4-Agropoli Through the Centuries

View from the balcony of the apartment where my Grandfather’s sister Italia lived in Agropoli.  The apartment building was situated at the base of the steps leading to The Old Town.  Hilly streets similar to this one  would greet my Grandmother’s parents when they immigrated from Agropoli to the United States and settled in Wilmerding, Pennsylvania.

So little information available, so much to consider

There is very little information on-line or in English language hard cover books about Agropoli that is of the detailed sort that would vividly portray what kinds of lives the ancestors in my maternal line lived.  So my Uncle Sammy and I have summarized what we could find about our ancestral home town and then discussed the finds.

Agropoli is a small town (commune) in the province of Salerno which is situated in the region of Campania in Southern Italy.  It is a rugged little town high atop a promontory which is called The Old Town.  The New Town consists of the large sprawl of more modern buildings and streets situated at the foot of the promontory.  My maternal Grandparents Josie and Sabato Serrapede took me with them for a three week vacation to Italy in 1976.  Our purpose was to reconnect with our family in the hometown of Agropoli.  We stayed at a small hotel owned by my Grandma Josie’s sister-in-law’s family and visited my Grandfather’s sister Italia each day.  We also made day trips to visit the branch families that lived along the coastline.  I would love to digress at this point and describe the rugged, natural beauty of the Cilento coastline and the towns of Gaeta, Positano, and Amalfi  where our relatives lived as well as the stunning, haunting beauty of the ancient ruins at Paestum.  But if I did that this entry would turn into a travelogue.  I will leave the photos of these places to tell that story when I eventually come to the point in the family history where my own life story is told.  This is because the trip forever changed my perception of what it means to have Italian ancestry, one that is positive and a complete world away from the stereotyped image I described in my second  posting.

In Agropoli, whenever we visited the house of Grandpa Sam’s sister Italia, I was reminded many times that she lived in the New Town.  The apartment building was quite old and quaint.  Toilets were a shared facility on each floor and Italia was something of a star because she had running hot and cold water in her apartment.  The building stood at the very foot of the steep stairway leading up to the Byzantine Gate and the Old Town.  To the citizens and relatives in the Old Town Italia was doing alright, especially since her daughter and son-in-law living in Rome had made enough money to pay for the upgrade in the plumbing.

It is therefore, little things like this which I will keep in mind when reflecting on the sparse details I could gather from Wikipedia and the Italy World Club sites.  First I will outline a very brief overview of historical events in Agropoli before sharing these reflections and what they might hint at in relation to what the ancestors experienced.

Agropoli through the centuries (1)

After the Fall of the Roman Empire:  Invasions from Africa begin to hit the area of the Cilento Coast along which Agropoli is situated.  The town, because of its elevation and location becomes a refuge for those escaping the ravages of invading forces.

Fall to the Saracens:  In 882 Agropoli was taken by the Saracens who used the town as a stronghold from whence they went out to loot and plunder other towns in the surrounding area.

The Saracens were defeated in 915 and Agropoli was ruled by Bishops in its jurisdiction until the 15th century.

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3-The Byzantine Gate 1976

In 1976 my maternal Grandparents Sabato (Sam) and Josie (nee Muro) Serrapede celebrated their retirement by taking a three week trip to Italy.  They were also very, very happy that I was just 6 months away from college graduation in January of 1977.  My Grandmother called me in February of 1976 to tell me we were going to celebrate her retirement and my college graduation that June.  She told me I had to see the beauty of Agropoli and the Cilento coastline in the shimmering light of summer, not the subdued light of winter.

At JFK airport, left to right, Grandma Josie, Grandpa Sam, Albina DiSchiavi and me. Grandma Josie’s niece Albina was part of the family group who saw us off. Albina is the daughter of Grandma Josie’s sister, Rose Muro D’Ambrosio DiSchiavi and Rudy DiSchiavi.

My Mother was very excited for me and we began to shop for a travelling wardrobe that we thought would work well in Rome.  I also bought some Simplicity sewing patterns and made two pairs of shorts and two halter tops with jackets for when we went to the beach.  I never asked my Grandmother what the Cilento coast would be like or what it was advisable to bring.  I figured Agropoli was our ancestral home town.  It would be a little bit like Dyker Heights.  The boys would love to cruise in flashy cars and the girls would all wear form fitting jeans and tops.  The summer would be full of bright times and everyday would feel like the Feast of Saint Gennaro or the bazaar at St. Bernadette’s Church.  Lots of conversation, hugging, joking around, sightseeing and afternoon naps.  Somewhere in between there would be a trip to the Vatican and maybe a museum.  Those were my thoughts about how an Italian Summer would be.

First week in Rome

We spent the first week in Rome staying at the gorgeous apartment where my Grandpa Sam’s niece Italia lived with her husband Antonio and 9 year old daughter Stefania.

