Time to Meet Cousins in Rome

Yesterday Laurie & I took the tours of St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican Museum & Sistine Chapel. We also went to the Trevi Fountain and the Roman Forum.  All the places Laurie said she wanted see. We also went to every espresso bar and many cafes to sample all the delicious food.

Trevi Fountain in Rome
Trevi Fountain in Rome

So, today we’re getting ready to take a cab to the train station to meet Alfonso. We’re excited and nervous at the same time. The young hotel concierge just told us that there is yet another train strike but “no problem getting a cab”.

We arrived at the designated station and shortly thereafter we were approached by a gentleman identifying himself as Alfonso, son-in-law of cousin Maria & accidental interpreter for the day. Alfonso is a Professor who teaches English!!!  Introductions were made – cousin Maria (sister to Lorenzo in Sicily & another 1st cousin to Dad), Giuseppe (husband of Maria), cousin Vera (daughter of Maria & Giuseppe & wife of Alfonso). We spent the day in a whirlwind!! We spent time in the town of Castel Gandolfo for sightseeing, lunch and had a wonderful time.

We also spent time at the home of Giuseppe & Maria. Maria was very excited to show us her photo album.  As we were perusing it, we saw a very familiar Polaroid photo – Laurie’s graduation from grammar school with me standing in front of her at the house in Yonkers!!! I remember seeing the photo at my parents’ house. So now we were curious as to how our photo made its way to Rome. Maria told us that SaSa (Grandma Milano) always sent photos of the family. I remember Grandma always had Daddy take extra photos but we thought maybe it was “just in case they didn’t develop correctly”. But the Polariod photos were the best as you could watch them develop right there!! But now we know better. Grandma was sending them to the family in Italy!!!!!  Who knew??

Laurie's grammar school graduation - with Grandma & Grandpa Milano
Laurie’s grammar school graduation – with Grandma & Grandpa Milano

No problem, but there was another reason: For all of my life Laurie kept telling me was that she had a Godchild in Sicily. Yeah, right!! I could never figure it out, since she never traveled there. So, over the years, when I inquired she told me that Grandma Milano said that if little Mariuccia came to visit us in New York, Laurie would be her hostess/sponsor “la madrina”. So Grandma was sending photos to Maria so she would know about Laurie’s life.

So now 50 years later, Laurie has finally met little Mariuccia!! She couldn’t believe it!!  She was ecstatic!!  Unreal!! I was very happy, as now the mystery of “little Mariuccia” had been solved. A great way to end a very beautiful day.

Maria & Laurie finally meet in Rome!!
Maria & Laurie finally meet in Rome!!

Another day in Rome then off to Sicily!!!

A Funny Thing Happened at the Hotel Quirinale in Rome!

I told my sister to select her bed, get freshened up and then we had things to do. She balked as her head was still spinning with all the sights and sounds coming from the Rome airport. She was eyeing the bed and giving me the evil-eye at the same time.

Two things were needed: First, strong coffee and then I wanted to speak with the concierge about how to obtain tickets for the St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican Museum & Sistine Chapel tours. These were the places Laurie said she wanted see.

St. Peter's Square - Preparing for 2000 celebration.
St. Peter’s Square – Preparing for 2000 celebration.

Ok, we’re out the door and on our way to the Espresso Bar. You’ve got to love the Romans – cars & scooters are lined up & running while folks run in, gulp down a shot of espresso & then are out the door!!

We found the ticket office and purchased tickets for the next morning’s Vatican tour. Laurie finally understood that, as a tourist, you cannot procrastinate while in Rome. You need to have your plans set and then you can pace yourself. We walked around the city and arrived at the Colosseum!!  Unbelievable!!

Laurie in the Colosseum in Rome
Laurie in the Colosseum in Rome

After our morning excursion, we head back to the hotel to rest. As soon as we entered our room, the phone rang. We just looked at each other, as only 3 people knew we were in Rome – my Vito, my niece Lori and our cousin Lorenzo in Castellammare del Golfo.

