Piero (Peter) Riva of Glen Cove, New York, now in his 70’s, recently reconnected with some 40 cousins in his hometown of Imperia, on Italy’s Ligurian coast.
Independent family reunions and guided heritage trips are a growing sector of the travel industry, says Rachel Cooke of Kensington Tours, a bespoke travel company.
“Home never leaves you, your heart is always there,” she adds. The two years of near-isolation during the pandemic has led many people to reassess what is important to them and family often ranks at the top of the list, says Cooke.
So when a cousin in Italy told Riva about an upcoming cousins reunion, he didn’t blink. He immediately booked a flight to take a seat at the table.
In 1961, at the age of 15, Riva left Imperia to work on the luxury liner SS Homeric. An itinerant traveler by heart, the teenager worked on that ship and then on SS Oceanic for a total of six years.
At 21, he left the cruise line to join Alitalia Airlines. After a long and frustrating labor strike, he decided to immigrate to the U.S. and accepted a job offer in the hospitality industry in New York, where he married and raised two children.
Like many immigrants, Riva found it difficult to be so far away from everything embraced by the singular concept of home.
“Missing the immediate family, perhaps, was the hardest thing I had to overcome,” he says. “I felt badly for my children growing up so far from their grandparents, and for my parents being so far away from their grandchildren.”
Ties to the homeland
Despite the miles between them, Riva made every effort to stay connected—both to his relatives and to the rich history, art and gastronomic culture of his homeland.
Even with a young family in tow, he traveled to Italy at least once a year. Later on, after both his grown sons embarked on diplomatic careers with the U.S. State Department, he returned to Italy alone.
When Riva’s only brother, Danilo, passed away prematurely in 2009, Riva began to travel to Italy even more often, flying home at least four times a year. “Sometimes, it was my choice,” he says. “Other times, my Italian mother made me feel guilty about being so far away,” he says with a chuckle.
The enduring kinship of cousins
Over the years, Riva lost contact with many members of his extended family as their lives followed different trajectories. He remembers meeting some at family events when he was a child, mostly weddings and the funerals of aunts, uncles and cousins.
Riva’s great grandfather, Giacomo Alberti, was born in Realdo, a small village in the province of Imperia, in 1852. (Perched on a steep cliff, the diminutive town currently has an estimated population of only 25 residents.)
In that hilltop town, Alberti fathered four children and ten more after he moved to Caramagna, Imperia. All the births took place between 1878 and 1930; thirteen of the offspring survived infancy. “He fathered his last child when he was 78, but died before the child was born,” says Riva, who was born and raised in the same house in Caramagna.
One of Riva’s cousins in Italy, Francesca d’Arcangelo, was doing research for the centennial anniversary of Imperia, scheduled to take place in 2023. The Alberti family name kept popping up in town records and old news clips because many of the patriarch’s offspring had gone on to successful careers in business and medicine.
When Francesca shared the findings with several cousins, they thought it would be fun to bring all the cugini together. To compile a guest list, Francesca combed records at City Hall, the archives at churches in Caramagna Ligure (now Imperia) and Realdo, and found a book that an uncle, Giacomo (Nino) Alberti, had written. She was able to locate about 40 cousins.
The cugini get-together
On the Riviera di Ponente, the part of the Ligurian coast from Genoa stretching to the French border on the west, many businesses close down for the season. But Francesca found a perfect venue to host the group, Le Mignole in Sarola.
When a local newspaper, San Remo News, ran a story about the upcoming get-together, 15 more cousins learned of the event, bringing the total of attendees to 66: 40 cousins, and 26 spouses and offspring.
“The group was a mix in terms of age, background, looks and style. They came from Paris, Strasbourg, Turin, Genoa, Rapallo, Pontida, Sanremo, Pontedassio, Piani and Caramagna,” says Piero.
“We started at 11:15 AM with a memorial mass in remembrance of the many Alberti family members who had passed on. After that, we went to an agriturismo to get acquainted and in many cases, reacquainted, over the ever-so-important typical Ligurian meal,” he says.
The cousins feasted on local and regional foods, including: Focaccia Con Pomodoro e Olive Taggiasche (the native olives of the region), Friscioli di Cipolla (onion fritters), Panissa Fritta (fried chickpea pudding), Torta Verde (green-stuffed pie), Ravioli di Boragi con Burro e Salvia (herbed ravioli with butter and sage), and Stracotto di Vitello con Patatine al Forno (veal pot roast with oven-roasted potatoes).
“It was a wonderful event, full of warm feelings that evoked memories of happy times. Of course, it was a thrill to see all the relatives whom we hadn’t seen in a long time and those we had never met,” says Piero.
No one was disappointed. In fact, the Alberti clan plans to make the cousins reunion an annual event, hoping a few more cousins may emerge before the one next year. A preliminary count suggests that there will be 81 participants.
The cousins’ reunion strengthened unique bonds that were already there. Blood ties among cousins confer an immediate emotional bond. And compared to ones with siblings and parents, the relationships are less obligatory.
When the Alberti cousins connected in Liguria, they had the chance to rediscover their shared ancestral and cultural connections.