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A Different Kind of Trip

Joe Staiano, Seattle-based founder of responsible travel company Meaningful Trip and explorer of over 80 countries, shares the most spectacular trip of his life. After a lifetime of traveling around the world, Joe decided to plan a trip to Italy for him and his mother to retrace their heritage and discover long lost relatives.

What prompted your trip to Italy?

I had an interest in checking out my roots. My two sisters and I grew up with only one set of grandparents on my father’s side. We never knew my mom’s side. I’m trying to think if it was one event that made me want to track my heritage, but I can’t. I think it was when I hit the half century mark that I started thinking about how my clock was ticking; most of my family was gone, my dad was gone, but my mom was still here. A whole bunch of different things were at play that made me want to find out more about my heritage.

Why plan a trip just for your mom and yourself?

From the get go, I wanted this to be a mother/son trip. In the past, we have taken family vacations, but everyone was there and all the gals (sisters and aunts), went and did things together. So, at the age of 51 at the time and my mom being 78, we had never taken a trip together or traveled one on one together. So, I had this sudden out-of-the-blue sense of urgency thinking that one day my mom is going to fall or hurt herself somehow and she isn’t going to want to deal with the hassles of flying and traveling. I wanted to do this trip right away.

When I proposed it to her, she said “yes!” right away. She said, “Joseph, as long as I have a bed and a bathroom--” because my family thinks I travel by living under a pile of leaves, which I do sometimes. But I said, “Ok, Ma, I’ll get you a bed and bathroom,” and that was it, I was off to the races.

What was the planning process like?

In 21 years of working in tourism, I did more planning for this trip than ever. I made sure the airline was direct. I made sure I knew what trains to take. I gave myself extra hours in the schedule just to make sure we wouldn’t be rushing to catch a train. I made sure the hotel was nice. I did everything I could to make sure we would have a good time.

There was a good month-long process of going to New York, going up into the attic, looking through photo albums, mom and dad’s wedding album and looking through boxes of old photos. My sister helped me with a small family tree that she had put together, and then my mom got on the phone with cousin Norma and learned about other parts of the family. So, we started piecing all of these bits of our family together, but our family tree still had lots of gaps in it.

Then, I tried the trial version of Ancestry.com, which lead to two weeks of research on the computer that lead me to some names. I was building a tree on the computer with all these names, but it wasn’t a slam dunk. And then my mom got a card from 93-year-old cousin Norma that had a name and an address. The name in the card was Antoinette and the address was in Chieti, which is in the Abruzzo region. We knew my mom and her family were from Chieti. So, I was like, “Oh, my God, a name and an address! This is awesome!” At this point though, I didn’t know if Antoinette was still alive. She would have been in her nineties and I didn’t know if anyone still lived at the address, since cousin Norma had remembered it from her trip to Italy 25 years earlier.

My next step was to write a letter to the address and see if anything came of it. I translated it into Italian and added a diagram of our family tree and asked if was their family. I sent off the letter, not knowing what would happen.

Two weeks later, I got an email from Maria Sartorelli. And I thought, “I know that name!” It was in the tree that I had started to make. The email said, “Dear Joe, my name is Maria Sartorelli, and I’m the daughter of Antoinette. She’s 93. She’s still alive, and we are ready to welcome you when you come to Chieti.” So, that was it. Amazing!

And then, in between all that before going to Italy my mom and I went to the cemetery, where my dad was. We went to Orchard Beach, where my mom and dad met. We went to Arthur Avenue, which is this really big Italian neighborhood in the Bronx, where my mom loved to visit the church where she and dad got married. So, it was this big long adventure that didn’t really have anything to do with Italy, but was just as meaningful. The whole process of starting this mother/son journey started long before Italy.

What was the most challenging part of planning this trip?

Part of my thinking from the beginning was not to fill every day to the fullest with a crazy schedule, because I am usually Mr. Crazy Traveler, Mr. Jump out of Planes, Mr. Scuba Diving with Whales, Mr. Go, Go, Go. And I knew that this was going to be a different trip for me. I was going to go slow. I was going to walk slow. We were going to see one thing a day, and I was kind of scared to do that, honestly, but I was really excited at the same time.