I answered the phone and a lady was speaking to me in that very fast-paced Italian. I said “Signora, no parlo Italiano”. She hung up. A few minutes later the phone rang again. This time it was a gentleman named Alfonso who was speaking English and was explaining to me that the Signora who called was the sister of Lorenzo in Sicily!!! She wanted to meet us and so arrangements were made.

When the call ended, Laurie just looked at me and asked what just happened. I told her that we will be meeting Lorenzo’s sister, Signora Maria and her family the day after tomorrow.

Little did we know what other surprises awaited us!!!!

A Reply from a Gentleman

Everyone at the Language School in Red Bank NJ knew of my research. The fact that I was there with an “incoming” letter in hand was unreal. They had all warned me that answers might not be forthcoming and that outsiders are not let in.

But one gentleman did reply. He is Lorenzo Milano and first cousin to Dad!! He said that he and many other family members [with the same and different surnames] received letters. They all went to Lorenzo to see if I was legitimate. He vouched for me as I had included information not included in official records.

Thus began a many year correspondence between us. But as time rolled on, I decided it was time to meet this wonderful man.

So, in April of 1998, I wrote to Lorenzo to tell him that my sister Laurette and I were planning a trip to meet him and his family. Really, I was planning it, as Laurette had never been out of the country!! I told Lorenzo that we would be in Rome for 4 days, then fly to Palermo and drive to my timeshare Falcone for a week [to visit Signore Giuseppe in Librizzi and see the town] and then drive to Castellammare del Golfo.

Everything was set, we left and arrived in Rome. But a funny thing happened while at the Hotel Quirinale.

View from our room at the Hotel Quirinale in Rome
View from our room at the Hotel Quirinale in Rome

 

Begin Searching in Western Sicily

Simultaneously I had begun researching my paternal side. Based on the birth certificates I was given, I had written to both the Comune in Trapani and Castellammare del Golfo. No replies. Maybe my requests were not communicated properly. But I was not deterred.

castellammaredelgolfo-photo-by-CMilano
Castellammare del Golfo, Trapani, Sicily 1999 Photo courtesy C.M.

So, I went to the online Italian white pages and began entering all the surnames for Dad’s side of the family. There were many names listed, so I began comparing the names and addresses. As there were some duplicates, I eliminated them from the list. I then began composing my letter [introduction, explanation of my research, list of great-grandparents, their children and how I was related (nonno), their knowledge of this family, closing].  I then translated the letter from English to Italian using Babelfish as Google translate did not exist yet.  (Unfortunately, the Sicilian dialect is not available through Babelfish nor Google.)

I printed out 54 letters, signed them, addressed the envelopes and went to the post office. The postal clerks know me so they had the international stamps ready for me. I mailed them and now it was time to wait, again.

On Valentine’s Day 1998, I received an air mail envelope with Dad’s name in the upper left-hand corner. I froze. As I opened it, I saw that the letter was typed and written in dialect.  I tried to translate it as best I could but I knew I needed help.  So, I called The Language School and  got into the car.

Surprise From Librizzi Messina

Piazza Catena in Librizzi
Piazza Catena in Librizzi

Since we now knew that Grandpa Francesco Cottone was born in Librizzi Messina, I was very eager to find the address for the Comune asap.  So in November of 1998, I wrote to the Ufficio dello State Civile in Librizzi (98064 Librizzi, Messina Italy), requesting birth information for my grandfather and any other family documents. Simultaneously, I did a small “mass mailing” in Librizzi to anyone with the Cottone surname.

In December 1998, I received a letter from a Signore Cottone. He wrote that he was astonished and curious that someone from America was inquiring about the Cottone family.  He believes that we’re 3rd or 4th cousins (still yet to be determined). He also stated that while I waited to hear from the Ufficio, he included 2 birth certificate extracts!!!!  1 was Francesco’s and the other was for Anna Cottone, Francesco’s sister!!!  Another great-aunt!!

I was surprised that he and not the Ufficio was the first to send the certificates.  But the town is very small (recent population search shows approximately 1900 people) and when the letters arrived for each Cottone family, it must have been a surprise for all of them.  Shortly thereafter the Ufficio sent the same birth certificates along with my great grandparents birth, marriage and death information.

