I Took My Three Kids To Sicily To Solve A Murder

About a year ago, after writing a book based on my family’s stories, I decided I had to go to Sicily to solve my great-great-grandmother’s murder. I didn’t envision taking three children under 7 along with me — but once you become a parent, life never goes as you planned.

It was summer vacation, childcare was scarce, and American summer camp was (and is) stupidly expensive. So, off went my family of five, including a 6-month-old baby, to solve a 100-year-old mafia murder mystery.

My new novel, The Sicilian Inheritance, is loosely based on my family’s lore that my great-great-grandmother Lorenza was murdered in Sicily just over 100 years ago. When I finished writing the book, I decided to make a true-crime podcast trying to solve the murder myself.

That’s how I ended up creating White Lotus meets Only Murders in the Building meets Bluey.

Traveling with kids is never a vacation. We all know that. It’s a trip; it’s a journey; it’s a dumpster fire. It’s always a learning experience but ~never~ a vacation. And moving around Sicily isn’t easy as a single adult. I’ve done the trip about a dozen times and something always goes strangely wrong. Add children into the mix, and you’re asking for it.

In some ways, it went about as disastrously as you might expect.

One of the hotels we booked simply didn’t exist. Thankfully we figured it out. Our rental car came with three broken car seats. We eventually found new ones (tossed behind the rental car trailer). We hadn’t even made it to the first hotel when all three of my children began to howl in a strangely operatic way. It’s like they knew they were in Sicily, and they wanted to be in perfect pitch.

On our first night on the island (in the hotel we found that did exist), the room was so tiny and the beds so close together that everyone could reach out and touch the other one. Our jet lag was so bad all five of us moaned through the night.

I questioned every decision I’d ever made, including coming to Sicily, marrying my husband in the first place, and having many children with him.

As for said kids, they could not have cared less that we were in Europe. It didn’t matter that we were in Sicily. We could have been in a Holiday Inn in Cleveland. As long as there was a pool and some form of sugar for breakfast, they were OK most of the time.

I wasn’t, though.

The thing with Sicilian pools is that they don’t follow the same safety directives as their American counterparts, so there’s no real shallow end. Everything is about seven feet deep. I tried to use this as a learning experience for my children. “Well you can either cling to the side or learn to swim,” I said in my cheeriest voice. Still, I sat at the edge of the water like a panicked teenage lifeguard most mornings.

I tried to find a babysitter for one of the days I had to do some heavy legwork in the Italian archives looking for death records and police reports to solve my great-great-grandmother Lorenza’s murder. While Sicilians love babies in most situations (random men will grab your baby and kiss it on the street), I didn’t think the bureaucrats would take kindly to my kids getting their grubby, sticky hands all over ancient paperwork.

We had a young woman named Catalina all lined up through our hotel in Scopello, but the day before, she informed us that she could only help out for a couple of hours because she was going to a rave in Palermo. When I asked if she could maybe sit the next day, she said she was going to need three days to recover.

Frankly I appreciated the honesty and just left the kids with my husband. This was a challenge not because he isn’t the kind of involved dad who knows that he parents and doesn’t babysit, but because these were still early days with our 6-month-old and neither of us spent that much time solo with all three of them.

He did a great job. Only one child ran into the ocean unsupervised (he caught her before the waves did), and the baby only put one rock in her mouth on the beach (which she spit out). These are wins in my book.

But for all of my other research — interviews with people from my great-great grandmother’s village, forays to the actual land where she was murdered, a visit with an actual Sicilian witch to find out if she thought my own grandmother might have been a Sicilian witch — I hauled the kids along and bribed them with gelato. So much gelato.

And they had questions.

How did she die? We don’t know. That’s what I’m trying to figure out.

Did someone kill her like the T-Rex killed that lawyer in Jurassic Park? Pretty much. That must be exactly how it happened.

I dragged myself to investigate records and archives on nights of no sleep. I strapped a baby with me to go meet researchers and sources and clomp through ancient graveyards. At one point the baby spit up some busiate on some very, very old and delicate records. The records folks were very kind about it.

So, were there moments of this trip that were completely hell on earth? Absolutely.

Coming to mind: the time my 4-year-old laid down on the pee-covered streets of Palermo and refused to walk any further until I got her a stuffed unicorn wearing an “I heart Sicily” t-shirt, making me extremely late for an important interview.

But it was also f*cking great in a lot of ways.

For all of my helicopter-mom pool anxiety, my kids freaking learned to swim! They were little fish by the end of our trip.

My 6-year-old and 4-year-old taught themselves rudimentary Italian so they could order their own gelato and try to find the playground when we got lost. They’re now obsessed with the Greek myths that originated in Sicily, and my 4-year-old wants to grow up “mighty and smart like Athena.”

Even when they’re complaining, they look at new experiences with a wonder and a weirdness that we often forget about as grownups — like when my 4-year-old named every octopus she ate and swam out to “just say hey” to a statue of the Virgin Mary off the shore of the beach (thank god she learned to swim).

I also had the “difficult” task of eating all the delicious food before finishing my novel. You can never be too exacting when it comes to making sure all of your Sicilian dishes are accurate and mouth-watering. I took my kids to something like 20 restaurants.

And here’s the great thing about Sicilian restaurants: You don’t even need to ask for a kid’s menu. They look at your 6- and 4-year-olds and ask which of them wants white sauce (butter and cheese) and which wants red (tomato). They just get it. Then they take your baby into the kitchen to kiss her and show her to the chef so she can get all the cuddles and you can drink wine.

This is all true, and it is all magical.

Traveling forces you outside of your comfort zone. It gave all of us these rad experiences and memories that will become a part of our collective family memories, even if the little kids don’t remember.

My kids got to see their mom working as a novelist and a journalist, too, and that’s pretty badass. They actually understand what I do and are excited about it, which makes it a lot easier when I have to tell them I need to leave for a few days for a work trip. They know what that looks like now.

If nothing else, I passed along a sense of adventure and curiosity to my kids. And who knows? In the end, we might just solve this generations-old murder.

Jo Piazza is a bestselling author, award-winning journalist, and critically acclaimed podcast creator. Her journalism has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, New York Magazine, Marie Claire, Time, and numerous other outlets. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband and three feral children. In addition to The Sicilian Inheritance, Jo is releasing a true-crime podcast by the same name that follows her return to Sicily to solve her great-great-grandmother’s murder.

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