Introduction to Cuba
Cuba: the country that has attracted, vexed, and frustrated generations of Americans, from Hemingway to Ted Cruz. It's been on our shortlist of destination goals for a while, so close to home and yet so far ideologically, politically, and culturally. ...
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My father's father passed away a few years before I was born, so I never knew him, nor have I ever met any member of the extended Fabiano family--all the Italian relatives I knew growing up were on my grandmother's ...
Several months ago, I received a call from a curator in Quebec. The Solair chair, a fun and now famous outdoor chair that my father and his partner designed in the 70s in Montreal, would be part of the permanent exhibit in a brand new wing of the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec (MNBAQ), Quebec City's fine arts museum. Would I like to attend the opening party for the Pierre Lassonde Pavilion on behalf of my father (on a random Wednesday night in June)?, they asked. Without hesitation, I said I would absolutely be there.
Neither of us had ever been to QC, but we had heard good things and we thoroughly enjoyed Montreal when we visited 9 years ago for a similar reason: my father's chair was in another exhibit there. However, that exhibit was ultimately delayed after we had already made our plans, so we were only able to see them setting up for the show. This time, I made sure to wait until the paper invitation had arrived, having learned my lesson with museum openings. So we got our tickets and found ourselves in lovely Quebec City for a long weekend. (Well, I was there for a long weekend; Nick was with me for the first half, and my mom joined for the second after Nick took off for a bachelor party in Cleveland (I win).)
While my father celebrated many successes in his career as an architect, industrial designer, furniture designer, and professor, when the Solair chair had a resurgence in popularity about ten years ago and came to be celebrated as one of the classic pieces of Canadian design of the last 50 years, his Alzheimers had already taken its toll. I remember showing him articles about his work, with beautiful photos of the chair in so many bright colors, hoping it would bring some joy. It may have, but he will never know that his work is permanently in one of the top museums in Canada, displayed as one of the most iconic pieces of design in the second half of the 20th century. Suffice it to say, I was proud enough for two.
The private opening party was wonderful; we felt honored to be part of it and thoroughly enjoyed all three exhibits. The next morning, MNBAQ opened its doors to the public and did a fantastic job of making the party last all weekend, with events and performances, leaving their doors open all day and almost all night. The opening coincided with Quebec's national holiday, Saint Jean Baptiste Day, so spirits were high and the locals were in a celebratory mood.
When we weren't partaking in the museum's festivities, we explored Quebec City's old quarter, perused the local food market, and walked through their vast park, the Plains of Abraham (somewhat similar to the National Mall in DC). Our days began with espresso and delicious fresh pastries from the bakery around the corner from our AirBnB, and it wasn't long before we were either sitting down to a tasty lunch, stopping for legit gelato, going for our second espresso, or having a poutine snack. For a relatively small city, QC's food scene absolutely does not disappoint and my list of restaurants was bigger than my stomach could handle.
QC is small enough to be very manageable for a weekend visit, but large enough that I could have spent even longer than five nights, continuing to eat my way through town, explore more museums, and venture further afield to surrounding areas. Especially in summer, the city makes awesome use of its public spaces, with performances, pop up gathering spots, and outdoor concerts, and I found myself really enamored with it.
Here's one of my favorite parts about the trip. About two weeks before our trip to Quebec, I was at WasteExpo (a conference and tradeshow) in Las Vegas. While waiting for a bus, I started chatting with a woman who lives in QC and works for a company called IPL, a manufacturer of plastic products including waste receptacles. After we parted ways, I remembered why IPL sounded so familiar to me: it's the company that commissioned and manufactured the Solair chair in 1972! When I saw her the next day, I told her that my father designed the chair, and that I would be in her city in two weeks for the opening exhibit. She knew the Solair chair well (in fact, they have them in their office, even though another company took over the manufacturing of the chair many years ago) and she lives across the street from the museum! We made plans to meet up in Quebec, and the day my mom and I spent with her on Île d'Orléans was to be a highlight of the trip.
Île d'Orléans is only a few kilometers from Quebec City, but it's the summer playground for many Québécois. About 20 miles long, it's got a ton of coastline on the Saint Lawrence River, and the interior has rolling hills, boasting some very fertile land where grapes, apples, and maples produce delicious products that can be tasted in dozens of wineries, cideries, and produce stands. The gentle hills make it heaven for cyclists, of which there are many. It's the kind of place where you can eat a lobster roll while drinking a local rosé overlooking an impressive waterfall (the Montmorency Falls, across the river) and wonder why you haven't been doing exactly that your entire life. Then you top it off with a local specialty, ice cream dipped into a hard, thick chocolate shell, and you know you've been doing it wrong all this time!
- Eat at L'affair Est Ketchup and Clocher Penche for a nicer dinner; try poutine or a burger at Chez Victor
- Have coffee and pastries at La Croquembouche; other great cafes: Nektar, Brulerie St Roch, and Cantook
- Have a drink at La Cuisine or any of the bars on Rue Saint Joseph Est; check out Le Spot in the summer; have a beer at Le Projet
- Walk around the Saint Roch neighborhood, where we loved the cafes, bars, and restaurants best. There are also some fun vintage shops.
- Head to the Marche de Port for local foods, produce, and wines
- Eat gelato at Tutto Gelato or a special chocolate dipped cone at Chocolat Favoris (seriously, do this)
- Explore the Old Town (but beware, a lot of it is quite touristy), walk the Promenade des Gouverneurs, which begins near the famous hotel Chateau Frontenac, and chill on the Plaines d'Abraham- if it's summer you can catch a free evening concert at the bandstand
- Check out the MNBAQ, especially the Canadian design exhibit in the Pierre Lassonde building!
