About ten years ago, when Andy and I were in Merida, Mexico on business, I received an email from the international investment company I worked for. They had been trying to find owners associated with unclaimed property, but without success. They contacted me, as usual, for a last ditch effort in solving the case. The names they gave were Ernest and Maria Von Fiorello* with an address in Innsbruck, Austria, dating back perhaps ten or more years.
From what I was told, the company had sent a Private Investigator to the old address of the Von Fiorello’s, hoping that the neighbors would be able to tell them where the couple had gone. The PI had also gone to Innsbruck city hall to find out if there were any records relating to the couple’s residency there. Unfortunately, he had come up empty-handed and there was a deadline to meet just a few days away. They needed a specialist on the case so they called me.
Since Andy and I were in Mexico, I had to be creative in pulling together resources that I did not have that would otherwise have been available in the US. At the time, we did not have internet access at the Hyatt where we were staying, so my first stop was the internet cafe across the street, where I would be able to check the international phone books online.
Thinking about it for a moment, I realized that the name “Von Fiorello” sounded more Italian to me than Austrian. Since Innsbruck is only about 30 miles from the Italian border, I wondered if the couple could have moved to Italy. Searching the Italian phone book on www.numberway.com, I came up with an Ernest Von Fiorello living only about 70 miles away near a town called Ortisei*, in the province of Bolzano. Hmmm… The name was not common. What was the chance I had the right Ernest?
Of course, my cell phone would not work in Mexico. So my second stop was Oxxo, a small convenience store across the street where I bought a Mexican phone card. We headed back to our hotel, where we squeezed into one of the hotel’s public phone cabins in the lobby. Calling from our room would have been too expensive, and a public phone on the street would have been too noisy without any privacy.
Having to call Italy many times in the course of unclaimed property work and heir searching, I have since taught myself enough Italian to explain the reason for my call and who I was looking for. But at the time, my vocabulary was rudimentary: “Hello”, “Please”, “Thank You”, “Lasagna” and “Goodbye”. For linguistic insurance and to make things a bit more friendly, I looked up how to say “My name is Colleen”.
I was a little nervous dialing the Von Fiorello’s phone number in Ortisei. A man picked up the phone. “Il mio nome è Colleen” I said. “Ernest and Maria Von Fiorello, per fervore?”, I asked, curling my voice up on the end to make them understand it was a question – a trick to avoid needing to use more words I didn’t know. I was prepared to add “Innsbruck” in a pinch, since it is probably pronounced the same way in Italian.
Wow, I thought. I don’t know Maria’s middle name. How can I know if she was Maria Marta or Maria Elizabeth or Maria anything else?
“Maria Marta”, the man repeated several times. “Maria Marta”.
I froze for a moment, at an impasse. This really could be the right Von Fiorellos, but how could I know without further research on Maria’s middle name?
In a much needed moment of inspiration, it struck me what he was trying to explain – “Maria marta” = “Maria died”. I realized I probably had the right couple.
I quickly emailed the investment company the current address and phone number for Ernest and Maria Von Fiorello. Missione compiuta!
The search involved four countries – the US (international investment company), Mexico (me), Austria (old address of the Von Fiorello’s), and Italy (new address of the Von Fiorello’s). Not too bad for a day’s work. This was not my most challenging search for the company, but it stands out as one of the most clever and satisfying. Bravo!