This property is on sale. And it has a story to tell.

Who was my nonno

My grandfather Domenico De Titta was born on June 20th, 1927 into a poor Abruzzese family. To sum up his birth condition, he always used a local saying that goes “I didn’t even have eyes to cry”. He had two younger siblings (Antonio and Alfonso, both emigrants to Argentina) and turned 18 in 1945, in the midst of the Second World War. His childhood was full of hunger, he was a teenager under the bombings and he probably came of age with a consuming thirst for social revenge. He literally hated being miserable in the eyes of his community.

My grandfather Domenico De Titta (photo taken between 1946-1948
at Les Studios V. Beyens de Paris – 5, Rue de Damprémy, Charleroi)

1946, the turning point year

In 1946 Italy, which came out of the IIWW as a loser, was a semi-destroyed country with a very high unemployment rate. The Italians went away to look for work: Switzerland, France, Great Britain were the favorite destinations. Belgium was also a destination for Italian emigration. There were coal mines there, and they were an indispensable fuel for post-war reconstruction.

The Italian government made agreements with the Belgian one to send workers to the coal mines of Wallonia (southern Brussels), in exchange for concessions and coal supplies. My grandfather must have thought that emigrating to Belgium was the chance of a lifetime, the unmissable opportunity for a poor peasants’ son to gain social respectability. The minimum age to be hired as a coal miner was 20, but he was just 19 in 1946: he didn’t hesitate to forge his passport to leave for his personal Eldorado.

A copy of my grandfather’s miner’s card, you see the correction of his birth date

The Italian government agreed with Belgium on the modalities of this emigration: 2,000 workers a week up to a total of 50,000 emigrants were transported to Belgium between 1946 and 1947. My grandfather was one of them, with all due respect to my great-grandparents who tried in every way to dissuade him. This “assisted migration” on the one hand gave work to many Italians; on the other, the remittances (that is, the money that the emigrants sent to their families) arrived immediately in Italy, unlike – for example – the Marshall Plan aid, with which the Americans tried to restart the economies of Western countries, destroyed by war.

Long story short, for the Italian government, the skin of emigrants like my grandfather became the currency to rebuild the country.

On Christmas 1946 my grandfather Domenico took the first trip of his life, leaving Abruzzo and Italy for the coal mines of Belgium. He travelled with a fellow villager, Gabriele Di Giulio, and settled in Châtelineau, east of Charleroi. He didn’t know yet that he would stay there for almost 12 years and that his health would be irreparably compromised. He knew that his life was about to change and no one was going to stop him. He was just happy to leave misery behind him.

My grandfather in Belgium (photo taken between 1946-1948)

What really happened in Belgium

At the time of recruitment, the real working conditions were not properly disclosed to aspiting miners. Furthermore, once they arrived in Belgium, no training period was foreseen. Miners were simply thrown into coal pits and instructed to extract as much coal as possible. After the shock of the first descent into the mine, a thousand meters deep, many workers refused to go down again and asked to be repatriated. Those who broke the contract were given the same treatment as war prisoners: they were jailed and deprived of personal belongings, then loaded onto special trains with a repatriation order and a ban on returning.

Those who were brave enough to stay lived in the barracks of former concentration camps, with very different conditions from those promised by the recruiters: these camps were known among Italian miners as “cantine”, they lacked water, gas and electricity, in many cases they were surrounded by coal hills, open-air rubbish dumps and the remains of discarded materials. The Belgians showed a diffident and racist behaviour towards the Italians, they contemptuously called them “macaroni” from the pasta that the Italians were used to eat (and that the Belgians did not know at the time).

From his departure on Christmas 1946, my grandfather was able to return to his Italian home only in the summer 1948. Clearly he hadn’t given up on his dream, he had worked hard, earned a position and grown into a handsome young man. Since he arrived in Belgium he loved to dress in tailored suits, the tie was his vanity habit and he would wear it until his very last days. He loved to be admired in all his radiance as a young Italian, he didn’t care about the racism of the Belgians. He just wanted to redeem himself and show his determination to progress to the world.

Having now a good position and income, he was allowed to ask my grandmother Elena Bucciarelli‘s hand, who after a long letter courtship had finally said yes. They got engaged in October 1948, soon after my grandfather returned to Belgium. They eventually tied the knot only two years after, on 24th September 1950.

My grandparents’ official wedding photo,
taken a few months after their actual marriage (1951)

Life after marriage

My grandparents spent their first year of marriage in Abruzzo, until September 1951 when my grandfather returned to Belgium again. He had tried to live in Italy with his new family but soon realized that here he could not progress as he wished. Meanwhile my grandmother was pregnant, against the advice of her in-laws she decided to join her husband.

