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Back to Basilicata

Jasper James A Matera courtyard in Basilicata.

Photo: Jasper James

It was the only furnished place for rent in Bernalda. And it was a steal, by summer-rental standards: $750 a month. The landlady said it was mine if I wanted it.

I said I would take it, provided she got new mattresses. She nodded, and we sealed the deal over shots of homemade limoncello.

"What's the name of this street?" I asked."Via Cavour," Olga said.

I knew from family documents that Vita had lived on Via Cavour more than a century ago.

So in summer, I returned. I settled in on Via Cavour with my four-year-old son and year-old daughter.

Here, I would meet with the local genealogist, who would draw up our family tree. (He had done so for the few Americans that came through town, among them Francis Ford Coppola, whose grandfather grew up here.) In Bernalda I'd also meet the town historian, who would tell me about the local card game that had caused all of Vita's problems so long ago. It was called passatella, a cross between quarters and truth or dare, only with a deck, in which losers are made to drink and winners get to insult whomever they wish in a bit of slurred oratory. The game almost always ends in violence.

This same historian would tell me that Vita had likely been the concubine of a wealthy landowner in Bernalda. It was the only way a poor weaver—or farmer—with three kids, facing a murder rap, would have had the money to make the impossibly long journey from Basilicata to America.

Unlike Vita, I would return to Basilicata. Again and again, I was sure. I'd make the opposite journey she had made, crossing the Atlantic with my own children, then sinking southward, deeper and deeper, to a place very few people even knew existed. I would come back not only to search for the name of Vita's victim, not just to enjoy the nearby sandy beaches and eat in Matera's and Bernalda's sublime restaurants, but to show my mother the fresco of Saint Agatha, and my own daughter the little white house where her great-great-grandfather had been born.

Before I went back home that summer, I tried to explain to Olga how lucky I felt, and how strange it was that I had wound up on the very same street where Vita had lived. Maybe, just maybe, Vita was calling from beyond, leading me through the sassi, past the portraits of frowning relatives, through Pisticci, and back to Bernalda, right here to Via Cavour, to ask for absolution.

But Olga just shrugged. To her, and to the other no-nonsense Bernaldans, it was only natural, only common sense that I should wind up right where it all started, like a stone washing ashore to the very spot from which it had been thrown.

Helene Stapinski is the author of two books, Five-Finger Discount and Baby Plays Around. She is at work on a history of her family's European roots.

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