This is an edited travelogue I wrote following a trip wife Kathleen and I took to Italy and Sicily the last two weeks in March 2001. This material focuses on just the part of the trip in Palermo and Terrasini, the small town where Grandpa and Grandma Zerilli were from. I have additional notes and personal photos which I will post some other time. I wanted to post this now since I know some of you watched the recent PBS series The Italian Americans, which actually spent a lot of time talking about Sicilians who have had a different and distinct history from most of the rest of Italy. The photos I have included are stock photos. There are some genealogy notes at the end. I wrote this with love of my mother and all the rest of my immediate and extended family in mind. I share it with that same love. I know some of you got printed copies of this when I first wrote it. Please pass this along to cousins, second cousins and third cousins or anyone interested. Please enjoy it and share it freely with others.
S I C I L I A
At the very tip of the Italian “boot,” our train car was loaded into a large ferry for the short two-mile trip across the Straights of Messina to Sicily. Those two miles of sometimes-treacherous water are what has isolated Sicily from the main continent of Europe and given it much of its unique character and historical importance. At this point, we had befriended a fellow passenger, Guiseppe, a middle-aged Sicilian who managed brick layers far from home north of Venice for ten days and then had a week off to spend with his family in a small town 30 miles east of Palermo. He was very patient and kind, buying us a rice (risotto) snack and cappuccino during the ferry crossing. He also made sure we blew a kiss to Mary’s statue in Messina’s harbor, this being a gesture of respect and for good luck.
When Guiseppe got off the train, he and his travelling companion, Antonino, were greeted by about a dozen family members, not surprising since he and Antonino were married to each other’s sisters. Guiseppe held his baby boy up in the air to show us – his face glowing with joy and pride and love. As the train pulled out, they all waved and yelled “Ciao” to Kathleen and me. Ciao Guiseppe and grazie.
P A L E R M O
We arrived in Palermo around 8 p.m. It immediately felt like a much different country than mainland Italy. It actually felt more “Italian” than Rome and, yet, it also had a mixture what seemed to be Arabic or North African or Spanish cultures. The traffic was thickly jammed into dark, narrow streets defined by old buildings in need of sandblasting to remove dark soot. The few people we saw didn’t look Italian and some definitely weren’t, such as the Indian woman (dressed in an Asian sari) cussing out her husband who seemed to be cowering in an alley. Almost all the shops were locked up for the night with a garage door kind of shutter pulled down in front of the window and doorway. Unfortunately, this gives the impression of walking through an alley.
I had made hotel reservations over the telephone from Nashville using guidebook Italian. Upon arriving, I told Kathleen there was a chance that the man at the other end didn’t really understand me and that we might find we didn’t have a reservation. I also made a point that we try not to look like “tourists” and head purposefully along the route suggested by the guidebook. Even so, we walked by the gated hotel doorway twice before we realized we were already at our destination.
The hotel clerk spoke Italian and French. The resident cat spoke “meow” with a slight Italian accent. Our room, filled with beautiful antiques, was a few doors down from Quattro Canti (the historical four-corner heart of the city and the ornate fountain at Piazza Pretoria (as beautiful as any in Rome), all of which were totally or partially covered for repairs and restoration. That night we ate at a family-type restaurant filled mostly with locals and a few tourists. There was a cute, high-spirited little blond-haired girl belonging to a very dark-haired family. Her personality reminded us of our Becca.
Other travelers had assured us that Palermo was relatively safe, so after dinner we walked along a few streets near our hotel. During our stroll we passed the local carabinieri headquarters and greeted two officers. While in the carabinieri, Grandpa served in Palermo from about 1904 until his honorable discharge in 1907. He most certainly had spent time in that very building and walked the sidewalks we were walking.
I grew up knowing that grandpa was a “policeman in Palermo.” At that time, he was probably drafted into the carabinieri just as soldiers used to be drafted into the military. The carabinieri are more a part of the Defense Ministry rather than “city police.” They were (and still are) considered the toughest hombres in town. They were “the King’s men” and, frankly, they were not very well liked. This contradicts my memories of Grandpa, who I remember as being soft-spoken and kind.
More than once (on the entire trip) Kathleen and I would turn a corner only to find a carabiniere standing there with an Uzi machine gun slung over his shoulder. To get an understanding of how this feels, the next time you go to the grocery store, imagine there is a young, handsome Italian man in a snappy-looking uniform standing at the door and that he is holding a machine gun.
In the morning we were awoken by a distinctly Sicilian sound. Churches there sometimes ring their bells in a very rapid cadence—so fast that they sound like the wind.
Palermo, founded by Phoenicians 700 years before Christ, has been ruled by ancient Greeks, Carthaginians from North Africa, Romans, “Goths” who overthrew Rome, Byzantine Greeks, Vikings, Arabs, Normans of Scandinavian descent, Germans, Spaniards, and the southern French of Savoy.
(I was surprised to read that the Armenian Church once owned land in Sicily. The Byzantines had a couple Armenian rulers who probably doled out a few parcels of land to their mother church. So, who knows? Maybe my parents weren’t the first Armenian-Sicilian couple in history.)
More recently, Palermo had been bombed heavily during World War II by the Allies trying to knock Italy out of the war. We had said to ourselves that parts of the city looked like they had been bombed and shot up and not repaired. I later found out that we were right.
