Thank you Felicia Zuniga for sharing with us the story of your grandparents' hometown and your adventure in trying to find the house with no address!
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About the author, Felicia Zuniga:
Felicia Zuniga is an Italian-Canadian freelance writer and communications specialist. She lives in Calgary, Alberta with her husband and two young sons. Her father’s family is from Villalago, Italy and her mother’s family is from Marigliano, Italy. Felicia’s writing has been published in newspapers, magazines and literary anthologies across Canada. She writes about relationships, the passage of time and interesting people and places. She has a Master of Journalism degree from Carleton University and a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Honours, with a Creative Writing Concentration from the University of Calgary. Learn more at www.feliciazuniga.com.
Check Felicia's full story here below & in the attached document!
"The Place with No Addresses"
“They don’t have addresses,” my dad insisted as I tried to learn about the town my grandparents were born in. My fiancé and I were planning a six-week European tour to celebrate our university graduations. I wanted to stop in Villalago - the tiny, mountainous village my grandparents were from. But I had never been there and had never met or even spoken to my dad’s relatives. To top it off, they didn’t speak English and apparently didn’t have addresses.
My great-uncle Ralph, who’s 92, immigrated from Italy to Canada in the 1960s and keeps in touch with his relatives. He called his niece Raffaela to let her know when we planned to visit. It sounded like they were screaming in broken Italian, but when he hung up, Uncle Ralph said it was all set.
After a few jam-packed weeks touring Western Europe, it was time to visit Villalago. We took a three-hour bus ride east from Rome to Sulmona. Then we transferred to a smaller bus that snaked around the narrow roads, winding through the rugged Apennine mountains. As we sped further away from Sulmona, the roads became quiet and secluded.
About 40 minutes passed before a village came into view. The cluster of white houses with reddish roofs looked like they were clinging to the side of the mountain. A white sign marked Villalago in black letters let us know we arrived. Our bus reached town square and stopped. My fiancé and I were the only ones to climb out. It was lightly raining, and a group of old men were huddled together on the cobblestone, protected by their circle of black umbrellas. They stared as we stepped off the bus. My dad had instructed me, “Ask the first person you see where the Pacentrillis live.”
I approached the group with “Pacentrilli?” One of them grabbed my arm and started leading the way. Raffaela’s house was around the corner. We knocked, the door opened and suddenly we were being hugged and kissed by people we had never met. We walked inside and they gestured to the dinner table. It was all set with fancy china, ready for us to share our first meal. We were led downstairs, to an immaculately clean bedroom with crisp white sheets and gold crosses on the wall. We showered and got ready.
We joined them at the dinner table, with a lot of smiling and attempts at conversation. I could speak and understand basic Italian. My fiancé was fluent in Spanish. And my relatives knew basic English. We tossed words around the table - some English, some Spanish, some Italian and some sign-language it seemed, as we tucked into a three-course meal. Spaghetti drizzled with olive-oil and garden-fresh tomatoes. Thin veal cutlets smothered in gravy, served with buttery peas, washed down with sweet orange Fanta. Then fresh hunks of watermelon, soft little peaches, espressos, and homemade cookies.
We were staying with my grandfather’s side of the family, but my grandmother’s side also wanted to meet us. The next morning, we visited their home and they showed us a small room with a single bed and faded pink blanket, explaining that my grandmother had been born on that very bed in 1919. They showed me all the letters my Nonna had sent from Calgary through the years. They organized the photos she had sent into an album. They had black and white pictures of my dad and his siblings and even a few baby photos of me.
After visiting my Nonna’s relatives, we explored Villalago with great-uncle Franco. We climbed the stairs of the circular Medieval Tower. The tower was built centuries ago for defensive purposes, with a clear view of the mountains, trees and hills in every direction. I could tell Franco was trying hard to tell us the stories of the place he had lived in for over 60 years. I wished we could communicate on a deeper level.
Franco took us to see where the Villalaghesi had buried their ancestors for decades. I was amazed to see that each family had its own “house” for the dead. The Pacentrilli mausoleum included the bodies of my grandparents’ siblings, parents, aunts and uncles. I was touched to see they included photos of my Nonna and Tata. Their bodies lay hundreds of miles away, under the ground in a Calgary cemetery, but they were still remembered by their Italian family. After a long day of touring, we returned to Raffaela’s, where she had another delicious meal waiting, this time, thinly sliced prosciutto, salami, and cheese on homemade bread.
The next day, Raffaela’s nephew took us to L’Aquila to see the damage caused by the 6.3 magnitude earthquake in 2009, which killed over 300 people. Stefano gestured to the once beautiful buildings, which remained cracked and crumbled, explaining that recovery had been slow. We saw a clock in town square with its hands stuck at 3:32 a.m., the exact moment the earthquake struck. He explained that many more people would have died, including his own family who worked and went to school in L’Aquila, if the earthquake had happened during the day. The once vibrant city was basically abandoned, only tourists browsing the ruins of what was. That night Daniela and Stefano took us for dinner at their favourite restaurant. We guzzled white wine and feasted on plates of fresh fish. We were getting an intimate peek at their lives – what they ate, where they lived and worked.
On our final day, we gathered outside Raffaela’s house to say good-bye. The family had bought us gold necklaces strung with guardian angel medallions to protect us during our travels. Raffaela had tears in her eyes and I began crying too. We hugged and kissed and promised to meet again. My fiancé teased me on our bus ride back to Sulmona. “Why were you crying? You just met those people.” But somehow, I felt like I had known them and that place all my life.