My father was born in 1947 in Trieste, which is a border city that changes hands every few years. It was part of Italy, before that it was in Yugoslavia which no longer exists, at some point it was invaded by Austria, now it's Italy again. For a brief time, right around 1947, it was independent. Somehow in all this ruckus, my father ended up with two birth certificates, presenting a bit of a problem when he decided to join an American military academy 18 years later, and he had to pick one.
Anyway, he was the postwar child of an American CIA (but back then it was called the PWB, Psychological Warfare Bureau) agent of British descent named Sidney Philip Bates, and a Florentine woman who smuggled Jews to safety during the war (and helped him spy on the Fascists) named Vera Faconti. Her family had royal Viennese blood, and when Mussolini came to power and climbed in bed with Hitler, she and others in her family were issued some kind of document (a blue card I think) that basically gave them unfettered access to anything and anywhere in Italy. They were "honorary" Germans. So they were able to cross the border into Switzerland, accompanied by whoever they wished, as often as they wanted, and with this privilege she basically ran an underground railroad for Italian Jews. Not that it guaranteed safety. My father remembers, as a kid, asking one of his mothers' visitors about his forearm tattoo.
Vera had two brothers, one of whom, Vittorio, died in the war. The other one was named Oreste and became a successful estate attorney in Florence. The family had an aristocratic background and owned a great deal of valuable art and property in Italy. My father remembers a photograph of Oreste, taken in 1963 I believe, as he watched the flooded waters of the Arno wash through his first-floor art collection. Aristocrats don't do manual labor, see. He didn't rescue a thing. Asshole.
Sometime in the early fifties, after Sidney had abandoned his wife and infant child to go on assignment in Bangkok, he and the British family suddenly decided to take an interest in his son. What ensued was a flurry of government string-pulling and manipulation to have Vera's passport revoked and to get the child away from her. She went on the run with him throughout parts of Europe, and everywhere they went, he'd be stuck in 1st grade repeatedly because he couldn't speak whatever the language was, and he couldn't fit in the desk. Finally, somehow, they both came to New York (on the passenger liner Andrea Doria, which, incidentally, sank two months later.) My father was nine.
The British family in America promptly had Vera committed to an insane asylum, and proceeded to raise my father themselves. His early teen years were spent partly in upstate New York with some cousins, partly in central Florida with an aunt. Vera remained institutionalized in New York. My father joined the U.S. Merchant Marine. Vera's home in Florence was sold. I don't know where Oreste was in all this. Watching his priceless antiques be ruined by a slow-moving flood, I guess.
After the four years at Kings Point were over and my father had the first of several high-paying jobs in the shipping industry, he went back and pulled his mother out of the asylum in New York, got her passport stuff straightened out, flew her back to Florence, bought her old house back, and put her in it. He visited her there at least once a year. She hardly acknowledged his existence. But he continued to see her until the early eighties, when money got tight and he had a family of his own.
When she died in about 1985, and he flew to Florence to deal with her estate and arrangements, he went to meet with his uncle. Oreste refused to speak English and explained through some sort of gesturing and pointing that my father needed to get an interpreter and come back. So he went off and somehow found an American woman, a language teacher on vacation, who agreed to act as translator -- for free, just to get inside the Faconti palace and see the art collection. So they returned and had this meeting. It ended with a lawsuit, sort of. My father hired an attorney who turned out to be Oreste's nemesis, and the suit never actually happened. It was really more of a letter, formally detailing what an asshole he thought my father was. Oreste considered him to be some kind of bastard child of a deserting soldier, and called him "an embarrassment to the family" and a lowly scumbag seaman. He also accused him of abandoning his mother in her final days. Apparently the previous 15 years of visits, the buyback of her house, etc. didn't count. My father pointed out that, whereas he himself lived 4000 miles away, Oreste only lived about 2 miles away, and had never once visited his sister until she was near death.
Somewhere in all this venom, they strayed off course and discussed family. They opened the white pages to see that Oreste was the only Faconti in there; and somewhere in my father's things is, I dunno, a cocktail napkin, with a sketch on it that Oreste drew. It shows the Faconti family tree, the death of Vittorio, the hopelessness of Oreste's only daughter ever procreating (lesbian), some other son who was also never going to have children, etc. My father was the only one in his generation who had a child. I'm the end of the bloodline.
