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  • Antonio Forte

Una caccia al tesoro

A hunt to the treasure (an Italian "scavenger hunt"). The day after the Zampogna festival I made my way to a neighboring Molise village, which some here call a paese (village, hamlet, burg, etc.). It was about a twenty-minute drive up winding mountain roads. This one was the commune (community) of Conca Casale; conca meaning vessel, basin, or tub, and casale meaning group of houses, hamlet, or farmhouse. Conca Casale holds significance as being the village that my ancestors originally inhabited before emigrating to the USA over a century ago, as well as a neighboring commune known as Radicosa. I'm not certain of the translation of Radicosa, but with some circumlocution one may interpret it as meaning "circular thing," or perhaps having itself an etymological root in the noun radica which means "root" or "briar." My two paternal great-grandparents, Antonio Forte and Maria (Mary) Mascio came from this area of the Molise, although this was before Molise existed, before it was part of the Abruzzo and Molise region, when it was a region called Terra di Lavoro (Land of Work). Mountainous and austere, this region had for centuries been purposefully and systematically cut off from the rest of the country, from industrialization and modernization. The main road close to where I'm staying currently is called "the American road" by locals because it was constructed by the Americans during the Second World War as a way to traverse the region's difficult terrain. From the introduction by Norman Hall to the book The Women of Molise by photographer Frank Monaco:

Back in the days when Naples was a rich and powerful kingdom it was a declared policy to leave the Molise region, backing on its borders, alone in its primitive state...Before then, and since, such a policy has been well suited to the adjoining states and this has helped to generate a feeling of isolation which is both spiritual and physical.

[Caption: In and around the commune of Conca Casale. The municipio building. The church of Saint Antonio of Padova. Mysteriously this Isaac Asimov quote was floating around my mind the week before departing for Italy.]

I parked my car in front of the municipio (town hall) and started wandering around the little mountain town. I found my way into the town's only shop, tiny, stuffy, and lit only by the sunlight coming in through the open doors. The young woman, hair covered by a kerchief, greeted me, prego! which in this situation means "how may I help you?" I responded, Sì! Ho fame. Vorrei un pannino, ma sono vegetariano. (Yes! I'm hungry. I would like a sandwich, but I'm vegetarian.) I knew this would be a difficult lunch, having observed only mortadella and prosciutto amongst the blocks of cheese. While waiting for my cheese sandwich, I mentioned I was looking for my family, the family of my great-grandmother, and if the name Mascio was still known in town. The young woman said she did not think so, but another older woman in the shop overheard me and said she might know someone. We held a short, pleasant conversation. I paid for my cheese sandwich and poche mele (a few apples). I gave the woman my number and email, as she said she would ask around town and get back to me.

Before I hopped back in my car, I noticed that the front door to the municipio building was open. I walked in. It was dark, cool, and quiet, and looked like everyone had gone home for their pranzo e siesta (lunch and afternoon nap). I climbed the stairs to the first floor and entered the first open office that I happened upon. I proceeded to speak with one of the town workers, a Signora Prete. I explained what, or who, I was looking for, and asked if she could help in any way with town records. She tried a preliminary computer search, but after a moment said since it was so long ago, that any birth records would be in a different municipio. She said I should try the larger town, Pozzilli, which I had driven through to get to Conca Casale, and that what I was looking for was called l'estratto di nascita (basically a record of birth), which would also give me the names of the mother and father. Signora Prete gave me her email, and instructed me to email her with the l'estratto after I found it and said she would help me from there with further research.

[Caption: The farmland around Conca Casale. A poem embedded in the cemetery wall.]

The next day I headed out to Pozzilli in search of the municipio. However, when I arrived at the address there was only the shell of a building; the site was still under construction. I pulled up the commune's website on my phone, which had a notice saying they had moved temporarily next to the hotel, so I turned around and went to the hotel. I asked the concierge, who insisted and directed me back into town to the construction site. Once back in the town center, I decided to ask some locals at the town cafe. Using the map on my phone, a nice young man named Gianluca pointed out the temporary headquarters for the town's municipio. We continued to converse amicably, but he mentioned that it might be closing soon, or might not even be open today, so I thanked him and made my way back, past the hotel, to the temporary municipio, which strangely resembled a train station one might see in an old Sergio Leone "Spaghetti Western" film.

Once inside, I came across two chatting gentlemen seated in what I assumed was the lobby, as the opened door to the offices read accesso vietato, solo personale autorizzato (do not enter, authorized personnel only). They ignored me, so I entered. I walked straight into the only open office I could find, and proceeded to explain my queries to the gentleman there. He fully understood what I was looking for, and began pulling out very large, ledger-like books dating back to the early 1900's and late 1800's. Ah, ma forse questo potrebbe durare molte ore, I said. Non voglio interrompere il tuo lavoro. (Ah, but this might take many hours. I don't want to interrupt your work.) Shrugging off this comment, he cleared off some space on a nearby table and went back to his computer. I searched and searched through the names of children born around my great-grandmother's birth year (1900 according to her gravestone). Plenty of Antonio Forte's, but, oddly, not even a single Mascio. Sfortunatamente, non posso trovarla, I said (Unfortunately, I cannot find her). He echoed Signa Prete's suggestion, that because it was over a century ago, the records may be in a different municipio. He recommended I continue my search in Venafro, the larger neighboring city. I thanked him heartily, which got a shrug and a niente! (it was nothing!), and bade him a good afternoon. As I was leaving, I turned and said, la caccia al tesoro continua! (the scavenger hunt continues!) which received a small chuckle and a buona fortuna (good luck).

[Caption: My great-grandparents' gravestone. Several names (Forte's) in the birth records.]

I returned to Conca Casale the following morning to wander around the cemetery, looking for names. Lots of Bucci's and Acciaolli's (names familiar to me from my childhood, being described as either paesani or "cousins," though not technically related), and a few Forte's, but no Mascio's. I could not help but imagine Eli Wallach's portrayal of Tuco in the cemetery scene of Leone's film "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly;" my eyes and mind racing, swirling, rushing around from name to name, all the while the music of Ennio Morricone playing in my head. Only this time there would be no treasure.

[Caption: Just outside of the town center of Conca Casale. Construction next to the cemetery.]

Stay tuned for the next post. Much ado about rocks.

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