But what if friends, family, and neighbours, even the ones you didn’t get along with, picked up and left? What if they took everything with them, like your childhood memories and the feeling of belonging, that feeling that comes with the people and the place you’ve known all your life? What if they packed it all up and moved? That’s what happened to my friend Norberto Lombardi – home left him.
Norberto lives in Rome. He was born in Jelsi, an old medieval town typical of Molise, a region in central Italy on the Adriatic coast. In the 1950s, the family moved around because of his father’s job. Norberto returned to Jelsi often, every summer and during the high holidays, visiting family and friends, reconnecting with home. He still does, “I try not to miss the feast of Sant’Anna; it’s a harvest festival. The highlight is the parade of carts beautifully decorated with braided wheat stalks.”
I asked Norberto to explain what had happened. “From childhood on, friends and acquaintances would leave. I would return during the holidays and I wouldn’t find my playmates. It really hit me when my closest friend came to say good-bye. He was like a brother to me. I felt my childhood was over.”
Norberto is a former regional politician, a retired philosophy teacher and an expert on Italian emigration. He recounts the exodus in a thoughtful, quiet way. His friends in Jelsi left for the meccas of immigration, “During La grande emigrazione (1913) my people went to Argentina, Brasil, the USA, and Canada – in Montreal. Again, after WWII they went to Argentina, Venezuela, USA and above all, Canada. In Europe, they went to Germany and Switzerland.” Eventually, everyone Norberto knew left Jelsi.
My whole life I’ve heard stories of longing for home. Immigrants miss everything, even the barnyard smells. Food crystallizes the memory of home: that warm savoury oxtail and beef patty, that sea-fresh bacalao that tastes like no other bacalao on the face of the planet. The first visit back home is an emotional one. It begins when you step off the plane and you hear your native language spoken all around you – you break down and cry at airport arrivals.
It was strange for me to hear Norberto’s longing for home. After all, he stayed behind. He didn’t emigrate. He gets to eat that sourdough bread slathered in glistening-green olive oil. But when he spoke about his friends leaving for faraway places, I sensed the same feeling of loss I hear from my paesani who live here, in Toronto.
Norberto talks about home, in Montreal, where he’s never lived but where his memories live on.
In August of 1982, Norberto travelled to Montreal for the first time. That year, also for the first time, the Feast of Sant’Anna was celebrated in Montreal’s Saint Simon quarter. Afterwards, in a local park, there was a festival with music and vendors’ stalls, just like back home. At the time he was a regional councillor in Molise and he was invited to address the gathering.
“It was very emotional for me and for the others. When I arrived there was already a big crowd. I was taken aback, as if I was struck by lightning. All of Jelsi was there; everyone from my childhood was there. It was as if they had planned a surprise for me, suddenly turning on a light in a dark room; the faces and the memories that had faded along the way, reappeared, all at once. I’m not a believer, but I consider it a miracle of Sant’Anna – a miracle of restitution.”
Norberto talks nostalgically about home, in Montreal, where he has never lived but where his memories live on. “I feel that the world I was born into and where I learned important aspects of life comes back to life in Montreal. There, my language is still spoken, the dialect that for decades I mentally translated into Italian. In Montreal I encounter lives well-lived. I sense that even for the people that I meet, I am an important piece of the mosaic that makes up life and memories. I found my home again. I found it in Montreal.”
Amuninni – Let’s go: An old Sicilian town moves home base to Hamilton, Ontario
If you were to draw a two-kilometre circle around Barton and Park Streets and James St. North to Canon, in Hamilton, you would find the Sicilian town of Racalmuto; population: 10,000. For decades the area was the nucleus of this faraway Sicilian town: the Our Lady of All Souls Church, the Racalmutese Social Club, bocce court out back; hairdressers, pool halls, caffès, grocery stores, bakeries, and the market area. The aroma of red peppers sizzling on a barbecue grill wafted over backyard fences. Old men with jackets slung over their shoulders chatted about soccer, business deals, and marriages. Some estimates put the present-day Racalmuto, Hamilton population, including descendants, at over 35,000.
This is where storyteller and harmonica player Charly Chiarelli grew up. He was born in Racalmuto Sicily and together with his family emigrated to the Steel City in 1949. Back then you would have been forgiven if you thought you were still in Racalmuto Sicily. “If you wanted to get along you had to learn Racalmutese,” Charly explains of Hamilton’s downtown district. His childhood friend, next door neighbour and fellow altar boy, Marjan Mozetich, a Slovenian from Gorizia, Italy, had to learn Racalmutese (I’m guessing the Canadian composer already had several languages up his sleeve – Solvenian, English, Italian). The neighbourhood dentist, Dr. Wu, picked up Racalmutese, too; not Italian, but the dialect spoken strictly by people from Racalmuto.
