Finding Family In Castelsilano, Italy

Like many families in Weed, my great-great grandparents emigrated from a small town in Italy called Casino. In 1950 Casino was renamed to Castelsilano. 

There are no buses or taxis to Castelsilano and without renting a car it can be challenging, but thankfully we are always up for a good adventure. The closest we could get by train and bus was to San Giovanni in Fiore, which is where my great grandmother was born. There are no Airbnb's but other accommodations and this is where we decided to spend the night. Getting to San Giovanni in Fiore was surprisingly easy. We took a train from Briatico to Lamezia and another train from Lamezia to Cosenza.

Then we caught a bus in Cosenza into the mountains of San Giovanni in Fiore. From my experience Italian taxi drivers are crazy, but Italian bus drivers on mountain roads are even crazier. We could hear and smell the brakes while at times taking corners on two wheels. Soon after we started I made Jim switch seats with me, I couldn't stomach the drop offs. I am sure it was comical to watch as he tried to crawl over me while I slid under him with legs sticking out in the aisle. He actually got stuck with one leg sticking up in the air while I was stuck under him trying to scoot to the other side all while holding on for dear life. The things you do for love.

A few days before we left we made a connection with a driver named Franco in San Giovanni who could take us 10 km to Castelsilano. We made arrangements via Whatsapp in which our texts were long and detailed. I was a little worried about his one word response, "okay" and "relax". The day we left we didn't hear from Franco about picking us up at the bus station. 

The bus stopped on a hilly street in San Giovanni in Fiore and since we were the only ones left we assumed we needed to get off.  Since Franco was not responding, we decided to take off to find our B&B and ask for some help getting to Castelsilano and perhaps along the way we might find someone to take us. Shortly after we started the trek up, the town was very hilly, we passed DeMarco tours and I thought, surely they will know how to help. 

We were greeted by Bernardo, who spoke some English. We asked if he knew of someone who could take us to Castelsilano to the cemetery and maybe let us walk around the town for a few hours. He got on the phone and within minutes had a guy who would do it, his name was Franco....our Franco...the Franco who never got back to us.

Franco spoke no English so Bernardo helped us work out the details on what we wanted to do, we settled on a price and we took off. On the way we chatted back and forth using Google translate. I shared some information about my family and he said he knows a guy who speaks English that can help.

Franco went straight to a small shop that was closed. We drove around until he found a guy walking and took a few moments to speak to him. He pointed us in a direction which I was assumed was the guy we were looking for. Next thing you know Franco was knocking on a door. A woman comes out on the balcony. They exchange a few words and then the door opens to a man who speaks a little English...Hello, my name is Vincenzo. I shared with him my family names and he says I know a guy.

We drove around the corner and Vincenzo got out motioning for us to do the same. He knocked on the door and a woman answered. They had a quick conversation before she called for someone else. A sweet woman appeared who reminded me of my Nani and they all talked at once for a few minutes, before demanding we come inside. Vincenzo asked me to show her the names of my great and great great grandparents. They went back and forth before she smiled and shook her head no and then gave me a big hug. Vincenzo said no worries, I know another guy.

Leaving the car we walked down a few houses and knocked on another door. A man opened the door who was resting peacefully for his afternoon reposa before being interrupted by us. I told Vincenzo it's okay, we were fine just going to the cemetery to look around, but he was determined to help us. Soon a woman appeared and invited us in. We exchanged names and met the second Vincenzo and his wife Maria. We were asked to sit down and offered something to eat and drink and even though we said no thank you several times, Maria was not letting us leave without at least having something to drink. She served us coffee and homemade cherry juice. We were treated like family, not strangers.

As we sat there, Jim and I tried to follow the conversations, catching a few words like Bianco, famiglia, nonno; growing up in an Italian family, I was used to everyone talking at once. Vincenzo and I used Google translate as much as we could to communicate. Vincenzo #2 left and came back with a book, Stories di Castelsilano that he handed to us. 

Vincenzo #1 and I slowly started searching the book, for what I am not sure, it was all in Italian. Waiting patiently Vincenzo #2 took the book back and flipped right to the page of names. I immediately found my great grandfather's name along with his brother who were both born in Castelsilano. 

