Locking our Love Forever with Love Locks

Happy Valentine’s Day! We wanted to celebrate the annual day of love by sharing the story of our love locks.

A couple of weeks ago, Bob and I attached a little gold padlock to the new Love Lock Bridge near the Riverwalk in San Antonio to lock our love forever, then kissed and took a selfie to mark the occasion. On our lock was written in Sharpie “RG & LH,” inside a hand-drawn heart pierced by Cupid’s arrow. The bridge was actually a chainlink fence along the San Antonio River, but it was covered with hundreds of locks of other couples declaring their undying love.

It was the 15th time we have declared our forever love by placing a lock on a bridge. Normally we are not super-sentimental people, but love locks are a ritual we have grown to cherish during our travels, leaving our mark on bridges and walls all over the United States, Europe and Mexico (so far).

Paris, France

It all started in the summer of 2016, when I was planning to accompany Gavin’s scout troop on a week in the romantic city of Paris. Before we left, Bob gave me a padlock and asked me to write our initials on it and hang it on the Pont des Arts Bridge, which was famous for having so many lovers’ padlocks affixed to it that it groaned under the weight, and authorities had had to cut them off. He had seen the bridge during a weekend he spent alone in Paris during a business trip, and thought it would be nice to have our own lock there.

Surprised and touched by this rare sentimentality, I happily obliged. After the troop set off for the next leg of their trip, Switzerland, I went down to the River Seine and searched for the love locks. The city had decommissioned the Pont des Arts Bridge in 2015 because of the weight of the locks, so I went to the Pont Neuf. It was covered with thousands of lovers’ padlocks tumbling down the banisters and onto the railings of the river walls beyond. Across the River Seine from where I stood was a magnificent view of the Louvre. I locked our padlock, blew a kiss to Bob across the ocean, and took pictures. I’m sure if the locks get too heavy, authorities will cut them off again. But until then, RG & LH will grace the Pont Neuf in Paris, the city of lovers.

Paris

It was a grand, and small, gesture of love. It felt good. It made me think about why I had married this man, what we had experienced together, and how special our life was.

Hamburg, Germany

Three years later, we were visiting my brother Patrick in Hamburg, Germany, and walking along the Elbe River when we saw another bridge covered with lovers’ locks. We didn’t realize the tradition had expanded beyond Paris. Since we were leaving the country the next day, we went and found a hardware store to buy a lock, wrote RG & LH with a Sharpie and enlisted Patrick to hang it for us. A few weeks later, he sent a photo of our lock on the bridge. (Thanks, Pat!)

Hamburg

And with that, we were off, searching for love lock bridges, or creating our own, everywhere we went, together or apart. While on a five-week tour through Europe, we hung locks everywhere.

London, England

In London, we strolled across the pedestrian Jubilee Bridge and listened to a street musician playing Caribbean steel drums while we snapped our padlock in a spot all its own and kissed above the Thames River.

Rome, Italy

After a long day of sightseeing as a family in Rome, when Gavin’s and my feet were aching from miles of walking, Bob trekked back in the rain to hang a lock over the Tiber River. 

Rome

Sorrento, Italy

Farther south in Sorrento, on a solo weekend trip while I was off doing genealogy searching with some Italian cousins, Bob discovered an iron fence with love locks along the Mediterranean coastline about a mile from his hotel during his morning run. He spent the afternoon searching for a padlock and a Sharpie, but a torrential downpour forced him to wait to return until the next morning, when a break in the rain gave him time to quickly walk there and fix the lock in place before heading for the train station.

Sorrento

Hydra, Greece

In Greece, during a daylong boat trip, Hydra, an idyllic fishing village where bleached-white houses climb up the mountainside from the azure Mediterranean, offered herself as an entrancingly scenic host to our love lock.

Ludlow, Vermont

The tradition continued when we returned to North America. First, we affixed a love lock to a bridge in Ludlow, Vermont, where we have our second home.

New Orleans, Louisiana

Then we headed down to live in Mexico for the first six months of 2019. During a two-night on break the road trip south, we took the streetcar to hang a lock on a chain-link fence in New Orleans, under a banner that read Love Locks NOLA in front of the Eiffel Society, a club built from parts of a former Eiffel Tower eatery.   

Leon, Mexico

When we came to Mexico in January 2019, the first city we stayed in was Leon, where we found the Puente Del Amor (love locks bridge) at one end of the Causeway of Heroes, a wide pedestrian walkway that serves as the gateway into the old city. After spending an afternoon looking for ferreterias (hardware stores) to buy a padlock, we put our lock through the padlock of another lock at the top. The bridge looked down upon a highway, with mountains in the distance.

Lake Chapala, Mexico

We never found a good spot in Tlaquepaque, where we lived for four months, or Guadalajara, the city next door. But we visited beautiful Lake Chapala, half an hour south, for a day trip and walked out to the end of a fishing pier to hang our lock on a rusted turquoise railing overlooking Mexico’s largest freshwater lake. On the way, we had been stopped by announcers for a local radio station who were broadcasting live, and thus posed for the obligatory selfie in our new orange Guadalajara T-shirts.

