It is rare that someone can return to a place and see a life they might have lived. When I received a scholarship on 1975 to visit Italy for the first time from America, my grandmother insisted it include a visit to Basilicata to her birthplace of Pisticci. “They are waiting for you there”, my Nonna Gracie wrote to me.
Pisticci is a small mountain top village, like many others in Basilicata. A place people often left to find a better life. 50 years after my Nonna Gracie had left for Canada, alone at the age of 17, I was the first to return. And Pisticci was waiting for me- waiting to change my life forever. I saw my name on storefronts throughout the village. Strangers visited hourly, explaining how they were related to me- sometimes holding school pictures of me, that Nonna Gracie had been mailing back. I had walked into a place I did not know existed, while they had been following my life and wishing me well since the day I was born, twenty years earlier. A place I belonged to immediately, a place full of love and goodwill for me – and I knew nothing about them. That will change your perspective forever.
After three intense days, it was time to drive me back down the mountain to catch the slow train to Potenza and then Roma. The tiny train station was full of my newfound relatives, filling my arms with wrapped food for the journey, and sliding money into my pockets. People who had little, but also had more than I had ever known before.
Pisticci is my sanctuary in the world. A place that changed me. And in some ways I also changed them. We now talk and visit each other often and the once frail connection has been renewed. Pisticci, like Bernalda and Matera nearby, have up-scale masserie now. But the simple, strong people with their simple and strong food and huge hearts, still hold the power to change lives around the world. They forever changed mine.