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TRAVEL: Learning about roots makes Sicilian sojourn worthwhile

April 28, 2012

The only information we had about my ancestral family on my father’s side was a baptismal certificate for my paternal grandmother. It said she was baptized in a town called Alia.

Away we went.

It was a stretch to think we could locate my family in a tiny town where little English was spoken. The only document we had wasn’t even written in Italian. It was in Latin.

We caught the 7 a.m. train from Palermo, in Sicily, to a small village, where we were able to board a bus to Alia. Sitting 2,250 feet above sea level, overlooking a magnificent countryside of vineyards and olive groves, this town of 4,200, founded in 1615, still looked like a 17th century town, with narrow cobblestone streets and hilly terrain. But we weren’t there to sightsee.

On the bus, we encountered a group of teenagers, who we later learned were en route to school. On a whim, we showed them the baptismal certificate, which they passed back and forth, talking and giggling among themselves. Though none spoke English and we spoke no Italian, they managed to communicate to us that we should get off the bus with them on arrival at their school. Two of the students actually skipped class to take us directly to the church where my grandmother was baptized.

The quaint but nonetheless magnificent Church of Maria SS di Tutte Le Grazie (Our Lady of all Graces) was built around 1635 in the late renaissance style, with many baroque features.

On arrival, a church official looked at the certificate, and immediately pointed to the baptismal font where my grandmother was baptized. He then led us on a brief tour through the church to a portrait of the priest who had baptized her and who later became a bishop in that diocese. But that was all the information he had.

On exiting the church, I showed the certificate to the first person we encountered. As it turned out, Vito, who looked and sounded like Anthony Quinn, had worked for Kodak in Rochester, N.Y., for 16 years and spoke good English. Now a comedian at a local club, he told us he moved back to Alia, where he is “a big fish in a little pond.”

Vito looked at the certificate and said he knew the Dauras, which was my grandmother’s family name. He told us they owned a home on the outskirts of Alia overlooking a vineyard, but he said they were in their Palermo home that week.

With the information provided by Vito, we were able to contact my cousin Cosimo by phone and explain who we were. He invited us to dinner the next night, when he and his daughter arrived at our hotel about 7:30, on foot. After some introductory conversation, we walked for several blocks, not knowing where we were going—presumably to a restaurant. En route, we stopped at a fruit market, where the owner peeled and cut an orange for Katrina and me to enjoy while he chatted with Cosimo, who was making a few purchases. Two more blocks of walking led us to a meat market, where Cosimo made another purchase.

It wasn’t until then that we realized he was buying food for dinner at their home.

At his condominium in downtown Palermo, we were greeted by Cosimo’s wife, Maria, and his two daughters, Eleana and Francesca (Francesca could have been my daughter, the resemblance was so pronounced). Maria cooked a six-course meal, which ended with fruit marinated in wine in a soup dish. I had not eaten this since my grandmother prepared it in New Orleans when I was a child and never knew it was a traditional dish from the old country.

Toward the end of the evening, Cosimo showed us the extensive genealogical research that had been done on our family, all of it in English. We learned the railroad recruited people, including the Daura family, from the Alia area to migrate to New Orleans to work on the railroad in Louisiana and Mississippi. The only Dauras who remained in Italy were Cosimo’s father and grandfather.

We also discovered that my grandmother Daura and my grandfather Basile, who was from Palermo, met on the boat traveling from Palermo to New Orleans.

We thought we might find some old documents. We found family, making it one of the best trips we’ve ever taken. If you have dreamed of finding family in your ancestral home town, don’t delay. It might not be as difficult as you think.•

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Basile is an author, professional speaker, philanthropist, community volunteer and retired executive of Gene B. Glick Co. His column appears occasionally. Basile can be reached at Frank_Basile@sbcglobal.net.

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