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.