Excited, Vincenzo #1 points to the name and explains to everyone that it is my Nani's father, my great grandfather. Vincenzo #2's face grows into a smile and he said his nonno was Lorenzo Bianco. We were all excited to be making connections. Vincenzo #1 actually teared up and grabbed the rosary beads around his neck and took a set out of his pocket, kissed them and said thank you. 

Vincenzo #2 proudly shared with Jim his carpentry and the sculpture he created. He also did the carpentry work for the cover of the Castelsilano book, his work is beautiful. 

We visited a while longer and explained we were going to the cemetery next. That's when Maria shared exactly how to find the grave of Lorenzo Bianco. We took pictures, exchanged information and contact numbers of families in the San Francisco area. After many hugs and kisses we said our goodbyes to my new found cousin Vincenzo and his beautiful wife Maria. 

In awe of what just transpired we headed to the cemetery and Vincenzo led us straight to the Bianco grave. We passed by many other graves with names that are familiar to me: Aquila, Scalise, Leonetti, DeMarco, Lamanna, Tallerico, Mazzei and Aiello. I wished we had more time to explore the cemetery but our drivers' time was almost up. 

Before heading back we stopped at the church and main square in Castelsilano. Vincenzo and I became Facebook friends before we dropped him back off at home. We hugged and I only hope I conveyed how much I appreciated his time and all he did for perfect strangers. After many thanks and hugs he said God Bless in English and in Italian and we waved goodbye. Castelsilano is a tiny town where everyone knows everyone, it feels like Weed. I was sad to be leaving.

Notice the names: Tallerico, Leonetti, Scalise, DeMarco

Franco and Vincenzo

Franco brought us back to our B&B, where we dropped off our backpacks and headed around the corner to a small bar right across from the church. It was filled with older Italian men dressed in collared shirts, half zipped jackets, sweatpants and dress shoes. The main man was treated like Vito Corleone and looked like my great uncle Tony "Tug" from Boston, who came to Weed a few times. They all sat outside smoking, keeping an eye on us. As Jim and I sat there with the sun shining, reminiscing of how the day unfolded, all smiles and excited, I glanced over to find Vito and his guys staring right at us. I gave a sheepish smile and knew we were safe when he slowly raised his ring hand, giving me a small wave accompanied by a thin serious smile. 

I slyly snapped a not so good picture 

We walked around San Giovanni in Fiore and I fell in love with this town. We were hoping to grab a bite for dinner but nothing opened until 20:00. We walked into this dimly lit coffee bar where we asked the girl working if she knew of a place to get a bite to eat, she said nothing opens until later tonight but offered to make us a tray of food. She brought out meat, cheese, crackers, olives, peanuts, focaccia bread, honey and chips for $1 plus the cost of our two drinks, $11.00. 

The next morning we had coupons from the B&B for breakfast at the old Italian bar from the night before. We walked in and were served a coffee and chocolate croissant and as we sat there every person that came in said buongiorno. At one point five guys walked in at the same time and every one of them greeted us....that was 15 buongiornos in a matter of five seconds. We were picked up by Franco's wife and brought to an empty parking lot across from the police station to what we hoped was the bus stop to make our way back home. 

The whole day was surreal and I couldn't help but think how fate had to play a part in it all happening.... Having no idea how we were going to get to Castelsilano, to finding a guy, who knew a guy, who knew a guy, who knew a guy that helped us find a relative. One wrong turn and we never would have met family. The town Castelsilano reminded me a lot of Weed growing up; how everyone knew everyone and was willing to help and welcome strangers into their home, treating them like family. I immediately started missing my own family and those childhood days where no one locked their doors, where there were no strangers, everyone was welcomed into homes, made to eat, drink and sit around to talk and laugh and always hugged goodbye. I can't help but think how lucky I was to grow up in Weed. I am so grateful for so many childhood memories of the community of people, who never knew a stranger and loved you like family. It was exactly the same in Castelsilano, wonder it felt like home. I feel blessed for the beautiful people in Castelsilano for treating two American strangers like family. 

Maria and I have been sharing information since our visit and have found that Vincenzo's nonno and my great-great grandfather were brothers, his mother and my great grandfather were first cousins. I feel like the universe led us to family, along with help from Franco and Vincenzo who knew a guy, who knew a guy, who knew a guy!

I hope to return someday soon! Thank you and all my love to Franco, Vincenzo and la mia famiglia Vincenzo and Maria.

Vincenzo at his families graves.



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