Monday, May 10, 2010

Finding the Puccis in Greci


                                                      Carol in Greci

Monday, May 10

Sorry to to be late in posting this update on our visit to Greci, the Arbereshe (Albanian) town in Southern Italy where my grandfather was born. We were without Internet access for the four days while in Naples, then waylaid on our way back to the U.S. by flight delays. We were forced to spend the night in New York on Sunday, but all is clear now, and I'm writing this from the airplane on the way back to Seattle...finally!

                                                  Our room

The overnight ferry from Durres, Albania to Bari in Italy was surprisingly comfortable. The ship was an old Latvian cruise ship converted into a passenger ferry. Our little room had two bunk beds, a shower, toilet and sink. We got a good night's sleep, and arrived in Bari around 7:30 a.m. One glitch: We left Albania with some extra Lek, thinking we could buy coffee or breakfast on the ship, but no luck. The ferry is owned by an Italian company, and the coffee shop accepted only euros. We did a little "black market'' exchange with an Albanian man who offered us some of his euros in exchange for our Lek. The rate was in his favor, or course, but that was fine by us since Albanian currency is pretty much useless outside the country.

Greci is a small hill town between Naples and Bari in Italy's Campania region. "As you're driving in, you're driving on what used to be a shepherd's trail,'' I remembered someone telling me. The road is paved, but it still takes about a half-hour of steep driving, winding through the hills to reach it from Ariano Irpino, the closest big town where we got a room for the night ($60 with breakfast) at the Hotel Villa Sorriso. No English was spoken, but that was OK. Our Italian is improving.

We spent part of that day and the next morning walking around Greci exploring the Pucci "roots.'' My grandfather, Nicolas Pucci, was born here in 1901. His father, Leonardo, my great-grandfather, came to the United States as a young man in the early 1900s. His mother, my great-grandmother, Angiolina Panella, followed a few months later with my grandfather who was about two at the time.  They settled in Canton, Ohio. The town offered good job opportunities in construction and in the brick factories. Many people still living there have family ties to Greci.

There are dozens of small towns like this scattered on the hillsides of Southern Italy, but  Greci stands out because it's one of 51 towns in Italy settled by Albanians between the 15th and 18th centuries. The communities call themselves "Arbereshe,'' and the people in these towns speak Albanian as well as Italian. 

"Katund'' is the Albanian word for village. The Pucci and Panella families and most others here are ancestors of Albanian soldiers who settled in Greci sometime in the mid-1400s. The King of Naples invited them to relocate after the Albanian military leader, Skanderbeg, answered a call to help the Italians defeat French-supported insurrections. Greci was originally settled by Greeks, then abandoned. The Albanian soldiers, seeking to escaping the Ottoman invasion of Albania,   favored Greci because it was the highest town in the area and presumed safe. The Puccis were one of 13 original families from Albania to settle in Greci.

As far as I can remember, my grandfather mentioned "Greci'' only once, when years ago I asked him where he was born. He seemed unsure,and was vague about any details, but mentioned something about an Albanian connection. For a while, we thought his parents -  my great grandparents- were born in Albania. He told my father and my two aunts nothing about his family's roots in Italy, and it was only a few months ago that we confirmed our family connection to Greci. 

I ran across a web site called put together by John Mazzarella, 64, formerly of Canton, now living in Miami. He and a friend spent several years doing genealogy research, unearthing birth certificates, marriage and death records in Greci and Mormon Church archives. They have organized reunions of Greci cousins living in the U.S. and Italy, and have connected people all over the U.S. who share a Greci connection. Using the information I gave him on by grandfather's name and birth date, he came up with a copy of his birth certificate, records from Ellis Island and drew up a tree tracing our family back 12 generations.

Pucci, I found out, is a common Albanian name, but in Albania, it's pronounced with an "s'' instead of a "ch'' sound. My father never learned Italian at home, but this is the first time I heard an explanation as to why: 

"It's likely your great-grandparents spoke only Albanian,'' said Rita Perillo, 63. Rita and her husband, Pino, spent the afternoon and the next morning showing Tom and me around town. 