- Spend a day biking or driving around Île d'Orléans, where you can stop at numerous cideries and wineries to try their local treats. Eat a lobster roll at Vignoble de St Petronille and wash it down with the local wines!
Havana is the living, breathing heart of Cuba, and one of the most diverse, engaging, and friendly cities we've ever been to. Perhaps more than anywhere else we visited on the island, Havana produced the feelings of uniqueness, independence, and distance that I mentioned in my last post.Cuba's capital is a patchwork of hundreds of small neighborhoods and communities, most of which tourists never set foot in. We spent five nights there, and easily could have spent a month without feeling the need to walk the same street twice. Although the city is rife with package tourists and the museums, monuments, and historic buildings they're shuttled between, our most lasting memories may be from sitting in restaurants, bars, and parks, or walking down crowded streets, and being approached by friendly, outgoing strangers wanting nothing more than to be helpful ambassadors for their city (well, okay, some of them wanted to sell us something or pick up a commission, but even they were friendly and took no for an answer with a welcoming smile).
Here are some of my favorite conversations and exchanges we had in our wanderings:
- A poet and journalist in his mid-seventies, short, with a long, white ponytail, white beard and nicotine-yellowed mustache. He quoted Walt Whitman, then went on to tell us of when he was reporting in Rwanda and nobody would believe he was Cuban because of his light skin. When I wished him good luck with the next seventy years, he replied "I don't think in time".
- A New York Times and AP photojournalist who had been living in and covering Cuba and the Castro family for 30 years, and his Roman film director friend, with whom we shared a table at a trendy restaurant. They chided us for not getting further off the tourist track in our short ten day trip, before admitting that they were headed to a fancy beach resort to discuss plans for a movie they would work on together. They shared their guarded optimism for the coming changes to the tourism sector.
- Countless people who approached us just to practice their English, make sure we weren't lost, or help us find what we were looking for.
- The right-wing dissident who said he was discriminated against because of the writing he has done for an American-funded "radical" newspaper. We had an interesting conversation in which I found myself in the uncomfortable position of arguing for the side more in line with the goals and beliefs of the Revolution, while he countered with his pro-Capitalist beliefs of economic self-determination and that greed is a natural part of the human character. "If I have two of something and you have none, why should I give you one of mine?" "Why should a manager and a janitor be paid the same?"
- After wandering around a local Havana neighborhood that's not totally used to tourists, we had a bit of trouble figuring out where to pick up a shared or private taxi back to our neighborhood. After standing on a few promising but ultimately unsuccessful street corners, we were befriended by an incredibly friendly gentleman in his sixties who spent about ten minutes with us, talking with us about the US and his son who lives in Miami. He walked us to the right intersection, advised us on how to take the bus, and even gave us bus fare because we didn't have exact change; we kept chatting long enough that a cab drove by, and he carefully negotiated a price with the driver to help us avoid the gringo markup. He was so set on not accepting anything for his help, that he almost refused to accept the bus fare in return!
- Lazaro, a teacher in a sleepy Bay of Pigs beach village. He shared his thoughts on community leadership and communal responsibility, and his thoughts on the evolving Cuban-American relationship: "It used to be 'Cuba sí and los Yanquis no.' Now it's 'Cuba sí and los Yanquis tambien'" and "Everyone worries the Americans will ruin Cuba. We can ruin it ourselves!"
- The wife of our host in touristy Trinidad, short with dark hair, a round stomach, and a perpetual smile, who said that although many people were poor and struggling, there was much to be proud of in her country: "Like anywhere there are good people and bad people. We don't have guns or drugs. If your neighbor is hungry, you'll share some of what you have." Her husband Osmel serenaded us every night on his guitar, invited us to see him and his friends in concert, and whipped up the best meals we had in Cuba. Their company was a highlight of our trip.
You'll hear again and again that one of the main reasons to visit Cuba is its people, and that turned out to be true in our experience. With an open mind and a little bit of Spanish, the best experience you can have in Cuba is not salsa dancing, scuba diving, or driving in a classic Chevy around Old Havana, but striking up a conversation with a Cubano you meet on the sidewalk. Click here to view the photo gallery for this post
In our last post, Nick commented that Cuba didn't feel homogeneous like the US can feel, where almost everywhere you go, you'll find the same stores, fast-food restaurants, hotels chains, etc. At the same time, one could argue that Cuba, while refreshingly void of Starbucks and McDonald's, is even more homogeneous than the US in that the government owns and controls everything, all the 'official' government stores have the same products at the same prices, and all its citizens are granted the same rationed and subsidized set of food and household products. If there's one thing we could safely conclude about Cuba after our short time there, it's that contradictions abound.Cuba was edgy, romantic, and incredibly confusing to us as first time visitors. However, upon reflection, the things we foreigners find nostalgic, photogenic, and beautiful about Cuba--crumbling buildings in faded and chipping Easter egg hues and 1950s Chevrolets in bright reds, blues, and pinks--are dwellings that are unsafe for living and vehicles that need constant upkeep for Cubans. Not to say they aren't proud of their immaculate magenta '55 Bel Airs, but when it comes down to it, there isn't much of a choice in the matter. The intermittent black outs may provide a romantic star-gazing break in the evening for a visitor, but these things are all part of the tough reality that Cubans have to make the best of. The government provides everything, but yet in some respects nothing, at least not enough to do much more than barely scrape by. We were amazed by how many buildings, forms of transportation, appliances, shoes, etc. had clearly been rehabilitated more than a few times. Cubans have to be some of the handiest people, with all the things they've had to repair and keep running over the years. We were dying to know how they felt about their system, one that for the vast majority, is the only way of life they know (it felt like almost every person we met had a cousin in Miami, though few had visited). It's a sensitive topic, and one that we didn't usually feel comfortable bringing up in a country where everyone is potentially being watched and listened to (rumors of a Stasi-style secret police abound), and where neighborhood organizations called Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs) record what is essentially a report card on your dedication to the cause. However, we still found Cubans who were willing to share with us their honest thoughts about the system. One outspoken student told us he thought that the entire education system was full of lies and propaganda, and admitted that he can't get hired by most employers because of what he's written in an American-funded right-wing magazine. He decried a system where high-level managers would be paid the same as janitors, and where those that struggle to amass more resources than their lazy neighbor would be forced to share. (It was an odd experience to talk to a Cuban more conservative than us.) Another gentleman we met explained to us enthusiastically the system the government uses to provide each person with a set amount of food, household and personal care products per month at subsidized prices. He even gave us an old ration book so we could see how the system works. But when we asked whether it was enough to live, his enthusiasm turned into a more somber reply: "Yes... Well, mostly. We have to buy the rest on the black market." We heard from others that the rations are perhaps enough for about 10 days of the month. The rest is gathered from here and there; some food and gas you can buy on the black market; perhaps other items you trade for; sometimes, you rely on a relative or neighbor.