We had slept in a little later than usual and, being Sunday morning, only a few shops selling food were open. With tour book in hand, we set out to see the sights. At the main cathedral, we came across two young women, one from Rome and the other from Palermo. They had been classmates in London and both spoke excellent English. They recommended that we see the beach at Mondello, so Kathleen and I headed for a bus yard. Soon we found ourselves on the outskirts of Palermo less than about a third of the way to the beach and having to make another bus connection. We decided that the trip was too far out of our way. We asked a young girl for directions but she couldn’t help us on accounta she no speeka da Engleesh. An older man somehow understood us and at least pointed to what we thought was the correct bus number on the route sign. We hopped on what we hoped was the right bus. Rowdy young boys hung out the bus window, waving a large Sicilian flag. They sang and chanted. It was probably related to sports rather than politics.
Eventually, we came to a piazza filled with people strolling by open pastry shops and street vendors. It was sort of near our hotel, so we jumped out and enjoyed the afternoon. Italians (including Sicilians) like to promenade, meaning a casual walk showing off the newest styles, relaxing with famiglia and paesonos, and flirting with the opposite sex. Kids play. Old people talk (with a lot of hand gestures, of course). Everyone has a good time. We sat, drank cappuccino, ate cannolis, and watched.
Americans hate to waste time when they could be doing something “productive” like inventing a new type of automobile tire, a new computer chip or, at the very least, cutting the lawn. But Italians like to celebrate ordinary things. (If you order bottled water with your meal, many waiters will serve it with the same flourish as they would a bottle of fine wine.) Sicilians can turn a lazy Sunday afternoon into a quiet festival. If you have nothing to do, well, go ahead and do nothing. A cannoli or gelato, a blue sky and a conversation with a friend can make any day special.
As we headed back to our room in the late afternoon, we stepped into an old cathedral. We were surprised to find it crowded with people who definitely were not Italian. The sermon was being delivered in a singsong language that I recognized as Hindi, one of the main tongues of India. The standing-room-only congregation of several hundred people was Indian, possibly “gypsies” whose ancestors had migrated to the city in recent centuries although there are tales of Indian traders in Sicily dating back more than 500 years.
We left and then entered another cathedral where the congregation was distinct mixture of Spanish and Asian. We later found that Palermo has a large population of people from the Philippine Islands, although how this came to be I have no idea. This mixture of cultures was apparent everywhere in the city. Some signs were written in Italian, Hebrew and Arabic. Tall, black Tunisians sold hand-carved wooden African animals on street corners. And more than a few buildings still showed the influence of the two centuries of the Muslim (or “Saracen”) domination of Sicily. (Ironically, this was a time widely regarded as a Golden Age for the city that continued following the expulsion of the Saracens by Norman warlords working on behalf of the pope to get rid of Muslim and Greek Orthodox (Byzantine) influences on the island.)
The conflict between the Christian and Arab cultures is pictured everywhere in the city in paintings showing blond-haired, blue-eyed Norman knights defeating dark-skinned, black-haired Saracens. Most of the traditional donkey carts have such paintings. The conflict is also depicted in puppet shows; with puppetry being a popular folk craft. With more than a tinge (or tint) of irony, the dominant feature of Palermo natives is dark skin and jet-black hair. Go figure.
That night we headed for a restaurant recommended in the guidebook. Again, at night, the town took on a more menacing personality—though probably more imagined than real. But there were scenes that clearly would draw more than passing attention in Nashville or, even, Detroit. A large crowd of teens and young adults (maybe more than 100) crammed into a once beautiful but now drab 17th century courtyard where they openly drank, smoked pot, and blasted loud Italian rock music off the old walls around them. Several blocks away, small children threw rocks and bottles into an extremely large heap of burning trash. In both instances, the mood was “festive” rather than destructive. But it did seem like this was a city with very few rules and hardly anyone to enforce them.
The restaurant we were looking for had apparently disappeared since the guidebook had been written. We went up and down a few streets until we came upon an attractive young woman speaking on her cell phone as she stood outside what appeared to be a restaurant. We peeked in. There was a small dinning room filled with people and one small, empty table. We entered and sat.
On one side of the room were about 24 people (of all ages) seated at a single long table. In the middle of the room was a table of about a dozen people (mostly young and attractive) who seemed to be having an engagement party or a wedding rehearsal dinner. Four men sat at a round table in the corner, and Kathleen and I at the small table. That was it except for a party of four that left soon after we got there. As the evening progressed, the table of 12 became very animated. Our waiter, in broken English, explained that group of 12 was a touring theatrical troupe. They got livelier by the minute and coaxed one of the men in their group to take center stage upon which he sang several beautiful opera arias, one of which he dedicated to Kathleen and me. The larger group was an extended family celebrating two birthdays. They were definitely more reserved than the theatrical group. They began to loosen up, though, as the night went on. We spoke a bit with one of the actors (from Sardinia) who knew a tad of English. He explained this was their last night in Palermo after having performed the Gilbert & Sullivan musical “The Merry Widow.”
By the end of the night, the tables had been pushed to the walls and everyone—in both the groups and the restaurant management and Kathleen and I—was singing and dancing and carrying on as if it was one big party. At one point, the waiter came out dressed as a priest and—with some syrupy song playing in the background—pretended to bless everyone there. It was obviously some kind of Italian joke, and although we didn’t “get the joke,” the situation was extremely comical, anyway. The actors sang what sounded like their versions of Italian pop songs from the 1960s. The head waiter—who earlier had (in Italian) told our waiter to stop practicing his English with us because there were so many others to be served—was using a frying pan as a pretend guitar. (Our waiter was also a jazz musician [saxophone] and wanted us to know some of the background music was from a CD he had made.) The patrone of the birthday table was having a good time, too. He later made a short but warm speech to everyone there. Although we didn’t understand his exact words, Kathleen and I knew that, in essence, he was saying that it was good that people, even if they are strangers, learn to celebrate life together. It’s surprising that, (even though you can’t understand foreign words) body language, tone of voice, and the look on a person’s face can certainly let you get the drift of what’s being said.