Guanajuato, Mexico

By far the most interesting place to hang our lock was the magical town of Guanajuato, where there’s an alley so narrow that people can kiss from across two balconies. There’s a tragic legend of a young man who was killed for stealing a kiss from the daughter of a rich man. We put up our lock and kissed across the alley. (Fortunately, Bob survived.)

Montreal, Canada

We lived in Vermont during summer 2019, and took a couple of trips to Montreal, Canada, hanging one lock on a bridge overlooking Gay Village and the other on a small bridge in the main pedestrian area along the St. Lawrence River, looking out at a huge Ferris Wheel.

The Farm, Cascade, Pennsylvania

When we visited The Farm, the family homestead in the mountains of Central Pennsylvania where Lisa’s paternal grandmother grew up, we hung a love lock from the rusty metal rope that secures the entrance to the old lane.

Thwarted

We were occasionally thwarted in our efforts. In the beach town of Cambrils, Spain, there was no official Love Locks bridge, so we scouted the promenade along the ocean but never found a spot where we could thread a padlock. There was an official Love Locks spot in Barcelona, but we didn’t have time to visit it. We have looked several times while in Burlington, VT, but have not yet found a spot for a padlock.

Part of the tradition of the Love Locks is to throw the keys into the river to seal your eternal love, but we don’t do that because we don’t think it’s good for the health of the fish or the river. Thus we still hold all the keys to each other’s hearts.

Our Love Locks Map

Click on each pin to see an image of the lock in its home!

Up Next …

We have just arrived in Mexico City and are looking for a place to hang our 16th lock. We’ll keep you posted!

Enjoy the video of our love locks experiences on the Messy Suitcase YouTube Channel. Happy Valentine’s Day!

By Lisa & Bob

Europe In Pictures

Before we leave for Mexico, we wanted to share some of the best pictures from our trip to Europe.


Visiting six countries in five weeks, we saw some spectacular sights: Ancient ruins, mammoth rocks, jaw-dropping waterfalls, amazing architecture, turquoise seas, fiery sunsets and too much more to list!

Let’s let pictures tell the story:

Germany

Elbphilharmonie Concert Hall, Hamburg

St. Michael the Archangel Church, Hamburg

England

London Eye

London Eye

London Eye

Kensington Gardens

Kensington Palace

Spain

Gaudi rooftop

Montserrat

Greece

Temple of Zeus

Poros Island

Italy

Palatine Hill from Coloseo
Capri
Solofra countryside

Iceland

Skalatjorn Homestay, Iceland

Harpa Concert Hall, Reykjavik
Thingvellir National Park, Iceland
Skogafoss Waterfall, Iceland
Dryholaey Nature Preserve, Iceland

Extraordinary Weather

We were extraordinarily lucky with regards to weather on our trip. We knew that traveling in October and early November would be iffy, but other than just a few days, the weather was absolutely beautiful.

Iceland

We had one good weather day in Iceland, the rest not so great. This stop was the beginning of our trip, the first few days of October, and I’m glad it wasn’t at the end. To begin with, we were literally assaulted by the wind as soon as they opened the cabin doors of the plane so we could walk down the steps, onto the tarmac and into waiting buses. We should have expected that, as I could see the sideways rain and the water just being pushed across the runway as we taxied. 

Lexie holding onto her hat in Iceland
However, it was still a surprise when it was difficult to walk down the steps with what must have been 50 mph cold wind and driving rain.
(Note from Lisa: Airports generally protect you from the elements when you get off a plane and enter the terminal. But in Iceland, where weather can be brutal and winters are cold and windy, you walk down the airplane steps and across the tarmac to a bus completely exposed to whatever Mother Nature throws at you. And it didn’t help that we had flown out of sunny, 81-degree Northern Virginia!) 
It was even difficult driving the rental car, which kept getting pushed sideways by the ferocious wind. I’ve experienced that driving my high-profile truck, but a little car, on somewhat narrow roads, was a completely different story. We needed gloves and winter coats during our entire stay in Iceland.
The first thing Lisa and I did after we arrived at our goat farm lodging on the south coast was to hightail it to the nearest town with our swimsuits to sink into a hot spring and warm up!
The next day was our prime sightseeing day, and the weather cooperated beautifully: not too windy and no rain. And, it allowed us to see the Northern Lights!
The following day, we experienced wind, rain and even snow. Our visit to the waterfall was so brutal that Lexie stayed in the lodge. We still saw what we wanted to see, including geysers, waterfalls and a spectacular national park, but at times it wasn’t pleasant. The same could be said for our days in Reykjavik. We did and saw what we wanted, but the nasty weather was a significant obstacle to our enjoyment.
In the end, I went running in every place we visited except Iceland. I’m still torn on whether I should have run while we were there, but the wind was just too brutal.

