Michael Limongelli, ’21, always knew his family was from Italy. It inspired him to study abroad there in the fall of 2019 at Milan’s Bocconi University. But he never envisioned taking a solo trip to the small town where his grandmother was born, nor that this trip would turn out to be one of the most memorable experiences of his life.

“I wasn’t sure what was going to happen,” Limongelli said, timid about traveling alone, “but I knew this would probably be my only chance to visit my grandmother’s place of birth.”

After getting settled in to his classes and new routine as a business student at Bocconi, he did some research on Sant’Andrea Di Conza, a village in the Campania region of Italy with about 1,500 residents. It was here that his grandmother was born in May of 1939 and spent the first seven years of her life, before immigrating to the U.S. with her mother and older sister after World War II. Her father, after whom Michael is named, was waiting for them in America, having immigrated before the War to establish a stable life ahead of their arrival.  Now, although several generations removed, Limongelli wanted to return the favor. 

It was an eight-hour drive from Milan along the eastern Italian coastline. Unsure about relying on public transportation, he rented a car and decided to visit for a long weekend.

“I drove 530 miles due south of Milan, the town was in the middle of nowhere,” Limongelli said. “It was as if the whole town is stuck in time; old cars, not much infrastructure, it could have been 50 to 60 years ago.”

When he arrived, he met the town’s director of tourism, who became his tour guide – and translator – for the visit.

“I told him my grandmother’s maiden name, and found that my family was documented in the town’s history,” Limongelli said.

They visited the house his great-great-grandfather built, found the original birth certificates of his grandmother and great grandparents, and visited the home where his grandmother was born. 

“It was a one room shack that’s still standing,” Limongelli said. “It was pretty crazy to be able to see it. It was surreal.”

Sant’Andrea Di Conza reminded him of simpler times, he said, and he felt like he was getting to know his grandmother and his family’s history more and more with every step in the town.

“It was such an extreme juxtaposition to Milan,” he said. “Fifty-six percent of the population earns less than 10,0000 Euro a year. Much of the population is aging, and the size of the town is shrinking.”

After stopping in a restaurant for what he says was the most authentic Italian food he’d ever eaten, Limongelli said goodbye to the town and returned to Milan.

But just one month after his visit, almost to the day he got a phone call.

“It was during finals week when I got the news,” Limongelli said. His grandmother, who had struggled with dementia for several years, had died.

He left Milan early to make it home for the funeral.

“There will always be a part of me that wishes I had seen her one last time before she passed away,” Limongelli said. “But I’m more grateful I got to see where she came from. I learned a lot more about her more authentic self, before she was sick, than I would have if I were back home.”

He reminisced with his family about his visit to the small town, including with his uncle who met many of the same people when he visited Sant’Andrea Di Conza more than 20 years ago.

“Both in the way the town looks and the people you meet, it was like stepping back in time,” Limongelli said. “It gave me a unique perspective – to be able to connect with her past left me with a sense of discovery that I wouldn’t have gotten seeing her at the end.”