Hamilton is well known to Italian emigration researchers as Little Racalmuto because it was the single destination of almost the entire town of Racalmuto, Sicily. While immigrants from other towns, like Jelsi, left for different places in different continents, most of the Racalmutese immigrants made a beeline for the Hammer.
Sicilian Racalmuto, near Agrigento and the location of the famous Greek temples, was depopulated, left with only a quarter of its original inhabitants. They fled the rumpaspaddi (backbreaking) work of farming and mining in the sulphur and salt mines, and the exploitation that came with it. Charly tells me he once asked his mother how people survived the Great Depression back in Sicilian Racalmuto. She said it didn’t make much difference to them, “We were depressed all the time.”
“The first time I went back to Racalmuto was 35 years ago,” Charly explains, “I wanted to meet my father’s side of the family. Nobody from my father’s side had emigrated.” The great return home is a journey everyone who comes from somewhere else eventually considers – even if, like Charly, you’ve never really lived there. You think about going back because it’s part of your family lore, because you’re looking for something, a connection.
“Love. I feel a sense of love from all my cousins, but especially from one cousin. He lost his brother in Naples where he was stationed as a soldier. Salvatore and I bonded immediately – a quiet embrace. I see my dad in my cousin. They are very similar, they are both quiet hard-working people; honest, devoted to family. When we are together we sing; we are missing parts of each other. Salvatore is the head of the clan now. All the aunts and uncles are dead.”
Charly did what most immigrants do when they go back – they visit the dead. “It’s eerie. When you visit the graveyard in Sicilian Racalmuto, it’s like visiting Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Little Racalmuto; the names are the same. You see names you recognize, like mine, Calogero.”
Finding your name
Calogero is pronounced: kah-lo-JE-ro. It’s not translatable like Giuseppe (Joe) or Concetta (Connie) or Nicola (Nick). Calogero is an ancient Greek name typically used in Southern Italy and especially in Sicily. It’s derived from the Greek Kalogèros: kalos (fair, good), and geron (old man). It means “venerable old man” or “beautiful old man.” There are several Italian saints named Calogero; a town in Calabria and a mountain in Sicily are also named San Calogero, and Agrigento has a big feast day in honour of San Calogero.
Charly lost his name in grade one. Its energizing mouthful of guttural and palatal consonants, and stressed vowel sound is simply too much for the North American palate. It got garbled. His teacher couldn’t pronounce it so she changed it into two easy syllables: Charly. Outside Little Racalmuto Calogero is a rare find.
Charly recounts a visit back to Sicilian Racalmuto. His teen-age daughter was in the piazza on a Saturday night. “She’s got three young men there. She calls me over, ‘Come over dad and meet these guys,’ she says. But they don’t want to meet me because they think I’m a Sicilian-American, so I must be a mafioso. ‘Dad,’ my daughter says, ‘Hey, dad, all three of these boys are named Chiarelli.’ I wasn’t surprised. There are Chiarellis all over the place in Racalmuto; we weren’t related. ‘Dad, each one is named Calogero, Calogero Chiarelli.’”
After Giuseppe and Salvatore, Calogero is the third most popular male name in the province of Agrigento, Sicily.
The depopulation of Italian towns began in the late nineteenth century and didn’t let up until the 1960s. Estimates put immigration during this time at over 25,000,000 people, the largest mass migration in modern times. It is estimated that Italians and their descendants, who were given the boot (those who left for economic reasons) and live abroad, outnumber the 60,000,000 Italians living in the boot today. The GTA’s Italians (about 500,000) outnumber the population of most Italian cities. There are more people of Italian origin living here than in Venice, Florence, or Bari.
– Elizabeth Cinello
Photos of Molise and Montreal by Elizabeth Cinello
Photos of Hamilton and Racalmuto courtesy of Charly Chiarelli
More about Norberto and Charly:
Norberto Lombardi is the editor of the series Reti, published by Cosmo Iannone Editore . Reti publishes books centered on the experience of immigration, identity, and intercultural dialogue.
Charly Chiarelli is co-writing a play based on Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol called Scroogissimo, with Ronald Weihs and Ryan Sero. Look for it in December, in Hamilton at Artword Theatre.
Video of Charly talking about arriving in Hamilton.
From the FINDING HOME issue