It took some time for me to adjust to life in Rome.  I wasn’t used to such bright sunlight and dry heat.  I did not miss New York’s high humidity but I kept thinking about all the tree lined blocks back in Brooklyn and McKinley Park where my favorite bench atop one of the hills in the park was surrounded by so many trees that I called the spot my green cathedral.

In Rome with (l-r) Grandpa Sam, Antonio and Italia.

Italia would always point out a fountain in the courtyard which her apartment overlooked.  I think it was made completely out of hand gathered seashells and stones.  Most of its appeal was lost to me.  I kept thinking of how the courtyard would look if it had oak trees, maple trees, a sundial and a bird bath.  I could not understand what was so inviting about a courtyard filled with white stones, a white fountain without any water and a few low green bushes.

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Station Break: Italian-American Culture late 1950s-early 1960s

Some of these artists were mentioned in posting No. 2-Growing up Italian-American in Dyker Heights.  I’ve added these YouTube videos and music to bring to life some of the feeling that was part of my childhood growing up in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, NY which was still predominantly Italian-American during the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s.

 

Connie Francis was born Concetta Rosa Maria Franconero and grew up in Newark, New Jersey.  “Lipstick on your collar” was one of the first pop tunes I remember hearing on the radio when we went out with my Dad for a Sunday afternoon drive.

 

 

Bobby Rydell’s real name is Robert Louis Ridarelli.  He was born into an Italian-American family from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and still performs.  He appeared on the “Perry Como Show” when this taping was made.  Perry was a very popular Italian-American entertainer who also had his own variety show on TV.  I think the background dancers and balloons are so strange and detract from Bobby’s performance.  An indication of how far we’ve come as a society in terms of sensitivity to cultural and racial stereotyping was brought home to me in that I did not find the impersonation near the end of the video very funny.  When I was a very little girl this was typical of the humor of the day, as was Peppino the Italian Mouse.

 

 

 

As a child I thought Lou Monte’s “Peppino the Italian Mouse” was just fantastic, much to my parents annoyance.  Now I can see why they would wince when hearing it.  It feeds into every stereotype there is about Italian people.  The Italian spoken by Lou Monte and Peppino consists of insults and challenges made to each other.  If I’m right, Lou is also singing about how drunk Peppino gets.

 

 

Annette Funicello was a childhood favorite of mine.  She appeared on the “Mickey Mouse Show” as a child.  When she grew up she starred in many beach themed movies.  Annette always won her boy by the end of the movie and sang some sweet, light hearted pop-tunes in each film as well.  Annette is singing with Frankie Avalon, another Italian-American pop-star of the early 1960s.  His real name is Francis Thomas Avalone and he is still performing today.

 

Note:  Annette is not wearing a hat.  In the early 1960s girls often added elaborately curled or braided hairpieces into their own hairstyle.  In Dyker Heights this kind of style could be seen as late as 1968.

 

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Further Reading

Connie Francis:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Connie_Francis

Bobby Rydell:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bobby_Rydell

Perry Como:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perry_Como

Lou Monte:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lou_Monte

Annette Funicello:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annette_Funicello

Frankie Avalon:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frankie_Avalon

 

 

2-Growing up Italian-American in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, NY

In this post my Uncle and I share some of our experiences of growing up Italian-American.  We then compare them to the first time we experienced the country and culture of our ancestors during our trips to Italy.

Growing up Italian-American in Dyker Heights 1941-1952:  Sam Serrapede, Jr.

My Maternal Grandparents, Josie and Sam Serrapede, followed the Italian custom of naming their children after ancestors within the family line.  Grandpa Sam’s Italian name was Sabato, in honor of his paternal Grandfather.  To differentiate father from son, my Uncle Sammy was named Sabbatino in Italian.  That translates as roughly as Sam, Jr. in English.  As a child he was called Junior.  My late Mother was the last one who could address him that way.     I’ve always known him as Uncle Sammy and that’s how I’ll address him within all the postings.

Sabbatino Serrapede, late 1940s.

On September 1, 2014 we began recording our memories of the Muro and Serrapede families.  One of the first discussions we had focused on what it was like growing up Italian-American in Brooklyn and then experiencing Italy for the first time as adults when we vacationed there.

My Uncle was born in 1941 and grew up during the time Sam and Josie lived at 1167 66th Street in the Dyker Heights section of Brooklyn.  “The entire world was Italian,” he told me.  “Until I went to McKinley Junior High School.  It was then that I became aware of the Irish-American and Norwegian-American children that lived here and there in the area.”