Rita was born in Greci, but grew up in Australia where her father, a shoemaker, moved the family to find work. The people in Greci, mainly farmers and shepherds, had little money. They bartered for most things which meant Rita's father couldn't muster the cash he needed to buy leather. Rita came back to Greci for a visit when she was 19, and met and later married her husband, Pino. They lived in Australia for a while, but eventually returned to Greci.  Because they both speak English, they often greet visitors from the United States. Below is Rita holding a tile she decorated with memorabilia from a trip she and Pino took to the U.S. for a reunion of Greci cousins in Canton.

                      Rita Perillo

Rita seemed sad when she talked about a time when Greci was a lively town with a cinema, shops, schools etc. Nearly 4000 people lived in Greci in the 1950s. Now there are only about 800, most of them retired. As with other small towns in Southern Italy, young people leave to find work. There are just two bar/cafes, a couple of small grocery stores, a Catholic church with one priest and a doctor who makes house calls. The bakery closed recently, and there are only about 25-30 children in elementary and middle school.

Greci has some historic 17th century stone houses, but about 80 percent of the buildings are new, built after earthquakes in 1962 and 1980.  

As you can see from the pictures, Greci is a well-kept town, with new stone streets and homes with freshly-painted exteriors. The current mayor apparently has some pull in attracting government money. Money also comes from people from Naples who have been buying up houses for weekend and summer retreats. 

                                                    Town Hall

Above is the town hall in a 16th century palazzo once owned by a wealthy landowner named Lusi. Many people, perhaps even my grandfather's ancestors, were Lusi sharecroppers. This picture of Skanderbeg hangs in the town hall. There's also a small museum housing some 7th century BC artifacts unearthed during excavation for a soccer field.

                                          War hero Skanderbeg

We ran into many people with the last name of Pucci while we walked around town with Rita and Pino. Below is Glelia Pucci. She runs the Bar de Corso, a 100-year-old cafe started by her grandfather. Are we related? This turned out to be a  complicated question.

                                                  Glelia Pucci

Pucci is a common name in Greci, so common, in fact, that the only way to really know to whom you might be directly related is to know your family's "nickname,'' a name that was passed down through the generations. With so many people all sharing the same last names, families adopted nicknames to tell each other apart. Often the names humorously referred to some physical characteristic such as Nicola "Big Ears''  Pucci. That's just an example. I really have no idea what our family nickname was.  But it didn't really matter. Because Greci was so isolated, almost everyone married within the town. "We're like a big family,'' said Rita. "We're all related in some way.'' 

Tom found the best hot chocolate in Italy at the Bar de Corso. When made correctly, it's thick enough to eat with a spoon!

I liked the Bar de Corso because it sold the Greci newspaper.

                                                    Leonardo and Pino

Everyone was extremely friendly. Greci overlooks a lush valley, and people keep fit waking up and down the hills. Many older people we met volunteered their ages. Above is Pino Perillo, right, with Leonardo Meola, 95. Leonardo was a tailor, and made the very natty suit he was wearing.

                                                     Rita and Nicola Pucci

This is Rita Martino and Nicola Pucci. Rita hugged and kissed me when she found out my name was Pucci. Like nearly everyone else we met, she has relatives living in the U.S. In her case, it's a  brother in New York.

This is another Nicola Pucci. My father and Nicola are fourth cousins, according to John Mazzarella's genealogy research. 


Rosaria Cornacchia, left, is 91. She and her friend, Raffaella Mazzarella, were sitting on dining room chairs watching Rafaella's house being painted on a sunny afternoon. 

We explored the cemetery to look for markers or pictures of people with the Pucci or Panella name. Most of the headstones were recent. Chances of finding the graves of anyone who died several generations ago were slim since it's common to dig up older graves to make room for new ones.

When someone e-mails, apologizing for not getting back to you sooner because they've been busy killing pigs, you know you're going to eat well at their house.