During the course of the impromptu party, Kathleen and I received—as “guests”—free servings of pasta, birthday cake, glasses of a liquor called lemoncello, and Kathleen got a rose from the patrone of the birthday party. (In fact, he had bought roses for all the women in restaurant—this being one of the only instances during the entire trip that I witnessed anyone actually buying roses from a gypsy.) Although we paid for our meal, they asked for less money than it cost, so we made sure we handed them a big tip. Like the Visa commercial says, the experience was a “priceless.”
Along with many useful Italian phrases in our guidebook like “Where is the toilet?” and “What time does the bus leave?” is the sentence “There is a cat in my room.” It became a standing joke with us because we could not figure out why it was in the book. We figured it was a gag and it never got very high on our list of phrases to learn. Then Kathleen read that, some time ago, the Italian government had passed a law allowing cats to live wherever they wanted and they were not to be harmed. When we thought about it, we realized that, indeed, we had seen cats everywhere and there were even postcards of cute cats sitting on the heads of ancient statues and walking casually through the ruins. The reason for the law was that during the darkest days of World War II, Italians found themselves with very little to eat. Similar situations in Russia led people there to eat bread made of flour and sawdust. In Italy, meals sometimes included a helping of “gatto” or cat. They have always felt guilty about this episode of fricasseed feline and now give cats free rein. In fact, the first night we were in Palermo, I had to shoo the house cat away from our door three times. For some reason, he wanted in.
On Monday morning, Kathleen and I awoke to the fluttering of bird’s wings and the “cooing” of a pigeon that apparently landed on the inside of our window sill. We slept with the shutters open and there are no screens because there are no bugs that time of year. We woke with a start and apparently scared the bird away. But we thought this would be a good time to know how to call the front desk and say, “There is a pigeon in our room.” We also thought it would be helpful if we knew how to say, “Please send in the gatto,” hoping, of course, that the clerk didn’t think we were ordering breakfast.
In Monday’s daylight, we found our neighborhood to be a charming combination of bookstores, souvenir shops, fruit stands and clothing boutiques, all of which we explored most of the day. Although it is trying to repair and restore its many treasures, tourists are rare in Palermo. In fact, one of the city’s tourist brochures thanks visitors for their “attention and sympathy.” We read the Italian version to see if the word “sympathy” wasn’t just a bad translation. It wasn’t. Indeed, Palermo deserves some of our sympathy. And, yet, any city that has survived for 2,700 years, been conquered and re-conquered and at one time was considered the brightest gem in all of Europe will probably endure for many more thousands of years, with or without our sympathy.
Palermo is, in many ways, an alluring city because it is mysterious and a bit edgy. One of my favorite photos of the trip is a picture I took of graffiti on a wall around the corner from our hotel. Scrawled on the wall are: the name “Rudyard Kipling” (the famous English author), the name “Alessandra” (which could refer to an Italian female folk singer who released an album about the Virgin Mary who she views as a pagan goddess), a slot for offerings to a shrine of Mary behind a protective mesh window, the name “Roby,” and something written in Greek. This is all in one photo of a wall that looks like it has been riddled by bullets. Palermo is worthy of anyone’s scholastic research or creative imagination. There is probably an interesting story behind every door in that city.
In the afternoon, we boarded a bus for Terrasini. The ride started at Palermo’s chaotic bus and train terminal. A taxi driver tried to convince us that busses no longer run to Terrasini. We didn’t believe him, but it was a challenge to find and board the correct bus.
The bus squeezed through the narrow streets of the old city, pass shops of every description, pass mounted police, almost running into pedestrians and scooters, out toward the wider streets and taller apartments of the suburbs. Most of the riders were apparently commuters because we were the only ones placing suitcases in the bus’s underbelly storage compartment. We drove pass Mt. Pellegrino, a huge rock of a mountain topped by an ugly array of television and radio towers. Soon, the Mediterranean Sea was again on our right and steep mountains sloping to the shore on our left. We went through a long dark tunnel and came out in an area decidedly more rural. The bus stopped to let out a few passengers here and there and then cruised on pass a sign pointing to:
T E R R A S I N I
I had reserved a room in Terrasini over the Internet from a German scuba diving instructor named Gunnar Steinke. I called him from Palermo to tell him when our bus would arrive. He said the bus will drop us off in front of the main church and we should meet him across the street, in front of a bar named Friends.
The bus stopped. I got out and climbed half way into the bus baggage compartment to retrieve our luggage. Kathleen stood at the bus door to make sure the driver didn’t take off with me still in the compartment. We took our two suitcases and walked a few steps to Friends.
I looked at the large church in front of us, Santa Maria delle Grazie, now called the Duomo—the name most towns give their main church. It had been built in 1673 (upon the foundation of a church built in 1583) and was once boarded up to protect it from bombs in World War II. But now it was the grand centerpiece of a small village square filled with shops, people, cars, plants and trees. I had found a map of Terrasini on the Internet and I knew if I turned to the left, I would find via Palermo, the street grandpa grew up 120 years ago. And there it was. We immediately clicked off a few photos.