Hamburg, Germany

Just absolutely perfect weather. Sunny every day, temperatures in the 60s, no wind. 
Glorious weather in Hamburg


Barcelona/Reus, Spain

Again, just absolutely perfect weather. Even warmer, low 70s! (Note from Lisa: I wished I had time to lie on the beach there, it was so nice!)
 

Great beach weather in Barcelona

England

We were certainly expecting the worst here, especially over the course of eight days, but again, absolutely perfect weather. Mostly sunny, high-40s at night, the mid-50s to mid-60s by day. Never a drop of rain, either in Newcastle-Under-Lyme visiting Aryk, or in London, sightseeing. 
Strolling on a sunny London afternoon

Italy

Rome – The weather we had for our stay in Rome was again perfect, until the last day. Then the rain started,  the morning Lexie and Lisa left for the train station for Naples. Since I was staying another day, I waited out the heavy morning rain and then headed out for my explorations. I did get drenched heading home that evening, but all in all, we had really nice weather while in Rome. 
During our stay in Italy, the entire country was seeing really bad weather. Venice was 75% flooded, schools throughout Italy were closed, and Italian television was continually showing mudslides, flooding and washed-out roads and bridges.
Rainy Rome the last day
Naples – It rained nonstop in Naples. One day there was such a violent windstorm/thunderstorm that the road to our lodging was closed down because of flying debris. We were going to go to the Archeological Museum that afternoon and decided to stay in and ride out the storm.
Pompeii – Our day in Pompeii was again just absolutely beautiful, sunny and high-60s. I remember walking around in a short-sleeved T-shirt.
Sorrento – The forecast was for one good day of weather while I was in Sorrento, so I took a boat tour to and around Capri. The weather started changing in the afternoon, and it was colder and windier on the boat trip back. The next day was, for the most part, rainy, which gave me the opportunity to have a relaxing, easy day. It rained the next day as I traveled back to Naples to meet up with Lexie and Lisa.

Athens

Again, Athens gave us just absolutely perfect weather. Warm and sunny.
Perfect weather for Greek island hopping

All in all, we couldn’t have asked for better weather. (Note from Lisa: Except maybe in Naples.) We know we were lucky and we took full advantage of that!

Italy, Part 7: Bob Visits Capri and Sorrento

I arrived in Sorrento by train late in the afternoon and checked into my apartment, which was perfectly located directly on the charming, vibrant town square. Sorrento is located atop a steep cliff face overlooking the southern tip of the Bay of Naples.

Checking the weather forecast, I realized that I would only have one good weather day, my first day there. So even though it was fairly late, I quickly found a tour company still open and booked a boat tour of the island of Capri that left at 8 AM the next day.

I got up early the next morning — Oct. 31 — and headed to the pickup point. A small bus came that subsequently took us to a small street in town, where we were met by a guide. We were taken to an elevator in a nondescript building that could hold at least 25 people, and in what seemed like a moment, we wooshed down 80 meters (260 feet) down to water level. For some reason, the boat was delayed about an hour, but then I boarded the small boat with 10 other people.

Here are some pictures, since Lisa says I didn’t describe it enough. (Pictures are worth a thousand words. Each.)

This is how far the elevator went, through sold rock 260 feet from Sorrento town to the marina below

The Sorrento Marina

The cliff

A look back at Sorrento from the boat

Capri

We spent the next hour traveling along the coast and out to the island of Capri, where we began a clockwise tour of the island.

First view of Capri

We briefly stopped at the Green Grotto and made our way to the famous Faraglioni of Capri. The sea was fairly choppy and I was already pretty surprised that the boat captain got us as close as he did to the Green Grotto, as we bounced around literally feet from the rocks.

The Green Grotto – I thought he was going to crash the boat 

Now, we were heading directly toward the Faraglione di Mezzo, and as I saw the arch approaching, I was wondering how close he would get us to it. He didn’t even hesitate and as we bounced from side to side, he skillfully maneuvered the rocking boat through the arch, at times no more than six feet from the rocks. Granted, this wouldn’t have been a problem in calm seas, but the sea wasn’t calm this day and I was quite surprised he did it. There’s no way this would have been allowed in the US. The boat captain did make a joke (after he was successfully through) that the arch we just went through had been smaller in the spring before several boats bounced off the sides and made it wider. Ha!

We continued our tour around the island and got to the famous Blue Grotto. Normally, the boat would stop and allow the tourists an opportunity to take one of the local guided rowboats through the grotto. But that wasn’t happening today as it was far too rough.

The Blue Grotto
It was then on to dock at the marina in Capri, where we had 4 hours of free time. I hadn’t done any research on what there was on Capri itself, and honestly, I was a bit tired of walking and doing tourist things after 3 days in Rome and another in Pompeii. Nonetheless, I took the funicular up to the main tourist town. The view from the top was breathtaking.

