Time Changes Everything (Almost) – Part II
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Time Changes Everything (Almost)

Part II – Matera 2011

by D. Hirsch

Because dreams do not come often to me, I took it as a significant omen that it was time for me to return to Matera when I had three dreams about it in about as many weeks. Thirty-two years had passed and although I had been to Italy several times during those years, I never made it back to Matera. Now it was beckoning me and I would not rest until I saw it again. But this trip would be different from the first. I had studied Italian and would need to brush up, but at least I would be able to speak with people. My sister had done much genealogical research, and I some, and I went armed with our findings, which included a copy of our grandfather’s birth certificate. This time, I would search for my great-grandfather’s grave; I would see the rupestrian churches; I would walk into that pasticceria and perhaps talk to the owner who may be related to me.

Matera is not an easy place to get to but it is certainly worth the effort. My husband and I went to Rome and then Salerno, spending a few days in each city. From Salerno we went to Ferrandina and had coffee in a little place at the train station while we waited for the bus to Matera. We talked with the girl behind the counter and she took our photo, as she does everyone who passes through, to post on her Facebook page. Several months before our trip, I had used Facebook to find people in Matera with my family name. I corresponded with Giuseppe, a man about my age, and on our second evening in Matera we met him by the fountain in Piazza Vittorio Veneto. “Do you remember me?” he asked. He looked familiar. It was he who drove our bus from Ferrandina to Matera.

As we rolled our luggage down the steps and along the stones of the Sassi towards our hotel, I noticed that, much like the last time I visited, the streets were quiet. Along the way we saw a shop and peeked in. It was filled with exquisitely hand-crocheted clothing and accessories. The owner, the woman who created all the beautiful clothing, invited us in and offered us espresso. Being from New York, we were a bit surprised by such friendliness, but we gratefully accepted. I told her about my grandfather and my hopes to find possible relatives. She took notes and offered to ask around. Before we left Matera we bought a fabulous hat from her for our daughter.
Matera 2011 The next morning we headed to the pasticceria. I took a deep breath and prepared myself for the possibility that it was no longer there or that another family now owned it. I was very happy to see the same name outside. We went in and in Italian I introduced myself to a young woman at the register and asked if the owner was in. She was Simona and I was happy that she spoke English since my Italian is limited. I told her a bit about my Materan roots and she suggested that we return the next morning when Giovanni, her father-in-law, would be in; perhaps he would remember my grandfather. At the pasticceria the next morning, Giovanni greeted us warmly. He is a kind and gracious man and I told him about my grandfather, when he lived in Matera, and when he left. While he was too young to have known him, I was hoping that he had heard some stories and would recognize my great-grandfather’s name, but he did not. I searched for physical similarities to my grandfather, but there were none. It turns out that my grandfather resembles his mother, so it is not surprising that I found none. I told Giovanni that 32 years earlier I had visited Matera and had taken a photo of a man standing outside his pastry shop; he thought perhaps it might be his father. He showed us a photograph of his father as a young man and a wall of photos and awards that he and the pasticceria received. After we sampled some of the most delicious pastries this side of heaven, we poured over the documents my sister and I had collected, trying to find a common link while my husband photographed the occasion.

matera20112 The next day I went to the Ufficio Stato Civile to see what genealogical information I could find. The people in the office were so helpful. I showed my grandfather’s birth certificate to the woman at the desk and she offered to trace his lineage. I almost jumped over the desk to hug her for so kindly making the time in her busy schedule to do this for me. Out came giant old volumes of birth records, one after the other. Each one was beautifully inscribed by hand and, as her finger traveled down the list of names, she took notes. She informed me that my grandfather had 6 siblings, a fact our family had not known. “Come back tomorrow”, she told me, and when I did, she handed me a neat computer-generated chart of my family tree dating back to 1829. It listed all the children of my great, great, great-grandfather, all the way down to my grandfather and his siblings. It has their birth dates, and if they passed away in Matera, their death dates. The chart is a genealogical gold mine and I still cannot thank her enough for providing my family with so much valuable information, which we otherwise would have never known.

During this trip, like the last, I did a lot of walking around the streets of the Sassi and took many photographs, but unlike my last trip, my husband and I took our time and spent a full week in Matera. We took a tour of the Sassi one day and a tour of the Park of the Rupestrian churches another day. We leisurely discovered much, but not everything, of what Matera has to offer. We chatted with people we met on the street. We went one evening to the art museum where there was an exhibit of Carlo Levi’s paintings of the people of Lucania, striking and memorable. Early one evening, much earlier than the locals eat, we were walking around trying to select a restaurant. We must have looked hungry, because a tiny woman, a total stranger, approached us. Using the international sign for “eat”, she literally took us by the hand to a small place not far from the square. Inside there was only a counter with some bar stools and a refrigerator with cold drinks, so we were a bit confused. Soon a young man led us down a long, steep flight of stairs. Wondering if we were going to regret our decision, my husband and I exchanged questioning glances. To our relief, at the bottom of the stairs was a large room with vaulted ceilings, many tables and walls lined with bottles of wine. Sample plates of food were laid out upon a table. There, we ate a delicious meal and drank a wonderful Aglianico wine. It was so good, that we returned later in the week for another great meal and more fabulous Aglianico and were disappointed to find it closed on a third night. One evening, after a brief rain shower, we saw a rainbow over the townscape. Magical Matera. Saturday’s evening passeggiata reminded me of the first one I had seen 32 years prior–festival-like and packed with townspeople. It actually was a bit of a festival, with children toting balloons and a man on stilts, juggling. On Sunday we spent the morning at the old cemetery searching for the grave of my great-grandfather.

On the morning of our departure, we stopped by the pasticceria, bustling as usual, to say goodbye to Giovanni. His lovely wife had come in and we had the opportunity to meet her. He told me to wait while he carefully wrapped up a new cup and saucer with the name of the pasticceria written inside it. It is a perfect remembrance and his kindness touched my heart. When I returned home, I sent some things to him, including the photo that I had taken of the man outside pasticceria 32 years ago. As it turns out, he was right. The man in the photo was indeed his father!

In 1993 the Sassi of Matera and the Park of the Rupestrian Churches became a UNESCO World Heritage site. As a result, people have moved back into the Sassi and today it is alive and flourishing with hotels, shops and restaurants. The restorations of the buildings are aesthetically done. The streets of the Sassi are quiet during the day but by no means deserted; tourists can always be found and during the Festa della Madonna Bruna in July, the streets are jam-packed. But Matera is not the only thing to have changed; so have I. Older now, there are a few silver strands in my hair and lines on my face. But with age I have become more confident and I measure the richness of my experiences by the people that I meet and the friends that I make. Learning the Italian language has made me unafraid to engage people in conversation, regardless of my shortcomings and it makes me feel more connected.

There is, however, one very important thing that has not changed—Matera’s evening passeggiata is still, in my opinion, the best in Italy!
matera20113 While I was not able locate the gravesite of my great-grandfather during my last visit, what I did find is even more precious—fantastic people, some of whom are probably my distant cousins, and wonderful new friends. Today, I still correspond with Simona, who is like a cousin to me. Unless we are pressed for time, we practice each other’s languages–I write to her in Italian, she responds in English. I am so looking forward to seeing everyone again soon, especially Giovanni.

Since this last trip, not a day goes by that I don’t think about Matera and all the people I met. There is something deep within me, drawing me to it. Perhaps it is a remnant of a memory transferred on a strand of DNA from my grandfather down to me. It could be that I am captivated by the town’s ancient beauty. Maybe it is the warmth of the people who live there, who made me feel so welcome, that I find so irresistible. All I know is, it feels like home to me.