And what you can get your hands on, you will wait for. Cubans are famous for being very patient while waiting in line. They have a whole system that makes it somewhat more bearable (and somewhat maddening for us...), whereby they go up, ask who is last in line, and establish themselves as behind that person. Then they can walk away, hang out across the street in the nearest shade, or go talk to a friend around the corner, which must make the long wait less painful. However, it also means that when you go up to a bank, or a store, or a bus line, you don't really know how many people are actually in front of you, since half of them are physically somewhere else. We found that out the hard way, when we waited to exchange money for over an hour outside a bank that looked like it only had 5-10 people in line, but others kept coming out of the woodwork to claim their rightful spot each time the security guard opened the door!There are so many aspects of this system that we didn't discover and couldn't understand in our short time there. Take money, for example. Cubans are paid in pesos, but items are sold in government stores for Convertible Pesos (CUCs), which is the currency for which foreigners exchange their money. One CUC = 1 USD (but if you're exchanging USD for CUCs, you'll really only get .87 CUC because of the 13% in fees they levy). Restaurants sometimes list prices in both currencies, and sometimes they are the same value, other times the tourist price is 20-30 times higher. For example, one of our must-visit sites was Coppelia, which I can't describe as anything other than a Soviet-style ice cream park (don't get me wrong, the place is amazing). If you have pesos, a scoop of ice cream costs 1 Peso (which is about $.04). But if you buy the same scoop of ice cream in the CUC-paying section, you'll pay 1 CUC, which is about $1. There is nothing stopping a foreigner from buying his ice cream with Pesos and enjoying the company of the locals while he's at it. Made famous by the Cuban movie Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate), Coppelia is a social and cultural center of Habanero society. Every day, locals flock to the ice cream parlor which takes up an entire city block and is divided into about four sections. The popularity of the various sections shifts over the course of the day as the sections and their associated areas of waiting in line (of course, see above) pass in and out of shade. Once inside, the customers belly up a spot at the curved bars, or gather their family around their favorite table under one of the slender, curved arms of the spider-like concrete structure. We even watched one man order a two-gallon tub presumably to bring back to his family, but while he was waiting he couldn't pass up the opportunity to throw back about five scoops. Cubans are passionate about their ice cream, so it's no wonder the menu seemed complicated and inscrutable, about ten items long even though your only choices appeared to be how many scoops you want of which of the two flavors on offer. We felt a slightly-less-than-warm welcome in the local currency section, so we didn't feel comfortable asking for a full explanation. Since we left the visit for our last day in Habana and were essentially having it for breakfast, I opted for just one scoop (to the consternation of our waiter), and Nick went with three. All dishes appear to come with cookie crumbs, chocolate disks, and a delicious honey-caramel sauce. Like many visitors before us, we were left with more questions about Cuba than answers. In a society where crimes can be severely punished, how is everyone illegally buying and selling stuff all the time, and no one seems to be getting in trouble for it? If everyone is supposedly provided for, why are so many scraping together odds and ends and breaking laws just to feed themselves? How can everyone be equal when the government doesn't pay its citizens a living wage or provide enough food, reliable electricity, or housing, and foreign money from tourism is the only real way to live a comfortable life? Oh, the irony of wanting to keep American values and businesses out, but creating a system in which US Dollars and Euros actually run the economy. It might be tempting, as Americans, to point to the tragedies of the "special period" in the wake of the collapse of the USSR as evidence that the Revolución is a failure. And it might be tempting to see the recent thawing of relations as a path for the US to help to enrich the Cuban people and improve some of the shortcomings of the Castro regime. But it's precisely this kind of neo-Colonialist attitude that the Revolución was so stridently against. Furthermore, Cuba's social systems are actually stronger than the common American conception may allow for: the country ranks fifth out of 20 Latin American countries on the UN's Human Development Index statistic (and second in the previous year's report). This tension is why it's going to be so interesting to watch the changes in Cuba over the next 5-10 years and further: I forsee a continued conflict between the proud and principled goals of the Revolución (which billboards on all roads proclaim is still alive and progressing) and the corrupting and economically divisive realities of global Capitalism. Of course, Cuba is no stranger to Capitalism; it's been steadily loosening controls on the free market to make ends meet after the collapse of the USSR, and flocks of Canadian and European tourists pack the streets of Habana Vieja and line the beaches outside government-owned resorts. But with the recent and rapid movements toward direct flights from the US, the tourist demographic is about to shift dramatically, and the scale of the entire tourism industry is about to explode. All of which is to wholeheartedly suggest you visit this fascinating country, but consider the effects of your actions, your dollars, and your presence there. The types of decisions you make about where to stay, where to eat, and what to do have a tremendous bearing on the future of the country, so we can only humbly suggest that you consider your effect when traveling (the same suggestion applies everywhere, of course, but doubly so for Cuba in this time of tremendous changes).
