During the final week of June 2019 and first week of July 2019, I treated myself to a long-held dream, to visit the ancestral towns of my paternal grandparents: Giovanni Trezza of Padula, Salerno Province, Campania, and his wife Anna Elizabeth Tomaro, Brooklyn, New York-born daughter of immigrants from Isernia, Isernia Province, Molise.
I spent a week in Padula, then visited the ancient ruins at Paestum, then spent several days at a beach resort frequented by Italians, Santa Maria di Castellabate, then toured the Borbone royal palace, “the Versailles of Italy” in Caserta near Naples, then visited Isernia and the nearby town of Bojano (where my grandmother’s paternal ancestors originally came from). I concluded with a very full day in Rome.
One of my physicians in Boston told me “this could really be a life-changing trip.” I thought to myself: “well, you hear that, but while it’ll be great to go, ‘life-changing’ might be a bit of an over-statement.’” So, I am pleased to report that my physician was right—my Ancestors Tour with Michele Cartusciello and the team at the Museo del Cognome, based in Padula, has been, I feel, one of the most memorable experiences of my life. (and another of my physicians told me to try the sweet peppers, and I am pleased to say she was correct also—they were wonderful!)
1. The most important reason to take an Ancestors Tour is the people. I do not think that I have ever been more warmly welcomed or well-taken care of than I was by Michele and his team at Museo del Cognome. They care about the logistics of the trip, but they care just as much about the emotion of the experience. My guides were superb, and all very different. Giovanna Vitale was kind and serene, good-humored and disarmingly frank; Viviana Ricciardone was artistic, soulful, and someone of great knowledge and emotional depth; Giulia Panfili was intuitive, wry, luminous, and very easy to speak with. All were wonderful communicators and patient with questions and fumbles with my second (French) and third (Italian) languages. My specialty guides were equally good. Simona Uccella at the Reggio di Caserta was effervescent, knowledgeable, engaging, and patient; Maurizio Vignati at the Museo Picinni Leopardi in Buonabitacolo was accommodating and obviously passionate about his life’s work preserving the occupations on display there; Luca Inno in Isernia was a treasure trove of information and good connections; and Oreste Muccillo in Bojano was an engagingly low key font of knowledge with exquisite taste in restaurants.
Orchestrating everything were Michele Cartusciello and Giuseppina Dede. Michele’s lust for life, his passion for genealogy and family and local history, and his zeal in providing a stellar experience for me were fantastic. His generosity and his personal touches are unbounded—he even invited me to his mother’s 93rd birthday dinner (and Signora Maria was lovely, by the way). Giuseppina is the glue that holds the whole experience together. She is an excellent communicator, cares deeply about the experience of her clients, and was careful, organized, and agreeable, and made sure all the little details transpired without any glitches. She and Michele are also great wits and watching the two of them interact was a bit like watching a great comedy duo. Behind the scenes, Nicola Cestaro is very helpful and very funny, and Giuseppe Rienzo was a great chauffeur and is engaged in a host of other interesting cultural activities. I had the least conversation with newest staff trainee Carmen Quaglia, but she was delightful—enthusiastic, helpful, a little shy about her English (which was excellent, by the way), and also very helpful in the office and with taking photos.
Michele’s generosity, with his time, his expertise, his local connections, his cooking!, and his knowledge of local culture, history, and cuisine, was unrelenting. He kept giving me gifts, bringing me to people who also gave me gifts, and introducing me to people who generally seemed interested in who I was and why I was there. I commented that “no one is this nice to me in the USA; no one is this nice to anyone in the USA!” and it’s really true. Everyone was very interested, welcoming, and really appeared happy to meet me. When I left Padula, people kept saying: “when are you coming back?”, and it did not feel like a rhetorical question—people really seemed to be saying: “well, you’re sort of part of the family now, so we really do expect you back soon.” Even the elderly lady in the square selling peaches to us in Isernia started to say “hello” when she’d see us walking by, like we’d become Isernini and were part of the interpersonal landscape.
