Our family begins its story landing in Australia in Melbourne in the 1950s when my father, originally from Caulonia Superiore which is part of Reggio Calabria Province, had come alone. Ten years later he had returned to his home town to find love. As a married couple, my folks came to Australia in 1962. In ’64 my eldest sister was born, two years later I came along, followed two years later by my sister, Roma in ’68. My parents settled in Melbourne. My father worked for the local council and my mother was a dressmaker. In the first few years life was good and tranquil. My mother’s aunt and uncle had already immigrated having gone to live in South Australia’s hinterland, in Winkee to be precise. They were fruit farmers and since there was a need for more help on the farm they called up my parents to assist.
My mother, deep down wished to remain in the first city she settled in. Melbourne for her represented the razzle and dazzle of things new, it was sufficiently different to warrant uprooting herself making it worthwhile to leave everything behind. Her home town was beginning to feel restrictive. It is the typical attitude of those seeking new adventures.
After a brief stay in the Riverland, they sold the farm. Having moved to Adelaide, it is here that my father had gone to the man upstairs. My father had worked at Holden, the famous Australian car manufacturer for which many Italian migrants had worked. It has only closed its doors last year after a thriving 100 years of business.
Now, having grown up in a family without a father figure I naturally felt small and inferior compared to my peer group. It’s partly due to the fact that we three girls grew up like orphans without a father, (as they say in Italian) as well as the fact that our mother I saw as defenceless and lonely without him. I perceived her to be a most capable mother but thwarted only by the fact that she could not speak English as a native. Her relating to others was impeded, one can understand and as a consequence so too our ability to interact with others. She was very protective of her girls, and I saw her as one who wore the pants, acting as mother and father. As time passed I had learned to resign myself to this fate of an all-female household. It seemed to me that, by studying the language of my forebears I could make up for, or recoup, a part of me and my family that I had deemed lost.
One can understand that those who leave the old village know fully what they are leaving behind but not what they will be coming up against. Hence, it is natural that people maintain relations with others of the same background and language, hence it’s obvious that at the end of the day we were going to end up mixing with a small group of family and friends, especially ones associated with our Parish Community. It’s opportune to say that we lived the three points of the classic triangle: church, home and work or school.
Fortunately my mother’s brother, Ilario together with his family, had decided to come and live in our city. With the arrival of our cousins, the family began to expand and we began to feel more comfortable with our ‘lonely’ state.
When I was 11 years of age, in 1977, my mother took us to Italy to visit relatives and to get to know our extended family, and the land of our origins, first hand and not via stories. This experience as a young girl marked me for life because many times growing up I would often cast my memory back to this time and wonder how things would have panned out had I not had that experience of returning to the motherland. In hindsight, I can honestly say that thanks to this time in Calabria I acquired an ear for the Italian language. A most wonderful and wondrous gift to me!
During the early 70s I went to a local parish school, St. Augustine’s, until year 7 and then onto Our Lady of the Sacred Heart for high school. Having matriculated, I then proceeded to further my studies embarking on tertiary education. I graduated with an Arts Degree in Italian, History and Geography in 1987, then in ’88 I got my teacher’s diploma. With these certificates at the ready, and after having completed a short course in language maintenance at TAFE in a bridging course before becoming a full-fledged teacher, I was encouraged by the then professor, Michele Giglio to apply for a scholarship to study Italian on home soil. I won the scholarship and was headed for Italy. How lucky was I!! I had gone there as a child and now I would be going as a starry-eyed young woman hoping for an experience like no other.
I chose to study in Florence, the city par excellence that gave birth to the language. I would be free wheeling, without any barriers or feelings of shyness to speak a foreign language; in fact, I would have to in order to survive. It was a wonderful experience opening me up to the local Florentines on the one hand, and to Florence’s, indeed, the country’s, customs on the other. Besides, I considered these people my ancestors and I had every right therefore to get close-up and personal with them. I still had pent up feelings of racism that needed to be shed. I believed and still do now, that direct contact with history and literature is a treasure to behold and this time, these subjects would be learnt via the Italian language, my new vehicle for acquisition and learning. In fact, when learning about the history of Italy back in Australia, my lecturers in English had trouble pronouncing certain Renaissance words, names or places with the respect they demanded. This respect and awe I acquired when I lived and breathed the place where it had all started!! When my time was up in Italy, I understood that were I to return to Australia and maintain a working knowledge and fluency to be credible to my listeners or subjects, I would have to bend over backwards in order to keep it polished in a country that had few possibilities for speaking. It is a socio economic fact as to why the language has undergone a dramatic, stratospheric change in the last 50 years, and so people in this country who can speak pure Italian with the same level of education are few and far between. Most people speak a dialect that connects them to their village and region. And so I was acutely aware of what was required of me if I were to maintain that level of proficiency in Australia.
