Call of the Blood

How often does travel lead to an authentic connection with the places we visit? Mostly, we sight see, we eat out, we visit museums and parks, we take tours along with every other tourist, rarely absorbing more than a superficial understanding of the place and its people. This is the story of a very different travel experience that led to a deep connection with an ancestral Italian village and its place in history.

My story begins in 1927 when Amelia Gandini, a tall, striking, young woman left her home in Faedis, Friuli, in north-eastern Italy and boarded a ship in Genoa bound for Australia. A few months later, she married by grandfather in Mackay, North Queensland (probably an arranged union – two of Amelia’s brothers were already in Queensland.) Twenty-six years later, I was born, her first grandchild, the daughter of her first-born child, Corrado.

Amelia Gandini on her wedding day to Giovanni Stroppiana, Mackay, Qld, Dec, 1927.

I remember Nonna’s ready smile; her smooth white hair pinned in a loose bun framing the bluest of blue eyes; her never-idle hands, serving us soft drink and biscuits or fingers flicking coloured threads into lacy crochet doilies and table runners. We didn’t know any Italian and Nonna and Grandpop spoke only a smattering of English, so in many ways they were like a foreign country to us kids. They smiled and nodded kindly. They were welcoming and gentle, so quaintly different from our Anglo-Saxon maternal grandparents. Yet love found a way to cross foreign borders and rest in my heart.  

I have dim memories of bath-time in Nonna’s huge cast iron bathtub that stood on a rough concrete floor; of butterfly shaped macaroni drying on racks and strings of pasta falling from a hand wound machine. When Nonna died, I was in my late 20’s. I grieved her death deeply. I felt cheated of the opportunity to know her in my adult body.

Decades later, I long to visit Nonna’s birthplace, Faedis. (She never returned). My younger sister made a stopover on a cross-Europe trip in 2017. Her photos of the streets and buildings move me deeply. I am so drawn to the place. Of all the amazing experiences I know I could have in Italy, there is only one place I want to go when a travel opportunity arises in November 2019. I journal about travelling there. I think about walking the streets. I imagine Nonna’s spirit smiling on me, welcoming me. I literally write myself into a story that proves to be rich and meaningful beyond my wildest dreams.

Close to border with Slovenia. Photograph by James Hills

I tell myself that most of the buildings and places that Nonna knew will have been erased by history. Secretly, I hope to find some traces but I think the odds are against me. Faedis is now only 12 kilometres over the mountains from Slovenia. Of course, this puts the village perilously close to what was the Eastern Front in both world wars.My sister told me that a devastating earthquake struck the area in 1976. Still a lovely sense of anticipation keeps me smiling as James and I take the train to Udine and then a taxi to Faedis. (We had been warned about the irregular bus services.)

In my head, I have a handful of Nonna’s stories, as recalled by my father and his sister, my aunt. In our records, we have some digitised photographs of Nonna and her brothers. I know a few Italian words (not enough for conversation) and I can read a little. I have no other tangible evidence of my connection to this place, just a deep desire to learn and to re-imagine Nonna’s life here.

Enter Andrea Tofolletti, a passionate local historian and our host in the beautifully restored Roman and mediaeval Affiticamere Valnascosta where we are staying.

Entry to breakfeast room, Valnascosta. Photograph by James Hills
Andrea Tofolletti, host extraordinare at Valnascosta and enthusiastic local historian. His help was invaluable to my understanding of the village and its history. Photo by James Hills

I tell him that I have seen photographs of Faedis bombed in WWII.

‘No,’ he corrects me. ‘Faedis was never bombed. It was burnt.’  

Andrea speaks good English. We follow the story he tells of the partigiani, the WWII resistance fighters who kept Friuli clear of Germans and operating pretty much as normal for much of the war. Eventually though, the Germans were irritated beyond restraint by the partigiani’s continued raids and incursions.

‘They threw fire into every house and building in Faedis. The commune (local council building) was burnt. All the commune records (births, deaths, marriages) were lost. But the priest had been warned. He hid the church records in a box in the bell tower and they survived.’

