same scene as it might have appeared 60 years before to a couple of Boston-bound newlyweds.
Farther along, we stopped in front of a sporting-goods store. By placing his hands together, then resting his head sideways upon them and bawling quietly like a baby, Uncle Francesco indicated that this was his birthplace, there in the back where today they restring tennis rackets. The memory, and his own ridiculous pantomime, made him laugh softly to himself.
Back at home, we looked over his stamp and coin collections, finding that we needed the big blue book less and less to communicate. Or so it seemed. As a memento of my visit, Uncle Francesco gave me a rare 500-lire coin, along with a meticulous copy of our family tree, hand-drawn on white typewriter paper. In the lower right corner he wrote a simple message to my father: Remember PHILIP, uncle Francesco.
I was leaving the next day. On the way to the train station, Cesare explained that my visit was important to his father, and it was important, too, that we stay in touch.
It was raining over Sicily the night I returned to Rome, although I hardly noticed. Thanks to an old man's soft-spoken joy, a light shone where none had shone before.
As it turned out, lugging a 40-pound backpack all the way from Boston and then across Europe was well worth the effort.