Returning to the place where your family originates is a very special experience. What makes it even more special is being able to return to the very house where your grandmother was born, with your grandmother present.
Both my grandfather and grandmother on my mother’s side came from small, rural villages in the province of Benevento, Italy. My nanna and nonno’s villages were within a stone’s throw from each other but it wasn’t until many years after they migrated to Australia that they met and eventually married. Returning to the picturesque villages where it all started evokes so many emotions.
As I strolled through the piazza in Apollosa watching a group of young children, I imagined my nonno playing with his friends as a young boy, running around, full of energy that only young children possess. I imagined him walking down the street towards his old, stone house after hearing calls from his mother that dinner was ready. I could almost see him out in the field, picking fruit from the lush, green trees in the summertime.
I hung onto my nanna’s every word as she pointed out where she used to walk to school and where her father’s plot of land was. She told us about life in the village of San Giovanni, telling us stories about weddings and other festivities that occurred in her home town, but also of the hardship of having very little money and living off the land.
During our visit to my great-grandmother’s place of birth we were greeted by beautiful, old ladies who knew my great-grandmother and her family. They told us tales about growing up in Italy during the war and shared their experiences of living in a small town. They were such warm souls who were elated to talk to us and share their stories.
I have visited the rustic villages of both Apollosa and San Giovanni several times now and each time I am filled with a deep nostalgia. I imagine what life in rural Italy was like all those years ago. Such a small, tightly woven community with a deep set of values and traditions.
After spending time with many of our cousins who still reside in Apollosa, we observed that in many ways, these villages have maintained their traditions. We were lucky enough to be in Apollosa for the festival of their patron saint, Sant’Anna. My nanna’s name is Anna, so it was so special to be there with her to celebrate her ‘onomastico’ or name day. In Italy, a person’s name day is even more important than a birthday.
We witnessed first hand the deep faith that the locals have. We walked for three hours in the procession honouring Sant’Anna. Even the younger generation have held onto these religious values and were very eager to pay tribute to their saint.
As we were walking, I watched the older locals, some with walking sticks in hand, who slowly but surely completed the whole procession. I wondered how many times they had taken part in this celebration. It made me think of my nonno again and I imagined him walking with his family as a child. My nanna loved every second of it, reliving this special event that she had taken part in many times as a young girl. Arm linked with her beautiful friend, Maria, from the town nearby, she finished the procession with a smile on her face. It was so lovely to experience this tradition by her side. It is something I will remember always.
The procession culminated in an impressive fireworks display marking the start of the ‘informal’ festivities. The streets were lined with bancarelle, little carts selling nuts and dried fruits and all sorts of delicious local produce. The perfume of fresh pork sausages being grilled filled the air. People young and old were dancing to live music in the main square. There was such a sense of community and happiness. I felt privileged to be part of a such a beautiful event.
Prior to the procession, our cousins, who also own a restaurant, put on an amazing multi course meal. We ate from around 1pm and were finishing the last morsels of luscious dessert at about 5pm. Every single thing we ate was delicious. Prosciutto e melone, bruschetta, grilled eggplant, sausage and zucchini pasta, zucchini parmigiana, roast pork… and these are just a few of the things we devoured, the list goes on! Everything we ate came from my cousins’ farm. All home grown and bursting with flavour. We ate like this for the four days we spent with our family. We went from house to house enjoying the most delicious home grown, home cooked food.
When I reflect on my own upbringing, I realise that these small town traditions were carried across the oceans by my grandparents and passed down to us. The importance of family and togetherness has withstood many generations. The value placed on food and cooking and understanding and appreciating the way it brings people together is something that was instilled within me long ago. My hope now is to pass these values onto my own children so that the memory and love of those who have gone before them lives on, always.