Are you Italian ? with Paola Bacchia

Pictured Paola's parents just arrived in Australia

Pictured Paola's parents just arrived in Australia

Tell me a bit about yourself and where in Italy your parents were born?

When asked what I do, my first response is that I am a cookbook author, a photographer and a home cook who runs an Italian cooking school at home. But there are many who know me as a public health dentist and manager, as over the years I ran a number of clinics.  The urge to write, cook and take photos came to me quite late in life; some 10 years ago. My parents came from the northeast corner of Italy; mamma from a town just out of Treviso in Veneto, and papa from Istria, a region that became Yugoslavia as part of the Paris Treaty after WWII. However they met and married in Monfalcone, in Friuli-Venezia Giulia. If asked, I say I am a Giuliana.

How old were they when they came to Australia? Which suburb did you grow up in?

My mother was 22 and my father had just turned 27. They had been married for just under two years when they migrated.

They came to Australia as war refugees; they had to work for 2 years in exchange for the passage over from Italy. They ended up in the suburb of Box Hill South, which at the time was on the outskirts of Melbourne. My mother’s two brothers were sponsored by my parents and moved out here and the three families formed a community of houses built on neighbouring blocks. This is where I grew up until I was six, when we sold the house and moved back to Italy (only to return to Australia disappointed some two years later as my father could not find work).

Pictured Nello Bacchia, Livia Bacchia e Zio Fidenzio Carli (Paola's mum's brother)

Pictured Nello Bacchia, Livia Bacchia e Zio Fidenzio Carli (Paola's mum's brother)

What is your favourite memory about growing up in your childhood home?

As I moved out of my childhood home at 6, the memories are not that distinct. The memories I do have involve different spaces within the house: the backyard where my father grew vegetables and the garage in which he made wine and grappa; and the kitchen where mamma used to cook. My fondest memory is probably the musty smell of fermenting grapes emanating from the garage when papà was making wine. He used to get the grapes with his friend Signor Silvano (which is what I called him). I remember him pouring the dark red liquid into giant 4 litre glass bottles and sealing them with a cork. And seeing the bottles all lined up in a cool corner of the garage to be used through the year.

What school did you go to and were the other students predominantly Italo-Australians? Did you feel different or did you fit?

I went to Catholic schools for both primary and secondary school. My parents were very conscious of my sister and I fitting in with the country they had migrated to and so went to great lengths for us to fit in with all the Australians. Many of their friends were Australian and what Italian friends they had were from Istria and Venezia Giulia. My sister went to school knowing no English but because I am ten years younger than her, I spoke English with her at home (out of earshot of my father who insisted we speak dialetto in front of him).

At school I was known as Paula, though to my parents I have always been Paola. I was always the tallest girl in the class and with blonde hair; so I did not look obviously Italian compared to most of the other Italian-Australians at school. My friendship group was all Australian girls until the later years of school when I bonded with two other girls whose parents were from Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Istria. My school lunches were much like the other kid’s lunches – white bread sandwiches with vegemite or Strasbourg; Monte-Carlo or Mint Slice biscuits for play-lunch. I saved the mortadella and salame for meals at home. When friends came over they LOVED the food my mother made; it was like another side of me that was revealed to my friends but not obvious in the school yard.  

Thinking back on it now, I went to great lengths to fit in and it is only when I was in high school that I really felt my Italian-ness.

Pictured zio Mario, zio Livio, zia Clara, Paola, zia Dina Taken in Monfalcone about 12 years ago

Pictured zio Mario, zio Livio, zia Clara, Paola, zia Dina Taken in Monfalcone about 12 years ago

What was it like growing up as an Italo-Australian? Were you proud or embarrassed of your culture?

Interestingly I viewed my parents as being Italian “new” Australians (the term that was used a lot in the 1970s). I was proud of my parents; my father was quite intellectual and had studied in Italy until the war broke out; and my mother was incredibly supportive of her daughters to make sure we were loved, well-fed and well-clothed. I felt at one with the Australian culture especially at school but had Italian traditions at home – we spoke only Italian at home and ate Italian food. I was never embarrassed of my Italian-ness.

Growing up did your parents take you back to Italy to visit relatives? Do you return to Italy often now? How often and how important is it for you?

We went to Italy a couple of times when I was of primary school age: once when I had just turned six. We then returned back to Australia to sell our house and then migrated to Italy. I therefore did grade one (la prima elementare) in Monfalcone, where I was teased for being an Australian and for only speaking dialect. The Australians had never teased me.

