What year is it?  My thoughts bumbled, then rusticated.  The old country.   As if I was driving this half torqued macchina at light-year speed, we returned back decades.   We were in Barile, a hillside hamlet of Basilicata, the last known home of our name: MECCA.

We carved down the winding roads of this Arbëreshë settlement, one of several in southern Italy.  We were about half way between Roma and Bari, rolling along viale della Magistratura, trying to navigate the confusing roads.   We kept shifting, staling and turning around, laughing off the agita.  We aimed for “that center piazza, down there, by the fountain”.

We arrived just before 2PM, rem-deep into siesta.  Southern Italy keeps the siesta.   Though the Italian peninsula was unified as one nation-state, in 1861, under King Victor Emmanuel II, the cultures within are distinctly and pridefully different.  Namely, The North vs. The South.      


Barile was ghostly.  We wandered through the eerily empty cobble stone streets.  Beyond the shortly stacked buildings were wine vineyards and country side, all under an infinite and bright grey sky.   The temperature was in the mid 50s, the air was dry, and the winds were gusting.  Cats stalked around corners and parked Fiats.     Just us, our faint shadows and centuries of unknown family ancestry mazing through these old roads.

The doughty miss Christiana went inside the only opened establishment to use the restroom.  I basked in respite, freed from the Ford confines.  I stepped into the bar, intent on a snack.   I was carrying a photo of my great grandfather, Mauro Mecca, who had left Barile early last century.    The fella running the joint was about 40 years old, and had salt-n-pepper hair.   He didn’t speak any English, but he was determined to help us find our family.


The first women the barista phoned came quickly, and left just as fast, utterly convinced we were of no relation before I could put my cappuccino down to properly greet her.  Begrudged for a moment, we’re too beautiful, I  whispered across the table to Christiana, justifying her departure.

Soon after, a tall handsome man stood at the entrance, bemused but bright with anticipation.   Maybe this fella wants to be our family, we hoped.   Smiling big, we greeted him, explaining our relation to the man in the old photograph.   Nonno, nos nonno, nos grande nonno.  It was a lot of charades and grammatically treacherous Italian.  Yet, we knew this broad man with grey hair, gentle eyes and the same Roman nose as my father, was our uncle Giovanni! (12 times removed)

With hugs and a gaiety, we left for Giovanni’s home.  Here, we’d eat pastries, drink wine, and meet the cousins, Angela & Giuseppe.  The cousins spoke a little English, and then more, with every word.  They had the basics.  I should have figured they’d be intelligent people.  Christiana and I abandoned our feeble efforts to continue in Italian.  Oh, the purpose of our visit?  You! We’re discovering our roots, and yeah, we came to find and hang out with you and whatever other family is down to chill.  How do I say this in Italian.  genealogia?

It is customary for our family to name the first son after the paternal grandfather.  Uncle Giovanni’s father is Giuseppe and his grandfather [was] Giovanni (~1884), who had nine brothers.  One of these brothers was Great Grandpa Mauro.  Also known as Morris, he came to America on a ship The Canada in 1912.  They departed from Napoli with a wave of Italian emigrants looking to live out The American Dream.  Mauro began as a a wine maker in Brooklyn, near Atlantic avenue and Brower Park.  Soon after he’d raise a family in North Jersey, marrying Raffele Rendina, also of Barile, and having four children: Michael, Filomena, Joseph (my grandfather) and Mauro.   They lived out their days in Passaic and spent hot summer afternoons under the shade of a big weeping willow tree in the front yard.  Mauro wouldn’t return to Barile for nearly 50 years.
Cousin Angela grabbed her laptop.  Aunt Carmela kept the pastries fresh and the coffee hot.  Uncle Giovanni poured glasses of homemade wine. Cousin Giuseppe was chilling.  Me, but the Barile-me, and 9 years older.   It was messing with my mind.
Bread, cheese, salami, espressos, biscotti, water, and wine.  Just as I would have dreamed. Family.
Noisy herds of sheep crept up the mountain road, and passed.  Out on the balcony we observed the 1477 Albanian settlers’ dwellings.   The Ottoman Empire captured Constantinople from the Byzantine and continued its effort to expand into South Eastern Europe.   Many fled, as the  caliphate was forcing conversion to Islam, slaughtering and enslaving along the way.  In the western Balkans, the Ottomans targeted Venetian holdings: Kroja (Krujë), and later, Shkodër.  These sieges are historically known as “the most remarkable episodes in the struggle between the West and the Crescent.”
Southern Italy accepted these lots of Albanian Christians.   In 1477 Barile, they took refuge in cave-like quarters cut from the sloping terrain.  Today, they are wine cellars (cantina).   Back then, it was all the medieval Meccas had.

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