Funicolare

View from the top

Capri itself, though picturesque, was a typical tourist town, built on a hillside. It had the usual tourist shops, but many were closed for the season, some with people inside boxing up the merchandise (Oct. 31 marks the last day of high season). I walked around for two hours, had some street food for lunch and got half a gallon of red Italian orange juice to take back with me. I decided to walk down the hill to the dock area, which turned out to be longer than I wanted to do, so I relaxed with a beer at a local restaurant. During the return boat ride, some of the other tourists talked about going to the top of the peak on the island, which I regretted not doing.

By pickup time, the weather had started to turn. The wind was up, the temperature was down, the water was quite choppy, and I became wet from wind spray during the chilly trip back. I was wishing for a hot tub by the time I got back to my apartment.

Back in Sorrento … Halloween

Soon though, I was back on the street when I saw that local kids were out in full force in costume on trick-or-treating at the local merchants. I hadn’t expected them to celebrate Halloween in Italy!

Lock of Love

The next morning,  I woke up to rain. My original plan was to take a tour of the Amalfi coast, but the low clouds and heavy rain justified my decision to stay in. There was enough of a lull in the rain to allow me to go for a run, and I found a fence overlooking the bay that had a few Locks of Love locks attached. I had a padlock with me, but didn’t have a Sharpie to write Lisa and my initials. I made it my mission for the day to find one, not an easy task in a tourist town. I was eventually successful, but by then it was dark, so I had to wait until the next day to put it in place.

I woke up the next morning to find it raining too hard to run. I had to check out of my lodging, so all I was hoping for was for the rain to let up enough to allow me to walk the half mile to the fence and back without getting completely soaked. Finally, as I was at breakfast around 9 AM, I got that opportunity. I rushed to the fence, put the lock (inscribed RG + LH) in place, took some pictures to share with Lisa, and made it back to pick up my suitcase before it started raining hard again.

I got on the train, standing room only, for the 75-minute trip back to Naples to meet up with Lisa and Lexie for our flight to Athens the next day.

Italy, Part 6: Bob’s Extra Day in Rome

I wasn’t interested in all of Lisa’s family’s Naples and Solofra excursions, so from the beginning, I had planned on spending a day with her family and then exploring on my own.

Because we were so busy before the European trip, I hadn’t had time to even think about where I would go. I considered going to Venice, Florence or even taking an overnight ferry from Naples to Sicily. However, once we were in London, I realized that I needed to make some decisions so that I could make lodging and transportation arrangements.

I knew we were eventually going to fly out of Naples to Athens, and that Naples looked interesting enough to spend a day there. Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius also interested me. Since going to Florence or Venice would necessitate more time devoted to travel than I wanted, I decided to spend an extra day in Rome after Lisa and Lexie left for Naples, spend a day and night with her family doing ancestry activities in Naples, then travel to Sorrento and use it as a base for visiting Pompeii, Mt. Vesuvius, Capri and the Amalfi coast.
I couldn’t stay in our Rome apartment an extra night because it was booked, but I was fortunate to find another one in the same complex, which would let me get in an hour after we left the first one. So on the day that Lisa and Lexie left for Naples, I left the apartment with them and found a coffee shop to spend an hour. That hour turned into two when I discovered that it was Daylight Savings Time fallback in Italy, and we could have slept another hour! During my coffee shop wait, the rain started, remaining relatively light until I got into the apartment, when it became torrential and I had to wait it out for a couple of hours.

A rainy Sunday in Rome, and cats

I really didn’t have a plan for the day, so once the rain stopped I decided to just get on the metro, get off at a stop we hadn’t used before, and just wander. I ended up getting off at Flaminio, at the Piazza del Popolo, and spent the day wandering down Via del Corso to the Piazza Venezia, taking in the shopping and sights along the way, including the recently excavated Forum ruins near the Palazzo Venezia.

Bob ran into the Pope!

A selfie binge

Cats of Rome

I ended the day at the cat sanctuary at Largo di Torre Argentina, the place where Caesar was murdered. Today it contains Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary, a cat shelter overseen by a group of volunteers. About 130 cats call these ruins their home. The day ended with another rainstorm, through which I walked back to the apartment, crossing the Tiber and following our previous running route to the Vatican.

Naples, not impressive

The next day I caught an early train to Naples, where I joined Lisa, Lexie and Lisa’s cousins and sister on a walking tour of her grandfather’s former home. While most likely the neighborhood where we stayed and where her grandfather lived was typical old Naples, it was nonetheless dirty and cramped. With numerous people hanging out on the streets, I didn’t feel comfortable there, and was happy to leave the next day.

Looking at Lisa’s grandfather’s door

Pompeii

My original plan was to leave for Sorrento the next morning. However, I joined Lisa, Lexie, her cousin Loraine and Loraine’s husband Dave on a trip to Pompeii. When we got to Pompeii, I saw that the train station had baggage storage, and realized I should have brought my luggage along — I could have stored it and saved the trip back to Naples to get my bags!