The town was nothing like the old, dusty village I had imagined because of photos I had seen on the Internet. The streets and sidewalks were clean. All the stores were open. Well-dressed people—old, young, children—walked about with smiles and lots of chatter. There were giant gumball machines, postcard stands and kiddy rides on the sidewalks. Pretty young women walked by as handsome young men eyed them. As in Rome and other Italian cities, motor scooters buzzed and cars whizzed by. A few times, as cars or scooters passed in front of the church, I saw people bless themselves. It was a sign of both respect and daring considering how badly Italians drive when using even two hands. Kathleen and I kept grinning until we finally said out loud: “What a great place!”
Kathleen took a short walk while I waited for Gunnar. As I stood there by myself, it slowly sank in that I was standing on ground my grandparents had last walked on almost 100 years ago. As far as I knew, I was the first and only of the Dominic Zerilli-Bianca Leto family of Detroit to set foot here in 91 years. I had flown over the Atlantic Ocean in nine hours. In 1910, it took grandpa two weeks to make the same trip on a steam ship. The world changes and keeps on changing. Yet, looking at the 328-year-old Duomo, I realized some things remain the same.
I must admit that I wasn’t struck by lightning and I didn’t burst into tears while I stood in this special place. All the planning, research, apprehension of long-distance travel and leaving the children behind, the powerful beauty of Rome, the unique strangeness of Palermo, the mountains, the sea—all of it led to that moment and that corner where via Palermo runs straight to the Duomo as it has done for centuries. It was on that corner and that moment I realized I had, indeed, become a pilgrim.
Gunnar showed up and took Kathleen and me to our room, one block behind the church. “The mountain is that way, the ocean in the opposite direction and the Duomo is in between. That’s about all you need to know to get around,” Gunnar said in laid-back monotone. We left our bags in the room and quickly headed back to the square while it was still light out.
The Duomo dominates the town. Stores run down either side in front of it and a few small offices sit at the opposite end of the square. We paused to look in a store window. An old man sitting on a bench saw Kathleen, moved over and patted the spot next to him. Kathleen sat and they began trying to communicate. “American,” Kathleen said pointing to herself and me. The old man said to another man, “Get Sam.”
Enter Salvatore “Sam” Dimaggio. Or rather, exit. Sam walked out of the small eatery we were in front of. He owns the place he calls The Extra Bar—a strange name by any standard. “Americans? I’ve been to America!” he said proudly. Sam isn’t a big man but he fills all the empty space around him with his personality. “Where are you from?” he said in practically perfect English but with a thick accent. “Nashville,” said Kathleen. “Nashville? I’ve been to Nashville. I was there two weeks ago. I drove from Miami to Detroit. We went to Nashville. Why are you here?” he asked, in a big voice that was drawing attention from others nearby. Kathleen looked at me. “My grandparents were from Terrasini,” I said in a voice much lower than Sam’s. “What’s their name?” Sam asked, who reminded me a little of the actor Rod Steiger and, also, John Salvatore, our next door neighbor back where I grew up.
“My nona’s (grandmother’s) name was Bianca Leto and my nono’s (grandfather’s) name was Domenico Zerilli. He left here in 1910.” “I’m married to a Zerilli!” said Sam, without skipping a beat. “She’s upstairs. Let’s go meet her. She’ll love this,” he said laughing.
Sam owned the apartment above his store. We went up to meet his wife Antonina. The short version of this incredible story is—Sam and his wife are from Terrasini but had actually lived in Detroit and owned an Italian bakery on Six Mile and Beech in Redford Township for 17 years. They lived on Bennett Street in Livonia, the same street but a few blocks from where my parents lived before moving to Lancashire. Antonina said that when they were in Detroit a few weeks ago, they went by their old neighborhood. She said she could almost cry because her former house on Bennett and Newburg is across the street from the Laurel Park shopping center which was built after they moved back to Terrasini about 20 years ago. “I would be in Jacobson’s (upscale department store) every day if we still lived there,” she said. If she were, no doubt she would have (probably) run into (or at least seen) a distant relative named Filippa (my mother). Grandpa had an older brother Antonino, a younger brother Vito (who was known as Bill and lived in Toledo) and a younger sister, Antonina. I got this info from a genealogy researcher in Utah and some material Cousin Blanche sent me and it appears to be accurate. I told this info to the Antonina (Zerilli) I was sitting next to. Given the Sicilian custom of naming children after grandparents, she certainly could have been a blood relative. Sam said Antonina is a cousin to “Mr. Joe Zerilli,” as Sam called him. But, while not rude, she didn’t seem interested in climbing the family tree with me. That was fine with me, too.
Although I had come this far, I had decided (before the trip) not to be pushy or too eager to find long-lost relatives. I really hadn’t done enough research and preparation for that and, besides, some people don’t welcome the intrusion. “All Zerillis are related. Of course, you are related,” said Sam, and I guess we all made an unspoken agreement to leave it at that.
A few minutes later, Sam and I stood on the balcony overlooking the square. Below there was a guy selling fresh fish out of the back of his truck. “He’s not suppose to be doing that, you know. But Sicilians don’t think they’re Sicilians unless they’re breaking the law,” Sam said. Well, he meant it as a joke…I think. But, throughout history, Sicilians had been conquered by so many different distant countries that they developed a strong distrust of any government and have always tried to take care of things on their own. They also sought to protect themselves from what was usually an unsympathetic or even hostile government (including the carabinieri, I’ve learned). When they talk about “cosa nostra” that’s what they mean: “It’s our business. We’ll take care of it ourselves.” That’s the way things started out, anyway.
