Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Listening to Stones

It has been over three months since I last wrote of Veglio.  My intention was to write more frequently and to put down some of the thoughts that I had during the last construction trip but modern life has interceded. 

My Office Looks to Flatiron
I have been on a very fast treadmill that started just two weeks after I returned from the Mountain in late September.  I have probably spent half the time in New York sprinting from meeting to meeting and dodging cars as I walked from Flat Iron to Midtown several times each day.  Not a day goes by though when I don’t return in mind and spirit, if not body to our little village on the side of the hill.

It is often hard to reconcile the pace of modern life with the calling of my ancestors and the lessons that I believe they are trying to teach me somehow.   Now that I am fifty I also think about the ticking of life’s clock.  Am I going to have time to enjoy the slower pace of life?  To learn how to make that polenta or salami or maybe even some wine?  Does the significance of my work matter and is it worth the wear and tear that thousands of air miles and late nights in hotels inevitably take.

During the September trip, we needed to remove all of the debris that fell down when a large part of the bedroom roof collapsed.  We estimated nearly 140,000 pounds of stone roof and wall were hauled by six hands and a three tired backs.  These stones were comprised of large foundation rocks, medium sized stones that were stacked one on top of the other for the walls and then finally the flat rocks that are the roofing materials. 

Our Starting Debris Pile--September 2011
The largest stones were probably over 150 pounds and were large rectangular blocks.  The roof pieces were two inches thick and measured three feet by two feet for the most part.  Since the roof collapsed three floors and a 30-foot long wall, we started with a very large pile of rubble.  We not only needed to move the rocks, but also it was important to sort then in various sizes and shapes so that they could be reused at the appropriate time when we rebuild that part of the house.

The first challenge I had to tackle was in my own head.  How was I going to move these rocks without injuring myself?  A couple of mind games were waging.  I had injured my right hamstring at Easter this year during a soccer match.  I had ripped some of the tendons off the bone and was in physical therapy for the summer.  When I had tried to lift something heavy earlier in the year, it was like a hot knife cutting into my groin so I was a bit hesitant to risk a re-injury.  The second battlefront was my recent 50th birthday and the limits that I was putting on myself.  

For the first halfday or so, I would only lift the small rocks and was reluctant to pick up the larger cornerstones that needed to be moved.  Gradually though, I started testing myself as I saw my nephew pick up the largest stones and raise them three feet onto the sorting pile. I was further encouraged when we were joined by Daniel who was all of 65 years old and walked with limp and a stooped back.  He, with proper technique, was lifting the largest of rocks with slow but deliberate movement. 

Daniel, Age 65, Schooled Me!
By the third day, my legs and back were stretched and working.  With my fears conquered and a little bit of technique, I was not only keeping up but causing the passer-bys to ask about this American who supposedly worked a deskjob.  It felt great, especially as we begin to see real progress.  Structures began to emerge from the debris.  

First, a staircase or scala that had lead up to the second story.  Then, with enough digging we could see the outline for the two of the cellars that were used to store the entire winter’s food and wine supply.  Finally, the large entrance that once was the primary access to the house.  All in all, the collapsed section had one been four bedrooms, three cellars and a courtyard.  With the existing damage, though, nothing more than the foundation, six crossbeams and the thousands of pounds of rock remained.

Staircase on Outside of Bedroom Floors
So what did I learn from the September trip?  More than once, my uninformed technique nearly caused a massive avalanche of stone until my nephew or cousin or Daniel would attempt to translate proper instructions.   So here are a few tips that I picked up that I think may even have relevance back home in Orange County or maybe even the concrete and stone jungle of New York.

Don’t try to get to the bottom of the pile too quickly.  As you can see from the picture below, the debris was formed like a giant hillside.  We started at the bottom of the hill to remove the rocks.  In my quest to reach the ground and pull all of the choicest stones out, I worked an entire morning digging at the base.  When my architect nephew came by, he was aghast.  I had left the weight of the upper section precariously unsupported by my efforts and was just a few stones away from pulling the entire massive weight of multiple tons down upon myself.  The weight needed to be distributed evenly at a slope.  Trying to get to the bottom of the foundation too early versus continuing to push the upper sections down was a near fatal mistake.