The family in Pompeii
My plan for my 2+ days in Sorrento was to take a boat tour of Capri one day, take a tour down the Amalfi coast another day, and spend my last morning exploring Sorrento before returning to Naples to meet up with Lisa and Lexie before heading to Athens the next day.

Italy, Part 5: New Discoveries Rock Lexie’s World

(NOTE: This blog is different than the others: It is not a travelogue, but instead Lexie’s reflections on discovering during the genealogy portion of our trip that she may have descended from Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity. Your comments are welcome.)

I’ve never had a crisis of faith before. My whole life I’ve been a Christian, no questions asked. The one time I thought of leaving my faith, becoming an atheist like my father and sibling, I worried that God would be mad at me for it–and with that thought, I realized that I believed He was real with my entire soul and there is nothing I can do about that.
Learning my family may be of Jewish descent has rocked my world.

Christians and injustice


I know Christians have been the cause of a lot of injustice in the world. As a lesbian of faith, maybe more aware than most. I see religion used as an excuse to discriminate against others like me on a regular basis, and it’s an evil I have to live with. But I know that the God I believe in made me just the way I’m supposed to be, and that’s not a sin.
It’s entirely different to learn that the reason I’m a Christian might be because my ancestors were told to convert or die. It’s like my faith has turned on me–my beliefs haven’t changed, but the context has. Through very brief research, I’ve learned the term for what I am: Bnei Anusim, descendants of the coerced ones. Fully assimilated Christians today, one of millions or more.
And learning this as anti-semitism is rising in America, so close to the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting where 11 people were murdered for simply practicing their faith… I’m terrified. Terrified, disgusted, conflicted. I don’t know who I am, and I don’t know if the answer paints a target on my back.

What is Judaism?


I want to learn more about my heritage, and I want to learn more about Judaism. But I’m more scared now, over the prospect of being a Jew, than I was when I realized I was gay. Nazis didn’t care if you practiced Judaism, just what was in your veins. Why would Neo-Nazis be any different?
I don’t know if I’d be considered a Jew but it ultimately doesn’t matter. Discrimination based on sexual orientation is legal behind pleas of religious freedom. A candidate for mayor in Colorado believed trans people were possessed by demons, and our president wants to take their rights as well. I’m not going to delude myself into thinking he considers me worthy of human rights. Autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people were sent to asylums to be horrifically mistreated for large parts of human history, and are still sent to prison in staggering rates. I’ve been harassed by police officers as a child for acting in ways deemed odd because of how my brain works, and I was a little white girl.
If you aren’t scared by our political climate right now, you should be. Because our rights are not secure, and America’s government is only a Republic if we can keep it. There is no time for indifference when students are afraid of being killed when they walk into school. When places of self-expression can so easily turn into war zones. Politics aren’t optional when lives depend on them.
Violence is a gaping wound from the past, and it will bleed us dry if we don’t act to stop it.
Next Up — Italy, Part 6: Bob’s Extra Day in Rome

Italy, Part 4: Solofra, and Radical Discoveries

After we left Naples, we traveled into the mountains to dig deeper into the family history.

Solofra


My grandfather Domenic Troisi was actually born in a small mountain town called Solofra, about half an hour east of the city of Salerno. His father, Beniamino Troisi, met his mother, Maria Michele Buongiorno, in Solofra when she was working for his brother, the local priest. Here’s an excerpt from my grandfather’s Memory Book for his 50th anniversary:
BENIAMINO TROISI FU BIAGIO met Maria Michele Buongiorno at the home of Father Carmine Troisi who was later elevated to the Canonico and Primicerio Curato to the Parochial and Collegiate Church St. Michele Arcangelo of Solofra Province of Avellino, Italy, December 21, 1941. Miss Buongiorno at the time she met Beniamino, brother of the priest, was keeping house for Father Troisi. Both the Troisis and the Buongiornos were respected families of Solofra.

Entrance to Terranova Agriturismo
So our little group of family seekers – which consisted of my cousins Janice and Loraine Carapellucci, Loraine’s husband Dave Handley, sister Julie Holm, daughter Lexie and me – converged on Solofra on Oct. 31, settling into a charming farm BnB, Terranova Agriturismo, just outside of the village. Our plan was to experience Domenic’s Solofra by attending Mass at St. Michael the Archangel’s on All Saint’s Day.

Discovering family


But as we were eating an Italian breakfast of bread, pastry, cheese and cappuccino that morning, who should arrive in the BnB’s dining room but a man I’d never seen before who looked slightly familiar, named Alfonso Buongiorno. It turned out that Janice had made contact with Alfonso through a friend back in New York, and he was our third cousin! His great grandfather had been Maria Michele’s brother, so we shared great-great-grandparents.
Alfonso shared my cousin Janice’s passion for genealogy, and a generous Italian sense of hospitality. Over breakfast, he shared many things he had learned about our family over a decade of digging, while I took notes like crazy. 
Here are the highlights:

Revelations

Buongiornos from both sides of the ocean

The first revelation was that the Buongiornos actually lived in Tuscany before coming to Solofra. But before that, they came from the Netherlands and Spain. In Spain, they were likely Sephardic Jews who had been forced to convert to Catholicism. Many families who did this changed their surnames to names like Buongiorno (which means Good Day) or Bonanno (which means good year) so that they could continue practicing Judaism undercover yet still be able to recognize each other.