When my friend Vince's thesis defense was scheduled for Holland in January, and he invited me and my parents (his adoptive family in the U.S.) to attend, we decided to crowbar a trip to Italy into the mix. So last week, after a few days in Holland, my parents and I traveled on to Florence, to see where my father's family came from. It's a trip we've planned since I was old enough to want to know about my ancestry.
As the trip was approaching, I thought about bringing up Oreste. I never met anyone from my father's Italian side of the family, and only met his aunt Clarice (Sidney's sister), from the Brit side, once, when I was too little to think anything of it. But I kept my mouth shut about the whole idea. I never can tell what personal subjects might be taboo with my father. And the old guy had to be dead by now anyway. My father surprised us both during our last night in Holland, when he said he planned to look up Faconti in Florence. "He might be too mean to die."
Our first day there, we got sorta caught up in things, finding taxis, checking in, etc. and my father didn't bring it up. I thought maybe he'd changed his mind, so for awhile I said nothing either. But I couldn't leave it alone. After dinner and a few drinks, I slipped away from my parents and found a phone book, and turned to the F's.
And there he was. The address of his Studio Legale, with phone number.
This was still inconclusive, though -- they could've kept the name, for whatever recognition it might afford. But I showed it to my father and he was delighted. He'd simply forgotten about the mission. The office was only a couple blocks away, so off we went. We found the place and his name was on a big plaque in the lobby of the ancient building. We found an elevator and tried to head up to his floor, but that was a comedy of errors -- the elevator would not acknowledge the existence of the fourth floor, and on each of the 5th, 3rd, and 2nd floors, the doors would slide open only to reveal a locked door on the other side. So we climbed the damn stairs and found the office, with a smaller, newer-looking plaque bearing his name next to the door. But no one was home. We left my father's business card and figured, that's it.
We did our tourist thing Saturday and Sunday, and were set to take a train to Venice in the early afternoon on Monday. Again, I couldn't let it go. I asked my father if we had time for one more try, and he enthusiastically said yes. It was still gonna be a toss-up as to whether the place would even be open, since this was "the Moon's day", and many businesses in Italy close on Mondays. Oreste had refused to sign papers on a Monday back in 1985. But we headed over there, found the actual working elevator, and the door to his office was -- open. I broke into a sweat.
We walked in and there was a young receptionist at a computer, and another closed room beyond her. We could faintly hear voices behind the heavy wooden door. My father began to talk to her in his little bit of Italian, and she tried to respond in even less English, but they managed to establish that Oreste was indeed alive, and in that room. My father asked to see him. She went inside and closed the door behind her. We waited and I sweated more.
Several minutes later, she returned, and explained haltingly that he was occupied with a client and that we should make an appointment and come back another time. My father politely but firmly reiterated that he wanted to see him, only for a few minutes. She refused. He pointed to himself and said, "Familia. Not client." She fidgeted and hemmed and hawed, and went back inside, and again we waited and perspired.
She returned with a datebook open to February 3rd and said "make an appointment." We laughed and she got angrier. My father said, "Impossible (im-poe-SEEB-lay) -- we live in America. We leave Florence today." She thrust the appointment book at him again. He asked her for some paper and a pen, and he wrote a note, I don't know what it said or which language(s) he used, and he asked her to give it to him. She said "I not disturb him again." She was fed up with us. He handed her the note and said, "We'll be back in an hour. Uno hora. Give it to him before that." We left.
We had some coffee, visited the shops on the bridge. We came back an hour later. Went up the elevator. Went to the office door. It was locked. We knocked. No one answered.
We had to leave for the train station. My mother took a picture of me pointing at the plaque. And that is how I almost met my great-uncle Oreste Faconti.
Really, it couldn't have been more in-character of him. While we waited for the train, my mother asked if Valentino (a coworker of mine who is from Italy) was around lately. I said, sometimes, he commutes from California; why? She said, "Oh, I was just wondering if we could have him tell Oreste to go fuck himself in proper Italian. I'll pay for the phonecall."
part 1 (Actual info about what we did. Bullet points mostly.)