Andrea and the Rolling Stone
Let gravity do its work in bringing the stones to the proper storage area.  As I worked my way up the pile, I would lift and dig and pry large sections of stone free. Then, I would pick up 100 pounders and carry them down the hillside.  Especially after the sun began to bake us, it was exhausting and also dangerous as I struggled to maintain my footing on the walk down.  Again, Andrea introduced the concept of gravity to me!  Go all the way to the top and get the large rocks rolling down. They will move the other medium and small rocks and pick up momentum.  Sure enough, once I got them rolling they picked up speed and with a little steering would end up just a few yards from where I would them place them on storage pile.

Little rocks are just as important as the big ones.  While we saw great progress when we would lift out a three foot by one foot stone from the dirt and dust, we also needed to collect the smaller rubble stones.  All of the rocks in the house are handcut or more properly handsplit which means that no two are the same exact size.  Setting a level floor or wall means wedging little rocks into the spaces created from the larger stones.  Having a large collection of these rubble stones is essential in getting a structurally sound wall and for keeping out the elements.  Mortar in the way we would think of it, is not used as it destroys the rocks over time.  We took great care in sorting even the smallest of this “waste” rocks into their own areas that can then be used later.

Three Stories of Dry Stone--600 Years Old
Holding the walls together with the natural forces create the strongest bonds.  As I mentioned earlier, the “modern” technique of large amounts of mortar is discouraged in proper historical restoration.  The preferred method is take the extra time to find the best fit rocks and then wedge the smaller stones for balance and filling.  This ageless technique uses the weight of the stones and fitting to create bonds that can last thousands of years.  Think Machu Picchu or the Pyramids.  Had mortar been used, it would have long ago given way and in the process destroyed the rock with its acidic nature.

In a few days, I will oil up the treadmill and get back to my modern “proper” job.  The most exciting event coming up, though is our next trip to Veglio in early May.  All that stone we took out in September will be reassembled somehow into that 30 foot high wall.  Three brothers along with Linda, Jocelyn, Allyssa, Alex and perhaps a few younger backs will be charged with putting Humpty back together again.   I am sure we will learn a few more lessons about ourselves, our ancestors and our mountain.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Lessons from the Forest

I just arrived home last night after spending ten days on the mountain.  We worked morning to night hauling, cleaning and assessing our restoration project.  Over the coming weeks, I will share with you experiences that happened while I was there. 

Italy in the Middle Ages
Fragmented and Dangerous
In the meantime though, I thought it would be helpful to share some history of the village.  When most people think of a house in Italy, images of the rolling hills of Tuscany or the city streets of Rome come into their minds.   This is about as far from Veglio as could be possible.

Veglio, which translates to “awaken”,  sits in the Ossola Valley which feeds into one of the major areas of the Italian Alps, Valle Di Formazza.  This part of Northern Italy was originally settled by the Celts before the birth of Christ and was characterized by small bands of very tough, hardy people who were known to fight and protect their lands against invaders. 

The natural remote landscapes isolated them from the traditional Roman Empire.  In fact, there is a valley just behind Veglio that is called the “No One” Valley because when the tax collectors came to visit, the villagers would send a few scouts out to greet them.  When the Roman collectors would ask who lived there, the locals would respond “no one”. 

As far as we can tell, Veglio was established around 1200 AD for its unique position of a bench halfway up the mountainside that has probably 100 acres of arable land that is exposed well to the sun and protected from the wind.   It also is out of range of the marauding bands that flourished in the Middle Ages.  Many villages marked the riversides below and a cartpath connected southern Italy with Switzerland. 

Ponte Maglio in the Valley
However, Veglio was high above the river separated by thick forests and a band of granite cliffs.  The only access into the village was by either a series of stone steps cut into the hillside or a winding trail of switchbacks.  The way up was by foot or by donkey.  This actually was the case until 1961 when the village was abandoned.  Only after the abandonment and the building of a mine on the mountain above, was a gravel road established about fifteen years ago.

At its peak, there were probably twenty families living in Veglio.  Structures consisted of several housing units adjoined, plus stables and barns either under the houses or in separate buildings.  All of the buildings were built using various stone and rocks from the valley plus larch and chestnut from the forests. 

These stones range from a few pounds to well over 150 pounds.  The only way to transport was by human power, either individual stones on the back or carried in tandem like a barrel.  Local legend has it that the women carried most of the stone so the men could continue to work on building or tending to the animals.  