When I met my husband (who is Maltese) some ten years back, I started wanting to connect with the Italian heritage as he wanted to connect with his Maltese heritage. So we went back a few times together and in more recent times my work has taken me over there more often. I have run a couple of workshops at the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking school in Sicily, and researched both my cookbooks in Italy. In September I will be returning to run a food tour of Trieste and the surrounds; and in April 2019 I will be running one in Puglia with Southern Visions Travel.

Did you speak Italian at home growing up?

We spoke dialect at home, a type of Venetian dialect that is spoken in Trieste and in coastal Istria. My father insisted we only speak Italian at home when he was present. My sister and I would get into trouble otherwise. He would tell us that we had plenty of time to speak English at school and we were lucky enough to know a second language, so we had to practice it or else we would lose it. I am forever grateful to him for this.

My Italian language skills were excellent when I was 15 and lived in Monfalcone for a year and completed my junior high school certificate (Scuole Medie). It was pre-internet days so I spoke and read no English whatsoever as I lived with my nonna and aunt and uncle.  These days I find it difficult to write creatively in Italian though I watch TV shows in Italian on RAI a couple of times a week and have at least one Italian novel on the go. I listen to the Italian show on SBS radio most mornings.  

Pictured Paola and her mamma Livia

Pictured Paola and her mamma Livia

How important is it for you to teach your children the Italian way of life and culture even though they are growing up in Australia, and how do you do it?            

My daughter learnt the Italian way of life from her grand-parents. She spent a lot of time with them when she was younger as I was a young single mother and worked full-time from when she was two. More so than the language, she learnt the Italian way of life from spending time with her nonni and being involved in the activities that were at the heart of their culture: growing produce in the garden, cooking from scratch and shared meal times. She went to Italian social clubs with them on weekends, playing card games and helping the women cook a feast to share at the club.

These days it is pretty cool to have an Italian background; Italy is held in high regard for its design, food and fashion. Also if you want to practice Italian, it is so much easier than it was; everything is online; travel to Italy is comparatively cheap (an economy airfare from Australia is not that different in price then it was in the late 80s) so you can get a good dose of Italy often. But it is difficult to immerse yourself in Italian culture in Italy when you are bombarded by advertising and social media in English. In many ways I think it is harder now to maintain that Italian cultural immersion, even when in Italy.    

Do you have an Italian passport? Is it important to you and why?

I do have an Italian passport and have had since we migrated there when I was six. It was personally important to me when I was in my 20s to somehow prove my Italian-ness. These days it is less important to me; I book all my travel tickets with my Australian passport. I have been caught switching between passports mid-trip (in Germany actually) and officials at passport control were not impressed! So I carry it with me when I travel, just in case. If I ever live there or decide to work there, then it will be important, I carry my Italian identity in me; I do not need my passport for that. 

How do you identify? Do you feel more Italian or Australian and why?

That is a difficult question! I am an Australian, I was born here and live here. My parents are of Italian heritage but chose to live in Australia; I grew up in an Italian home and I have learnt so much about Italy through travelling there, living there and researching the food traditions for my two cookbooks, “Italian Street Food” and “Adriatico”.  Italy is also my passion. I am therefore going to fence-sit and say I am an Italian-Australian.

Pictured 2011 - Nello, Paola, Barbara e Livia Bacchia - the whole family the year before papà passed away

Pictured 2011 - Nello, Paola, Barbara e Livia Bacchia - the whole family the year before papà passed away

How much do you know of the Italy of today? Has it changed significantly in your eyes? Would you want to go and live there or keep it as a holiday destination and why?

I keep up to date with the Italian news so know quite a bit about Italy of modern times. I lived and went to school there during the terrible days of the Aldo Moro kidnapping, of the endless strikes and of the terrible problem with organised crime. It has changed since when my parents lived there (under the fascist regime of Mussolini) and left (aftermath of World War II) but I do not think it is an easy place to live.

I see the current employment difficulties especially for young people and the continued political problems. It has a wealth of history, beauty, culture and food but has a lot of bureaucracy; a difficult marriage of trying to do modern business with an old way of doing things. It is not consistently that way across the country but there is enough of it to leave you an impression of it being that way in general. I love Italy very much but as a place where I could spend up to 3 months a year happily; however I could not live there. Several Italian friends who live in Australia say the same – they love Italy even more now that they are in Australia, and miss it terribly, but do not see it as a place that is easy to live in, and frankly would prefer to live here.       

You can find Paola on the following:
instagram:  italyonmymind
facebook:   Italy on my mind

Tania Pietracatella