Andrea tells us that he saw the church records when researching the history of the Valnascosta buildings.

‘Some of them are written on sheepskin vellum,’ he said.

Silently, I thank that priest. It’s probably due to his actions in 1944, that I have a precious copy of Nonna’s birth certificate and consequently, I and my daughters now hold Italian citizenship.

Stone walls survive fire. Just one year after the war ended, Faedis celebrated their annual Strawberry and Wine Festival. Photographs show roofs re-built and life continuing in an amazing show of resilience, during those very difficult days.

What fire couldn’t destroy, the Terremoto del Fruili, (Fruilian Earthquake) almost did on   May 6, 1976. The first shaking began around 9 pm and lasted 30 seconds at 4.5 magnitude. After a short pause, the main quake hit with much longer shaking at 6.4 magnitude. The thick stone walls of many buildings were held together with weak mortar. They simply collapsed. The village cemetery was destroyed. Hundreds were left homeless. Despite timely and immediate response from the Italian Army then stationed at nearby Cividale, sustained recovery of the area took much longer and was shattered by an aftershock of 6.1 on 15 September, that resulted in more damage.

‘The weather was becoming cooler. People had begun moving back into their partially destroyed homes. Many of these buildings totally collapsed in the second quake,’ Andrea said.

Many dispirited residents left Fruili after the second quake. Those that remained eventually saw significant money flow from the Italian Government for village reconstruction with a mixture of contemporary new houses and restoration of historic buildings. Faedis actually experienced unprecedented economic development and was later awarded a Gold Medal for Civil Merit (an award given to people or organisations that show an exceptional level of self-denial in alleviating suffering and helping those in need.)

I am fascinated by the history. Yet it further convinces me that I am unlikely to find where Nonna lived or much physical evidence connected to her past. Her parents’ graves were probably destroyed by the earthquake. The old cemetery is now a bare gravel carpark. Families that could afford it moved their ancestors’ graves to the new cemetery out of town. I can find no trace of my great-grandparents in the beautiful new cemetery. I suspect their remains are under the carpark, next to the ancient Slavic church that was once the centre of the village.

But then….we show Andrea the photo/postcard sent more than 100 years ago in 1923 to the young Amelia Gandini from her older brother Antonio in France. It is simply addressed:

Alla Signorina, Gandini Amelia, Faedis N293, Italia (via Udine)

Photograph by James Hills

Amelia brought the postcard with her to Australia and her daughter (my aunt) still has the original. When Andrea sees the address, he is very excited.

‘I think I might know where is that address,’ he said. ‘Come outside, I will show you.’

On the stone shed wall that borders the car park outside Valnascosta, he points to a pressed metal house number plate N85. ‘This used to be the address for this place,’ he says.

‘They have changed the numbering systems so many times in Faedis. First, they had the Napoleon system (the French arrived in 1797). Many years ago, they had this metal plate house numbering system. Now they use something different again.

‘I have found another number like this in the field near Canal del Ferro. I think your N293 is also in Canal del Ferro. I have a friend who lives there. Let me check. I think that is where the number will be. Those old buildings up there. They don’t change. They’ve been there for hundreds of years.’

The old number found in a field near Canal del Ferro. Photograph by James Hills

Turns out, it takes more than two world wars and an earthquake to destroy my history. Turns out too, that Nonna did not actually live in Faedis proper. Canal del Ferro, is a collection of medieval two-story stone buildings a few hundred metres up the road towards the foothills of the pre-Julian Alps.  

A sense of the antiquity of this area seeps into my consciousness from the reading I’ve been doing. Before the French ruled, the Venetian Republic conquered the area in 1420. Before them the Cucagna family and their noble descendants ruled and built the castles on the hills on the other side of Canal di Grive. Roman coins turn in up vineyards. Excavations during renovations of the main church in the village piazza, revealed evidence of a small Roman temple. In fact, humans have probably lived in the area since around 2000 BC, according to archaeological digs in the nearby Cjondar des Paganis Cave located between Faedis and the neighbouring commune of Attimis.

