Gordola is a small town located in a narrow valley in the southern Swiss Alps. That spring the snowcapped mountains were covered with green grass and ablaze with wildflowers. Waterfalls, hundreds of them, descended to the valley floor, exactly as my grandfather had described them.
My brother John and I had traveled from California, and my sister Rosemary from her home in Paris. In a local restaurant, I found a listing in the phone book for Enrique Badasci. Rosemary asked the owner of the restaurant if she knew him, and the woman said she had heard of him. She then introduced us to an old woman who spoke good French and who agreed to take us to his house.
Switzerland is an immaculate country, but as we wove our way down narrow streets and back alleys, we discovered a different Switzerland. As we walked, the neighborhood continued to decline. The old woman kept turning around and looking at us, especially at Rosemary in her Yves St. Laurent suit. Finally, she stopped and motioned with her chin to an old, unpainted house with a big stack of weathered lumber in the front yard.
"Ce n'est pas tres belle," she said with a grin. It's not very pretty.
Standing in front of that house, I felt a surge of dij` vu. Our great-aunt Rene Badasci lived in an ancient, unpainted house in Hanford, Calif. Auntie Renie was old, rich and eccentric. She had 32 cats and never threw anything away. Her garage was stacked to the rafters with newspapers that dated back to the turn of the century. Here in Switzerland, we stood before a house that could pass for the twin of Auntie Renie's.
Rosemary wrinkled her nose. "Do you really think this could be it?"
"Let's find out," I said.
The front door looked as if it had not been used in years. We walked around to the back of the house. Several cats sunned themselves on the stone porch. We had to step around them to knock. Several moments later, the door opened slightly, and a little old man peeked out. Rosemary introduced us in French. He responded in perfect French, "What do you want?"
"We have the same last name," Rosemary said. "Our great-grandfather traveled to California from here in 1857. We're trying to find out if we have relatives still living here in Switzerland."
"Oh, no, no," he said. "I have no relatives, just a nephew. The Badasci name is very common."
John shot me a look. We knew that wasn't true.
"Besides," he continued, "I never heard of a relative going to California."
He opened the door a little wider. He looked exactly like my grandfather, only thinner. He had the same large ears and the Badasci nose. He studied the three of us for a long moment. "I cannot help you. But you people have traveled a long way. Come in."
He seated us at a long wooden table and began pouring grappa into shot glasses that were not particularly clean. Rosemary was clearly uncomfortable. When Enrique turned to the liquor cabinet, she quickly poured her grappa into my glass. Two cats roamed freely on the table.
"Did your great-grandfather live in San Luis Obispo?" Enrique asked.
"Yes," I said. "He had a ranch there."
"And, are there a lot of Mexican people in San Luis Obispo?"
He pronounced the word "Mexican" in Spanish, not French, and I replied in Spanish, "Yes, there are many Mexican people in California."
Then, in good Spanish, better than mine, he began asking about Salinas and other Swiss-populated towns in California. He asked questions about Joaquin Murietta and Henry Miller, the cattle baron. As he spoke, I was again reminded of my grandfather. Behind the gruff exterior and the deep, demanding voice, were these clear, gentle, almost paranoid eyes.
After a while, we rose from our chairs. Enrique suddenly dropped his Swiss reserve and tried to pour us more grappa. I explained that it was getting late. He then came right out and asked us to stay longer and offered to cook us dinner. As we parted on the stone porch, he handed Rosemary a small bottle of French cognac, then shook each of our hands.
"Retournez-vous, ` bienttt, s'il vous plait," he said.
Come back, please come back soon