Cuba: the country that has attracted, vexed, and frustrated generations of Americans, from Hemingway to Ted Cruz. It's been on our shortlist of destination goals for a while, so close to home and yet so far ideologically, politically, and culturally. With the US regulations limiting travel there opening up slightly in 2015, and an invitation to a wedding in Cancun (just an hour's flight from Havana) this January, we saw the stars aligning and an opportunity we couldn't pass up, so we set to planning.
One of the strongest and most frequent reactions I had after nearly two weeks in Cuba was surprise that such a place can (still) exist. It was a pleasant sense of surprise, but surprise all the same that this singular island could maintain so much of its unique culture, pride, and individualism, when the rest of the Caribbean (if not the rest of the world) feels so homogeneous, bland, and Americanized. It seems like such a strange accident of history that has led to where Cuba is today. For those that need it, here's a quick history lesson on how this island came to be what it is: a fiercely independent, strong-willed, and proud society less than 100 miles off American shores.
Cuba's first known inhabitants were an agricultural society known as the Taino, of which not much remains: they were a peaceful people who put up little to no resistance when the Spanish came to conquer the New World in the 1500s. The next few centuries saw the fortunes of the largest island in the Caribbean rise as a major trading post for gold, silver, slaves, and the other spoils of colonialism, before falling amidst rampant piracy, proxy wars between Spain and other European nations, and general disregard and exploitation from the colonial power. As the wave of self-determination led by Simon Bolivar swept Latin America in the 19th century, Cuba (as well as Puerto Rico) was left out until their own war of independence late in that century, led by the poet, leader-in-exile, and eventual martyr José Martí.
The 1898 sinking of the USS Maine provided the US a reason (some might say pretext) for entering into the conflict and beginning the Spanish-American war. The American side won, and the war ended with a treaty granting Washington significant powers over the island, including control of the infamous Guantánamo Bay naval base. What followed was a period of Cuban "independence" which in reality was controlled socially, politically, and economically by Washington. During this period, while the US invested heavily in the country's infrastructure and social system, its industry and trade were making close ties to the new colonial ruler to the north. Money, resources, and ownership of land continued to leave the country, now to American organizations (both legitimate and not, as fans of The Godfather II can attest), leading to the populist revolution led by Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and Camilo Cienfuegos.
In 1959, the revolution succeeded in exiling and wresting control from Jose Batista, the last in what was seen as a line of American-controlled presidents, and the current government was founded with Castro at the helm. Over the next few years he would enact laws and edicts forming the current Socialist system. Because these actions were (at least publicly) aimed at empowering the populace and providing self-determination and land ownership to the working class, they necessarily alienated the upper classes, foreign expatriates, and social minorities, and tens of thousands of doctors, teachers, intellectuals, land owners, businesspeople, and gays and lesbians fled.
The Cold War saw Cuba as a Soviet-allied craw in the side of the US, leading to the Bay of Pigs debacle, and Cuban missile crisis, after which things were fairly stable and prosperous (into the 1980s, Cuba had some of the best education and medical systems, and they completely eliminated hunger). The fall of the Soviet Union, however, kicked off Cuba's "special period", during which, lacking fuel and food imports from the Eastern Bloc, thousands died from starvation, disease, and suicide.
This crisis sowed the seeds of the changes that continue to this day, a tension between the values of the Revolution (still very important to the Cuban people), the desire of the government for absolute and authoritarian control of the people, and the allure and perhaps necessity of the financial support provided by tourism and private industry.
A few final recent events, to underscore how much and how rapidly the country is changing:
On the Cuba side:
- Farmers were allowed to sell surplus produce for the first time in October 1994
- Mobile phones were legalized in 2008
- In 2011 a suite of reforms were put into place allowing Cubans to have a variety of non-State jobs (including taxi driver, construction worker, shopkeeper, mule driver, palm tree trimmer, well-digger, and "dandy", a dapper gentleman who wears fashionable suits and hats), as well as the right to run restaurants and other shops, and own homes and cars.
- A Revolution-era requirement that Cubans get an expensive and difficult-to-obtain government permit to travel abroad was lifted in January 2013, though the passport fees still leave travel out of reach for most Cubans.
And on the US side:
- In October 2000, Bill Clinton signed a bill into law that allowed the sale of agricultural goods and medicine to Cuba for humanitarian reasons.
- In April 2009, Barack Obama allowed Cuban-Americans to travel freely to Cuba for the first time in a generation, and in January 2011, he expanded the allowed reasons to include educational, religious, and several other purposes.
- In 2014, the Obama administration announced its intention to re-establish relations with Cuba. In January 2015, the Administration lightened restrictions on U.S. citizen travel to Cuba. Travelers are still required to have one of the valid reasons for travel, but the determination of compliance shifted to the traveler.
- In July 2015, the US Embassy in Havana re-opened, after having been closed since 1961 (there was a small "Interests Section" that had been open since 1977).
- In December 2015, the US and Cuba agreed to reinstate direct flights between the countries. Flights may start this year.