2. Tours with Museo del Cognome are authentic and a true cultural immersion. I was the only American I met or saw for the better part of two weeks (until I got back to Roma), and my poor command of the Italian language improved, and I was reminded that I really do have a very good comprehension of spoken French. It felt weird to start speaking English again! I had fun with everyone’s thinking I was Canadian: ‘wait, he speaks French, and he’s North American? He must be Canadian.” Michele also took me to a local San Giovanni festival, to local restaurants, and to all the hidden places in the town of Padula as well as the more touristed sites. I met a lot of locals, sometimes in unplanned settings, and sampled a lot of local food. Sono ancora Brooklynese, ma, adesso, sono anche padulese (ed isernino).
3. It was wonderful to be on a trip where my name was not an issue (Trezza is two little syllables, but I have spent my entire life in the United States having my surname, my cognome, be misspelled, mispronounced, and branded with the “perpetual foreigner racism” of questions like “that’s a weird name—where is it from?” For probably the first time in my life, except maybe for when I was at Xaverian High School in Brooklyn, NY, whose student body, A to Z, read like the surnames in a Neapolitan phone book, everyone recognized my surname and knew immediately how to spell and pronounce it. A small point, perhaps, but enormously affirming. And it was exciting to see a stone plaque on the front exterior wall of San Giovanni Battista church that commemorates the restoration of the church after World War II by my nonno Giovanni Trezza’s younger brothers, Giuseppe and Vincenzo.
4. A tour with Michele and team helps one re-discover one’s Italianita. It was very moving to me to hear Giu Dede say to me more than once “of course you do that—you’re Italian.” And to hear the amazing Chef Filindo at Borgo Antico in Civita Superiore near Bojano, Molise, say of me “lui e italiano” was very flattering. I really did get insight into why I have certain habits and customs and I had more than one “of course” moment while under the care of Michele and his team. It was also a moving experience for me to have a tour in Padula from Signor Vincenzo Giordano of the Museo dei Presepii (handmade Nativity and local cultural dioramas), because my late parents loved such local artworks and had Nativity scenes and “villages” of their own.
5. You will not feel like a complete weirdo for loving genealogy and history and culture when you travel with Michele. He is a kindred spirit for those who love genealogy, stunningly knowledgeable, and generous with his insights, his research, and his patience with my endless questions and my desire to see and hear about everything.
6. The food is amazing. Michele is a chef and former restaurant owner and made a wonderful lunch for me. He and his team also took me to great restaurants (Enoteca Amaro in Teggiano; La Locanda dei Trecento, Pizzeria Lisa in Padula; and O Pizzaioulo in Isernia and Borgo Antico in Civita Superiore. Chef Filindo alone is worth the trip to Borgo Antico; he’s a master showman and hilariously funny, and his food and the ambiance at his restaurant are memorable.
7. Michele and his team go out of their way to find relatives for you to meet, and this is one of the absolute highlights of an Ancestors Tour. And this was not a superficial meeting for me. I was welcomed in the homes of my cousins in both Padula and Roma and had much fun sharing photos and memories with my relatives. I had perhaps an extra special experience, because one of my cousins is one of Michele’s closest friends, but for every tour in every town, Michele works diligently, to connect his clients with their relations, and to make meaningful new relationships among family.
8. You will find out more genealogical information on your families. One morning’s visit to Padula’s neighboring town, Buonabitacolo, combined with a book on the 1752 Buonabitacolo catasto onciario census, yielded, four more generations of the ancestry of my three-greats-grandmother, Anna Agnese Bellezza, and in Isernia, we found my grandmother’s elder sister’s dates and her descendants and also visited family graves in the Isernia cemetery (aided by Signor Nicola in the office there, who was extremely generous with his time and expertise in helping us find family gravesites) My great-uncle Romolo Leprini was killed in an Allied bombing raid on Isernia in 1943 as the Allies tried to drive Axis troops from the Italian peninsula—Signor Gabriel Venditti at the Historical Archive in Isernia was able to give me more information on Zio Romolo, and Signora Maria Luisa at the local museum (Brooklynese like me!) was able to provide historical context on my uncle’s death and the effects of the war on the Isernini, and I felt more connected to the sufferings of the Italian people in World War II, something I had not expected.