Signore Cottone also included a postcard showing the main piazza, Piazza Catena.

Thus began my correspondence with him……

Sardinia, Palermo, Cefalu and Messina

1997-Rosa-Cottone
Signora Rosa
1997-Carolina-Puleo-Cottone
Signora Carolina

A year before the Road Trip with my sister (1996), I had to book our timeshare for the next year. Since the timeshare is in Spain, we usually returned to Fuengirola for at least 2 weeks and had a wonderful time with Monika, Freddy, Zala, Seb, Gerardo and a cast of other characters.

But the next year I wanted to go to Sicily. I had never been there but something was pulling at me to go. Vito, not so much, as he enjoyed Spain. Plus a former colleague wanted to go.  So, I booked a week in Sardinia and a week in Cefalu.

So, in my Journey to Discovery episode (2nd), I mentioned writing to the Stato Civile in the Commune of Messina. Simultaneously, I went to the Italian white pages and did a search on the surname Cottone in Messina. I sent out some letters (what I call a mass mailing) and hoped I would receive at least one reply.

Fast forward, to May 1997: 2 days before we left for Sardinia and Cefalu, I received a reply to one of my letters!!!  I couldn’t believe it!!!  I wanted to reply, but decided that I would try to contact the Signora when we were in Sicily.  That letter burned a hole in my pocket the whole time we were in Sardinia.  The Emerald Coast is absolutely gorgeous!! We stayed at a wonderful timeshare in Cannigione (Sporting Hotel Tanca Manna).

Sardinia-1997-Emerald-Coast

After a week of soaking up the sun, time at the beach, finding great restaurants and exploring the island, it was time to fly from Olbia to Palermo. Since we had a 1 day lag between checking out of 1 timeshare and checking into the 2nd one, we booked into the President Hotel overseeing the port of Palermo.   How we got there was a miracle!!  There are NO street signs in Palermo, as they are embedded into the cornerstones of buildings!!  So, unless you drove on the sidewalks, which vespas were doing, you had no clue!!  As Vito was driving around in the city, an angel in the next car asked “Dove stai andando?” We all replied “Il porto”. She asked “l’aeroporto”. “No, porto”. She said “Vieni seguimi!” [Follow me]. Thankfully we arrived at the hotel.

During the course of the day, Vito, who is in the hotel business, did his networking among the staff. In speaking with the maitre d’, Giovanni, he happened to mention the letter I received right before we left. Giovanni took the information and called the family in Messina.  He told us that we were invited for Sunday dinner at their home!!!  OMG!!!  We couldn’t thank him enough.  I was stunned!!!!

Checked out the next day and drove to Cefalu to the Mazzaforno Sporting Club, our home base for the next week. We spent the day exploring in the town of Cefalu, especially the Piazza Duomo where the Norman Cathedral is located. It is absolutely breathtaking.

1997-Piazza-Duomo-Cefalu-1
Norman Cathedral
1997-Piazza-Duomo-Cefalu-2
Piazza Duomo

 

So, on Sunday morning, we started our trip to Contessa, a municipality of Messina. We drove on the A20 highway until the road was blocked by a mountain (yes, a mountain with no tunnel)!! We then had to take the sea road (a single land in either direction) for about 140 kilometers. Then back up to the A20 highway, which you can see from the sea road. Too weird!!

We stopped at an Agipe (petrol station) to ask for directions, but instead the attendant called the house for us and lo & behold our rescuer told us to follow him. When we arrived at the house it was a street party!!  They were barbecuing in front and the whole family was there to welcome us!!!  It felt like Christmas!! What a wonderful day with a loving family. After dinner, we then went to another cousin’s home on the Straits of Messina. What a fantastic day!! Grazie Signora Carolina e Signora Rosa.