At the time not all the wives of emigrants could join their husbands because they had to take care of the household and their elderly parents. Obviously my grandmother didn’t care about the recommendations of her mother-in-law who not so kindly pointed out how inappropriate her decision was. Yet another unsolicited opinion broke their relationship forever.

On 8th December 1951, my grandmother took a train from Abruzzo to Charleroi. She was accompanied by a trusted friend and carried a baby boy, who would be born in Belgium a few weeks later. If love knows no barriers, my grandparents’ love was definitely a true one. Life went on peacefully between Belgium and Italy until 1956.

But very soon, everything would change forever.

My grandparents with their first born baby boy (summer 1952)

Between 1956-1959

In 1954 my grandparents moved to North Marcinelle, where my grandfather was hired to work at the mine of Bois du Cazier. He was already having health issues and a few years later he would be diagnosed with pneumoconiosis, the lung disease that affects workers exposed to coal dust inhalation. With two children to raise (my uncle was born in 1952 while my mother would be born in Belgium in 1957) and a progressive illness, it was clear that his journey as an emigrant would soon end.

My grandparents last years in Belgium (photo taken in Jemeppe-sur-Sambre)

On August 8th 1956 my grandparents were on holiday in Italy, the incident at Bois du Cazier mine in Marcinelle must have had a huge impact on my grandfather. He never actually talked about it but I’m sure the thought that it could happen to him too must have eaten him up day and night. The tragedy of Marcinelle costed the lives of 262 workers of twelve nationalities, including 136 Italians. It marked the end of assisted emigration to Belgium. The agreements were suspended and since then the Italians emigrated to Belgium exclusively on personal initiative.

On 1st July 1959 my grandfather was declared unfit to work in the mine. The lung disease had taken possession of his body, his Belgian dream was definitely over. On my mother’s second birthday (16th July 1959) my grandparents finally took their one-way return trip to Italy and Abruzzo.

My grandparents with their second child, my mother (summer 1958)

Life in Abruzzo after 1959

My grandparents had to reinvent themselves a new Italian life. With the savings brought back to Italy, they were finally able to buy the house of their dreams, big enough to accommodate their family of 4 and my great-grandparents. Over the years, the house has been expanded and renovated. It was the place where we spent carefree days in the company of our grandparents, sad and desperate days when they passed away, melancholy days when we closed it because no one lived there anymore.

My grandparents and my mother in Italy (1960 circa)
I can’t help but notice my grandfather’s frowning face

Nowadays only my mother and me go from time to time to freshen the house, do some cleaning and remember family anecdotes, sometimes sad, sometimes funny. It hurts my heart to see that house empty and silent, I can’t bear the weight of memories. This is why the property is now on sale, we would like it to come back to new life again and give happy memories to other people.

My mother and a Belgian family friend (1965 circa)

The house nowadays

The house is located in the suburbs of Guardiagrele (province of Chieti, Abruzzo), it is a 4 storey terraced house and features a large terrace overlooking the Maiella mountain. The habitable part consists of four bedrooms, one bathroom with tub, a kitchenette, a living room and a dining room. On the ground floor there is a boiler room with woodshed, a laundry room and a storage room.

The requested price is € 40.000 (negotiable), the house is immediately livable but needs some renovation works (electrical system and heating). Perfect as a holiday home, the adjoining properties are inhabited only a few weeks in the summer (the owners live abroad). A short distance away there is a bakery, grocery and butcher.

I wrote this post to capture stories of my grandparents, honor their memory and their sacrifices, pass on their legacy to my children so that they can be proud of their family heritage.

I love you forever nonno and nonna, you will be always deeply missed.


6 thoughts on “This property is on sale. And it has a story to tell.

Add yours

  1. I love that you have preserved honoured your nonno’s story. I am going to save this to re-read. I’m sure the house will find love.


    1. Dear Rosemary thank you for stopping by and taking the time to read my nonno’s story. I hope someone will fall in love with the house and be able to restore its past glory and memories.


  2. Love hearing your family’s story and seeing the photos Emiliana. I hope a young family finds this and makes a new home with beautiful memories there! Happy New Year to you and yours. I hope it will not be too long before we meet again. Abruzzo calls to me always.


    1. Dear Annie, love to hear from you! My hope is to see that house live again and find someone who can share and honor its memory. See you soon in Abruzzo then. Happy New Year to you all!


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