Do angels work in our lives? Does fairy dust float among us creating magical experiences? To what extent does serendipity work in the lives of those that deserve it, are open to it, or have faith? It sounds a bit extreme but after the experience we have had last few days, one can’t help but believe it’s true.
My 68-year-old Italian-American father arrived for his first ever trip to Italy, with idealistic hopes of finding some long lost relatives in the town of his father’s birth. It’s my opinion he was both deserving and full of faith. Thus the angels and fairy dust were forcefully at work.
I woke up with butterflies in my stomach, knowing that we were about to head into the hills and take a potentially disappointing leap of faith. Not a particularly risky leap… what was the worst that could happen besides a case of mild heartbreak? It’s not like the financial investment in the trip to Italy would be lost, we would still get to enjoy the pizza, olives and gelato. Our adventure to Campotosto started with literally no plan (perhaps our attempt to thwart high expectations) simply a list of various Paolinis my dad had printed off from Google.
The first obvious indication that angels were joining us on our trip was in our immaculate timing. If anyone knows us Paulines from the Americas, they know we aren’t the most organized bunch. We didn’t take into consideration or heed any warnings in guidebooks about appropriate times to visit Italy, so we went in August. In the words of my Italian friend Dallas, “August is THE WORST time to go to Rome, it is totally EMPTY and HOT”, which we discovered to be true… this was actually a huge piece of luck for us. There is a small window of time when Romans escape the city in search of cooler temperatures and a breeze. Many of them to Campotosto. Unbeknown to us the town of our grandfather’s birth is now a popular holiday destination in August, but during the rest of the year, a ghost town. We arrived during the holidays, into a bustling small town, totally unplanned, and thus I believe serendipitous.
Visually it was a surreal experience. We arrived at the golden hour, that special time when the sun drapes everything in a blanket of golden light. The greenery, the angel rays coming through the clouds as we drove into town, the sparkle off of the crystal water were all good omens we would find what we were searching for. I was astounded to find that the place our grandfather came from mirrored that of the Rocky Mountains, our own homeland thousands of miles away.
We arrived, parked the car and got out with little clue of where to begin. I jokingly suggested we stroll into the town center where we saw a gaggle of classic old Italian men gathered around playing card games under a covered tarp, and simply yell out that we were in search of a Paolini. I didn’t suspect that this is what we would end up doing. My mom hunted down some friendly looking women to enquire about where to stay and they in turn connected us to a Canadian/Italian man named Pat who could help us translate. He immediately felt driven to assist us in our quest for fellow Paolinis. Where did he lead us? To the town center of course. To the tarp with all the old men riveted by their card games. We approached meekly, arousing a few upward glances of curiosity and a few Buongiornos… Pat, our newly acquired translator made a public service announcement for all to hear that we were Paolinis from America, in Campotosto in search of our relatives.
A few fingers pointed around and a number of them landed on an old, grumpy looking fellow, with bushy eyebrows and a look of confusion. His name, Francesco Paolini, at first the impression he gave was of frustration that we were interrupting his card game, but he glanced up enough times to prove his curiosity and interest. While seemingly the entire town crowded around us helping us find a place to stay and rounding up as many Paolinis as possible, it became clear we had entered a circus, or perhaps created one. The combination of two young American girls, my blond Norwegian mother, and my precious father, all standing around awkwardly claiming to be long lost Paolinis, got more attention then we ever could have imagined.
Though we weren’t sure whether or not Francesco was family or not, we snapped a few photos noticing similarities in nose and ear shape, it made every one laugh. We headed up the hill to an apartment that they had scouted out for us. My sister and I slept in the same room as my parents, an experience I haven’t had since our camping days more then a decade ago. The view out the window was spectacular. The lake, the mountains, the town. Wow. So moving to look out the window and know that this is where the Paolini legacy started.
We woke up early the next day to meet Pat our translator at the town municipal building. The village circus had also found us a historian, skilled beyond measure at scouring old death and birth records, to help us search for relatives. We wandered into town and found Francesco, the grumpy guy with bushy eyebrows, waiting for us. Perhaps he was more interested in us then he let on? After we sat with him for a coffee and croissant, his treat, we walked into the town municipal building for hours of searching through century old documents. Who was the amazing man helping us? Adriana… a professor from Rome who happened to be in Campotosto. A man who LOVES looking through the old data… AS A HOBBY. This guy was unbelievable and another example of serendipity.
We started with my grandfather’s birth certificate which my dad had already had. From there we went through book after book, finding his father, and his father’s father, information dating all the way back to 1692. HOLY WOW. This was CRAZY. The books they were flipping through, agonizingly looking at dates, names, spellings, looked like they were out of Harry Potter or the crypts of Egypt. So old with incredibly thick paper, and the smell of the past. Yet they seemed alive. All the pointing to names and expressions of surprise and revelation created an atmosphere of excitement and discovery. A few times my dad teared up as copies were made of birth and death certificates. We made a new family tree and found to our delight that grumpy old Francesco was in fact a cousin.
After a few hours spent in the small municipal building we walked out into the town square to find Francesco and another Paolini, Primo, waiting for us. We showed them what we had discovered, that we were in fact related, in a whir of hand signals and smiles. Linked by the house of the great Andrea Paolini and his brother Angelo Santo, our great great grandfather, my father’s great grandfather…and Francesco’s Great Uncle. A bit of a stretch we all realized but still, we were all so excited to have found that feeling we were searching for. My dad was thrilled, and Francesco delighted. At this point he really began to grow on Leah and I. He got this teary look in his eyes and we were all really moved. By this point we were all officially related. All of the generous helpers began to feel a sense of accomplishment and connectedness to the cause. We were invited to a wedding celebration later that night to enjoy some fresh Carp from the Lake, wine, plates of cookies, antipasti, dancing and best of all…time with our Italian family.