- As of March 2016, it's still impossible to use a US debit or credit card, and there's a 10% fee levied on converting US Dollars.
- President Obama has been working throughout his presidency to close the Guantánamo Bay naval base and release the captives held there. As of March 2016, less than 100 inmates remain.
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Given all the international travel we've done and every country that's still on our list, sometimes it's easy to forget the incredible places that can be found within the enormous and varied country we live in. Our National Park system is the envy of the rest of the world, and there may be no more impressive park than Yosemite. The massive park in Northern California has held intrigue for both of us for many years, so when my parents suggested a family trip to celebrate their 35th anniversary and my father's 65th birthday, we eagerly booked our second trip of the summer, only a few weeks after our grand Italy tour.
The park is as vast as it is beautiful, and while the valley floor is accessible by car, bringing you up close to the massive rock formations and waterfalls the park is famous for, the much more dramatic and impressive way to experience the park is by trekking throughout the endless hills, lakes, and meadows of the "high country". Our itinerary included a three-day backpacking adventure off Tioga Road in the northern part of the park through some lovely lakes and meadows surrounded by impressive granite peaks, so our first view of the park's iconic fixtures was from from afar, and I must say that viewing them from a few miles away and from different vantages gave a sense of the scale and beauty of the place that's a bit lost on the crowds just viewing the sights from their cars on the valley floor. The Park only gives out a limited number of backpacking permits, which means more planning for the visitor up front but we were rewarded with a prime camping spot on the shore of a lake that we had entirely to ourselves, with the exception of some marmots and many birds. The remainder of our trip was spent with family in a beautiful house just outside the park, taking day hikes, swimming, climbing up waterfalls, and relaxing with late afternoon gin and tonics.
Words can only do so much to explain this dramatic and singular piece of land, and pictures are only slightly better, but they're the best we can provide.
We've been to Italy three times in the last three years, and it always feels like a bit of a homecoming. Claudia's aunt Valeria splits her time between Milan and Città di Castello in Umbria, where she and Claudia's dad were born and lived for many years. My connection is a bit more strained: when my great-grandfather was a small child, he left a town in Calabria to emigrate to Pennsylvania and later New York, but I've always felt connected to the country, probably because that's the branch of my ancestors where my last name comes from.
This year, for some reason, we both felt inclined do some more research into our roots. When we first started planning this trip, we thought we would swing through both Calabria and Puglia, to do some digging into both of our family trees. Claudia wrote about our day in her paternal grandfather's town of birth, Trani, in the last post, but unfortunately we couldn't find a way to make all that travel time work (we were wary about feeling rushed after agreeing that we tried to pack a little too much into last year's Eastern Europe trip), so we'll have to save the visit to my ancestral town, Platí, for the next trip. But, we found something even better!
My dad has a cousin who ran an Italian restaurant in the small New York town they grew up in, and he makes trips to Italy to buy wine for the restaurant and take other Italian-Americans on tours of the homeland. I knew that he had some connections to some distant cousins, whom I thought still lived in Calabria, so I called him to ask for their contact information. Much to my surprise he said that they had all left the small Southern town for Tuscany many years ago. He passed along their names--Pompilia and her husband Michele--as well as their phone numbers and the name of the town they live in. We pulled up a map and realized that their town was just a few minutes' detour off our itinerary. The coincidences didn't stop there...
When we arrived in Italy and called Pompilia, she welcomed us exuberantly, as if we had been close our entire lives. Originally, it had not been completely clear to us exactly how we were related, but we eventually understood that her great-grandmother Mary (Maria) Violi and my great-grandfather Joseph (Giuseppe) were siblings. Mary was the oldest of the four siblings, and was married when the rest of the family came to the US, so she was the only one that stayed behind. Pompilia was excited that we would be nearby and invited us to stay as long as we wanted; unfortunately our itinerary only left us with a day to spend with them. And she had one more surprise in store: a sister--Pina--who lives in Città di Castello!
Fast forward about a week and a few more phone calls and we found ourselves and Valeria walking into the store that my fourth cousin Pina and her husband Luca run in the town that Claudia had always considered her Italian home. As it turns out, because it really is a small world, Claudia's aunt shops in that store, and she and my cousin knew each other by sight. That night we three went to Pina and Luca's house for a pizza dinner, where we met two of their lovely children, and Pompilia joined us as well. Once again we were made to feel right at home, and completely comfortable with this newfound family. We had some appetizers, a few glasses of wine, and a ton of delicious pizza, and talked about our lives and our families. Just like that, we now had two sides of family in Città di Castello!
The next day, we were again invited to a lunch with our new family, this time at Pompilia's house about an hour away near Siena. We met her husband, Michele, one of her daughters, Angelica, and her aunt Maria who remembers hearing stories and reading letters from the family members who had made their lives in Pennsylvania and New York. Together we looked at old photos of the people who connected us as family.
We left their house full and happy to have been so lucky to expand our Italian family with such wonderful, warm and lovely people. They say you can't choose your family but we absolutely could not have chosen any better than Pina and Pompilia and their families!
Now it was time for the final event of our trip, the whole reason we had even planned to go to Italy in the first place: the wedding of Claudia's long-time friend Kris and his Tuscan fiancee Laura. The wedding functioned as a reunion of sorts, as Claudia had not seen some of the other wedding guests who were classmates in over a decade.
The wedding itself was incredibly beautiful and one of the most fun we've ever been to. We instantly caught up with Claudia's high school friends, and it was as if no time had passed. Between the lovely ceremony performed in three languages, the reception, aperitivo (which included multiple trips to the castle's meat cave), dinner, digestif, dessert, and dancing, we had smiles on our faces and laughed endlessly until 5 in the morning.