What happened once you arrived in Chieti?

We arrived in Rome and took a train to Naples and then took a bus from Naples to Chieti. The bus pulled up and I looked outside and said, “Ma, that’s got to be Ivano, [Maria’s husband] out there waiting for us.” Sure enough it was. Ivano gave us a big hug and a kiss and he took us to our hotel first.

We put our bags down and got situated in our room, and then what do you think an Italian would suggest is the first thing we should do? Eat. So, Ivano took us to his home for lunch. I knew I was going to see his wife, Maria and I was excited to see Antoinette, if she was still alive. They lived in an apartment building just like the one I grew up in in New York.

So, I’m dragging my poor mom up all these flights of stairs. She did good though. We’re huffing and puffing and we finally get to the door. Knock, knock, knock. We open the door and there’s about 16 people there and they are all related to us. They started hugging us and kissing us. There was food on every counter top, every table and every side table. There were more people in the kitchen cooking more food. Little Antoinette was there and she was all confused as to what was happening. We were sharing old photos back and forth and taking new pictures. I had all these family tree charts that I had brought with me and I laid them all out on a table. A young boy started looking at all my diagrams and when he got to the one that was his family, he grabbed a pen and started writing in all of his cousins and family members who weren’t on there yet. I sat there watching this family tree just grow right in front of my eyes and it was incredible.

How much time did you spend with your new found family?

They all took time off of work to visit with us and when it was time for dinner, we all piled into tiny Smart cars and drove to a little seaside castle. We got there and we parked in front of the castle which had a staircase like this: [demonstrates with his hand by turning it nearly vertical]. My mom immediately said she couldn’t do it. Meanwhile, the first one out of the car was Antoinette age 93, and she just started walking, one step… one step… one step. She looked like the grandmother in Tweety bird wearing a black dress and black shoes. She didn’t care if anyone else was behind her, she just took her time and walked up those stairs.

I looked at my mom and said, “you know, if she can do it, I think you should give it a try.” So, she said, “Ok, I’ll do it.” We went up into this castle and sat overlooking the water. After that, we went back down and took the cars, zoom zoom, over to get ice cream, and then zoom zoom, over to a seaside restaurant. And that was what our life was like for a few days. It was magical all the way up through the tearful goodbyes.

Did you see other cities?

We did some sightseeing in Rome as well. We had a routine of heading out in the morning, finding a little coffee shop and eating a sfogliatella, a cheesy pastry that my mom just loved. Sfogliatella bakeries are like Starbucks out there, you can’t swing a cat without hitting a bakery that has sfogliatella pastries. So every day, we would walk until we found one and we would enjoy a morning snack. We took one taxi and the rest of the time we walked. Mom did good every day, but her feet were swollen every day. She was tired, but she rested every afternoon and put her feet up and that helped.  

And that was it! A quick eight day, very intimate, very special trip.

What was it like traveling solo with your mother?

When I was going through all the planning for this trip and I was telling my friends about it, all this advice started flowing in. Everyone was saying that I was crazy, that I couldn’t spend a whole trip with my mom. And they could have been right, I had never traveled with my mom. But it wasn’t anything like that. It was just fun and special. Most of the time, we stayed in the same room with separate beds and that worked out just fine.

Was there a moment that stood out from the rest?

My highlight of my mother/son trip happened one afternoon when mom was resting after a morning of perusing Rome. We were sitting on the bed in the hotel room watching Zoro on the TV and an old Italian movie starring Sophia Loren. We were just sitting there relaxing, which was really was a very special part of the trip for me. I was doing something that I never do when I travel, which is to pause, reflect, let things sink in. It was all a thousand levels of special. I’m an 80 country world traveler, this was the most special trip I’ve taken. Hands down.

- Joe Staiano

January 27, 2015
Building the family tree. Courtesy of Joe Staiano.

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