My uncle tells of his memory as a twelve year old of bringing a 60-pound pack of supplies up the nearly two hundred steps from the valley floor in about twenty minutes. 
A traditional "toilet"

In fact, the school that emerged only around 1800 was a mile and a half down the valley.  Children would walk down the path to school which normally only covered three or four years formally with some religious and secular education continued at home. 

Life continued remarkably the same for much of the active 900 years of its traditional existence from the late middle ages until the local municipality declared the village abandoned in 1961 due to its unwillingness to invest in the road necessary to provide what was then minimal services.

The essence of the village was one of cooperation towards the goal of subsistence.  If it existed in the late 1960’s in California, you would call them hippies living in a commune.  

There were two community bread ovens where the women gathered once a week to bake.  Laundry consisted of a long stone trough divided in three sections that still is in use.  Milk from the cowherds where brought to a creamery that converted the liquid into cheese that could be consumed and traded down the mountain.  Cheese and maybe some excess wine and apples were the only commodities that could be traded to acquire the few things that were needed from the outside.

Vegetables and fruits of all kinds were raised and can still be found today in the fields.  When the New World imports of potatoes and corn arrived from Columbus, these crops became very important for food crops. 

For the “health” of the village, grapes and apples abounded and grew in the hot but short summer sun.  These were primarily turned into wine, grappa and cider.  Most of this was consumed there.  In fact, my great grandfather expanded the house we are restoring to ensure that the family could store all the wine, cheese and other supplies needed for the long winter. 

Nebbiolo Grapes circa 2011
According to the reliable source of Uncle Davida, the Senestraro clan produced 7000 liters of wine each year for their consumption.  Doing the math on the 20 or so people who lived in the house at any given time, that is roughly one liter per person per day in wine.  We will explore the importance and use of wine in a future entry, but you get a sense of the priority placed on this crop.

Animals were an integral part of the cycle of village life.  Cows and sheep for milk, rabbits and pigs mostly for meat and chickens for eggs.  These were supplemented by deer from the local forest and the occasional donkey that grew tired of the walk up the hill. 

In the summer, the grazing animals were taken up the valley to higher pastures, but fall brought cooler temperatures and the return of the livestock.  During the winter, they lived in the first floor of the house or the adjacent barns.  This allowed them to be tended and also benefit from the warmth of the fireplaces and people.

Subsistence living was focused on the absolute optimal usage of everything that was found on the mountain. 

The concept of garbage did not exist and even today, the water from the ancient sink flows to the garden and foodwaste makes its way to the potato fields.  Whey from the cheese process fed the pigs, manure from the animals went to the garden and grew the hay that would make it back to the cycle.

Since the forests are fairly thin in this part of the lower Alps, wood is a precious commodity used for heating and cooking.  The forests were searched for downed limbs and the few trees that could be selected for cutting.
Young girl's dress we found...

It is remarkable to spend time with my cousins who were raised on this mindset of total usage.  This past week, I tried to throw some apple peels in the garbage and was nearly gang tackled.  At our barbeque in the summer, I noticed Mareka stacking up left over rib bones and chicken parts that were scraped off the plates.  When I asked why, she said she would separate them later with the larger pieces taken for the dogs. The smaller scraps and sharp bones would be left next to the forest to feed the foxes that kept the predator/prey balance in check.

These lessons of community and use of precious resources are intense and remind me of the losses that we have suffered in our “advanced” society that focuses on mindless consumption.

It also makes me think about the challenges endured by my family just to survive the winters and the work ethic required to build and maintain a family.  We found a dress in the house when we were cleaning.  It is probably 75 years old and close examination shows that it had been patched and repatched many times. 

Mareka is an expert seamstress and historian on the local garments.  She told the story that village wardrobes were quite simple.  Women would have two dresses.  A black one that would be their formal attire for their own wedding, church, funerals and festivals. Then, another one such as in the picture that would be worn each day and washed perhaps once a week. 

The trail to California
The immense contrast with our life in Orange County is often hard to reconcile but I know that Veglio is trying to teach me its important lessons.  The last few days I was in Italy, I decided to park my car at the bottom of the hill and hike up the path, through the forest and arriving at the village to work.

I stopped on the last day midway on the trail to think about my grandfather who would in 1921 put a pack on his back and hike down that trail to catch a train that lead to a boat that took him half way around the world.  