Sam and Antonina told us to meet them at their house at 2 p.m. on Tuesday and they would show us around town. (The apartment we were visiting in was actually their daughter’s –a gift from mom and dad.) In the meantime, outside, a group of people was gathering in front of the church. Sam said it was the Feast of St. Joseph and the day the town celebrates Father’s Day. Church members brought out a statue of St. Joseph with Jesus as a young boy. In the old days, there would be a procession through the entire town. In recent years, the procession was just around the town square. Tonight was the first time in 12 years there would again be a procession around the entire village. There was a brass band made up of young boys and girls maybe 10 years old along with men all the way up to their 60s. There were also escorts or “knights” dressed in blue tunics. Kathleen and I walked with the procession of several hundred people. The priest prayed through a microphone; the congregation answered. The band played music, a strange combination of everything from John Phillip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” to distinctly Arabic-sounding melodies. People threw money from their balconies or set food and flowers out on their porches, windows and living rooms. Fireworks were set off at one house. Yes, it was just like we’ve seen it in the movies.
It grew dark as we walked, but we could still see that Terrasini was a town of many contrasts. All the nice stores and restaurants were not crowded around the town square. They were spread throughout the village, including residential streets. There might be an old-fashioned fruit market, an inviting upscale restaurant, a shrine to Mary, and a store window display of alluring lingerie all on the same block along with houses. And during nearly two hours of walking, there was not a crack in the sidewalks or a pothole in the streets. The homes, mostly apartment buildings two or three stories high (nothing in town is taller than the Dumo’s steeples), were modest, but very clean and presentable.
More important than what the village looked like, though, were the people who lived there. Without knowing all their names, I realized I was walking with relatives. Within the crowd, I could see the faces of my aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers and sister, not to mention my daughter, Becca, and my son, Joey. Kathleen nudged me and nodded to a woman standing on her porch. I looked and a chill went up my back. Here was a woman who looked like she could have been my mother’s twin sister. She didn’t just look like my mom; she looked EXACTLY like my mom. I thought it would be rude to snap a photo of her, especially since I was the only person in the procession with a camera and a flash camera at that. Besides, this was a religious event and even though many of these folks are accustomed to tourists, it still seemed a bit insensitive to snap pictures, especially trying to focus on an individual. But, even without a photo, I doubt I will ever forget that woman. And even if I had the photo, I probably wouldn’t show it to anyone because it was too darn weird. The experience had added meaning to me in that, as most of you know, my middle name is Joseph—yet another connection with the village of my ancestors.
That night we ate at a nice place called Arabesque that specialized in seafood undoubtedly caught that day by the local fishermen, of which there were many. On display was the large head of a swordfish, various squid and octopus and other sea creatures. Some even resembled fish.
Later, I called mom from a pay phone near a small piazza next to the city hall. What a strange connection this is, I thought—her son calling from a town her father left almost 100 years ago.
The next morning we went to the city’s records office to try to find an actual house address for grandpa or grandma. The clerks were very friendly and helpful. One spoke only enough English to guess that we were from Detroit and say she had lived there for a short time. (By now we had been told there were 10,000 people living in Terrasini and 15,000 people from Terrasini living in Detroit. If they are counting descendents like us, I think that could certainly be true. After all, four generations of Zerilli-Letos have been born since grandpa and grandma came to America.) Another clerk spoke very good English. We looked up the birth certificates of grandpa’s siblings and grandma’s family in hopes that there would be a specific house number. There wasn’t. The clerk directed us to the library where there might be tax records. The person at the library didn’t speak English but we surmised that the next morning there might be someone who could help. However, it was unsure that our family even paid property taxes at that time and tracking records 100+ years old might be impossible. Plus, we had found out that the older tax records were back in Palermo.
It seemed to us that more people in Terrasini spoke English than in Palermo, with its population of 700,000. On more than one occasion, locals were surprised that I didn’t speak Italian. (After all, I look Italian, si?) But I fit in okay; as did Kathleen. While Sam and I were having cappuccino one morning, he said of Kathleen, “She’s nice. She’s friendly. She likes to talk. She’s like one of us.” (Kathleen later said it must have something to do with southern climates, as in “warm Southerners.”)
In the afternoon, we went to Sam and Antonina’s beautiful townhouse. They had invited two other people, each who had lived in the U.S. for a while and then returned to Terrasini. One, Larry, told some funny stories about getting a job in a New York pizzeria and how he had a hard time learning to make pizzas because he had never made one in his life. He convinced customers that his oddly shaped pies represented different regions in Italy. Squares were from Naples; flat on one side were from Calabria, triangular ones from Sicily, etc. He now owns a small but nice pizzeria in Terrasini. The other gentleman, Frank, had been a successful landscaper in Saginaw, even though he knew nothing about landscaping when he started out. “Americans think Italians are good gardeners. Just take your time,” he said, “and they’ll see you are putting a lot of care into your work.”
We drove out to what Sam calls his “farm” which is actually several summer cottages built next to his spacious summer home. (A 4-bedroom, 3-bath house with a view of the Mediterranean rents for $1000 a month. Kathleen wants to know if we should all go back?) There is a small orchard and the property has a wonderful view of the opposite side of the Terrasini bay and a large 2,000-room resort. We toured the resort and a nearby town, Cinici, and then Terrasini’s beach area where Sam also owns a casual pizza joint open during the summer.
