Back to Your Italian Roots: A Very Special Trip to Abruzzo

| Fri, 03/12/2021 - 00:00
Lunch in the street with our “family”

Husband and wife Chris and Alana Loreto first traveled to Italy in search of their Italian roots in 2014. That very special trip took place in Abruzzo, where Chris’ maternal grandparents came from. They were both from the tiny village of Ofena and immigrated to Timmins, Canada, separately in the 1930s. Their marriage was arranged, but they didn’t know each other in Ofena.    

“Their story always intrigued us as they said they never knew each other while living in Ofena, yet it is such a small village,” Alana recalls. “We could not understand how they didn’t know each other… until we visited the village. Nonna was from near the top of Ofena in a much poorer section, and Nonno was from near the base of the village.”

During that trip, Chris and Alana, together with their teenage daughters, met with friends from Timmins who also have Italian heritage and who spend the summer in villages near Ofena where they own homes. With them, they explored the area and were able to meet and mingle with many locals. “It was the most fantastic experience for our family,” says Alana.

That trip was so special that Alana and Chris returned in 2017 for two weeks and were able to visit with the people who now own the home where Chris’ grandfather grew up. Chris also started studying Italian and is now able to easily converse. 

Their next desired trip is to Fano in Le Marche, where Alana’s family comes from. 

Let’s hear directly from Alana and Chris about their Abruzzo experience. 

What prompted you to begin your search to trace your Italian roots? 

My husband’s maternal grandparents both originally came from a small village in the Abruzzo region called Ofena. The Mancini and Silveri families were forever connected when the arranged marriage took place way back when. Their married life was spent in a small Northern Ontario city in Canada named Timmins. 

Over the years, many Sundays were spent enjoying our meal together at their tiny home in Timmins, listening to the stories of how they came to be married and the small village where they both grew up in Italy. Our Nonna and Nonno had this one black and white framed picture hanging in their living room of the road leading to Ofena in the mountains. The picture always intrigued us and when my husband was about to turn 50, I decided that it was time to plan a visit to see the village of Ofena. 

Chris standing at the Ofena sign
Chris standing at the Ofena sign - photo courtesy of Alana and Chris Loreto

Please describe the process. Did you already know your ancestral town? If not, how did you find it? Who or what was your first resource when you started your search for your ancestral town and Italian relatives (a relative, an office, an online service, etc.)?

When planning our trip in 2014, we were fortunate to still have our Nonna living in Timmins and able to share more stories about Ofena with us. This definitely helped with our planning as did the fact that in Timmins we are also very lucky to have a network of people who have emigrated from a group of close villages in the Gran Sasso e Monti della Laga National Park in Abruzzo including Ofena, Carufo and Villa Santa Lucia. Since these villages are all located so close to one another, people who have emigrated from any one of them consider each other like family.  One is able to walk down the mountain from Villa to Carufo in about 10 minutes and Ofena is a very short drive down from Carufo. These villages are so very small that they are rarely even shown on a map. 

Several of our friends in Timmins still own homes in Carufo and Villa Santa Lucia and return yearly during the summer months. They encouraged us to visit during the time that they were at their homes in the village so that we could have the true experience of living the small village life in Italy with them. These friends connected us with the owner of the B&B in Villa Santa Lucia where we stayed for almost a week with our two teenage daughters. It is these connections with people that made the process of planning our trip to see Ofena smooth. People were the best resource for us! 

porchetta truck at the party in piazza
Porchetta truck at the party in piazza - photo courtesy of Alana and Chris Loreto

What were the obstacles, if any, during the process of finding your relatives and then getting in touch?

We, unfortunately, were unable to meet any relatives from either our Nonna or our Nonno’s side of the family when we visited Ofena as all have left that area many years prior.  