Could he ever have imagined how life in California would be?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Songs and Bombs

No, I am not writing about the latest chart topping single in Rome.  Nor will I make some social commentary about unrest in London or North Africa.    Rather I wanted to share with you a couple of strange occurrences in Veglio. 

One that brought tears to most everyone who was present.  The other that quite frankly scared the living merda out of us. 

It seems like music has always been an important part of life in Italy.  Whether the echos of songs through a church, an opera sung by Pavarotti or the strings in quartet by Vivaldi, music seems to be woven through the culture.

I remember that growing up there always seemed to be music around the big Italian family gatherings.  Most of the time, there would be Lindy Mantova on his accordion adding a melody to the wine, food and chatter that was a strange cross between something that resembled the English and Italian…Italish?

The Church at Tocino--3 Miles from Veglio
Our family in Ossola also have art and music as staples of their daily lives.  Andrea and his father, Giovanni belong to a chorale group of men that travel throughout Switzerland and Northern Italy.    They often perform songs that are several centuries old in little churches that predate another famous Italian’s first journey to America.  

We had heard that they were quite good, but never had experienced the music first hand.  That was, until our reunion in Veglio.

Due to predicted rain, the planned picnic had to scramble looking for cover.  Andrea was able to talk to the local priest about using the little church in Veglio.  The church itself probably seated no more than 40 or 50 faithful on those long ago Sundays.  That meant everyone without exception in village took time from their toils to celebrate mass and spend some time with their neighbors.

The Old Veglio Church
Built around 1200 AD, as of late it has been used more for storage than sacrament with chairs, boxes, refrigerators and other assorted material had to be moved out so tables for dining could be placed. 

Lunch was a raucous affair, with nearly 60 people enjoying lots of wine, polenta, chicken, ribs, lamb and assorted accompaniments.   Laughter and more than a little shouting rang through the church during the celebration.

Then…something quite strange happened.  From the corner table near the back of the church, singing began.  Not just any singing, but hair standing up on the back of your neck sounds of the chorale.  No instruments, just the joining together of voices in sacred music that was first sung over five hundred years earlier. 

What was once loud, became eerily still as the singing continued.  A little taste of the singing is in this video clip that we took with our iphone. 

Flash forward though to last Friday.  Not sure why I thought I needed it, but found myself taking a little early evening nap on the cabana.  When I woke up, I checked my phone and found a flurry of texts, attempted calls and voicemals from both daughter Alexandra and brother Mark.

Turning first to Alex,  she reported having been robbed near her new apartment in Chicago.  Fortunately,  only her wallet was taken, snatched while she was checking her groceries as she left the store. 

Next, I checked the voicemail from Mark.  ACCIDENT IN VEGLIO, check your email right away and call me back!  Holy crap, what is going on?

A quick check of my email reported the accident.  Andrea and Cecilia had been cleaning debris from the house the previous Monday.  A fire had been started to burn what they could.  Unfortunately, something found its way to the fireplace that caused an intense explosion. 

Andrea was no more than ten feet from the fire, while Cecilia was across the room.   The explosion knocked them both to the ground and shattered bottles nearby.  Andrea was hit the hardest, with his face blackened and hair and beard burning.

As soon as he could, Andrea made his way to the water trough instinctively submersing his face trying to stem the burning.  Neighbors came running having at first thought the sound was from the quarry, perhaps placing too much explosive.

Andrea with all his hair and his California Girls
A friend was called and brought Andrea and Cecilia to the hospital.  Andrea was injured most severely and had to stay for nearly a week.  The burns thankfully appear to be healing nicely thanks to quick action and good care. 

Of greater concern are his ears.  The hearing in both is not good and certain ranges are missing altogether.  Andrea is going to a clinic the next two weeks for hyperbaric care for the ear drums.  Hopefully, it will restore some if not all of the hearing that was lost.

Now that the mortal danger is past, we are hopeful that his hearing will return in full.  We know that he gets great joy in singing and listening to music.  It would be quite sad and listening to the chorale sing may give you an appreciation of this.

Rendering of the "Culprit"
Oh, I almost forgot.  Closer inspection revealed the culprit as a Bomba a Mano which translates quite clearly to hand grenade. Model #35 made between 1939 and 1945 was probably hidden away during the resistance fighting that occurred against the Germans during World War II.  Part of the Ossola Rebellion whose tale will have to wait to another time.

