Nina and Katherine’s Italian Roadtrip Adventure – Part 1

by Katherine Longhi on October 19, 2013

I’ve been meaning to tell this story for the last 5 years.  It’s a really, really good one!  It starts like this: Once upon a time there were 2 friends living in London – an American and an Australian.  One day before the Australian was due to move back to Australia she asked the American if she would accompany her on a trip to Italy to find her long lost Italian family.  It was something that the Australian had been meaning to do ever since she came to London many years prior but now with a one way ticket booked to Melbourne the timing became urgent.  The American said “certo!”   Of course she would accompany her on this adventure!  The American in this story is me and the Australian is my good friend Nina.

Katherine the American, Nina the Australian

Katherine the American and Nina the Australian

The Background

Nina’s 90 year old grandmother Rosa had migrated to Australia with her parents and brothers when she was only a small child, but she believed that she still had family living in the region in Italy where she was born.  We were armed with nothing more than a few postcards, photos, a list of names and a single address.  Our info was about 50 years old and we didn’t have a single telephone number.

Postcard of Canelli from the 1950s given to Nina by her grandmother (and one of our clues)

Postcard of Canelli from the 1950s given to Nina by her grandmother (one of our clues)

Thank goodness in 2008 there was modern technology like Google and GPS.  Without them we would have been lost.   We flew to Milan and commenced our adventure.  When we arrived at Malpensa airport we typed in the only address that we had into our GPS which we named Jane (she had a posh English accent) and we were on our way to the Piemonte region.

Two hours later we arrived in Canelli.  Boy is this town really off the beaten track!  You would never go here unless you were searching for something, or in our case someone.  As we pulled into town Nina looked at a postcard from many many decades ago that had belonged to her great grandfather.  We parked the car in a small piazza (apparently the main one) and stepped out of the car.  We looked up and saw the exact image that was on Nina’s black and white postcard.  Although it was many decades later – we recognized the big yellow villa at the top of town (formerly a castle destroyed in 1617 in a war against neighboring Monferrato) but the central piazza had changed.  In the foreground of the picture there was a pizzeria which was now replaced by a Banca di Roma.  But still we were in the right place.  But what to do now?  In search of information we decided to hit up the tourist information centre.

Same view of Canelli fast forward to 2008

Same view of Canelli fast forward to 2008

First Stumbling Block 

The tourist office was closed.  But we banged and banged on the door until a lady finally opened it.  Although she was slightly annoyed that we interrupted her work (which was to clean the place) she listened patiently to our odd request that we were looking for people with the surname ‘Giovine’.  She perked up at once saying that there was a gelateria by the same name.  Off we went faster than a Ferrari to Gelateria Giovine.  (Note – since the time of our visit the gelateria is now called Pasticceria Artigiana).

Second Stumbling Block

When we arrived at the gelateria we learned that it was no longer operated by an Italian family but had been bought by a Polish family.  The Polish lady we spoke to had no idea where we could find any of the original family with the name Giovine.  She maintained that there were hundreds of families with the name in the region so it would be impossible to locate the exact people we were looking for.  To which I argued if there were so many families with the same name then they should be able to tell us of at least one?  I mean even when a Smith meets another Smith, they have to be related somehow even if they don’t readily know how.  Exhausted by the useless (and slightly argumentative) conversation we had with the Polish lady (both our accents in Italian were too hard for the other) we decided to pursue another lead.

Monastero Bormida in Piemonte, Italy

Monastero Bormida in Piemonte, Italy

Next stop – Monastero Bormida.  Even smaller and less notable than Canelli we tried the same tactic of visiting the information centre.  We were met with a more engaging response but still nothing concrete.  On a whim we asked a little old man sitting in the piazza if he recognised an old farm house that Nina had a picture of.  He said that he did and that he would take us to the house.


As we followed the little old man in our rental car Nina and I started to feel like something was really wrong.  We could see from Jane the GPS that we were completely off the grid.  No signs, no road names, just wilderness.  When the road became a dirt road that was only wide enough for one car we both started panicking that we were part of a kidnap plot.  We seriously had no idea where we were, who this creepy little old man was, and now our cell phones weren’t getting any signal either.  With no modern technology to rely upon we considered pulling a U-turn and speeding away in the opposite direction.

So what happened next?  Stay tuned for the next installment of Nina and Katherine’s Italian Roadtrip Adventure!


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