Grandma Josie shopped for fresh foods every day.  On 66th Street and 11th Avenue were located 4 stores she frequently shopped at.  These small stores each had a specialty and were owned by families that lived in the community.  At Aiello’s Grocery Store, she bought freshly made ricotta cheese.  Faicco’s Pork Store, which is still in existence as of 9/1/2014, was a main source of home made mozzarella and pork sausage.  On 11th Avenue and 67th Street was a fruit store.   She’d also stop by Hermann’s Grocery store on 66th and 11th Avenue.  Nearby was Fusco’s Candy Store owned by Dick Fusco whom it was later discovered was part of the Colombo crime family.

Experiencing Italy for the first time:  Sam Serrapede 1997

These patterns of shopping daily for fresh food for the day’s meals was a pattern my Uncle saw when he and my Aunt Kathie vacationed in Italy in 1997.  Uncle Sammy found Rome to be too touristy to get into but felt that he experienced first hand something of the traditional quality of Italian life when he and Kathie stayed at Castelnuovo Berardenga , small town 9 miles south of Siena.  The town is located in a rural area.

My Aunt and Uncle rented a villa house at the base of the mountain near a winery.  Each day Aunt Kathie would go to the town square with Uncle Sammy to enjoy a very leisurely meal.  Since she speaks fluent Spanish and can also converse in basic Italian, she took care of ordering coffee each morning and dinner each afternoon.  The town inhabitants did not speak much English and the character of the town was not influenced by tourism.

My Uncle said that the emphasis on fresh produce and freshly cooked food each day was very close in spirit to the way Grandma Josie approached her role in shopping and preparing the family meals.

Growing up Italian-American in Dyker Heights 1953-1960:  EmilyAnn Frances May

My Mom was born Emily Leatrice Serrapede.  In Italian it would have been Emilia Letizia Serrapede.  Her first name was in honor of her paternal Grandmother, Emilia Pappalardo Serrapede.  Her middle name was in honor of her maternal Grandmother Letizia Scotti Muro.   When I was born my Mom had no such desire to call me Emilia.  Instead she named me Emily Ann and insisted the older generation always address me as Emily Ann.  When asked if I was named after my Italian Great Grandmother Emilia my Mom was quick to reply, “No!  She’s my baby and I named her after ME!”

So much for following old traditions!

As a child I remember being Italian-American as synonymous with pasta, pizza, calzones and church bazaars.  I disliked eating meat as a child.  Even though I loved visting my paternal Grandparents Al and Blanche Terry there were times I did not enjoy the visits because of the predominance of meat heavy meals.  I loved even more the visits to Grandma Josie and Grandpa Sam Serrapede’s home, especially when it was a holiday.

Grandma Josie was a phenomenal cook and she did it all without an extensive array of equipment that is commonly used in gourmet cooking today.  Lunch or dinner at her house was a joy.  In the summer meals consisted of the squash, tomatoes and other vegetables grown in the back garden.  There was always pasta.  There would be meatballs or pork sausage but never in large quantities.  Rather my Grandparents preferred baked or broiled fish and sometimes chicken.

My Mom and I would help out in the kitchen while Grandma Josie created pasta magic making the pasta dough on top of the large bread cutting board she had placed on top of the formica kitchen table.  The dough was cut into narrow ribbons using a serrated wheel like cutter and laid on top of a sheet in her bedroom to dry before cooking.  There was never a restaurant that could compare to the lightness and flavor of her home made pasta.

n addition to fine food, my limited world view of Italy was heavily influenced by films and pop culture.  Famous Italians were singer Connie Francis and Mousketeer Annette Funicello.  Being Italian-American meant you had a sense of humor about your ethnic identity and weren’t afraid to laugh about it, especially when Lou Monte sang “Peppino the Italian Mouse”.

Impressing other children on the block with the accomplishments of one’s cousins, Aunts and Uncles was also part of the experience.  For some reason, my friends and I never bragged about our parents or siblings.  We’d just try to outdo each other with how pretty a Godmother was or how rich an Uncle was or how smart some cousin was.

There was a very real awareness of our Irish-American and Scandinavian-American neighbors at the time I was growing up.  We knew about their cultures from such events as the annual parades in Bay Ridge celebrating St. Patrick’s Day or the Norwegian Day Parade.  Yet, we never socialized after school and never–ever–were encouraged to think about dating or marrying out of the Italian-American community.

Much of that talk influenced my friends but when I was about 7 years old I developed my very first crush on the older son of our neighbors down the block.  His dad was of Norwegian descent and his Mom was Italian-American.  Tall, blonde, athletic and friendly he fit my childhood need to see a Prince Charming in real life.  Whenever I read the stories from “My Book House” in 2nd grade I’d imagine Charlie Johansen as the Prince or the hero who rescued the maiden from the wicked witch.   I was frequently told that his parents were not happy in their marriage and I should remember that.  This was told me to me by my friends’ parents.

At home my Mom and Dad would say Dyker Heights was a small world.  I didn’t need to think about boys or marriage yet and should concentrate on getting better grades at school.   Unlike Grandma Josie, my Mom bought all food at the supermarket.  Raviolis were frozen and pasta sauce came out of the jar.  Life was all about driving from one place to another and the emphasis was always on buying something new.