For now, we pray and hope for recovery.  Mark and I plan to be in Veglio the last half of September.  We will be working with Andrea to stabilize the roof and prepare the project for the Alpine winter. 

Don’t tell our mother this story as she will hound us daily. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Old and New Friends & Family

We have been back now a week from Italy.   The jetlag is wearing off and the gelato-induced daze is starting to lessen.  Linda and I find ourselves asking “what the heck just happened” a few times a day.   We had an incredible time with a wide range of emotions and experiences over the past few weeks.

CaliItalia Family Portrait in the "New" Kitchen
My heart is also heavy as I write this, having learned of the passing of the eighteen-year son of one of my best friends.   I wanted to share some thoughts on our trip to Veglio though while the memories are still fresh in my mind.  Thoughts not so much of the old stones and wood and rubble, but of hearts and minds.  Of the reminders that life is both incredibly fleeting but also ties us together eternally if we let it.

During our trip, we had the opportunity to meet and spend time with many of our family who we had not met before.  Without exception, they welcomed us with open arms and a few kisses on the cheek like we had know them our entire lives.   

A little language barrier didn't stop Alexis and Meghan!
But even beyond our family, those we came in contact with in the little villages of the Ossola Valley were gracious and took time to listen and talk with us.   So, for this entry I thought I would make a few introductions of our extended Veglio family.

Our closest family in the Valley has always been Giovanni, Mareka and Andrea Scotton.  Giovanni is the grandson of my grandfather’s sister.  He and Mareka live in in the “new” family house built in the 1930’s next to the “new” church built in 1650.  Their son Andrea, who has just graduated with his master’s degree in Architecture and Planning is our partner in the restoration project. 

Mark, Mareka, Giovanni, Ken and Short Brother
I am sure we will be talking more about the Scotton family in the future.  Not only did we spend several days exploring the region with them, they organized our reunion lunch and worked so hard to ensure it was a great success.

On our last trip to Italy, we met Aunt Andrina.  She had also visited us in California twenty years ago and her joyful spirit is contagious.  Aunt Andrina worked nonstop for five hours in cooking, serving and cleaning up our Veglio lunch.  She lives in the new family house too, and can often be seen on her bicycle going to the market.  Not bad for nearly eighty, and we treasured the wisdom that she shared with us.

Aunt Andrina(on left)
Although Veglio today is home to just a few part-time residents, several of the locals have “getaways” there where they spend time with the gardens or making wine.  Cousin Davida has a house just down the path from our home.  This is his official man cave and he is the official winemaker of Veglio.  While we really like Davida, we are thinking of suggesting a few technical changes from California.  My neice Allyssa did have the pleasure of tasting it on this trip…I think she described it as “rustic”.
Napa Valley in no imminent danger

Sidenote:  As we were looking at our old house, we discovered a basement that we did not know about.  It contains a little winery with four giant barrels and room to store several hundred bottles. 

Ossola Valley is the start of several other valleys that make their way into Switzerland in this part of Italy.  Veglio is just one of a hundred little villages in Val Formazza.  Formazza has strong Germanic roots from the settling of Walsers which were a tribe that came to the region about a thousand years ago.  It is a major producer of hydroelectric power, granite and bottled water. 

The region is a complex mix of very old plus a new group of “settlers” from across Europe who are discovering its unique way of life and beauty.  We met a few of these recent immigrants to Formazza.  Like us, they have fallen for the area’s incredible beauty and availability of old stone houses.  Freddie is an artist from Basel, Switzerland who spends time here with his children, his art and his restoration project.

Freddie enjoys the music after lunch(and wine)
Cecilia is an art curator from Beirut who is restoring two old homes in Oira, which is just down the road from Veglio.  We spent time with her celebrating Andrea’s graduation plus at the reunion lunch.  She shares the view that there is something quite special to be rebuilt and given to those interested in learning from the past.

One of our special guides on the trip was Adrianna who is half American and half Swiss but has lived in Italy for most of her life.  “Addie” spent an entire day with us as our interpreter in working with the notary public as well in hiking up to Veglio to understand the village better.  

Adrianna and beau
She is a delight and was full of questions for Linda about life in the US.    She misses Cinnamon gum and US beauty products and wanted to hear all about the latest from Bloomingdales.  Adrianna is in the process of learning her fifth language, Japanese and has a very bright future wherever she decides to go!