Alfonso had done a little research on Troisis as well, and said the name was Norman in origin – which Janice, who had also learned this, had taken to mean Normandy, France. No, Alfonso said, it’s actually Norman as in Vikings, most likely from Norway and Sweden! He said many Troisis were blond and blue-eyed because of this heritage.
So we came to Italy to learn we were actually Spanish Jews, Dutch, and Vikings! This helped explain some of the oddities of the DNA test I took last year.

Leather and gold


For the last 500 years, Buongiornos have been tanners, producing fine-quality leather for overseas clients. A member of the family would live in Naples and act as a liaison to sell the product.  They also used to be in the gold business until a king stopped buying their product. Today many of their leather clients are being lost to Chinese mass production and cost undercutting, so the family business is grappling with how to respond to a bit of a crisis. But the family also owns rental properties in Calabria, the southern coast of Italy across from Sicily.

Meeting family


The best part of Solofra was discovering family there! We were invited to Alfonso’s home and met his wife Maria and children Raffaela, 18, and Francisco, 15. We talked genealogy and he showed us a framed family tree he had commissioned. He presented Janice with a binder containing scanned copies of paperwork he had acquired through his own genealogy research, which almost made her drool with anticipation.

The church



The church has a plaque on the outside dedicated to Monsignor Carmine Buongiorno, also called Il Canonico, my great great uncle. Inside there is a chapel set up by the family through an endowment. His gravestone is in the floor of a back room, behind the  sacristy.

All Saints Day


We joined the All Saints Day procession of Solofra residents walking in the rain under dark umbrellas down to the town cemetery, preceded by the town band playing mournful tunes. Once there, where you could buy colorful flowers from a roadside peddler, we entered the heavy gates and split up, looking for old Troisi and Buongiorno graves. As we wandered among the raised monuments, we watched people clean their family members’ graves and decorate them with flowers and pictures. A memorial mass was held in the chapel in the middle, and the choir voices drifted through the alleys between the small houses that held multiple family members’ graves. It was fascinating.

Here is Alfonso’s family tree:

Next up — Italy, Part 5: Lexie learns about her heritage

Italy, Part 3: Rome

Rome was literally eye-popping. We stepped out of a subway for the first time and were immediately accosted by the enormous, imposing Coliseum. All three of us stopped and gasped simultaneously. The scale of it was, as Lexie put it, “incredible. I don’t even know how to describe it.”

That pretty much describes Rome: Larger than life.

The Colosseum

Since we only had a couple days in Italy’s capital, we decided we had no time to waste waiting in line unnecessarily. So we took a skip-the-line tour of the Colosseum, the largest amphitheater ever built, circa AD 70. (We picked the first person who approached us, but you might want to do more research than that.) Though it was partially destroyed by a major earthquake, it is surprisingly intact, and truly spectacular. We were able to climb fairly high and peered down at the space where gladiators fight and public executions were the spectacle of the day.
The Colosseum

It is flanked by the Roman Forum, which for centuries was the center of day-to-day life in Rome, and Palatine Hill, one of the most ancient parts of the city.

The Forum and Palatine Hill

Our Morning Walking Tour


The second morning, Lexie slept late while Bob and I took the subway to the Trevi Fountain, the largest Baroque fountain in the city and one of the most famous fountains in the world  Again, we got so much more than we expected. It was huge, built into the side of a big stone building, and glorious. Description, legend. It turned out we were there at the least crowded time of the day, so we were able to each throw a coin in the fountain over our left shoulders. (According to legend, one coin means you will return to Rome, two means you will find new romance and three means you will get married. We already have two and three covered.) Suddenly the 1950s song Three Coins in the Fountain makes more sense.

Trevi Fountain

We then had an overpriced breakfast of croissants and cappuccinos across the way from the fountain, basking in the location and the glorious leisure It is in a charming old section of Rome with narrow streets and no cars. We walked along, taking pictures of a large diversity of creative, small shop windows, and came along a Pinocchio shop – ah, yes, that childhood tale about Gepetto, the lonely shoemaker and his wooden doll who turned into a real boy, is Italian in origin!

Gepetto’s workshop

Our wanderings also took us through the Fifth Avenue of Rome – Gucci, Armani, Ermenegildo Zegna, etc. — to the famous Spanish Steps, which we had never heard of, but they are glorious and worth a visit.  It’s127 steps up, and nearby is the apartment where Keats died at the age  of 29 – just a little literary trivia.
Spanish Steps

We found the Pantheon, an ancient temple to the Roman gods converted to a Catholic Church that was simply amazing. It is circular, 142 feet wide and 142 feet tall, with a hole in the roof that lets light in as well as rain, and a drain in the floor. It is one of the best preserved of all Roman buildings because it has been in continuous use and is still used as a church and to host concerts today.  It was also not crowded, and had pews we could sit in to rest our tired feet.