Tourist dollars are important to Terrasini. During tourist season (roughly April to September), the beach is hopping and the town holds music concerts and art festivals. Had we visited the town during its busy season, we might never have run into Sam or been able to get to know some of the people as well as we did in just a few short days.
Later, Kathleen and I had a home-cooked dinner at Gunnar’s apartment, with the Beatles and Janis Joplin playing in the background with his computer screen and a couple of candles illuminating his small, modest apartment. Then the three of us went to Friends Bar for a shot of lemoncello. (Kathleen and I are now trying to find it in Nashville.) Then it was on to the Bird Pub.
This place was wild, with the Italian version of MTV blaring, rowdy young people partying in the front (some looked under-age), quiet conversations in the back, who knows what up in the loft, and a long shelf of empty Jack Daniels bottles above the bar. The owner heard we were from Tennessee (home of Jack Daniels whisky in Lynchburg). I turned to say something to Gunnar and before I knew it the owner and Kathleen had downed a shot of Jack. Then a young man—blatantly gay—decided to show everyone his new thong underpants. “You should see him and his friends at Carnival (Mardi Gras),” Gunnar said to me. “A natural homeseexual,” the bartender said to Kathleen. A young woman standing at the bar looked like she had stepped off an ancient Grecian vase. She had almond-shaped eyes, a straight, angular nose and full lips—a classic beauty. I have seen her face hundreds of times on ancient Greek and Roman pottery, statues, and mosaics. What was fascinating about this young woman at the Bird Pub was that she probably looked like many Mediterranean women looked 2,000 years ago. Yet, during two weeks in Italy and Sicily, I saw no one else who looked like her. And here she was bouncing to a Madonna (the singer, not the saint) disco beat. This is modern Terrasini, I thought, and I wondered what grandpa or grandma would recognize, and what they would think was strange or, even, intolerable.
Gunnar stayed out late that night, obviously made of tougher stuff than Kathleen and me. However, the next morning he was taking an American father and daughter out for some scuba diving. He invited us to go on his morning commute: a 15-minute boat ride to the nearby Citta del Mare Resort.
The boat ride was beautiful, with Gunnar pulling into several (sometimes small) grottos along the way. His navigation skills were superb. At the resort, Kathleen and I snacked on (as usual) cappuccino and pastries. While we sat on the small bluff that acted as Gunnar’s dock, we were practically blinded by the sunrays bouncing off the waves. Once we put on our dark Italian shades, though, it looked more like a night sky filled with incredibly close and incredibly bright twinkling stars. It also looked like a thousand camera flashes bursting again and again, without end.
This small bluff was also the place we saw our one and only topless sunbather, a 65-year old German woman. I can’t think of anything cute or witty to say about the experience. It was hot. It was sunny. It was Italy. Live and let live, right?
On the boat ride back to town, we were accompanied by Fritz, Gunnar’s German buddy, who had taught hang-gliding off Terrasini’s bluffs and now operates a marina in Tunisia, on Africa’s north coast. He had missed a ferry back to Tunisia and was hanging out in Terrasini.
When we returned to port, there were military personnel on the dock who told us a World War II bomb (pronounced “booomba”) had been discovered in the harbor and was aboard one of the boats we were walking near. It was the first time this had ever happened in Terrasini. Frankly, the military didn’t do a very good job of securing the area. We got out of the boat at the only place you can get out with steps. And there was no boat or sign at the opening of the harbor. Even as they tried to warn us away, there were two local fishermen repairing a fishing net literally right next to the bomb, pardon me, booomba. Actually, there wasn’t much danger. That would come the next day when they tried to diffuse it. The bomb was probably let loose by Americans on a run against nearby Palermo. I must say that the military’s inefficiency in securing the harbor made me wonder about how effective all those carabinieri would be, even with their Uzis.
That afternoon, Kathleen and I wandered about the town. I found a few dollars worth of Italian money on the sidewalk. Later in the day, we went to the church and I used that money as part of a candle offering. I wanted to make a point to light a few candles for all my past, present and future relatives from Detroit who have roots in Terrasini. I looked for matches to light the candles. Kathleen touched a candle and it lit up electronically. The interior of the church was beautiful and peaceful. As the spiritual heart of the town, it had obviously been well maintained.
Next to the Duomo was a courtyard/park with a small fountain. (Frankly, the fountain and the local beach needed to be cleaned of trash.) Next to the courtyard was a functioning convent. These were not the “modern” kind of nuns who wear pedestrian clothes (sometimes stylishly so). These were the old-fashion kind with habits from head to toe. You could tell they were just aching to smack someone across the knuckles with a ruler.
A very nice woman at a gift shop gave us a teeny, tiny replica of a colorful Sicilian donkey cart for which the island is famous. On the town square that afternoon, I noticed a plaque on one of the buildings that made reference to President John F. Kennedy. I asked someone about it and was told that Kennedy was so loved by the Italians and Sicilians that practically every town, regardless of size, has a memorial plaque in his honor.
Sicilians seem to have no problem mixing cultures. It is not unusual to find any of the following in a restaurant, bar or retail shop (or house, probably) in Sicily: a crucifix or painting of Jesus, and/or a picture of President Kennedy, and/or a painting or statue of Mary, and/or the letters SPQR (which translates “For the People and Senate of Rome” a 2,000-year-old motto carved into the shields of Roman soldiers and still placed on the manhole covers in Rome), and/or a strange-looking symbol called a trinacria which is the head of the Greek goddess Medusa surrounded by three legs representing the three corners of the island of Sicilia (which is actually pronounced “see-CHEE-ya” by Sicilians), and/or pictures of the pope, and/or nude statues of voluptuous Roman women, and/or bottles (empty or full) of Jack Daniels whiskey from Tennessee.