While it is impossible to write about all of the people we met, there was one special little lady that I must mention.  For most of the past several years, we have been getting to know family from my grandfather’s side.  We really didn’t know too much about our grandmother’s family even though we knew she lived somewhere in the Formazza region. 

Aunt Paurina and her new great great nieces
When brother Ken was making reservations at a little B&B near Veglio, the proprietor(Mario) started asking questions about our family connections.  Ken told him about Grandma including her last name of Arrizzi.  A few days later, Mario emailed Ken to tell him that he had found one of Mama Tuna’s relatives living nearby.  It turned out to be her baby sister, Paurina, who is now 87 years old.

My mother remembers clearly her mother talking about taking care of this little baby sister who is nearly twenty years younger.  What a joy she was.  We had the chance to spend time at her home and she joined us for the entire day of the reunion.  Amazing to make a connection with a generation that we had thought was long gone.

Ken may still be on the Mountain
I am finding it very difficult to remain with my head in California.  Each day, I keep thinking about our experiences and the people of Veglio.  Even though, our trip and our time there was a once in a lifetime experience, my hope is that we continue to build these relationships as we rebuild the house.

But for now, I am back to the so-called real world of Orange County.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

History Matters

The house in Veglio is certainly much more than a construction project. It is a very tangible connection with our ancestors. I have always had a very strong association with my grandfather(Giuseppe Senestraro), a man I knew for just a few years growing up. I was his name sake. He was at my mother's hospital bedside when they were trying to decide just what this little fella was going to be called. My mother and father could not agree on much of anything, much less my name so my grandfather with his broken English asked them "What's wrong with Joe". Undoubtedly, this question would be asked many times over the subsequent years, but on that morning in 1961 I became another in a long line of Joseph/Giuseppes.

We called him Papa Tuna because he eventually moved to a little town in Northern California call Fortuna. None of us grandkids could pronounce Fortuna, so it was unceremoniously shortened. He was always a towering figure in our family even though physically I suspect he didn't crack the five foot six mark. He was our patriarch, our papa, our pater familias...the man who had left all he had known to come to the US like so many of his fellow Europeans at the time.

Lago Maggiore--40 Miles South of Veglio
I was first drawn back to Italy to understand more about what motivated Papa and millions more to make the long voyage to some destination that they knew very little about. With my naive understanding of early 20th Century Italy, I had a vision of Tuscany and of villas and maybe a little Sophia Loren thrown in for good measure. Why would anyone leave that? But with just a bit of digging, the story began to make more sense.

Giuseppe was born in 1896 in the home that we now set out to restore. One of seven children, all boys except for sister Maria that were born to Francesco and Eugenia Senestraro. Life on the mountain was hard, but the family had more than their share of pasture and cows. Legend has it that great grandfather had nearly one hundred animals through the valley that would produce the milk needed for cheese and other products.

During the short, hot summers at the base of Alps, vegetables and grapes were in generous supply. Grapes made their way to wine that would be both sold as well as drank. The region was a prime wine producing area on rocky, terraced hillsides that would transform the fruit into vintages that would make its way primarily to the markets in nearby Switzerland. This cycle of production and life was largely unchanged for several hundred years leading up to the early 1900s.

Two major events, however, disrupted this idyllic life in Veglio. The first was technology, machinery that would drive the agricultural production down to flatland regions to the South. The areas around Milan and then further towards Tuscany where large scale crops could be produced much more efficiently. This quickly made the labor intensive vineyards very expensive compared to their neighbors to the south. While today, the Piedmonte region is well known for fine cheese and Barolos that are exported, they became uncompetitive in basic food production in the 1910's.

Italian Troops in the Alps, 1918
Larger still was the impact of World War I. Italy had been aligned with the Austro Hungarian Empire in the time leading up to the Great War. However, as the conflict drew closer, its allegiances changed to side with the Brits, French and Russians. My grandfather, who was nineteen at the time, joined the forces that would fight to keep the Austrians from sweeping through Italy and onward. The fight took them deep into the Alps and then into what was then part of Austria. While later in the war, the Western forces defended Italy, the Italians sustained major casualties in the mountains and in the Battle of Caporetto. Some six hundred thousand dead, nine hundred thousand wounded and a huge toll on the economy by the end of the conflict.