In the early ‘90s Australia was going through a very difficult time in the employment sector on account of the recession of the day (in Prime Minister Keating’s notorious words, ‘the economic recession we had to have’: SA Bank crash; Ansett Airlines’ merger with TAA and forming a new company). When I had finally found work, I did so in another state, indeed in Victoria. After two years I realised that I wasn’t cut out for teaching young people, so I was heading back to SA. Also, back home the heart strings were being pulled by my future husband. Before tying the knot however, I had another more pressing interest, fashion: learning the art and craft of my mother. I embarked on a course for sewing for personal use and not to go into the trade professionally. That was the domain of my mother. She was the seamstress without a shadow of a doubt. But, quality fabrics, freedom to design, cut and sew belonged to me, it harked back to my childhood. Unlike my mother, I wanted to learn to have the freedom to make clothes for myself, because style I felt was a self-expression that pret-a-porter clothing doesn’t give you.
Sewing was not going to be my full-time profession, to do so meant another 2 or three years of study and deep down, I felt the need to be the teacher I had trained to be, since I had spent so many years learning and perfecting it. I had two choices at my disposal: either return to teaching or become a diversional therapist in a nursing home with people who were of the same language group. It all depended on the job market. I therefore tried my hand at diversional therapy at a nursing home that bore the name of the patron saint of our family’s village, Caulonia: St. Hilarion. Once again, Mr. Giglio played his part in this for having suggested I try working there, where I could use the language due to the large number of residents of Italian heritage.
By 1993 I was married and two years later my first child was born. I had decided to dedicate myself to the full time care of my family. Soon enough, two other children arrived and my family was complete. After 12 years I returned to the paid workforce finding work at Filef, an anagram for Federation of Working Italian Migrants and their Families. The latter is a not for profit organisation founded by Carlo Levi for the express purpose of teaching Italian to the children of migrant workers overseas. It was designed to give the children of migrants the opportunity to learn and maintain the language of their heritage, something very dear to my heart. By coincidence, here I was working for an organisation where I could exercise my skills as a teacher and for which I had an inordinate passion and where the language was paramount and lauded as something indispensable to be maintained by those who go abroad but who do not necessarily wish to make a clean cut with the land of their ancestors. It seemed like a school made to measure.
It was a challenge because I had never before taught adults, a large chunk of whom bordered on the third age. Despite my initial feelings of inadequacies and hesitations, but taking into consideration my professional journey, I jumped at the chance staying on for 10 years.
One thing I learnt from this experience is that despite the many difficulties that older people face with respect to memory or accent and pronunciation, enthusiasm can make up for the shortfalls. Those who study a language in this age group usually have on their side, many years of travel and a knowledge and appreciation of history, so they are well placed to persist in their language learning. I can’t but affirm that I really did have them eating out of the palm of my hand.
My by now long history with the language doesn’t end there. I have also done a bit of radio, working with a couple of professors who were here in the mid-2000s to teach LOTE, but also to aid them in their English proficiency. It was another enriching and unforgettable experience. Furthermore, I went back to Italy about 4 years ago in which I had the fortune to attend a wedding. I thought I had weddings down pat having gone to so may, but no I was in for a surprise! The differences are astronomical in the way weddings are performed both Down Under and over there. It was an eye-opener and a sign that one needs to make regular trips in order to keep abreast with change!
Even though I have downed chalk and white board markers, my passion for language has not waned. With teaching jobs far and few between and due to the need for work, I have found work as an invigilator of English exams for foreigners wishing to make Australia their home. I thoroughly enjoy working with people for whom language is a bit of a struggle but with whom I can empathise and be of help or service.
Despite this, I never abandon my language because as the saying goes, ‘if you don’t use it, you lose it’. I belong to a choir that sings folk songs and am active in the local parish community by visiting the elderly and infirm. Mensa, which takes place bi-monthly is held at my local community centre at which I volunteer as a kitchen hand, giving first generation migrant people a chance to meet over a home style cooked meal, something everyone agrees Italians can’t go without! There are many opportunities here to speak in both languages and from which I derive much pleasure.
It is opportune to quote the famous words by Milanese author, Alessandro Manzoni, who said it was important to make a stopover in Florence every so often to ‘wash one’s linen in the Arno River’. It was his way of saying this is how you keep your language fresh and up-to-date.
Nowadays with the plethora of social media, landing in Italy on a daily basis is as easy as pie. With one click of the mouse you’re there.
I thank Australia Donna for this initiative and for the opportunity to have my say.