Italy never disappoints, but this was one of our best trips yet, and now we have even more reason to visit in the future. More family discoveries surely await, and we can't wait to happen upon them!
My father's father passed away a few years before I was born, so I never knew him, nor have I ever met any member of the extended Fabiano family--all the Italian relatives I knew growing up were on my grandmother's side. I've spoken with my aunt several times to gather as much information as I could about the Fabianos, but alas, she has only ever met a small handful of them, and that was many decades ago. As I learned, Francesco Fabiano, my paternal grandfather, was the 10th of 12 children (if you don't count his supposed twin brother who doesn't show up in any records and I believe died when he was hours old) who were born in the last 20 years of the 19th century in Trani, a trading port on the Puglian coast. The Fabianos had been shipping merchants, trading goods with Venice and former Yugoslavia across the Adriatic, and were apparently quite successful in their business. However, according to my aunt, one of my grandfather's uncles apparently made a few bad deals, or some poor gambling decisions, and my great-grandparents had to sell all their property (including, apparently, a nice chunk of land on beautiful peninsula on the edge of town) and relocate the entire family up north near Milan when my grandfather was just a little boy. I'm guessing they had pissed off the wrong people and staying in Trani was simply not a safe option for the family.
This family history, as told by my aunt and corroborated with some photocopied pages from my great grandmother's diary, piqued my interest and I developed the desire to just "go see". I wasn't looking for anything in particular; I knew that I probably wouldn't find close relatives living there, but I just had to go see this place where the Fabianos had been for centuries. In fact, this curiosity was one of the main reasons we decided to visit Puglia, so we made sure to plan a quick 24-hour stop in Trani. While I'm pretty sure none of our Fabianos ever moved back to Trani in the decades/century after relocating north, there are still a ton of Fabianos there, with many businesses and Palazzos bearing my last name.
We had only been walking through Trani for a few minutes when we saw "Fabiano" on a buzzer outside an apartment building. Having done some research, we took a look at the Palazzo Fabiano (no longer a residence but turned into commercial space) and we checked into our B&B, which was located in a larger palazzo that was still today owned by some Fabianos (which was the main reason I booked us a room there!). Hey, when your grandfather was one of twelve, and his father one of ten, you can see how much of the town could still bear my last name.
In the months leading up to our visit, I did some research online, fueled by the few photocopied pages from my great grandmother's journal that my aunt had dug up and sent me. These pages outlined important birth and death dates of her father, husband, and children, along with the date during which she was indicted into a Christian confraternita (a brotherhood), which I found to be an interesting tidbit and perhaps evidence that she was well-respected and important in her community. I inquired about their records, but they don't keep anything that old.
I was still curious and wanted to see what else I could dig up, so I called the Comune (city hall), and asked if they kept birth and marriage records. In under a minute I was directed to a gentleman who asked what I wanted to know, quickly scribbled down the names and birth dates that I could tell him, and told me to stop by his office around noon in two days, when we would be there. I hung up the phone and thought to myself, when the hell did Italy get this efficient?!
The Comune was unlocked when we arrived and its hallways spoke volumes of the state of local government in Italy (someone please give that place a coat of paint!). We wandered a bit before finding his large but bare and outdated office, and when we walked in, he was sitting behind his desk, lit cigarette hanging out of his mouth, ash on the desk and floor. He had hand-written notes on his desk, and when I squinted I saw the names of many of my deceased relatives. He seemed disgruntled, but I could tell that behind that government employee facade was a man who was truly interested in geneaological research. He scolded me for only having given him two days to research my ancestors, reminding me that some people wait months for this information. He did not particularly want to share his discoveries, and belabored the point that he had to painstakingly go through handwritten birth, marriage and death records kept in yellowing notebooks in handwritten script from another era. He also went off about how he doesn't share his research with the city, and that what he does he keeps to himself, motioning to the USB drive that he keeps all his files on. However, after some back and forth, he revealed the fruits of his research, which were the names of my great grandfather's parents, their parents, and so on, all the way back to my great great great great great great grandfather, born in 1690! I could tell he had found more than what he was willing to share, but I felt lucky enough to have gotten this much information without really lifting a finger. Armed with printed pages containing a piece of my family history, I left feeling what I can only describe as a sense of accomplishment, as if having uncovered a small clue in some giant mystery that didn't really need solving, but was fun to discover anyway.
That evening we had a delicious seafood feast, then took our passeggiata around the lively port, still full of functioning fishing boats, men selling their day's catch, families pushing strollers, and young men and women socializing and having drinks to kick off the weekend. I took it all in with a huge smile on my face, picturing my ancestors having their evening passeggiata around this same exact port, standing perhaps only meters from where their shipping boats had been anchored and where I was standing at that moment.
Our stay in Trani was short and sweet--only one night--and in the morning we stopped by the town's cemetery, where we practically walked into a Fabiano crypt upon entry, and then wandered, seeing countless Fabiano and Carbone (my great-grandmother's name) crypts. I left Trani feeling satisfied that we had discovered a little more about where my family came from and who my ancestors were. I felt just a little more whole than I was before.
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Our next stop found us crossing from Basilicata into Puglia (the heel of Italy's boot) and the sleepy and charming Valley of Itria. The most famous thing about this region is probably its trulli, traditional conical dwellings. We picked out a comfortable bed and breakfast where we could stay in one of these unusual buildings (and the hammock and pool were nice bonuses) and spent our days journeying around the small hamlets in the region.