Pantheon

The Vatican

We went back to our apartment (Homeaway did us right; our two-bedroom was gorgeous, comfortable and close to the subway, and since we booked an off-season rental only two weeks before, we were able to get the price lowered) to get Lexie, who had been sleeping late (she is 18, after all), and headed out for the obligatory tour of the Vatican. We chose a 3 PM tour to avoid the morning crowds, which Bob and I had witnessed firsthand the previous morning when we ran past the Vatican and had to dodge the lines. Again, we paid extra to skip the line, and were led through the Vatican Museums by a stylish Liberian woman whose English accent was too thick for Bob to decipher. (Thanks to time spent with a Liberian friend when I lived in New York, I understood her just fine.)
The Vatican Museum (actually, museums) is one of the largest museums in the world, featuring an immense collection amassed by popes throughout the centuries. The tour was a little too quick, but interesting nonetheless, especially the Map Room. I would like to go back in my own and take the time to linger. I also discovered the secret to seeing the Vatican without the crowds is to wait till the afternoon, a time when no Skip the Line premium would have been necessary. Here are some highlights:

The Sistine Chapel was a feast to behold, although Michelangelo’s famous creation image was surprisingly small in the center of the ceiling, and the elbow-to-elbow crowd made it challenging to view. (Sorry, no photos are allowed in the Sistine Chapel.)

St. Peter’s Square

St. Peter’s Basilica was glorious, but I was disappointed to be denied seeing the Pieta sculpture, which was behind a curtain and required a premium to view. I made sure to buy a couple of packable souvenirs and posted postcards to my brother John, who is a Catholic priest, and my stepmother, Katy. Because it was a Saturday evening, I could have gotten a free ticket to see the Pope say Mass the next morning from the nuns in the gift shop. Unfortunately, we planned to travel at the same time, so I didn’t. If you ever travel to Rome, you should know admission is free on the last Sunday of every month, so plan accordingly!

St. Peter’s Basilica

Cats of Rome


Bob stayed an extra day and visited Torre Argentina, the spot where Julius Caesar was killed, a ruin that is now a Cat Sanctuary.

Thoughts on Rome

A few thoughts on Rome:

  • It is OLD.
  • It is Catholic! I realized this, but still, it’s a surprise to see so many nuns and priests and monks in the streets of a city.
  • There are no footpaths or grassy places to run, though there is a path along the Tiber River, which was just a bit too far from our apartment.
  • Because of the density of the center or the city, public transit is limited to the edges and you have to walk a lot, on cobblestones. We skipped the Hop On Hop Off Bus because the reviews made clear the buses couldn’t actually get near the most popular sites, and stops were few and far between.
  • The menu is extremely limited: pizza and pasta. And more pizza. And more pasta. And gelato, gelato, gelato. It’s wonderful! But after a while, no matter how good it is, you get tired of the same menu.
  • There are a lot of beggars, who seemed like a throwback to another time. We saw women in scarves lying on the sidewalk with heads bowed in prayer and cup extended, and young men with gnarled legs and feet propelling themselves on skateboards, distorted hands inside of heavy boots and cups extended.
  • It is larger than life. From the Vatican to the Coliseum to the Fountain of Trevi, everything is so big, it takes your breath away.

Two and a half days was not enough time. We will be back!

Next up — Italy, Part 4: Solofra, and Radical Discoveries

Italy, Part 2: Why Italy

Why Italy?

Italy was actually the impetus for this whole European adventure. 

My cousin Janice Carapellucci has been passionately pursuing our family roots on the Troisi side for a decade, especially the artist Donato Buongiorno, who was my Italian grandfather Domenic Troisi’s uncle and his family’s sponsor when they came to the United States from Naples in 1907. (She collects his work, as he was a fairly prominent artist at the turn of the last century, and hopes to stage a show of his work in New York City in spring 2019. Her website is donatusbuongiorno.com.)
In addition, my sister Julie Holm and her husband Mark visited Italy about a decade ago and found the hometown where my grandfather was born, Solofra, a picturesque village of goldsmiths and leather tanners located in lush mountains about a half hour east of Salerno.
Janice has been planning a family expedition to Naples and Solofra for years. When my daughter Lexie decided to take a gap year before starting college, I decided the timing of the trip this fall provided a wonderful opportunity for her to learn about her Italian family history.
Then it turned into our travel version of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie: If we were going to be in Italy for the family reunion, we may as well go to Rome for a couple days first. And since Spain is close by, we might as well visit our exchange student, Laia, and her family, in Barcelona. And while we were in Europe, we should visit our oldest, Aryk, at Keele University in England. And if we were going to be in England, we need to spend time in London and get tickets to Hamilton in the West End.  And if we were going to be so close to Germany, we needed to visit my brother Pat and his family outside Hamburg. And since Icelandair, with the cheapest flight to Hamburg, offered a free stop-off in Reykjavik, we had to spend a few days in Iceland. And because Italy is so close to Greece, we added Athens.
So the Italy portion of our trip can be divided into two distinct sections: sightseeing in Rome and ancestry-seeking in Naples and Solofra. You’ve already seen a report from Naples. I realize we are going out of order, but that’s the nature of travel. These blogs need to be posted when they’re written. Thanks for being flexible!
Next … Italy, Part 3: Rome

