What should I expect roaming around rural Italy?
March 30, 2022 11:10 AM   Subscribe

We are in the early stages of planning a (possible) trip to Italy for our 25th anniversary later this year. Among other things, I would like to spend a couple days exploring the small town in Avellino where my great-grandfather was born. What should I expect?

I'm not entirely sure what I'm asking here.

I guess I'm wondering if people will be welcoming or not to a couple of American tourists showing up in a small town in the middle of nowhere. I know there are small towns in certain parts of America that might not take kindly to strangers. Perhaps this is just a stereotype I've gotten from too many TV shows, but, knowing nothing about rural Italy, I'm wondering if I might face similar issues.

I think we can safely avoid acting like stereotypical dumbass entitled Americans. I like to think we're respectful of people and culture. We're not going to show up in Hawaiian shirts, asking loudly and slowly in English where the nearest Olive Garden might be. We would, of course, respect people's privacy.

The town has a population of roughly 2300 people. I'm told there are still people with my (somewhat uncommon) last name still living there, very possibly distant cousins. I'm told my name might be on a brick at the local church. I'd like to explore all these things, maybe take some photos of the street where he was born. If I'm poking my head around town in my little rental Fiat are people going to care? Should I expect they'll be friendly? "Sure, come on into the church and look around!" or will I be told to go away? I would be happy to donate or tip when/if necessary or expected, but also knowing tipping isn't much of a thing in Europe, as far as I know.

My ideal situation would be friendly locals happy to engage in conversation and point us towards things to see. I have experienced this in many places throughout America, Canada, and Ireland. It's one of my favorite things about traveling.

In case it matters, we are a middle-aged couple consisting of a white male and female. I say this because it would matter in certain parts of America. We do not speak Italian but will probably brush up a bit before our trip.

I hope this question is not seen as offensive to anyone. I do think I'm asking it a bit awkwardly but, as I said, I'm not entirely sure what I'm asking. I just don't want to go anywhere I might not be wanted. I also realize humans are not all alike and any answers I get might not apply to all people I meet.

Any other tips for that area, places to stay, things to see, restaurants, or guides for hire are welcome.
posted by bondcliff to Travel & Transportation around Italy (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: My grandparents took a similar trip to visit my grandmother's family's hometown in Calabria about 15-20 years ago and were heartily welcomed, introduced to potential relatives, bought drinks, etc. Something that I think you have going for you are the fact that Italians (particularly Southern Italians) have a very strong sense of family as something that persists across both time and distance. Many, if not most, families in that town would have great-grandparents who took the one-way trip to the States (or Canada, or Australia) and will appreciate your interest in re-connection.
posted by Rock Steady at 1:11 PM on March 30, 2022 [3 favorites]

I would definitely try to make connections before you go, like by asking on a genealogy forum. I see posts like that on r/genealogy from time to time, and I am sure there are more-specialized online communities that might be even better. Ask how other people prepared, and what their experiences were like.

You strike me as a mild, respectful guy: I think people won't be rude. I have been to Ireland a few times, and there's tons of gringos wandering around asking about "my family." I had a rough idea where my g'g'grandparents were from, but I wasn't dumb enough to wander into every pub named Hurley's or Quinn's and loudly demand to speak to the owner. :7)
posted by wenestvedt at 1:17 PM on March 30, 2022 [1 favorite]

Don't worry at all. You'll be fine. Learning some Italian would be good, since you may want to talk with elder people, who don't speak English. You can meet people at the church, at the local bar, perhaps at a local restaurant that are interested and friendly, and at the local museum, if there is one. Europeans are a bit less open than Americans (and Irish and Canadians). I don't know why this is, but it doesn't mean they don't like you.

A bar in Italy isn't a place to get drunk at all, it can be where you get your morning coffee, and it is a good place to introduce yourself, and ask if they know someone with your surname. Similarly at the church, someone there might help you.

Since you asked about tipping: the stereotype about Americans returning to their ancestral town is that they are "the rich uncle from America", who will then proceed to save the town. Unless you actually are that person, you might want to not tip unusually. In Italy, a tip of 10% of the fare is normal, not more than that. Rounding up to the next whole number is fine too. You don't tip in churches or museums.

Disclaimer: I have not been to Calabria. I have been to other parts of Southern Italy along with my good friend who was on a similar quest. The South is a bit complicated, and people are really very private, but they are not hostile, if you are open about what you are doing there.
posted by mumimor at 2:31 PM on March 30, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There have been so many tourists, pilgrims, students, immigrants, part-time residents, retirees, and people exploring family connections going to Italy for so many years that you’re unlikely to be seen as an oddity even in the smallest villages -- maybe a bit more so in rural Campania than some other regions, though you’re still going to be sized-up as a likely tourist fairly quickly and not treated with any general hostility. People may be private, but that doesn’t mean they're unfriendly.