Each town felt similar: the whitewashed buildings, the blooming flowers in window boxes, the cafes with tables spilling out onto the public square. And yet each had a slightly different vibe: different topography, its own culinary specialties, and a different view over the countryside dotted with olive trees as far as the eye can see. Puglia is where the majority of Italy's wine and olive oil is produced, and while the interior of the region is mostly dry and flat and agricultural, it also boasts tons of beaches and coastal towns that in some ways are more reminiscent of Greece than Italy.
We had heard great things about Puglia -- it is even referred to as "the next Tuscany" (i.e., get there while you can!) -- and we both found it to be lovely and unassuming in its offerings. It didn't try to be anything it's not, and while Puglia has lots to offer, it hasn't let its appeal get to its head; it's still welcoming without begging for your tourism. It felt more real to me than many parts of the popular Tuscan countryside; sure, tourists have been visiting for decades, it's not some kind of well-kept secret that backpackers just discovered or anything, but it didn't seem like Puglia had inconvenienced itself or undergone any major transformations just because people are increasingly discovering what's on offer. Would you like to taste some of the local wine? Great, come on over, but we're not going to pour you a fancy flight and give you a cheese & meat board to go along with it; in fact, we'd prefer if you just bought a plastic jug of it and enjoyed it at your leisure!
This region also contained the culinary (and perhaps overall) high-point of the trip, an eight-course dinner at Masseria Il Frantoio. Upon driving up the estate's gravel driveway, we felt like we were traveling back in time (our first hint may have been the ancient Fiat parked outside the gate). Before dinner, the owner led us on a short tour of the property, telling us about the dozens of different strains of heirloom olives they grow -- each one produces a unique olive oil which brings a unique flavor to the dish it's used in -- the 24 herbs they grow in the herb garden, and the Arabian garden growing oranges and even bananas. His speech was quite boastful, but anyone in his position and with his lifestyle would be proud. We got a clear sense of the region's and the property's history, and he seemed eminently aware of his place in the world.
After the tour, we were seated for dinner, and as Luciano and his family brought out course after course of simple, fresh, and delicious food, we were awakened again and again to "how food is supposed to taste". We always have this feeling many times in Italy; maybe it's the pace of life, the agriculture methods, or something in the air, but so much Italian produce is so bright, flavorful, and always served at the peak of ripeness that the corresponding food we get here in the U.S. often pales in comparison. Italian cooking is very simple; most dishes have only a handful of ingredients, but when the ingredients are so wonderful, you don't need to do a lot to them.
Our bellies full and our bodies rested, we headed a few hours north to Trani, a charming port town on the Adriatic that doesn't attract many tourists. Indeed, the thing that brought us there was not the restaurants, sights, or the beach, but the fact that my grandfather was born there. You'll have to wait, because this story will be told in the next post.
The last stop (after Trani) on our all-too-quick tour of Puglia was the Gargano peninsula, where we rented the last apartment on an outcrop of land over the Adriatic Sea. The Gargano Peninsula juts out like a spur on the boot of Italy, and feels more like an island than a peninsula. It boasts a dramatic coastline and the interior contains the only remaining part of an ancient forest, the hilly Foresta Umbra. We woke each morning to have coffee on our small patio with commanding views of the sea, then packed the rental car to explore just a few of the peninsula's many beaches. Although it was a bit windy and not quite high-season, we were shocked to find a beautiful and rugged beach completely to ourselves. We spent all morning in the little cove pictured below with only seagulls for neighbors. We laughed at how many people would be crammed into this beach if it were on the Amalfi coast.
One day after working up an appetite sitting on the beach, we walked a few minutes up the coast to have lunch at a trabucco, a style of seafood restaurant completely unique to this region. My understanding of the fishing method is that every night they just drop a huge net off a corner of the structure with a few long poles leaning out over the water, then in the morning the pull the ropes at the end of the poles to haul in the day's catch without ever leaving land or casting a line! The informal atmosphere reminded us of lobster shacks in Maine or crab dives in Maryland. The fish was juicy and fresh as can be, accented with a simple tomato salad and even a delicious pale ale--Italy's craft beer industry has made great strides in the last few years!
The main town in the Gargano Peninsula is Vieste, which we spent a couple hours exploring one afternoon. It is famous for its dramatic white monolith, Pizzomunno, jutting up from the town's beach about 80 feet high.
We loved the beautiful coastline, plethora of beaches, and windy coastal roads and wish we had had a bit longer to journey into the peninsula's mountainous center. At least we've left something to explore for the next time!
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Ah, Italy. Even with the long list of places we haven't been, when an old friend announced he was getting married in Italy, it didn't take us long to decide we'd make the trip.
And if we're going to go all the way over to our favorite country, it wouldn't just be for a weekend. So we pulled out the maps and books and put together a 2 1/2 week gran giro mostly focusing on the South, but also building in some time for family and the wedding in the central region.
Because we've been lucky enough to visit Italy three times in the last three years (and Claudia has been many more times in her life) we've checked off many of the popular tourist attractions so we focused this year's itinerary on food, relaxation, and a bit of an exploration of our roots.
We arrived into Naples and somehow our bags did too. After hopping into the rental car and stopping for our first pizza in Scafati, a town that we chose to stop in partly because of its position off the highway and partly because we remembered our great friend Matt has family ties there, we made our way south along the coast on increasingly windy, cliff-side roads. A couple hours later we arrived in a small town outside Maratea in Basilicata, an often overlooked region nestled in the south of Italy with a short but sweet coastline. This area of the Tyrrhenian coast boasts small, rocky coves with turquoise water that are often only reachable by boat or foot. We were lucky enough to be staying a ten minute walk from a beautiful beach made of black pebbles in the home of the engaging and warm Sonia and Biagio. For three nights, we fought off our jet lag with daily trips by foot to the beach, relaxing in hammocks, and eating fresh tomatoes off the vine. Our hosts could not have been kinder, constantly feeding us homemade goodies, fresh fruits off their trees, and family-made limoncello and wine.