Italy, Part 1: Naples

Walking in my Grandfather’s Footsteps

I have one thing to say to my grandfather, Domenico Troisi: Thank you so much for leaving Naples!

A few hours spent around Via Cesare Rossaroll in Naples, Italy, where Domenic lived as a child before immigrating to the United States in 1907, has made me eternally grateful that he came to the United States. This impoverished, filthy, decaying pesthole of a neighborhood, teeming with loud people and louder cars, narrow streets and narrower alleys, ancient buildings with paint peeling off, blowing litter and dog shit everywhere, is beyond depressing.

And this godforsaken alley is where my grandfather lived with his father and two brothers, first in a dingy flat with a shared toilet outside in the hall, and later in a small room separated by a curtain from his father’s “magazino,” or tailoring shop and store combined.
The Memory Book

Domenic described this neighborhood in his 50th Anniversary Memory Book, published in 1970. But his optimistic style does not capture the over-stimulating, exhausting reality of his Neapolitan living situation. Fortunately, my cousin Janice Carapellucci and sister Julie Holm both spent considerable hours and effort researching and digging to locate the home where he lived and the chapels and other landmarks he referenced in his memoir, so that a small group of Troisi cousins could make a pilgrimage to Italy and back to the place from whence we came.

Naples

I’ll be blunt: Naples is no tourist town. It’s working-class, gritty, loud and obnoxious. It reminds me of some parts of NYC and helps me understand how the Big Apple, with so many Italian immigrants, came to develop some of its pushy, in-your-face character. Walking from the train station this morning, first I was hit by multiple flailing elbows while walking the few blocks to get there, then I was almost deafened by a whole line of cars leaning on their horns to express their outrage at some poor sap holding up the line in front of them. This could have happened just as easily on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Life off Via Cesar Rosaroll

But back to Domenic. First, his family lived, as his brother D. Paul described in the memoir, in a small apartment: “Our apartment was called a flat, with community toilet out in the hall; the central heating consisted of our cooking stove in which we burned charcoal when we could afford it. We scavenged kindling at the curb market where we picked up discarded boxes and crates.”
Domenic’s alley

After his mother died in 1906, this Spartan lifestyle deteriorated, according to Domenic: “My father gave up the apartment and put what furniture he could salvage (in) back of the store, dividing the room with a curtain across the entire width. He felt that by so doing he could take better care of his three boys. Many of the meals consisted of pans of spaghetti, or paste e faggioli, which were supplied by a restaurant in Porta Capuana in exchange for tailoring and clothes my father made for the family of the restaurant owner. I cooked most of the meals on a small kerosene stove in back of the store.” 

He was only 12.

Transported Back in Time

Walking in the neighborhood where Domenic spent his childhood, I felt transported back in time 110 years. It seems like nothing has changed, except that there are cars and motorbikes clogging the streets now instead of horses and carriages and pushcarts.

Domenic’s door

People still live in the same squalid conditions, with the addition of indoor plumbing. Clotheslines with sheets, socks and pants still flutter in the wind from balconies above the alleyways. Homemade Roman Catholic shrines to the Virgin Mary and assorted saints can be found in every alcove, with some large ones dominating street corners, festooned with plastic flowers and Holy Water, better maintained than any of the nearby homes. People still live their lives in public with their doors wide open. You can look in as you walk by and see an extended family sharing one small, dark living space, a small kitchen behind, people hanging outside the door, smoking.

The whole place probably smells better, thanks to modern plumbing and the absence of horse manure in the streets (although there was plenty of dog poop). Otherwise, it’s largely unchanged.

Where We Came From and What It Means

Seeing where you came from can make you even more grateful about where you are now. In the decision by Domenic’s father, Beniamino, to board the Steamship Bulgaria, we dodged a bullet. No wonder a squalid tenement on the Upper East Side, where Domenic, his father and two brothers lived with his uncle’s family after they arrived in New York in 1907, “was almost a luxury for us.”

Domenic, Donato and Dante (L-R)

No wonder Domenic was so driven to get ahead, to get educated, to learn English, to improve his living situations, to build that glorious house on Vernon Avenue in Williamsport, PA, where my mother and her nine brothers and sisters grew up.

Walking in Domenic’s footsteps was physically draining and emotionally exhausting. I’m glad I did it. And I am really, really glad he left. 
Grazie, Nonno.