Although we did not meet any of our direct relatives on this trip, we did have the opportunity throughout the week to meet and spend much time with friends and the relatives of our close friends living in the village of Villa Santa Lucia. We were treated like family by all. It was certainly an experience that has stayed close to our hearts and prompted us to return several years later. Upon arriving in Villa Santa Lucia, our friends Gianfranco and Giovanna hosted a lunch for us to connect with those from our hometown in Canada and their relatives from Italy. This “small” lunch consisted of about 25 people at tables set up on the street. After we settled into the B&B, we joined our friends in the piazza for a village party with live music, dancing, and food from the visiting porchetta truck. The stars were out, and the mountain air was fresh. The piazza was filled with all who lived in the village and close by in the next village. This gave us another  opportunity to meet more people and chat with them in broken Italian and English. The experience of a lifetime for us…truly living the Italian village culture. 

Dinner gathering
A large dinner gathering of friends and their families. 

Every day of this week was a new adventure. Trips up the mountain to Campo Imperatore for arrosticini with our friends Gianfranco and Giovanna, large dinner gatherings organized by my husband’s “brother from another mother” Domenico, and more lunches in the street, and singing in the piazza. There was fun upon fun which is always guaranteed when Italians gather. 

Arrosticini at Campo Imperatore
Arrosticini at Campo Imperatore - photo courtesy of Alana and Chris Loreto

Please describe how you felt the first time you walked the streets of your ancestral town.

Our good friend from Timmins, Alfredo Ciccone, who also lives in Carufo for the summer months, took us on a personal tour of Ofena. We parked the car near the main piazza and we spent the day walking around the village, visiting the original home where our Nonno grew up and the bar where he had coffee. We were not able to go into the home where our Nonna grew up as it was still roped off from the damage caused by the earthquake of 2009 in the area. Many homes were still in their crumbled state waiting to be repaired, even 5 years later. 

The small narrow streets of Ofena were a labyrinth of new discoveries around each turn. Visiting the church where our grandparents married and seeing where they grew up made all the stories we heard over the years very real. We finally understood why our grandparents never knew each other growing up although the village is so very small. Even in small villages dichotomies of wealthy and poor existed (but not to the extent we know the word today) and the two did not often mix…Nonno being from the wealthier part of the village. 

When our Nonna left Ofena at 18 years old to make the trek to Canada by boat and train all by herself and not speaking a word of English, it was the very last time that she saw her mother. When Alfredo took us to the cemetery where our ancestors are buried, it brought tears to our eyes remembering the story that Nonna always told us of that last time she saw her mother. 

So many emotions ran through us that day. Sadness came upon us when we saw the outside of the tiny stone house where Nonna grew up which was replaced with great pride as we reflected on the accomplishments she made despite her earlier challenges. We took so many pictures so that we could show Nonna when we returned from our trip (she was 96 in 2014 and had only returned to the “old country,” as she called it, once). 

Can you recall any fun anecdotes from your visit to Ofena?

When Alfredo was showing us all the corners of Ofena and telling us stories about the village, he insisted that we visit with his mother-in-law still living there. She was expecting us and we could not disappoint her. She had cookies and espresso waiting for us and did not speak a word of English yet, somehow, even our girls were able to communicate with her. It must be the fact that all Italians, including us in Canada, speak with our hands and in gesture. We were so full upon leaving her home as we were not allowed to go until every last cookie on the plate had been eaten. It is so true that no matter where or when, Italians revolve around food!

nonna's house
Chris' grandfather's house - photo courtesy of Alana and Chris Loreto

Ultimately, what has the experience of reconnecting to your Italian roots meant to you?  

Reconnecting to our Italian roots has been so important to our family and has instilled a great sense of pride in us as it really opened our eyes and allowed us to truly understand the work and hardships faced by our grandparents in creating the life they did.  

The Italian culture has always been a vital part of our life in Canada, but this visit to Ofena prompted my husband to register for Italian language lessons when we returned home. Once per week, my husband still (in 2021) has his Italian language lessons via Skype with his teacher located in Italy and can proudly say he is close to being bilingual (English/Italian) today! 

We also became very involved in our Italian Club in our community in Timmins, sitting on the Executive Board and volunteering with numerous events.

When we left the village to start our trip home, we vowed that we would return. We did just that in 2017, but this time stayed 2 weeks!

Our next adventure when travel restrictions have been lifted around our globe, we intend to explore the region where my family originates from…Fano in the Le Marche region. 

Bella Italia è la nostra preferita!

Thank you, Alana and Chris, for sharing your story with Italy Magazine readers.