One of the highlights of our visit was dinner with Maria Castielli and her husband, Dante, who live in Ariano Irpino. Maria's mother was born in Greci. Maria lived for a while in England, and she and Dante worked in Canada before returning to Italy in the 1990s to raise their family. They have a house and a small farm with animals, vineyards, fig trees, olive trees and a huge vegetable garden.

                                        Dante, Carol, Maria 
Maria and Dante fixed what was probably one of the best meals we've ever had in Italy. There was home-made prosciutto (from their pigs), fresh mozzarella, olives, pasta with a ragu sauce, a big loaf of homemade bread, chicken with lemons plucked from a tree in their yard and wild asparagus picked at 4 a.m. by Dante before he goes to work.  We drank Dante's homemade wine, and spent the evening eating and talking about politics and the economy as if we were old friends.

How lucky we were to make it to Greci after years of wondering about the Pucci family's roots in Italy.  We'll no doubt get back there for more exploring. Southern Italy is becoming one our favorite parts of Italy. The people are friendly. The food is good. Prices are low, and so far it's mostly undiscovered by tourists. We'll be back soon, just as soon as we pin down that Pucci nickname.

For more pictures of what we saw and experienced in Albania and Greci, click here. 

Also, here's an update and some photos from the U.S. Greci Cousins Family reunion held in Canton, Ohio on August 25, to celebrate the feast day of St. Bartolomeo, the patron saint of Greci. Congratulations to all the Canton, Ohio organizers who did a fantastic job of pulling together people, food, music, memorabilia for a memorable afternoon of socializing and evening dinners at Tozzi's restaurant in Canton.

This is former U.S. Congressman Joe DeoGuardi and the reunion organizer Bob Petersen.

These need no explanation. There were hundreds and hundreds!

There were speeches, lots of eating, and of course, music.

For anyone unsure of exactly where in Greci is, the organizers came up with these table decorations pinpointing the location of Greci with a star on a map of Italy.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Sheep's head soup, Seranda and the Albanian coast


Sunday, May 2

Before we left on our trip, we met up with two Albanians now living in Seattle. What did they miss most? "Pace,'' they smiled. Pace is thick breakfast soup made from parts of a sheep's head not normally eaten in the U.S. From what I can gather, it's found more often in mountain villages than in the cities. We spent days looking for it on menus, then finally found it on one of our long bus rides when the driver stopped for the usual 20-minute rest stop. It was early morning on the Llogaraja Pass, the highest point on Albania's southern coastline. Everyone on the bus went into a restaurant, sat down and ordered bowls of what looked like a hearty meat soup. It was pace, and despite our initial inhibitions, it was delicious!

We've been enjoying these long bus rides between cities. Listening to NPR podcosts we downloaded before we left helps pass the time. The scenery is amazing, and we like looking for oddities such as these concrete bunkers that are all over the hillsides. They're gun posts erected during the communist years. Lonely Planet estimates there were 700,000, intended so that every Albanian could defend the county if need be. Removing them is nearly impossible, so they're sometimes used for storage,or justl left in the fields or along the side of the road.

It's not unusual for a bus or taxi to have to stop for sheep or cows. It took us only about an hour to reach the coast and Saranda from Gjirokastra. Saranda is a 45-minute hydrofoil ride away from the island of Corfu in Greece. It's the Albanians' Miami Beach, with lots of high-rise hotels, swimming beaches and a big port. Our reason for spending the night here was to visit the Greek and Roman ruins at Butrint, about an hour away by bus. It's still off-season, so we were able to get a nice hotel right on the water for about $50 with breakfast.


Visting Butrint felt more like wandering through a wilderness park than a famous site. We were the only ones on the bus, and we saw just a few other people as we walked around. Almost everything, including the 3rd century Greek theater below, is hidden in a forest, accessible via good walking paths. There's also a small museum. The electricity was off when we were there, a fairly common occurrence, but the guard let us wander through anyway.


