A big trip to a small piece of family history

Back in 1910, the three brothers of my great-grandfather left the small village in south Switzerland that was almost everything they knew and engaged in the long trip across the Atlantic and then the US towards California, where they settled in the Central Valley. While the innovations going on at the time in California were as exotic as the newborn film industry, most of the people living in Ticino’s many valleys were long-established farmers who spent their days working outdoors, isolated from changes happening elsewhere. The three brothers’ life was simple yet safe and prosperous, but curiosity and amazement brought by tales they heard from others emigrants’ relatives started making appearances in their dreams, and eventually lodged in their feet.

The journey towards their new home took them two weeks just to cross the Ocean and their adjustment must have been even harder; with no knowledge of the English language at all, little information about their destination, and only letters as a way to communicate with their relatives back home.

But they stayed, adapted to their new country and never came back to Switzerland. Two of the brothers never started their own family, but the third, Battista, amazingly waited ten years for his Swiss fiancée to join him in America and marry him. They had five children and fifteen grandchildren, the family language slowly switched to English and communication with Switzerland faded to a few Christmas cards. During the 1980s, my paternal grandmother received a letter that she couldn’t read and asked my father for help: Elaine, one of Battista’s grandchildren, had found a box full of mail coming from Europe and wanted to reconnect with the relatives of her grandparents and visit them. I was too young and I don’t recall the first meeting between Elaine’s father Henry and my grandmother, who are first cousins, and others members of the family that had never even heard of each other before. Elaine’s large family came again visiting us when I was in high school and I remember a fun afternoon spent with them playing cards in my grandmother’s garden, but no one of my part of the family tree had never go to California. This relationship seemed quite vague to me, and I must admit I have never really known a lot about my ancestors – family, to me, has always been more a matter of whom I feel warm around rather than of blood connections.

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Meeting at my grandmother’s, 2006

Around last Christmas, I was planning a one-month trip to California and it felt natural to ask my grandmother more about our American relatives and contact Jenna, who is Elaine’s daughter and about my age. Heading to her hometown a few months later, a bunch of kitsch Swiss souvenirs in my backpack, I never expected to find thirteen people and four generations waiting for me. Henry, his wife, his sister, their children, grandchildren and great-grandchild had all gathered to see me, and Jenna had to draw a family tree to help me understand who was who. They told me that they had waited for one of us to go and see them for so long, and I was overwhelmed and moved by their reception: they showered me with food, affection and questions and stories about my life and theirs. They prepared me an entirely vegetarian meal with a huge salad bar and risotto (my favorite); only because I don’t eat meat and even if they do. Uncle Gary had me taste a wide variety of local cheeses too see if in my opinion they could compete with Swiss ones. While I was enjoying the last yellow cube he said: ‘this one kind of melts in your mouth like a marshmallow, right?’ I smiled: ‘I guess, I’ve never had a marshmallow’. My answer was followed by a few seconds of surprised silence, a lot of laughters and at the end, of course, marshmallows.

California, 2014

California, 2014

Scared at the idea of being the center of attention as I was, I found surprisingly easy to connect with this relatives with whom I share a piece of family history that seems so far away but indeed connect us all, with our completely different lifestyles, backgrounds, cultures and languages. It was amazing and troubling at the same time to be with them and realize something I had never really thought about before: a single, one-way journey shaped my life and theirs in an incredible, sharp way.

My grandmother’s father didn’t emigrate to California with his brothers for the only reason that he was still too small. Of course, if he had I wouldn’t even exist, but while I wonder at how different the destiny of my family could have been, I feel as if something of this missed life-changing trip must have survived through the generations and ended up into my own blood. It may be the reason why I can’t never keep still for long…