It’s fitting to begin where it all begun: Agnone, in Molise province of Italia, the home of not just my grandparents, but my extended family before they immigrated to Montreal in the 1950’s. Walking these streets I feel like a child again going to the park in Ville LaSalle. Not that the towns have any resemblance, but it’s all these faces I have seen before. The wrinkles of an old lady are the same as my Nonna, another one’s sleeveless house dress, blue with a pattern of little yellow flowers, with a white t-shirt underneath, I saw the same one growing up in the garden.
So, needless to say, I have a level of familiarity with the people here. Language plays an important role, though I am far from fluent in Italian. Having been exposed to the Agnonese dialect I understand these people better than their Northern countrymen. It helps to speak a language, but when you are versed in their slang doors open up, and they no longer treat you as an outsider, or a tourist, but a distant relative coming home again.
This occurred to me right away. Agnone is not known as a tourist town. If anything, it is only Italian tourists who come to this town boasting about being a city of art. Agnone is home to the oldest recorded, and perhaps most famous, bell manufacturer. Their bells chime in churches all over the world. So as I look foreign, I can tell by the way they stare from the benches that something chimes in their minds when they see me. I think it is a form of recognition. They know I’m not from Agnone, simply because they know everyone from here, but they see a familiarity, maybe I’m a bastard son. All I need to do is give a friendly buon giornio and that focused stare lightens into a friendly smile.
My first encounter was with an older man named Constantine at the oldest church in Agnone, Chiesa di San Pietro. I quickly found out that we share a last name Sabelli, but more so, my Nonno and his father also have the same, Rocco Sabelli. He couldn’t believe the coincidence so he immediately invited me for a café to further explore this issue. As it is in small villages, he bumped into a friend along the way, Luigi. It turns out that Luigi is from a small village (if you can call five houses a village) called Belladonna, and was just a child growing up next to the house of my Nonna. Può essere maledetto, he said, be cursed, meaning more or less something like unbelievable in this situation. Studying my face his eyes shone bright in astonishment as it took him back to his childhood full of wonder where the unexpected is still possible.
These encounters continued for three days. I met people that know my family history better than my father. My godmother’s two cousins, sisters Anna and Rosella, own a small grocery store, and wouldn’t let me leave without two pinches on each cheek and a bottle of ice tea for my walk and a beer for my lunch. I met my aunt’s cousin Angiolina Sabelli, an eighty-six year old memory vault who recited not just mine, but the family tree of all my Nonno’s brothers and sisters. She also stared with bewilderment, touching my face saying how she can see Rocco’s. No one ever told me that before, not even in Ville LaSalle.
And so it went like this. I was piecing together clues of my origins. I was seeing friendly ghosts who guided me to where I should go next. And more than anything else, I was discovering the true nature of my roots with every little detail that was omitted, that changed and transformed with time, or simply forgotten altogether. I was told that we came from Campobasso, both a city and region. This was said because it is better known than Agnone, but Agnone isn’t even in Campobasso. When I met with Constantine I found out that my Nonna wasn’t from Agnone, but from Belladonna, and that my grandfather too was from an even smaller place called Cantulupo, which is basically a farm region on the side of a mountain with a couple of houses sporadically placed throughout the bushes.
Details bring a story to life. They make it more real. Visiting the birthplaces of my grandparents made me somehow feel more of my existence. I was also able to see my grandparents and elderly relatives in a way that I always struggled to my whole life, as young. My grandmother wasn’t always tending the garden at a delicate pace in Ville LaSalle, or sticking her face in the fridge snacking in all her senility, but like Angiolina told me, they use to chase down a chicken, catch it with agility, kill it, pluck it, cook it, and feast on it before anyone else found them.
More than anything else, visiting Agnone was a trip down memory lane to days that are long past, and even slower than they are now in this sleepy town. Dead relatives live on in a meaningful way, never to be forgotten. Just as it is with Italian culture in general, the way of life with all its traditions continues uninterruptedly as if globalization hasn’t reached these hills. For tradition in the form of the proper way to roll gnocchi or the hour to promenade down main street gossiping about the present and telling stories of the past, continues in just the same way as those who are long gone have done before. The site of the wind turbines on top of the mountain ridge in the distance is the only clue that Agnone has made it to the twenty-first century. But even then they turn taking their time as if they too know the proverb of the land: Chi va piano, va sano e lontano, ma chi va forte incontra la morte. Who proceeds slowly will go far with health, but he who goes with haste will only find death.