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One of the greatest experiences of my life was traveling to Italy in 2006 where I visited Rome, Florence, and my relatives in Sulmona, which is in the province of Abruzzo. Anyone who has ever visited Italy can attest it is the experience of a lifetime. The sights and sounds, along with the food and the history, make Italy truly amazing. Plutarch said, “Il bel paese che gli Apennini dividono e le Alpi e il mare circondano,” or “the beautiful country that the Apennines divide and the Alps and sea surround.” That couldn’t be more true.

Returning to Italy

While this may have been a once-in-a-lifetime trip, I was extremely fortunate to finally return to Italy 10 years later. This year, during the first week of March, my cousin Maura (formerly of YBC) and I, made the trip across the Atlantic. It was a trip with a purpose: to connect with our cousins once again.

While we stayed in Rome the first two nights and the last two nights, we sandwiched our visit to our ancestral home of Sulmona right in the middle. We went to visit our grandmother’s first cousin and his family. Being able to visit the country from where our ancestors came is extremely special. Being able to visit the city where our great-grandfather was born and raised goes even deeper. It is the core of our identity.

Connecting With Family

This isn’t a story about a typical trip to Italy. This is about connecting with family, while diving into the heart of Italy that is Abruzzo. Sulmona is medium-sized city in Abruzzo, home to 25,000 people, and near other towns in the region where many people left and settled in Beaver County. Towns such as Bugnara, Pacentro, L’Aquila, and Rocca Pia. Sulmona is the home of Ovid, one of the most famous poets of the Roman Empire.

It also home to Confetti Pelino, a factory that produces confetti candy (or coated almonds) that is known throughout the world. To get to Sulmona from Rome is pretty easy. It’s about a 2 ½ hour train ride, which was our method of transportation. Our cousin’s last name is Di Placido, but like many other Italian names, was changed to DePaul when my great-grandfather came to this country and settled in Beaver Falls.

Delicious Homemade Food

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Our family treated us with love, affection, and the most exceptional hospitality. Upon our arrival, our cousin, Antonio, was there to greet us at the train station. Once we got to his house, a massive lunch was served that included pasta, beef sautéed in garlic and rosemary, soppressata, and of course, wine. Lunch, or pranzo, is sacred in Italian culture. It is generally the biggest meal of the day. Families sit around the table and talk, much like families in America used to years ago. Their family consists of Antonio and his wife Adua, their son, Pasquale, and his wife, Paola, and their children, Martina and Antonio. They all live in the same house, with Pasquale and his family occupying the third and fourth floors, and Antonio and his wife on the first floor. It is a beautiful, spacious, modern home that sits tucked away on a private street with a gated driveway.

After lunch, we spent the late afternoon out and about in the city of Sulmona, where our cousin, Pasquale, showed us our great-grandfather’s house, different churches in the city, and the Confetti Pelino factory. Dinner that night consisted of homemade pizza made by Pasquale’s wife, Paola. The Di Placido’s have a wood-fired pizza oven in their basement, and the pizza was baked to perfection. On top of pizza, we had ascolano stuffed olives, fried provolone, more soppressata, dessert, or dolce, and more wine.

The following day, we drove up to the little town of Pacentro, which is only about a 10 minute drive from their home. Pacentro overlooks Sulmona, and with so many people in this area with roots in Pacentro, visiting there and walking around the town was very meaningful. We returned for another large lunch of homemade lasagna, fried breaded artichokes, and leftovers from the feast we had the night before.

It was harder than I expected when it was time to depart and return to Rome. After all, we had an audience with Pope Francis later that day in Saint Peter’s Basilica. But the emotions were very high and tears began to flow. Unless you’ve done it, it’s hard to explain or describe the feeling of leaving your family that lives 4,000 miles away, especially family that is so hospitable, loving, and generous.  You just don’t know when or if you will see them again. It was 10 years between visits for me, and I promised them it would not be that long until I return. While I love living in the United States (and western Pennsylvania), a part of my heart will always be in Sulmona. Fino a quando ci incontriamo di nuovo…grazie, grazie, grazie!

Marc is a lifelong resident of Beaver County. A 2001 graduate of Center High School and 2005 graduate of Point Park University, Marc is employed by the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School and officiates high school and college football. Follow Marc on Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram @marcgrando