We did make the short drive one afternoon to the actual town of Maratea, a few miles uphill and inland from the coast, and found ourselves enchanted by the way its streets wound with the hills' topography, the lively public squares, and the breathtaking view from the Cristo Redentor statue a bit further up the mountain.
Having recovered from jet lag and gotten into the vacation groove, we headed to the ancient town of Matera for a history lesson on the region. The city is one of the oldest in the world, dating back to the Paleolithic age, with houses carved out of the region's pliant stone. People lived in these cave-houses ("sassi"), in extremely close and overcrowded quarters, and without any running water, until the government declared them unsanitary in the 1950s and relocated the entire city. However, in the late 80s, the Italian government, with the help of UNESCO, began to rehabilitate the sassi, and now the town is one of the most visited in the South, and one of the European Union's "Capitals of Culture" in 2019. Many of the sassi have been turned into boutique hotels and fancy restaurants and the town has a very unique and stylish feel. Several movies have been filmed there, including Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (in case you're into self-torture...). Although it was swelteringly hot, we greatly enjoyed wandering around to take in the dramatic views around every corner, watching the locals go about their daily lives, and we even managed to stop in a few museums that depicted how life was in the sassi in the first half of the 20th century.
Having gotten a taste of the slow pace, rugged scenery, wonderful hospitality, and delicious food in Southern Italy, we made our way further southeast toward Puglia, where the next chapter of our trip would unfold.
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We had heard such nice things about Macedonia -- and in particular a guest house outside the southern town of Bitola -- from our friend Chip that we had to go see it for ourselves. We had no idea what to expect in Macedonia; perhaps our only faint reference point besides Chip's endorsement was the Macedonian Salad, a mixed fruit salad that we've often eaten in Italy whose name supposedly refers to the mish-mash of people and cultures in Macedonia. That's as good an introduction as any to Macedonia: it packs a lot of variety into a small area.
We headed straight for Villa Dihovo, which is a guest house run by a family in the foothills of Mt Pelister. The guest house is run by a former professional soccer player, and the approach is simple: you pay for the homemade wine, beer, and rakiya (a strong schnapps-like firewater) at set prices. They feed you two delicious home-cooked meals per day, you sleep in their traditionally-decorated guest rooms, and pay what you think is fair. We loved this approach, and looked forward to every meal; our only complaint is that we wished Petar had been around more often for us to talk to about the area (his parents did not speak a word of English). We used this as our base to explore Heraclea Lyncestis, the nearby Roman archaeological site on the famous Via Egnatia, where we found some beautiful mosaics, and the laid back town of Bitola itself, which-- like many other cities in this part of the world-- felt half Mediterranean and half Balkan, with its open air cafes, churches, mosques, and bazaar selling everything under the sun.
We knew that we might regret leaving visiting Macedonia without visiting their pride and joy: Lake Ohrid, one of Europe's oldest and deepest lakes. Petar organized a "guide" to take us there (we were decidedly sick of sitting on buses) who turned out to be a journalist and expert on Freemasons in Macedonia (apparently there are a lot of them). Ohrid sits along the Via Egnatia and connected Constantinople with the Adriatic, making it a popular trade center. These days it is full of tourists, so we added ourselves to the mix and explored the many famous churches and the city's fort, stopping to lunch overlooking a Roman amphitheater.
On our last full day in Macedonia, we decided to do a "short, easy hike" in Pelister National Park. Because we are generally incapable of taking it easy when it comes to day hikes, we ended up on a beautiful ascent through tall pines, over streams and waterfalls, and up a boulder-strewn face to an expansive overlook, where we met a friendly Macedonian-Canadian family (who happened to be friends with Petar) and took photos. Almost immediately after we bid them a safe descent, the skies turned black and a crazy thunderstorm erupted, making our descent somewhat miserable in pouring rain and dropping temps. We were soaked to the bone when we got back to the starting point, but thankfully, the friendly family we had met at the top had just gotten to their car (they took a different route down), and gave us a ride back to Villa Dihovo.
Our final country of this Eastern European jaunt was tiny, unlucky Kosovo, Europe's newest country. Kosovo went through years of struggle and war regarding its autonomy, which Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević fiercely rejected. Ethnic cleansing and war horrors lead to to US-backed NATO intervention in 1999. Ethnically, Kosovo is mostly Albanian, and there are still clashes between the majority and the Serbs. Like in most postwar cities we visited on this trip, the scars still felt fresh, but the people themselves were looking forward. We found Kosovans to be incredibly friendly, and their eyes lit up when they found out we live in the land of Bill Clinton, who enjoys somewhat of a celebrity status in Kosovo, for his part in their liberation.
We spent most of our time in Pristina, the capital. After visiting the very well-tfkept and insightful Ethnographic Museum, we checked out several of the many post-Soviet, concrete, brutalist buildings and monuments dotted around the city. We found these to be incredibly interesting, especially the ones that had since been left to their own devices-- monuments of a distant time that present-day Pristina no longer pays attention to.
Not to be forgotten was Pristina's delicious food. Similar to Albania, we dined on fresh white cheese, warm bread, cured meats, fresh vegetables, and olives. We were so pleasantly surprised at how much we liked Kosovo, and we hope more people make an effort to come here: you will be welcomed with huge smiles, an enthusiastic hope for the future, and no shortage of cultural heritage to soak in.