I am pleasantly ensconced for a few days in a marvelous small hotel in Fiumalbo, Italy. It is the place from which my dad’s dad immigrated from in the early 20th century. The ticket from Modena, the first place to get a ticket to here, cost just 6 Euros to go about 80 miles. And it was the cheapest thrill ride I have ever had. Imagine 80 miles of Going to the Sun Road, in a bit better shape, but narrower, constantly climbing in a large bus that took up a good share of the road. The road curved just as much and then some as in Glacier Park, with the bus beeping its horn going around some of the curves but not slowing down a bit. The view out the windows was just as breath-taking. Just fantasize what you think of as typical small Italian villages about every quarter to half mile and you have it. All stone and stucco homes, tile roofs, decorative wrought iron gates and flowers and gardens. And stacks of round hay bales just like those in Montana only in fields you would describe as “goats only allowed” as they are so steep. Lots of vineyards. You feel like you have gone back in time except for fast passing cars, and on curves no less, and the presence of modern farm equipment. It also felt like a Hobbit journey at times as we went through some quite dense areas of forest. ‘The trees are mostly deciduous on the mountain side, mountains very reminiscent of the Sapphires on the east side of the Bitterroot. The mountains were all in full fall colors. The weather is delightfully cool after the heat and humidity of Rome. The Synod bishops are on the hot seat in more ways than one, the Americans complaining about the air conditioning.
But the scenery was nothing compared to the another beauty I have experienced. I am here to tell you I have been on the receiving end of the freely given goodness flowing from people’s hearts. It began at the bus stop in Modena. The ticket agents, frazzled as most ticket agents in a busy setting are, were not too clear in their information as to which platform I was to be on to get on the right bus. A young black woman who responding yes to my “Englesse??” walked all the way back to the terminal from the far side of the bus platforms to help me get the right information. Once at the right platform, a young student at the university in Modena who has un po, a bit, of English, and I were able to make conversation with my un po Italiano and sign language. She is studying systems of wholistic ecology. We broke the ice by talking about the weather. She and I had a great time laughing together about how we pronounced things and she helped me with my bags getting on the bus. On the bus was a man from Ghana who spoke very good English and was very happy that I was trying Italian. He has three sons, one of whom is studying medicine at the university in Modena and one is studying dentistry. He has been in Italy and is a steel fabricator. It was evident from the way he spoke of his sons that he is a very proud papa. From what he describes as his work I would say he is a tool and dye maker. He got off in one of the small towns up in the Apennines where there are many small sized factories supporting the extensive auto manufacturing in Modena such as Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati. When he got off the bus he asked me “Mama, where are you going?” wanting to make sure he gave the bus driver instructions to see me safely on the correct bus when I needed to change buses in Pavulo. I could make those instructions out clearly enough. I had shown him pictures of my grandaughter Chloe. You can get a lot of mileage out of a grandchild’s picture in Italy. That is why he safely presumed he could call me Mama. And the bus driver followed his directions to a tee when we got to Pavulo. The bus does not let you out right in the town of Fiumalbo. It is about a half mile walk into the center of town. It is all downhill so I merrily went downhill, pulling my suitcase, carrying a back pack and my purse “pack”, gaping at gorgeous scenery, stopping to take pictures of the white water river….Fiumalbo loosely translates to “white water”…thinking I would find my hotel there in the center of town. Nope. It was not there as I found out in talking un po Italiano to three men at a bar who had no Englesse. I needed to go all the way back up the hill and further down the road from where I got off the bus. If I had stayed on the bus, it would have gone right by the hotel. Uphill pulling a suitcase and all the other weighty items was not fun. I have gotten in quite good shape in two weeks trudging around Rome at about 3 to 4 miles per day but it did not prepare me for this uphill climb. I was stopping often to rest. At one point I sat down on a low stone fence by someone’s house. A woman came out. I stood up and we “Boun giorno”d” and I managed to ask how far to El Bruco, the hotel. She pointed and said 3 km. I sat down and must have looked quite dismayed as she said “Una moment”, one moment, and left to go into the house, talking to someone inside. She came out with her car keys, pointed to the car, opened the trunk, loaded my suitcase and indicated I get in. Good thing or I think I would have been climbing that hill to get to the hotel all night. I noticed on the way car seats in the car so I asked about bambini. I even understood when she said three, 2 girls and a boy. Paolo and Gabriella, my hosts at the hotel, have been over and above in their hospitality. Last night I managed to convey to Gabriella who speaks a bit of English that I needed to do a money exchange. I also managed to convey that my grandfather, min nonno, came from Fiumalbo. So today, Paolo drove me to the bank, making it OK with a seemingly sceptical teller, and then flagged down any of his buddies in town who might have information about my grandfather. At one point I was in the middle of three elderly Italian men all talking at once and waving their hands trying to figure out who was related to whom and were they still alive. My Italian had progressed enough to understand quite a bit of what they were saying. Paolo even knew the people at the Commune di Fiumalbo record office who found a birth record that seemed to match the dates associated with my grandfather but it was a different father’s name. Then they decided we might try the baptismal records at the church but then again that might not work because the Italian sacerdote, priest, had left and there was now sacerdote Plolacka, Polish priest, who was hard to understand and who might or might not even be around, all of this said with typical Italian roll of the eyes and facial expressions that told me there was a good story under all of this. I think this town may have quite active Catholics because the church building itself looked in good shape. So we went around to the priest’s house who was around and did indeed look Polish but who spoke good Italian. He could not help us as he had only been there two weeks and besides he could not find the keys to the church. One wonders what he has been doing for two weeks. So it seems the American church is not the only church who suffers under imported clergy. Even THE Catholic country of Italy, and you still trip over Catholicism wherever you go despite almost nil for Mass attendance….the registry office had a picture of the Virgin and a crucifix by the door going out…has a problem with clergy shortage except at the Vatican and there one trips over priests. Later in the afternoon, one of the three guys helping me in the morning, who thought he might be related based on his reading of the birth record, took me around to the cemetery. Lots of folks of my maiden name there but what we finally realized is that there were two men about the same age living in the area at the time my grandfather immigrated. We based this on the fact that my research had a different father’s name than the one for whom we got a birth record in the morning. But, I am certain I was swimming close to family in the gene pool. I told this man “famiglia e’ importamte”, family is important. And to that he had a big grin, warmly shook my hand and then we embraced as any two good Italians are known to do, kissing each other on the cheeks. How symbolic this whole trip has been. I went to Rome part of a reform group determined to support the Bishop of Rome, Papa Francesco, in his efforts to find merciful ways to help families in dire straights that some in the church want to only call sinners. I then take a journey into my on family. And then there is Paolo and Gabriella my hosts. She introduced me to Paolo as her “companion” not her husband. I would bet that they are both in a second relationship, one of those Papa Francesco wants to help. She was with us at the cemetery and gave me a ride back to the hotel. In the car I told her I taught myself to read Italian. Her English had improved over the day in trying to speak to me as I was to her in Italian. I told her my only source for conversation was listening to Papa Francesco on the Internet. She gave a delightful laugh and said “Ah, yes, Papa Francesco.” I could not help but feel in her a small modicum of hope as she said those words. For her sake, I hope he can pull off what I think he is trying to do with the Synod. For the sake of the many good-hearted people just like the ones I have encountered on this odyssey, it must happen. God bless them all. I have learned to say “mille grazie”, a thousand thanks, from the deepest recesses of my heart.