Long lost cousins
Trip Start Jan 25, 2007
31Trip End Jun 30, 2007
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Starting from the beginning - I've known that we have relatives in Uruguay since I was a kid. When I know I'm going I'm going to South America I write to relatives in Italy if anybody has any contact details, and am sent the name of Diva Italia Bombaci and an address. Dad and I write a letter and include a photograph of our family. Diva emails me back and we arrange to meet in April. While I'm travelling in Patagonia I hear that Dad wants to come to Uruguay as well, as the relatives there are the only ones he hasn't met - he has visited all the rest in Italy and the US (Connecticut, Florida and California).
Fast forward to early April - my father is due to arrive on 4th April and the day before I still haven't organised tickets for the trip to Carmelo. It's Easter and all tickets are booked out on the direct boat to Carmelo from the port of Tigre on the Rio Plata
So off we sail across the river on the Colonia Express and in an hour we're in Colonia, where we were met by around 20 excited relatives.
To begin from the beginning this amazing story, my father's uncle, Mauro Bombaci (brother of Dad's mother), migrated to the small town of Carmelo in Uruguay in 1925 from the small town of Floridia, 12kms from Siracusa in eastern Sicily. Mauro was 45 years old, had already been to the United States for a few years and returned to Sicily, and had been married 3 times (with one child from a former wife).
His (4th) wife sent him a letter after he arrived in Carmelo, which in effect said:
'If within a year you don't come and get me or send me money for the voyage, I will come and find you'
The letter must have had the right effect because the following year his wife, Giuseppina (Peppina) di Pace, emigrated with their 4 children, Mariuccia (12 years old, from a former wife), Salvatore (9), Agostino (4), and Letizia (14 months). My father, who was 5 at the time, remembers them going. Three more children were born in Uruguay - Nino, Umberto, and Diva Italia.
In Floridia Mauro was an impresario, organising theatre and music performances. When he migrated to Carmelo he opened a barber shop, but he also operated as a dentist, and later opened a shop selling books and magazines, Libreria Bombaci, which is still operating today. He was a founding member of the Italian Association of Uruguay, which built a clubhouse several kms from Carmelo and is still active today.
All his children, except Mariuccia, are still alive today, and together with their children and grandchildren they number around 80 souls.
Carmelo is a town of around 17,000 people, just 2.5 hours away from BA by the Cacciola RiverCat. You could not get a bigger contrast with BA - it's a town based on agriculture - wine, cheese, market gardens, etc and every day you see in the streets men driving carts pulled by horses
Zio Mauro (uncle Mauro), visited Sicily in 1950 by himself (couldn't afford to bring the family) and Dad met him again then, a couple of years before he himself migrated to Australia. From what I know I don't believe my mother sent my father a similar letter to the one that zio Mauro's wife sent :), however Mum and I arrived in Melbourne 17 months later.
To pick up the story - we arrive in Colonia, are bundled into a van, driven through the streets where I hear my first live Candombe (African influenced music), then set off for Carmelo. Along the way we stop at a 200 year old stone farmhouse, where Cecilia (2nd cousin), her husband Fermin (he's of French Basque heritage), their children, a dog and around 30 horses live and we spend a pleasant hour there.
We drive on through a town called Conchilla, which was built by the English and consists almost entirely of long rows of identical houses with low walls (less than 2 metres) and roofs.
Next morning we are taken down to the port where a boat has been hired to cruise along the river. We chug up and down the river past luxury cruisers, Mr Incredible, rusted hulks, and low scrub and trees.
That night I sit with Diva, my father, Diva's son Ignazio (Nacho). They bring out a book of tango lyrics, which Nacho gave his mother as a birthday present. The theme is love, not the wishy-washy kind, but bitter, sweet and full of memories. Now that I can understand a bit of Spanish I translate some of the lyrics with Nacho's help and we sing a few songs in the kitchen, just the four of us. Nacho has published a book of poetry and he gives Dad and I a copy.
Next day I go for a long walk with Alejandro across the bridge, down by the river past the Rowing Club and the luxury motor cruisers over for the weekend from BA, and along the long sandy beach, where I kick off my sandals and wade through the water, and have my first Uruguayan beer at a beachside cafe
That night several of my second cousins organised a night out for me at the Vasco Frances (French Basque)Club. It seems as if the main emigrants to Carmelo were Italians and French Basques, if clubs and surnames are anything to go by. Nacho picks me up in his hotted up and chrome plated 1960's VW, hands me the keys and we do the time-honoured thing that guys do in small towns on a Saturday night - cruise down the beach road, up and down the main street, a couple of laps around the main plaza, then up to the club.
When I arrive the manager puts on some tangos for me, as they have told him that I dance tango. They suggest I drink the special club drink, which is a small jug of a sparkling liquid of a very unusual greeny colour, which turns out to be beer with Blue Curacao - finally I know what to do with Blue Curacao. Maybe as I travel around the world I can start a new drink craze. We spend the night playing party games - darts (sorry to boast but I win convincingly), card games (I'm not much good at cards), etc. Next day I catch the Rivercat back to BA and a few days later head off to Peru.
2 weeks later ......
I head back to Carmelo to pick up Dad. He has spent nearly 3 weeks with the extended Bombaci family. He is so happy that he has finally met the remaining family he didn't know - the saying better late than never really applies, as Dad is 87 later this year. His will and mind are very strong, even though his body is naturally getting weaker. The visit has invigorated him, and also his cousins. Dad has a fantastic memory and is a walking history of the family - he knows everybody's birthday, when they got married, when their children were born, when they died, etc and was able to enlighten his cousins on certain things they didn't understand from when they were children - for example, if one of the girls drank, their mother used to say a phrase to them which they took to be some Sicilian criticism, but it was actually the name of an aunt of their's, who was known to like a tipple, and she was comparing them to her as a warning
The last night we had a get-together at Mirna's, and we talked and ate and drank, then I danced a few tangos, then Dad danced with Letizia, and finally everybody sang old Italian songs. Dad gave a little speech, at which he got quite emotional, saying how much he appreciated at his stage of life to be able to meet all the descendants of his uncle in Uruguay, and we all went home happy and sad at the same time. As Dad says, everything that begins has to end.
Next day was superb - cloudless blue sky and warm. A large contingent turned out to see us embark on the boat, then they drove round to the point to wave as the catamaran sped past.
So dear readers, that is the story of our lost cousins and how we found them again.
That same night Dad and I took off for Italy, so next posting will be from there.