A few years ago, an acquaintance told me a story about his search for his family’s roots in Italy. He had tracked down some distant cousins through the internet, and he and his wife made plans to travel to Italy and meet his relatives. Off they went—affluent Americans laden with gifts, off to the coastal town from which his forefathers had sailed to America. When they arrived, they were greeted warmly, gifts were graciously received and a fine feast was laid out in celebration. Language was a minor barrier when hearts were so expansive. Still, the local priest, who spoke fluent English, was summoned to translate.
The grandmother of the family bade the Americans sit at the table she had prepared with her best linens and silver, while she served them the specialty dishes of the region: octopus, mussels, orecchiette, calzoni and fried polenta. When the priest arrived, he attempted to trace the family connection. Almost immediately it became obvious, not only that the Americans were not related, but also that they were kin of a rival family. The matriarch didn’t hesitate. Picking up the corners of the tablecloth, she whisked away the food, plates and all and shoved the bewildered Americans out the door. She kept the gifts.
I found this story so hilarious, in so many ways, that I became determined to write it as a short story—and I did. But during the process, I uncovered another story, one so compelling, that I couldn’t ignore it. Here’s how it happened…
I needed a setting for my story. In a different life, my husband had been to Italy to visit the relatives of his then girlfriend, and he suggested I place my story in Bari, a port on the southern coast of Italy. He remembered an old section of the city that had been standing since the heyday of the Roman Empire, and a medieval basilica that housed the relics of St. Nicholas. Perfect for my family and my priest. But that was just the beginning. The more I researched Bari, the more fascinating I found its history. How did the bones of St. Nicholas—the popular saint of Christmas—come to rest in Bari, when he lived, died and was buried a thousand miles away in the town of Myra in Lycia, now Turkey? And there were other questions, questions about Bari’s more recent history, questions about the bombing of Bari during World War II that changed the city and its people forever. I had to find the answers. And the answers called for something more than a story. They became a novel.