9. The Museo del Cognome team is very responsive to your individual needs. In addition to visiting my ancestral towns, I really wanted to see the Borbone palace, the Reggio, in Caserta in the suburbs of Naples (I have an interest in the political and royal history of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies), and I also really wanted a few days relaxing by the sea and to spend a little time in Roma. Michele and his team booked everything and I was able to do whatever I wanted. I hadn’t had a chance to visit Padula’s cemetery before leaving for the beach resort town I was visiting; Michele made sure we stopped there and took photos before leaving Padula. I also didn’t really want to have to deal with driving around by myself and risking getting lost as I went between villages. The team make sure I was always escorted to events and sites, but I got the sense that they would respect my desire for autonomy if I’d wanted to do more independently. Also, when my old camera couldn’t use current flashcards, and I was facing having minimal photos, Michele and team graciously provided copies of the “publicity tour shots” they took of me and my guides going around Padula, Paestum, Caserta, and Isernia, for which I am very grateful.
10. I felt very respected by the Museo del Cognome team. The team never made me feel like “un americano stupido” and were very tolerant of my cross-cultural ignorances about certain aspects of Italian culture and social mores. In addition, they really valued my opinions and sought my impressions and advice about how to grow their business model and products in ways that would appeal to fellow North American clients like myself. I thus felt very valued and listened to.
11. The Museo del Cognome appreciate beauty and life satisfaction and taking the time to savor both. The landscapes and vistas were beautiful, the people were beautiful (inside and out), the food was beautiful, and the artisanal products were beautiful too. I was able to see the wonderful designs of artist (he calls himself an artisan but his work is wonderful and it’s art to me) Carmine Pinto of the GekoArt company (and purchase great souvenirs from Signor Carmine, who along with his gracious mother also gave us a tour of his art-filled home, and to see and enjoy the craftmanship of Signor Claudio Pozzi, maker of elegant leather goods, and his gracious wife, Antonella (and I now own some Pozzi leather products, too!)
12. An Ancestors Tour seems to me to be filled constantly with little surprises. When I was taken by Michele and team to visit the Monte Romito Church, high above Padula, I was given the chance by the church’s bellringer to ring the bell myself. I joked to Michele and team, “ah, are they saying down in the town ‘the bell in Monte Romito is ringing at a strange time—must be another crazy American visiting”, implying that American tourists must do this all the time. I was very touched to be told “oh, no, never, actually” indicating I may be the first American in living memory, or perhaps ever, to ring the Monte Romito bell. Silly maybe, but I felt very special to have the opportunity to do something maybe no tourist had ever done. And in Isernia, when we descended a long staircase at O Pizzaiuolo restaurant, I thought we’d be dining in some sort of dark sub-basement. Instead, we walked out into a perfectly round outdoor garden with many tables, beautiful lights, a wonderful view, memorable food, and excellent service—an utterly unexpected magical evening. And one doesn’t expect to get to meet the sindaco (the mayor) of one of one’s ancestral villages, especially one who looks like a movie star, but I got to do that too, in Buonabitacolo (and the mayor, Signor Giancarlo Guercio, actually is a theatre actor, to boot!)
13. For all the eating one does with Michele and team, an Ancestors Tour makes sure you don’t gain weight. All the walking, sightseeing, exploring, and socializing we did on my tour made sure that while I didn’t lose any weight, neither did I gain a kilogram.
14. An Ancestors Tour is very emotional. I thought having lost my parents, my mother only last year, and only seeing my father’s ancestral towns after he and my English/Irish mother were deceased that I would be rather sad and regretful. I did find that the tour was very emotional, but that the principal emotion I experienced was joy. Michele and the Museo del Cognome team promote a sense of wonder and excitement about their visitors’ odysseys, and really seem to take pride in bringing happiness and fulfillment to their clients.
15. An Ancestors Tour is a celebration, and you will find yourself very reluctant to leave. You will want to come back, and not twenty years later. Finding your roots is always compelling. Connecting with your roots in such a nuanced, in-depth, culturally-enlightening way as is possible with a Museo del Cognome Ancestors Tour is more than compelling—it is a form of “soul re-invigoration” that will stay with you for the rest of your life. Don’t wait—go sign up for an Ancestors Tour now! 😊