Avellino itself isn’t exactly a tiny backwater community. It’s not that far from the outskirts of Naples and it’s a provincial capital. While not notable as a tourist destination, tourists do go there (I passed through Avellino on my way to Matera from Naples, but didn’t spend any time).

I don't have Italian ancestry, but when I've visited places my great-grandparents came from I did some advance work contacting local history centers, genealogical societies, etc. Talking to church folk is a great way to get started when you actually arrive (on preview I see mumimor has already mentioned this).

If you'll be driving a car, get an International Driving Permit. Rental companies probably won't ask to see it, but as a non-EU citizen you're required by law to have one and you can get in trouble with the cops if they find you don't. Be aware that rental companies are much more more likely to catch you for minor damage in Italy than in the US. Examine the car closely for scratches, dirt, or dents and make sure they're noted on the rental agreement. There's some good advice in this AskMe about driving and other transport in Italy.

Do learn some Italian. Tipping in Italy is mainly just rounding up to the nearest Euro for the most part, maybe 10% at most for exceptional service. At restaurants, especially those that cater to tourists, check your bill for servizio incluso first. If it's there, don't tip anything additional. It's not customary to tip taxi drivers and you don't really tip at bars unless you have table service. Hotel services like bellhops would get a Euro or two per bag. Use your own judgement for tipping a concierge, but don't go wild. Don’t offer tips to people if they’re just helping you out with information, but do tip an actual tour guide.
posted by theory at 3:44 PM on March 30, 2022 [4 favorites]

The advice to find folks via genealogy forums is spot on - in a similar vein, what about looking for a language tutor or travel agent from that place, and hiring them to help prepare lists of, e.g., places to go (libraries, churches, municipal offices), questions to ask or avoid, key local politenesses or gaffes? You might even find someone you’d feel comfortable hiring to be a guide/translator for at least a couple of days.

I don’t seem to be able to search by location in iTalki, but I bet that language-learning forums, a local historical society, or even a local university or college might turn up someone who could be a great resource and partner in helping you learn more about your roots.

Adding that I just searched for Experiences on AirBnB, and there are 2 folks in Avellino who do Pompeii tours and seem lovely:

This person is an archaeologist and the tour is on horseback - more expensive: https://abnb.me/bLm5wA3APob

This person studied art history, and the tour starts at only $27 pp: https://abnb.me/0tH9mweBPob
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 5:07 PM on March 30, 2022 [1 favorite]

Maybe get in touch with the church ahead of time about the brick and taking a tour, and be aware in general of any feast days or other planned religious observances taking place during (or even close to) your visit. One example of a vacation rental in Avellino.
posted by Iris Gambol at 6:21 PM on March 30, 2022 [1 favorite]

A slightly different perspective from an Australian who spends half of the year in a small Italian town in Central Italy.

If at all possible, seek to stay there or nearby for at a few days and 'live' in the town. Go to the local bar in the morning for a caffè and a pastry for breakfast. Sit in the piazza or inside if the weather dictates and interact with the locals. Say hello, comment on the weather ('Bello' or 'Bruto'). Prepare to stay, and people should reach out to you and will find out what the town is like.

People will be happy to see you. take an. interest. Smile.

You might never want to return home
posted by Flashduck at 10:08 PM on April 20, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Just a follow up to this: While in Italy for two weeks we took one day to drive out to the remote town in Avelino. Nobody out there spoke English so between hand signals and Google Translate we had a bit of an adventure. One resident directed us to the town hall (Municipio) who directed us to a borgo (little village), where we luckily found someone at the church. After we explained ourselves (again, mostly via hand signals and the app) they drove off and returned with two guys who had the same first name and my last name. We spent the afternoon "chatting" and were even invited back to their home for a spaghetti lunch. We couldn't find a direct relation but one of them looked exactly like my dad and the name is uncommon enough that we are surely distant cousins of some sort.

Everyone we met or talked to was amazingly friendly and welcoming. Including the many dogs and cats roaming the streets, one of whom followed us around town as if he was guiding us around on our side quest. The town is nestled up in the mountains with gorgeous views all around.

I'm very glad I took the time to go out there and get some sort of connection to where my family came from.
posted by bondcliff at 7:02 AM on October 5, 2022 [2 favorites]

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