1997-Straits-of-Messina

Road Trip

Circa 1950 Laurie, Great-Aunt Carmela and cousin Michael at he farm in Port Jervis NY
Circa 1950 Laurie, Great-Aunt Carmela and cousin Michael at “the farm” in Port Jervis NY

I had called Margaret, introduced myself and spoke about the family and my research. We made a date to meet. Soon after, on a gorgeous Saturday morning, I drove 100+ miles to my sister Laurie’s house. After having coffee and talking, we set out. Laurie wanted to drive! Yikes!! My sister thought she was a great driver. It was a bumpy and terrorizing 100 mile ride to Port Jervis in New York.

Thankfully we found the house. A woman opened the door. He said “Hello, my name is Margaret, and my mother-in-law, Carmela, was the sister of your grandfather Frank”. Incredible!! We had a light lunch with wine and chatted. Margaret told us that there was a trunk in the attic. Then, the door into the kitchen and opened a man and two girls entered. Maragret introduced her son Michael and his two daughters. Incredible!! More cousins!!

After lunch, Michael brought the trunk down from the attic and opened a box nestled inside it. OMG!! There were many documents inside!! The most important – the birth certificate of Camilla(aka Carmela) Cottone!!! The city of birth listed was Librizzi Messina !! So, I know the city where my grandfather was born!! After this discovery, we went to the local cemetery to pay our respects to our relatives.

Later that evening on the way home, Laurie asked me “Now what?” I told her I needed to obtain the address of the Comuni in Librizzi, Messina, Sicily, Italy……

Journey to Discovery

So, now that I had these documents, I couldn’t wait to get started. My organizational skills kicked in and I grabbed my coding sheets to begin my flowchart. And of course this led to many unanswered questions.

So, I called Mom and started the cross-examination about the documents and family. My mother was a woman of very few words, especially about the family. Since she had sent me her fathers’ death certificate, I asked where he was from in Italy. She said “Papa came from Messina”. Ok. Messina is both a city and a province in Sicily.

I did some research and found some tools to help with my next step.

  • I found the address for the Stato Civile in the Comune of Messina that accepts requests for birth, death and marriage extracts.
  • I then went to the Latter Day Saints web site to obtain a form letter for my request. I started out with a basic one but then began tweaking it to add the information I had.
  • I then found a translation web site called Babelfish to help translate my Word document into Italian. This was before Google translate existed.

So, I sent my letter to Messina, Sicily, Italy. In addition, I went to the Italian White Pages, and searched for folks with the surname Cottone in Messina. I then did a mass mailing to all these folks asking if they were related to my grandfather. Yes, I know, a search for the proverbial needle in the haystack.

Two weeks later I received a reply stating that they had no record of my grandfather, Francesco Cottone.

I called Mom and she said “Maybe Margaret could help”. Ok, but who is Margaret? Margaret was Carmela’s daughter-in-law. Ok, but who is Carmela? Carmela was Grandpa Cottone’s sister!!! Really?? Why didn’t I know this?

So, Mom gave me Margaret’s phone number in upstate NY. Before I would call Margaret, I called my older (by 8 years) sister Laurie. She said that she, Mom and Dad would “go up to the farm” to visit Aunt Carmela before I was born. So, I told Laurie that I was going to call Margaret, introduce myself and ask if we could visit.

Road trip………

Beginning….

Folks have been asking me about my research on my family tree. They want to know how long does it take? Shouldn’t be too long, no? I laugh….

It all started when I received a small package in the mail from my mother. When I opened the envelope, there was a note from my mother explaining the contents. It was a continuation of an old conversation regarding that timeless question “where did we come from” in Sicily? So, now I was intrigued. I had a million things going through my mind.  As I opened the envelope I saw a bundle of tissue paper. I gingerly opened it and found very old documents. I was so excited!!! It was like hitting the jackpot at Harrah’s!! (Maybe not to those who love the excitement of the casinos!!)

I carefully began to look through the documents. A few of them were so old and had been scotch taped (yes, I said that) together, that I was afraid to touch them. But what a treasure trove of information my mother had gifted to me. Included were birth, immigration and death certificates for my grandparents.

So, that was the beginning of my journey to try to answer the age old question of “where did I come from?”.  It has been over 20 years that I have been seeking relatives and asking questions of those both near and far.

Librizzi, Messina
The mountain town of Librizzi in the province of Messina

More next time…..