Papa returned to Veglio to find rampant inflation, poor markets for the local products and often times little food around the Senestraro table on the cold winter nights. I am sure there were many long conversations with his mother and father talking about the possibility of leaving home. America was half a world away with just a few stories from letters and newspapers of the hope and opportunity that might await. But leaving might very well mean never seeing your family again.

Ferndale Valley in Northern California
One of the letters that passed around the village was from a neighbor by the name of Daoro. He had found work in the little farming town of Ferndale on the far north coast of California. He and Papa had grown up together and Daoro needed some help to mine the "white gold" that was sure to be found in the rich farmland of Humboldt County.

The rest is as they say, part of history. Giuseppe Senestraro made his way to Le Havre in France in late 1920 to board the Corsican which was bound for Canada. He arrive in St John, New Brunswick and according to border crossing records entered the US for the first time at St. Albans, Vermont on January 23, 1920. From there, likely a long series of train rides ensued before he found himself toasting his new adventure with his old friend Daoro.

Family legend is a little sketchy over those first few years in America, but they worked as ranch hands to save the money to purchase their own few cows that could be grazed on the leased fields that would form their partnership. It also seems as though they may have had a little boost in their savings account courtesy of a then increasingly sober U.S. Government.

The Volstead Act of 1920, aka Prohibition, made all liquor illegal. Papa had learned well how to make wine and from that wine, grappa. It only made sense to him that he should supply a little of this know how to a increasingly thirsty market in his new found home. While we will never know exactly how and what, we are convinced that he and a few of his Italian buddies spent nights and weekends creating their own vintages. It was only after meeting with my family in Italy, did I learn about this as he was not entirely forthcoming about his "illegal" activities.

But man cannot live on wine and cheese alone! Papa wanted a family and longed for a wife who would join him in America. With little English skills and likely much competition from the other new immigrants from Italy, Denmark and Portugal, he decided to take another route to achieve his objective. Letters home to his father were sent in the hope of finding some girl from the village and surrounding area who would be interested in building a new life. And from there, the call went out on the 1926 equivalent of in Montecrestese.
Register at Ellis Island

Corinna Arizzi was twenty four and had perhaps met Giuseppe once or twice. She was seven years younger than him and from a village close by. Mama "Tuna" as she later became was up for the adventure and soon the letter back to America was sent. No courtship but rather another very long series of trainrides and boats back to Italy for the then new US Citizen Giuseppe Senestraro. And in October 1926 as close as we can tell, in the little church where he had worshipped as a child, Giuseppe fulfilled his next step of the American dream.

They left shortly after and departed Genoa for New York.

Like millions before and after, they landed at Ellis Island for processing and entry in the U.S. The official register shows their arrival on December 22, 1927. Giuseppe, age 32, Corinna, age 25 both from Northern Italy. Giuseppe now the proud holder of a US passport with his bride bound for the West.

Almost There..Giuseppe and New Bride

Over the next several decades, they would have five children and move several times. Each time, to a little bigger house, more pasture, more cows and an ever growing community of Italian Americans. Papa would never see his mother and father again. They both died in 1944. While he returned once more to Italy in 1950 to visit his friends and family, he was by and large an American who was helping write the new story of his family.

Giuseppe Senestraro passed away in 1968 at the age of 72. A life of hard work, a little too much wine but a great adventure. Mama lived for nearly two decadees more before joining him once more. I am thankful each day for the sacrifices and their courage. I hope that we can make them proud and continue to learn from them as we continue on with our project in Veglio.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Family Gathers

Well, in a little town half a world away from California, twenty people from various walks of life gathered today. Since our soon to be new old house in Veglio was owned by our very large family, buying it required transferring ownership from various aunts, uncles and cousins. So on the eleventh of June in a notary public office in Domodossola they came to sign their papers giving the crazy Americans title to that thing on the mountain.

The Twenty Members of the Senestraro(Our Grandfather) Family
They came by car and train and maybe even a bicycle or two from as far as France. Cousin Andrea had convinced them that we could and would restore the old stone relic so it could once again be filled with the smells of garlic and wine and the sounds of laughing.
Don't Worry, We Didn't Need That Wall

About 5am Pacific, we got the email that it was DONE and they were headed to mountain to take pictures and celebrate. Around one in afternoon another email came with pictures of the day and a few lines as well as the promise to write more and more tomorrow. Oh...and Andrea also let us know that there was good news and bad news. He said it seems like the old house is restoring itself, as a chunk of it fell down yesterday...the bad part for certain he said that would have been demolished anyhow!

