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The name thing intrigued me. I hatched a plan to visit Italy, too, in part because I wanted to keep looking into my family history and in part because, um, it's Italy. As I packed, I stuffed my computer bag full of hard copies of genealogical documents. I also uploaded copies of ancient pictures onto my phone. Jenny Tonks , an accredited genealogist for Italy research, recommends using pedigree software to build your family tree and to bring both a hard copy and digital copy with you. Asking someone to help you fill in blank spot s on a family tree is better than simply asking when a certain relative was born.

If you want your request to a busy government records office to get noticed, sending in a pedigree chart with the blank spaces highlighted is often the best way to get your request noticed and receive a response. Before I left for Europe, I booked three nights in Mezzolombardo, where my great-grandfather was born and raised. I envisioned a working vacation -- I would eat pasta, look for records about my ancestors, and write about whatever I found. I left my schedule blank so I could follow my investigation wherever it took me. If we visit the Old Country on an American schedule, we'll never be able to have the type of authentic experience that we crave.

I arrived in Mezzolombardo on a crisp fall afternoon. I parked at my bed and breakfast, got out of the car, and slowly spun around in degrees of visual overload. Imagine mountains shaped like a majestic, craggy horseshoe. Then imagine a river bisecting that horseshoe. Put vineyards on either side of the river, and then drop two old, old, old towns snug against the sides of the horseshoe. Mezzolombardo sits tucked against the south side. I found the year-old church in which my great-grandfather was baptized.

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I live in St. Peters, Missouri. I walked outside and onto the plaza in front of the church. If I was going to walk in the same place as my ancestors, this was the most likely spot. My great-grandparents were turning into three-dimensional people for the first time. After I left the church, I followed signs to the town cemetery, where a half-dozen people tended to gravesites. A man with black hair flecked with gray offered to help me. He told me his name was Mariano.

Mariano understood just enough English for me to explain what I was doing. I showed him a picture on my phone of the family gravestone. He seemed to recognize it.

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He walked me to a spot where it probably used to be. He said he thought it had been removed years ago because nobody had been taking care of it. He told me to come with him and led me to his car. Experts tell me strangers often offer to help Americans who are doing research like I was.

I find Americans tend to be a bit less trusting, at least those of us here in the Northeast, and I think having that type of guard up could really lessen the experience -- or at least would cause someone to miss out on a wonderful opportunity. The decision to go with Mariano, whom I eventually learned was a police officer, was the pivotal moment in this whole adventure.

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What followed was life-changing. Mariano drove to the church office. He parked, walked to the door and rang the bell. A white-haired priest opened the door. They spoke for 30 seconds, and he let us in. XI, There was something strangely intimate in the way the flowing script recorded him being the 32nd boy born in Mezzolombardo in Carlo died when they were 2. Mariano put the book back and grabbed another. It showed that my great-grandparents had a son born in Italy.

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I never knew he existed, either. He must have died in Pennsylvania between then and I thought about that long-ago teacher who had asked what kind of name is Enrica. Now I had an answer. It was a tribute to a lost brother. Finding out my great-grandfather had lost a brother and a son left me stunned.

My voice hitched as I tried to express my gratitude to Mariano. He just smiled, as if he helps Americans uncover family secrets every day. He told me to come to his office on Monday, two days later. I knew I had gotten lucky to meet Mariano.

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How to Track Down Your Long-Lost Relatives in the Old Country, Wherever I parked at one end of town and could see clear to the other, only a few . recommends using pedigree software to build your family tree and to. View and explore your family tree in three simple steps. 1. Take a Look. Go to and sign in. View your tree in portrait view (pictured).

All of them said Americans should not show up unannounced at churches or City Halls and ask to see records. The surest approach is to hire a researcher to help you. Think of it like hiring a fixer, except instead of getting tips about where to buy the best cappuccino, you learn about your family history. They were little more than names.

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Now they had taken on flesh. I was mourning their loss, plus the deaths of Carlo and Enrico. I was entirely unprepared for this grief. After moving to America, my great-grandfather worked in a coal mine in Pennsylvania, lost his first-born son, and died of a heart attack at 47 -- the age I turn this year. It was worse for my great-grandmother.

She was pregnant when my great-grandfather died. That baby -- her ninth that I know of, named John, after his father -- died three days before Christmas in , still an infant. It would have crushed me to be alone in America with all that grief and seven other kids to raise, plus a house full of boarders to look after. She must have been so strong. She died at 54 or 55 the month of her birth is unclear in the Spanish Flu pandemic of , one of , who succumbed in the United States.

Maybe Enrico would have lived. Baby John, too. I found myself wishing they had never left home. Which is an unsettling thought to take to its logical conclusion. On Monday I walked to the police station to see Mariano. Little did I know that his meeting would lead to my encounter with Costantino, the distant relative I found on the little street. Mariano had apparently spent Sunday still playing pro bono genealogist for me. He drew up a family tree for me in black Sharpie. It was Vallarsa -- and that word jumped off of his notes like a cannon blast.

The Albergo Alpino -- the hotel I mentioned before, the hotel I had been obsessed with -- was in Vallarsa. I absolutely had to go.