 EmilyAnn, First Holy Communion, 1960.

The bouquet was borrowed from the girl who had her photo taken before me.  My parents disapproved of the large bouquets and fancy updos the other girls were getting.  The photographer commented “E peccato!” (What a pity!”) when he saw I didn’t even have a pair of fancy gloves, either.  The dress my Mom,  Grandma Bessie and Aunt Maureen had first selected was even plainer than this.  I had to refuse it many times before they finally let me select this dress which I liked very much.  Bessie and Maureen were my Father’s Mother and Sister, respectively.

My only aspirations as a little girl were very simple:  work in a dress shop, wear high heels everyday and have a better wardrobe than Barbie.  I wasn’t interested in the marriage and baby carriage as much as travelling around the world and having my own social secretary.  It became very important that I have pierced ears and beautiful gold hoop earrings.

Each year my parents refused telling me it wasn’t necessary to identify with the other girls who wore more jewelry each year they grew older.  This gave me an early indication that my parents were out to remove the ethnic identifiers from my list of things I liked.  This became more evident as the years went on and which I’ll share as the story advances.

Given such impressions of this third generation childhood you can be sure my first experience of Italy as I stood in front of the Byzantine Gate of The Old Town in Agropoli was completely unexpected.

Discussed and notes taken:  Sunday, September 7th, 2014 4:15 p.m. EST

Written:    Monday, September 8, 2014 7:00 P.M.

1-Beginnings

 

Cover of “Through The Gate”, edited by Olive Beaupre Miller. Part of the “My Book House” series.

I have always been fascinated by the sight of tall, ornate gates that are part of large, ornamental entrances ways to homes, estates, cemeteries and parks. There is a sense for me of something transformational in passing through such a gate.  Much of this thinking developed within me as a child when my Mom gave me her childhood library which consisted of the twelve volume series “My Book House” edited by Olive Beaupre Miller.

 

Having these books within my bedroom linked me to my Mother’s childhood during the Great Depression of the 1930s.  Mom told me how Grandma Josie would buy the books one volumne at a time from a salesman who stopped by the house on a regular basis.  Later, when I inherited Grandma Josie’s collection of photos and cards, I found little notes, drawings and tracings done with my Mom and her little brother Jerry.  These drawings and tracings were inspired by the contents of one volume in the series for parents to use when engaged in storytelling time or play time with their children.  The instructions integrate stories from each volume into the planned activities to maximize educational and creative development in the child.

 

I was deeply touched to find that even my Grandmother was influenced by these books. One volume in the series was called “Through the Gate”.  On the cover are two little children, a boy and girl dressed in the style of perhaps early-mid 19th century England.  They stand before a large door to what looks like a very large house.  The little boy is on tiptoes about to reach for the knocker on the door. Mom always referred to books as gateways to other worlds and times.  She emphasized that everything we see has a meaning beyond just what we see.  As a child this kept me continually seeking her out to find out what the meaning of an object could be, besides the obvious one.  In the case of this book she said the gate referred to in the title meant that when the book was opened we entered a different world.  While we read the book we were somewhere between our everyday world and a very special realm where the story was taking place.  She used the present tense to describe this participation in the act of reading.

 

This was something my teachers at school never did.  So it was only natural that I went to these books night after night before going to bed convinced that I was leaving the ho-hum life of school and Dyker Heights behind. These thoughts came to me when my maternal Grandparents, Sam and Josie Serrapede, took me to Italy in the summer of 1976.  We visited the ancestral hometown of the Muro and Serrapede families in Agropoli, a small town in Salerno in Campania. Our ancestors lived high atop a hill that overlooked the sea.  Access was obtained by climbing a long flight of wide steps and passing through the ancient Byzantine Gate that marks the entry to the Old Town of Agropoli.

 

I can still see the ancient gate within my mind but in a different way as this family history adventure begins.  As a tourist I saw the obvious in the natural beauty of the area and experienced with my senses the hot sun and the long summer days during that vacation.  Now, though, I not only see within my mind the town but feel all around me a connection to my ancestors who lived there long ago. Growing up as an Italian-American did nothing to connect me with the past the way genealogy has done now.

 

As a third generation member of the family my experiences growing up were much different from my Uncle Sammy, the second son of Josie and Sam Serrapede.  In his world the quality of life during childhood was still influenced by the patterns of family life the first generation of our immigrant ancestors brought to America.  By the time I was born, the experience of growing up Italian-American in Brooklyn had changed even more. In the next posting, I will share some of our memories since they provide an interesting, and sometimes humorous, view of what our concept of our ancestral country was like vs. what we experienced when we went to visit Italy for the first time.

 

Written:  September 5, 2014 Friday night 11:40 p.m.