Albanians love the coast, so we decided to spend another night exploring before crossing the pass, and heading to our last destination, the port city of Durres, where we'll take an overnight ferry to Bari in Italy. We decided on Himara, a beach town about 50 miles from Saranda. We had planned to go by bus, but that plan was foiled when we showed up at the bus stop at 8:30 a.m., and found out the next bus wasn't until noon. It was the first time that we'd been given bad bus info, and it came from the lady at the tourist office! Oh well. We decided to cut our losses and hire a taxi. The fare was $40. That's a lot, but we've been spending no more than a few dollars each for all our long bus and furgon rides, so we figured we could afford the splurge.

Himara is lively in the summer, but slow this time of year. Tom sat at a cafe with our suitcases while I walked up and down the one main street along the beachfront looking for a hotel. There wasn't much open, but the little Hotel Gjicali at the end of the road had rooms. Vjollca Gjicali is the very friendly and enthusiastic owner. She and her husband opened the hotel 10 years ago, and they learned  English from listening and talking with tourists. The room with a sea view was $40. She even offered to do Tom's laundry for an extra $2. No one has dryers here. They iron everything with big steam irons. That afternoon, we came back to find Vjollca on the porch ironing his underwear dry.


Swimming is the main activity in the beach towns. We didn't bring bathing suits, but had fun taking a two-mile hike straight up to the old town where we found a neighborhood of old stone houses, a Greek Orthodox church and a school where the kids ran up to us to practice their English. We also ate well. Greek salad, a tuna pizza and white wine at a beachfront cafe was $14 for the two of us.

Durres is our last stop, and as big cites go, it's our favorite. We didn't get to Vlora, the other big coastal city, so we have only Tirana to compare it to, but we like the relaxed feel, the sidewalk cafes, the boardwalk along the beach and the energetic vibes. Saturday, May 1, was a holiday so the xhiro (evening stroll) was especially lively. So many contrasts: Disco music blending with the evening Call to Prayer from the Great Mosque, ancient ruins to explore, girls walking arm in arm, Red Bull ice cream for 30 cents per scoop, kids enjoying carnival rides. Below is the Bar Tora, a cafe inside a 14th century Venetian tower, one of the first private businesses to open in Albania after communism.


The B and B Tedeschini is our must unusual accommodation so far. The house was built in 1843. According to the owners, it's the oldest house in Durres. The owner, Joseph Tedeschini, grew up here. His father was the Italian consulate, and later the Austro-Hungarian consulate in Albania. Joseph and his wife, Alma, a doctor, rent out three antique-filled rooms for $20 per person.

Our bedroom, above, is filled with books on Tolstoy, Dali, the busts above, and family photos including one of Alma, her son and daughters with Mother Teresa when she visited Albania in 1993.

We've barely scratched the surface of Albania, and I cant hope to do justice to all the details and history in a blog written on the fly from Internet cafes. I look forward to writing a story for print when we're back.

In the meantime, we're looking forward to the next leg of our trip, the overnight ferry to Bari. We picked up our tickets yesterday in an interesting neighborhood of neighborhood shops, Turkish bakeries and pizza restaurants. The ferry leaves at 11 p.m. and arrives in Bari at 7 a.m. The fare was $60 per person which includes a room to ourselves with shower, sink and toilet.


Who's this guy? Any Albanian student knows the answer. Skanderbeg is Albania's most famous war hero, credited with the the country's long resistance to invasion by the Ottoman Turks. The Ottomans eventually prevailed, ruling Albania for 500 years, but not until after Skanderbeg's death in 1478. The battles took place at Kruja, not far from Durres where we visited and took this picture at the start of our trip.

Skanderbeg is the reason many Albanians ended up settling in many towns in Southern Italy, including Greci, the town where my grandfather was born. Our family, as it turns out, has Albanian roots dating back to the 1400s-1500s when the Pucci's were among a group of Albanian soldiers and their families to relocate in Italy at the invitation of Neopolitan kings, a reward for Skanderbeg's help in defending against French insurgents. The Italians in these towns call themselves the Arbereshe. With the help of some contacts in the U.S., we're hoping to meet some of the people living in and around Greci. Stay tuned to a report from there.