I found myself more than a little nervous as soon as our dream became our ownership reality.  We were in Palm Desert yesterday taking a little rest after a very rough week but that relaxation turned to tension.  Where will this project lead?  It feels in many ways like an archaelogical dig more than a home improvement project.  Alex and I were up at the La Brea Tar Pits last week and the crates and digging and cataloging seemed to predict what may be ahead for us.  The discovery is much more than the old "bones" of the house but this new relationship with our family.  My older brother and I are embarking on this joint project that is surely to have its moments of friction between us as well as our cousin several thousand miles away.  My hope is that it will be bring us all closer together but as with all of these kinds of adventures, there is more than a little risk that it may not quite turn out as we picture in our minds.

I am wondering where this will lead.  Not sure it would be a full blown case of buyer's remorse, but a very large symbol of change in our lives...change that has been with us for the past five years and about to quicken its pace. 
Next up is our family trip to Italy in just over a month.  All three of us brothers(Mark, Joe and Ken), together with our families will be spending time in the North and then on to Venice and Rome.  But first, we will see the mountains, the house and celebrate a "re" union with over fifty members of our family.  A huge lunch has been planned with a very nervous goat being fattened just for the occasion.  Wondering tonight who is more anxious about the coming events in Veglio.

Living the Italian-American dream,

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Here goes nothing...Italian escrow to close in a week.

Nearly four years, after the passing of my first wife, I found myself voyaging to the countryside in Northern Italy to visit family.  We met our family members from my grandfather's side(Giuseppe Senestraro) and immediately felt at home in this little corner of the Italian Alps. 

We met Cousin Giovanni, Uncle Giuseppe, Aunt Andreana and many others who looked remarkably like the face that I see in the mirror.  It was a surreal experience to return home to this village that has been part of our heritage for nearly six hundred years.  We immediately fell in love with our long lost family members, the majestic Italian Alps and the little villages comprised of stone houses that hug the hillsides.

The Toce River--Crossing on the Way to Veglio

After a three hour lunch with more than adequate amounts of very 'rustic" homemade wine, we found ourselves driving up the windy mountain roads to find the little village of Veglio.  This comune of a little over 600 people was the ancestoral home including the little cropping of ten houses abandoned by my great Uncles in the 1961 where my grandfather grew up. 

Walking the little paths through the old stone houses, wandering through the grapevines and the pasture where Papa Tuna(grandpa) would have kept his cows as a youth was an amazing experience.  One of guides that day was Andrea Scotton, who is just a year older than my daughter Alexandra.  Andrea at the time a student of architecture in Milan has an incredble passion for the beauty and meaning of these villages and houses.  He quickly shared that with us and after even more wine and chocolate on the mountain, we began talking about restoring the old family house.

Andrea doing what he does best!

Today, we are one week away from closing escrow or whatever the Italians call it on this dilapidated building first built in the around 1500 AD.  My brother Mark and Cousin Andrea are joining me in this journey to create a home in the mountains that can be shared with our family and friends for generations to come.

I was thinking about this project and the strange reactions that I get from many people when I tell them about our plans and thought it would be interesting to keep this blog to tell the story of our restoration.  If I had a dollar or a euro for every set of rolled eyes upon my revelation, we would be able to finance this but for now we will have to borrow from our kid's inheritance.  I think we all admit going in that we have no idea exactly how this is going to turn out.

A hopeful rendition of the finished product
In preparation for the challenging conversations that I am sure will happen along the way, I have rented The Money Pit and have looked at my copy of the Six Hundred Dollar Tomato.  We have already had a few emails that start with Dear Uncles, I have some bad news...and I am sure there promises to be a few more of those in our future.  With that said, I also believe that this will be a great story to be told to our grandchildren.

So with that, we are wiring $32K in hard earned US cash in a few days to secure our little piece of Italy.  That pays the eight  family members who now own the property and also the taxes and notary charges which were more than the property costs itself.  This for certain is the tip of the iceberg and I did not have a good answer when my wife Linda asked about how much the full project is going to cost.  Perhaps we should watch Tom Hanks and Shelly Long tonight!

Our escrow is scheduled to close on the June the 11th.  Fingers crossed that all goes smoothly.  Andrea has worked very hard to secure the necessary documents and agreements from the sellers.  I will let you all know when that happens!

Ciao for now.