And keep in mind there are also paintings everywhere of those blond-haired Norman knights who kicked out the Saracens but I have also read that even the revered Sicilian cannoli is actually an Arabic pastry. Everyplace there were pictures, paintings and especially ceramics of bright yellow lemons against green backgrounds or bright yellow sunbursts against deep cobalt blue backgrounds. In Sicily, religious symbols and pop culture idols like Madonna share the same space with Italian flags, pictures of the domed Arabesque roofs of Palermo (drawings of which are on all Palermo bus tickets), paintings of Greek temples, and an occasional American flag. (After World War II, there was a small but serious group of people who wanted Sicily to become part of the U.S.)
It would not be surprising to find a combination of some or ALL of these diverse symbols anywhere in Sicily. For the most part, they are simultaneously “decorations” and honored icons. Who are the REAL Sicilians? I am beginning to think it impossible to answer that question.
Around dinnertime, we showed up at Sam and Antonina’s for some spaghetti as Sam had suggested to me over cappuccino (which some Sicilians call “cappucini”) that morning. Unfortunately, Sam had been gone most of the day and never mentioned it to Antonina. Plus, he said to arrive around 6 p.m. Italians normally eat dinner around 8 p.m. We decided to meet at 8 p.m. on the square.
While in and around Terrasini, one definitely gets the feeling that the rest of the world is very far away. It seems that only a few people and businesses have or care to have cable television or Internet connections. But it can be noisy. For about 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the early evening, jets zoom in and out of the airport located between Terrasini and Palermo. Since the airport is so close, the jets are low and loud. Also, the Duomo rings its big bells every hour (24 oros a day) with smaller bells marking 15-minute intervals. The bells woke me up at 4 a.m. one morning and I couldn’t get back to any real sleep because of the smaller bells. And one motor scooter can bounce enough noise off the walls along the narrow streets to make you think it is coming through your window. By the third night, we had to close our windows tight to muffle the sound. A stray pigeon in the room is not nearly as annoying as a motor scooter in the middle of the night.
That night the four of us went to a cozy but classy restaurant in town and had a full-blown meal, mostly different combinations of seafood and pasta. Then we went back to Sam’s Extra Bar for some very creamy gelato ice cream. Sam and Antonina paid for the evening. If they ever show up in Nashville, we’ll take them out for some ribs and chess pie. In the meantime, we’re sending Antonina a box of Twinkies, which she says she dearly misses. I guess Italian pastries aren’t very good.
I find it ironic so many other cultures, especially Europeans, say Americans live a fast lifestyle and that we don’t know how to relax. In Rome (and Paris) and to a lesser extent in Palermo and Terrasini, people are always on the go, mostly on foot. It is not uncommon to see someone walking briskly while talking into a cell phone in one hand and eating a pannini (sandwich) with the other. They drink potent espresso like they were downing a shot of whiskey. Cars move at a crazed speed and pedestrians can only pray that they will make it from one side of the street to the other. Terrasini is no exception. There was a corner with a blind spot in front the Duomo where cars and scooters zipped by without pausing to see if anyone was crossing. Whenever we crossed there, we ran very quickly.
On the other hand, most Italians work from around 8 or 9 a.m. to about 2:30 p.m. Many businesses close in the middle of the day with retail shops reopening around 4:30. Many full-service restaurants don’t open until 8 p.m. Most Italians live in apartments, so strolling and sitting in cafes is common. Also, Italians get about 53 days of vacation per year; Americans about13. So, in some ways, Italians do know how to relax. I guess they are just in a hurry to do it.
The next morning, I got out of bed before Kathleen and went to the square for cappuccino and pastries and to spend some time with the old men on the park benches. Also, I took some last photos of the interior and exterior of the Duomo.
One of the locals I had gotten to know was still trying to track down some other Zerillis. He got one on the phone, but it was really too short a notice for us to try to connect. I said good-bye to any familiar faces. I took some cappuccino back to Kathleen. We had packed the night before and it was time to leave Terrasini.
Connecting with a local “characters” like Sam and Gunnar certainly helped us enjoy and appreciate the visit. But the overall experience was more than just having someone to show us around. The whole town was friendly and warm. Just about any time we just walked along the square or sat on a bench, someone would come up and start talking (or trying to talk) with us. (Kathleen likened it to Mayberry—you know, with Sheriff Andy and Barney and everyone just hanging around town.)
Terrasini has been there for hundreds of years and yet still has a kind of newness to it. And it has a “feel” that soothes one’s soul. Like Juliet had said to Romeo: “Parting is such sweet sorrow.”
We walked around the block to meet with Gunnar’s friend Fritz and Gunnar’s girlfriend, an Italian named Sabrina. Fritz took us to the nearby Palermo airport where we had a rental car waiting. Fritz drove very fast, even through tunnels. That’s all I’ll say about the hair-raising experience which took place at about 150 kilometers per hour (you do the math).
We got our rental car and headed out of town. From the highway, we got one last look at Terrasini. It’s nestled next the beautiful Mediterranean, nothing in the town taller than the Duomo’s distinctive twin steeples. I suppose those steeples were probably the last familiar sight both grandpa and then grandma saw as they boarded their ships in Palermo and headed west toward the Atlantic Ocean and the New World.
