By Aliza Giammatteo

I got off the phone with Monica Surfaro Spigelman and was reminded why I keep a box of Kleenex on my desk. I’m fortunate enough to have a job that often brings me to tears (the happy kind), and it was Monica’s retelling of her trip to Italy that had me reaching to dry my eyes.

Usually, someone relaying details about their vacation is, let’s be honest, boring, but Monica’s vacation was anything but usual. Monica signed up for an ancestry tour of Italy, and to paraphrase the great poet Robert Frost, she took “the road less traveled, and that made all the difference”.

Over the river and through the woods…

[pullquote align=”right”]Italy has breathtakingly beautiful sights, and a long list of “must see” attractions.[/pullquote]

Italy has breathtakingly beautiful sights, and a long list of “must see” attractions, which makes it difficult to narrow down your vacation to a few key spots. But for more and more Italian Americans, seeing their family’s village and walking in their ancestors’ footsteps makes the top of the list. Sure, they want to experience Italy’s history, but they want to know about their own history too.

Thanks to a surging interest in genealogy, Italian vacations have taken an interesting turn: they’ve gotten personal. Travel agents are getting personalized requests, like the one Monica asked: “I want to see where my grandmother lived.”

Those requests leave travel agents with important questions that many would-be travelers can’t even answer: “Where did your grandmother live?”

Quite often the caller isn’t sure of their ancestral town, let alone the actual street or house where their ancestors resided. This puts the agents in a tough position. And in some cases, there are logistical hurdles for the agent to overcome: “How the heck do I get you there?” and “Where will you stay?”

Many of our ancestors came from tiny villages so remote that, “out of the way” is an understatement. There may not even be a hotel in the vicinity.

Monica Surfaro Spigelman (second from left) and her husband Leigh (back row) in front of Monica’s late grandmother’s house in Villa San Giovanni, Italy. She discovered the house and three generations of family on her ancestry tour

Booking your trip

Almost a year ago today, The Wall Street Journal published an article about the rising popularity of ancestry tours. You’d think all those travel agents who advertise “off-the-beaten path” tours would have lined up to take advantage of this growing market but, unfortunately, few have stepped up to the plate. Many agencies are willing to go off the path, just not all the way to nonna’s house.

So, who can you call for help? If your family came from Calabria, our Calabrian partner will have you covered. If not, there are a few agencies we affiliate with who are willing and able to help. Their availability and the regions they serve can vary so contact the author for more details.

Planning and taking an ancestry tour isn’t always easy, but as the saying goes “nothing worthwhile is ever easy”. And if you’re willing to go that extra mile, pack some Kleenex because it’s an experience like no other.

“Take the toe by the horns!”

If you have Calabrian roots, thank your lucky stars. There’s one brave soul—an angel on earth, in my book—who did step up to the plate to take a swing at it, and she hit the ball out of the park. That angel’s name is Cherrye Moore, the owner of My Bella Vita Travel, LLC (www.my-bellavita.com).

Cherrye (pronounced cherry, like the fruit) is a just as distinct as her name. She’s a Texan-turned-Calabrian (by marriage) who’s got the best of both worlds. She stays true to her Texas roots by welcoming guests to her bed and breakfast with a big helping of Southern hospitality. And she orchestrates her ancestry tours just as gracefully, navigating her way through back roads and negotiating exclusive events with mom-and-pop operations that you won’t find on any other tour guide’s agenda.

My Bella Vita Travel’s tagline is “Take the toe by the horns!” which is fitting in more ways than one. Calabria is at the “toe” of the Italian “boot” and if anybody could take Calabria “by the horns” it’s our Texan partner, Cherrye Moore. Her tours are more than just ancestral sightseeing. She goes all-out to create experiences that involve all the senses—sights, sounds, tastes—so   the traveler’s heritage really comes alive.

Word to the wise

It’s essential to get Italian—not U.S.—family history records before booking an ancestry tour. U.S. records are often riddled with errors and so are many of our own family stories. Cherrye estimates that “roughly 90% of all initial information we get from travelers is incorrect or incomplete.”

Many people believe it’s better to get family records while they’re in Italy, but that’s almost never a good idea. Even if you have the right town and accurate information—which is rarely the case—do you really want to spend your vacation sitting in a government records office? Save yourself a lot of time, money, and trouble by having a genealogist pull records ahead of time.

It takes two…

Because doing the genealogical legwork is just as important as the travel plans, My Bella Vita Travel and my own company, Roots in the Boot, partnered up so each of us can stick to doing what we do best. It’s a match made in heaven. Cherrye is thrilled to have us help with the family records and I’m just as thrilled to see my genealogy work come full circle.

We build the foundation and help discover things like: living relatives, the church the family attended, the house they lived in, etc. Then Cherrye’s team takes over, filling in blanks with local, boots-on-the-ground work and planning special events that correlate with what we discovered.

“Aint’t nothing like the real thing”

You can see pictures of the Sistine Chapel online but can that compare to standing in that great hall and marveling at those masterpieces in real life?

The same applies when it comes to our family history. Growing up hearing stories of the “old country” is a world away from fighting back tears as you embrace a long-lost cousin in front of the very house your grandmother lived in. Or walking down a hilly, cobblestone street holding onto a handrail that your great-grandfather built with his own hands.

Those things happened to Monica on her visit, and in her words, it was “an enriching experience” that “deeply affected me, beyond what I could’ve imagined”.

Monica in tears as she visits her great-grandmother’s grave for the first time in Calabria. She didn’t expect her ancestry tour to affect her as deeply as it did

A different kind of Renaissance

It’s incredible how one trip can change things. Monica didn’t even know the town her grandmother was from in Calabria before she set up her ancestry tour. Now she’s connected with three generations of family in Italy and Monica’s 28 year-old son has taken an interest in their history too because of her journey. The Italian-American divide came crashing down and I don’t see that wall coming back up anytime soon.

The family tree didn’t just come alive, it’s in full bloom. It’s amazing what can happen to a tree when we take time to nourish its roots. In her quest to find her roots, Monica found family that she never knew existed, adding new branches to her tree. Her trip was a Renaissance of sorts, (a re-birth). I could tell by the way Monica started to choke up on our call that she’d be forever changed from that journey.

It’s up to us to pick up where our ancestors’ stories left off and decide how to write the ending, or better yet, if we want to write a new beginning. Monica chose the latter, and because of that, what was once a fading memory is alive again. What was once past is now present. What began as a vacation has become an awakening.

Welcome to the new world of travel. And now you see why I needed the Kleenex.