I stand in Borgo Canal del Ferro on a clear, chilly November morning touching the rough stone walls of N295 (the house of Andrea’s friend) and those of the buildings next door. N300 was nearby. One of these buildings has to be N293!

Smiling through tears of belonging in borgo Canal del Ferro. Photo James Hills

The old numbering plates were mostly discarded, especially following the earthquake restorations, and location records were probably destroyed when the commune records were burnt.

Andrea says later that N293 may have actually been part of N295. Sometimes different families shared the same building.

N295 is a gracious, beautiful building with vines growing up the walls and traditional external wooden staircases giving access to different floor levels.

N295 in Canal del Ferro. My grandmother lived in N293. It has to be nearby! Photo James Hills
Part of the borgo Canal del Ferro. Photo James Hills

 This borgo has to be where Nonna lived, played, laughed and worked as she grew up.

This was where in 1917, her mother Erzegovina Gandini (nee Puppini), loaded all her children and their supplies including the pig and their chickens on to a cart, hitched the cow and attempted to lead them to safety at a friend’s house in then Austria when occupation by enemy soldiers seemed likely.

This was where Erzegovina returned a week later to find her home occupied by German soldiers. This was where she and the children then slept upstairs while the soldiers lived downstairs.

This was where the soldiers ate all the family’s food stores, including their pig and chickens;  broke up their furniture for firewood. (I read similar local family stories recorded in Faedis history collections). Nonna said the soldiers did not physically hurt them. Victors and vanquished, all were trying to survive a harsh wartime winter.

This was where the family would have starved that winter, except for the ingenuity of Amelia’s brothers who stole chickens and other food wherever possible.

This was where Amelia heard the bells from the Santa Maria Assunta church in Piazza 1 Maggio down in Faedis calling her, her mother and her siblings to mass; calling too many times during the Spanish Flu after World War 1, yet never once for their family.

Tears flow as a deep sense of connection to this beautiful place seeps into my being. Green and gold autumn trees on the foothills behind me wrap around the vineyards surrounding the borgo. Across the gurgling Canal di Grivo a few hundred metres away and up on the hills opposite, the two medieval castles, sharply white against the clear blue sky, watch over the valley as they had done for centuries.

Castello di Zucco and Chapel friese (photos from http://faedis.mobi/galleria_fotografica.html
Vineyards near Canal del Ferro

Exploring Canal di Grivo further convinces me that we are in the right place (or maybe I just want to believe this). From the bridge I watch the clear mountain stream rush down towards Faedis. Nonna often described her mother, my great-grandmother Erzegovina, washing clothes for rich people in icy river water. In this way, she earned a few lire to supplement the income that her husband drank on his return from seasonal work in Germany.

A few days earlier, I stood on another bridge in the main village of Faedis and watched the Torrent Grive, literally a raging torrent, especially after rain. I tried to imagine accessing the tumbling fury from the steep banks to wash clothes. It didn’t seem possible.

But here at Canal di Grivo, the river is much gentler – hurrying, clear water, broken on the edge with worn slabs of rock. I could almost see those women one hundred years ago, rubbing their clothes on the stones, maybe laughing and chatting.  

Canal di Grivo

As we drive out of Canal del Ferro, we pass a drinking fountain: worn mediaeval stones and running water, cracked by the earthquake and wrapped around with an iron strap. It simple beauty in form and function calls to my heart.

Fountain near Canal del Ferro

Like her mother, Amelia would have drunk from this fountain and collected water here. And almost 100 years after she left her birthplace, I, her oldest grandchild, pay homage to her at the fountain. I honour her courage and resilience in seeking a better life in a strange new country. I honour the grief, the cracks in human experience she knew. I honour the stories she told. I honour the power of her love that flowed through all the decades of my life and led me to this moment.

Renee Hills (Stroppiana) 2020. Amelia Gandini was my paternal grandmother.

Remembering Ancestors in the time of Coronavirus

Was it prescience? I made a vision board in January and devoted a chunk of it to intentions to focus on spiritual growth, intuition and meditation. I highlighted the words: wisdom, resilience and growth.