Sicily definitely suffers from some bad public relations—at least in America. Based on the large number of hotels and big, classy resorts, I can only assume that many Europeans know Sicily is an exotic island filled with natural beauty and awesome antiquities. The people are very hospitable and seem happy. They appreciate elegance and diversity in their surroundings and in each other. Sicily has had its problems, but maybe the people are growing out of them. Even if that is not the case, Sicilians have learned to live in midst of their history, be it peaceful or dangerous.
Undoubtedly, there were strong reasons for grandpa and grandma (and so many others) to leave the island. In their time, life must have been very harsh. There are parts of the island—including Palermo and Terrasini—that I know they wouldn’t recognize. But there are other things that would still be very familiar to them. I am certain of that because there were things that were familiar to me. How can a place I have never been to be so familiar? My only explanation is that all of us who have roots there carry a part of Sicilia in our genes and in our hearts.
Our trip to Italy was a wonderful experience, as was France, about three years ago. I have been lucky enough to visit those places and many others in the United States. It’s not as impossible as many people think. It takes some planning and budgeting. And, most of all, as the Chinese saying goes: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
Of all those travels, though, Sicily stands alone. And the focus of Sicily, for me, was Terrasini. It’s true that there was a personal connection. It is the land of my grandparents and my mother is a direct link to that heritage. But I dare say that anyone who visits Sicily will fall in love with it. It will become a part of them and they, in a way, will become part of it.
By sharing my experiences in Sicily, I hope you can feel its warm sun, see its sparklingblue-green waters, its clear azure skies, its rolling hills and jagged mountains. I hope you hear the laughter of dark-haired children. Or smile as a vacationing, middle-aged couple steals a kiss behind the crumbling column of an old Greek temple. And maybe you’ll chuckle as an elderly Italian woman cusses-out her aging husband because his eyes gazed too long upon the seductive beauty of a passing young woman—passing, like life, too soon, too quickly and leaving us hoping for just one more minute, one more glance at its splendor. I hope you can smell the olive orchards and the sweetness of blood-red oranges and that you are given one last whiff of the cake-bread your grandmother made when you were a child—with your memories of childhood still as fresh and warm as if they had just happened. And if you listen closely, you might hear the clanking of Roman armor or the mystical songs of a tempting enchantress. You might even hear church bells that sound like the ancient wind; a wind that is the very breath of your soul.
G E N E A L O G Y
(Much of this information is from a professional genealogist I paid prior to the trip. I did a lot of the rest.)
According to his records, grandpa’s name apparently started out as Domenico. San (Saint) Domenico is a popular name for streets, plazas and churches throughout Sicily. I have also seen his name spelled Domenic and, also, Dominic, which eventually became the most common American spelling.
There are 21 Zerillis listed in the Terrasini phone book. (This does not include married women and children.) In Palermo, there were 29 Zerillis. The biggest concentration of Zerillis (about 150+) is in Marsala, a town of about 10,000 people on the far western end of Sicily. It even has a Zerilli piazza, but several attempts to find out why from the local tourism office have produced no results.
Grandma was actually the second child in her family named Bianca. Her parents had an earlier daughter named Bianca who died at the age of two. (Obviously, childhood deaths were quite common all over the world until recent decades.) It was normal for Sicilian parents to name a second child with the same name as a child who died earlier, thus continuing the practice of naming children after their grandparents. There are no Leto surnames in the Terrasini phone book. And the street grandma was born on, via Partinico, has been renamed as it runs in front of the church.
The genealogy research shows both grandpa’s and grandma’s parents were from Terrasini. Using the common marker of 20 years representing a “generation,” our (my generation) great-great-grandparents probably were born during the 1830s. At that time, the island was ruled the French state of Savoy and Italy wasn’t even a unified country. Grandma’s grandmother Rosaria’s last name—DiMaria—might be of French origin or was given to her by the French who use “di” to mean “of.”
Even official records are very sketchy at best and vague or contradictory at their worst. Everything from the spelling of names to birth dates and ages could and did get confused. Grandpa’s Declaration of Intent for U.S. citizenship in 1930, showed the SS Duca d’ Aosta brought him to America on July 5, 1910. That does not match the only other record, which is from the Ellis Island website. It states he arrived in May 10, 1910, on the SS Verona (an Italian ship later sunk by Germans in World War I).
If we assume immigrants would want to be with people they knew when making the crossing, there were three members of the Russo family from Terrasini listed on the ship’s manifest just before grandpa’s name. After searching several pages, I found no one else from Terrasini on that ship.
Through some fancy searching on the Ellis Island site, I found that 193 Zerillis (men, women and children) left Sicily between 1892 and 1924 (the period covered by the official records). As stated above, today there are just 21 Zerilli surnames in Terrasini and 29 in Palermo. That does not cover children or women with Zerilli maiden names. There are other Zerillis in smaller numbers throughout Sicily and Italy. On the Internet, I’ve seen references to several Zerillis: an early 18th century painter, an astronomer, a modern artist, an Italian-American feminist, and an Italian studies department at New York University.
Of the Zerilli immigrants listed in the Ellis Island records, it appears about half were from Marsala and the other half from Terrasini (with just a few other communities listed as place of origin).
While it surprised me that so many Zerillis left Sicily during that time, the numbers for the Leto family were quite astounding. From 1892 to 1924, Ellis Island records state that 682 Letos came to America. Grandma arrived July 20, 1912, aboard a German ship, the Kaiser Franz Josef I.