I chose these words because I wanted to add that focus to my life. But as the ancient adage from Aesop’s Fables (circa 260 BC) says: ‘be careful what you ask for.’ Who knew that just two months after gluing those words to the poster, a pandemic would find me digging deep for my own wisdom and resilience? Whether I want to or not, I am going to grow.

I am heartbroken at what is happening in Italy. My father is the son of Italian immigrants who came to Australia in the 1920’s after WW1.

My grandmother Amelia Gandini and my grandfather Giovanni Stroppiana on their wedding day in Mackay, Queensland, Australia, December 1927.

In the last few decades, I have been increasingly drawn to my Italian roots. I connected with a distant relative while my daughter was spending year working and travelling in Italy in 2011. Last year I stayed in Faedis, the small village in Fruili-Venezia-Giulia, where my grandmother was born and lived until she came to Australia in 1927. Now I feel as if half my heart lives in Italy.

To see the heroic efforts of the Italian medical staff; to know the devastating Utilitarian choices they are making to save younger over older lives (and this in a strongly family-orientated culture); to hear the indomitable spirit of people singing from their balconies; all this moves me to tears. A queer sense of pride rises in my blue-sky, brown-land Australian heart for these people, this culture and this country that I claim as part of my heritage.

In the time of coronavirus, I draw strength and resilience from my Italian ancestors. I and my daughters are here partly because of their incredible resilience. My grandmother (Amelia Gandini) was fifteen when the last pandemic l’influenza Spagnola (Spanish Flu)came to Faedis in 1918 just over 100 years ago. She said every family in the village lost at least one person. A vigil would be held in the home with candles. Then when the bells rang in the piazza, she and her brothers and their mother would run up to the church to say Mass.

Santa Maria Assunta Church, Piazza 1 maggio, Faedis Nov 2019. When my
grandmother left in 1927, the church was still being
renovated from a smaller structure
Photograph by James Hills

No-one died in Amelia’s family but her mother (my great-grandmother) became very ill with a high fever for many days and all her hair fell out. This is the same woman who washed clothes for rich people in icy running water for a few lire to feed her family. I’ve seen that icy running water. It’s a beautiful river if you don’t have to wash clothes in it.

Canal del Grive – this is probably where my great-grandmother washed clothes to make a few lire to feed her family. Photograph by James Hills

This is the same woman who tried to take her children to safety when the area came under enemy occupation. She loaded all her children and her chickens on a cart and with her cow, she led them to a friend’s house and supposed safety. I don’t know why this did not work out but a week later she returned to find her home occupied by enemy soldiers. For the remainder of the occupation she lived upstairs with her children and the soldiers were downstairs.

We found this photograph in the WW1 Museum at Kobarid, Slovenia. It was taken during the enemy occupation of Fruili, October 1917. It shows a woman leading two cows drawing a cart with all their supplies, a child on top – exactly as described by my grandmother.

This is the woman who somehow found the means that winter (with the help of Amelia’s brothers who stole and scrounged food wherever they could) to keep her family alive (1917-1918). Amelia said that the soldiers were hungry and cold. They ate all the chickens and the pig and the family’s winter stores. They burnt all the wood stored for winter, then the family’s furniture. These were desperate times. The hardy and resilient – my ancestors – survived.

My great-grandmother Erzegovina Puppini with one of her sons. When her only daughter, my grandmother emigrated to Australia in 1927, she never saw her again.

We all have ancestors who lived through difficult times – wars, pioneering days, economic depression, undiagnosed and untreated mental health issues, chronic ill health, family tragedies, natural disasters, discrimination, racism, injustice, etc. Their blood runs through our veins. Their collective resilience and strength are in us still; their capacity to dig deep, their wisdom and way of being runs in our DNA.Let’s call on these qualities, the gifts of our ancestors to help us through these strange days.

Then we will be able to say, like our young friend in Brescia, in one of the worst affected areas of Italy:

‘We in Italy are all fighting and we won’t give up, never at all. The only thing we can do in this moment is staying at our home. This moment is a kind of opportunity to have time to stay with our families. It is a kind of moment of reconciliation.’  

Which of you ancestors inspire you with their resilience and strength? Comment below.