For an Italian, there isn’t much difference between your mamma and your nonna as they play pretty much the same role in your life. My nonna helped raise my brother and I because my parents had restaurants and worked around the clock. I went to visit nonna the other day to chat with her about leaving Italy to immigrate to Australia. I have always wanted to write a blog about her story which is no doubt very similar for most of the Italian immigrants who took the same journey. Having to leave her mamma and other family members and not knowing if she’d ever see them again must have been heart wrenching.
I’d always heard bits and pieces of the story as a little girl. I used to listen in to the family chit chat in Calabrese dialect when we’d sit to eat family lunch on Sundays. Nonna’s signature dish were her soft and fluffy potato gnocchi with ragu. There were always lots of giggles when nonna & nonno would reminisce and tell us stories about different people in their ‘paese’ (town).
Everyone in the paese had a nickname which was usually related to something they did or some sort of habit they had. Nicknames came in handy because a lot of people named their children after grandparents, parents or other family members, which meant there were a lot of people with exactly the same first name and surname so it was hard to know who people were speaking about.
My nonni had 8 children, 7 girls and 1 boy. Nonna turned 95 today and I know how lucky we are to still have her. She’s been living in the same suburb for 35 years and is well known and respected in the community. She grabs taxi’s and heads to shopping malls to shop all on her own and she enjoys frequent day trips with her friends on the Italian Community bus. She still lives at home, has such a crazy sense of humour and she’s really quick witted and jokes around all the time. She’s always upbeat and playful and considering the life they had I sometimes think seeing the humour in everything helped them get through the tough times. They worked hard to put food on the table, and there was always enough to feed an army! Our table was that of a typical southern Italian family… full of people, loud voices, food, love and good times.
So here is her story, translated just how it was told, and I am sure a lot of you who had parents immigrate from Italy can relate to it or have heard similar stories. Hold them close to your heart, and remember to tell them to your children and grandchildren, because it’s also a part of who they are.
How old were you when you met nonno and when did you marry?
I was 15 years old. Nonno came to work for my dad on his farm. That’s how we met. He was very tall and handsome. I fell in love when I saw him. We were together for one month before we got married. Nonno was 20 so there was a 5 year age difference.
When did he leave for the war?
He had to leave for war just six months after we married. We married on the 1st of June 1940 and he left on the 4th January 1941. Six months. I was so sad and scared for him. But he was one of the lucky ones. He lived.I had my first baby, Giuseppina, named after nonno, just 13 months after we married. Nonno came back for leave and met the baby. Giuseppina died when she was just three years old from an illness.
When nonno returned from war what work did he do?
He came home for good after 5 years. He had been sent to Russia. He was so thin we he returned I could barely recognize him. They had no food. Men were dying from the cold and hunger. In Calabria there was nothing after the war ended. No food. Nonno was a farm guard. He watched over the farms. There was very little food so people would steal it. There was no bread. We were only allowed 400 grams of bread a day. The government would give it to us. During the war all of the bridges were blown up by bombs so there was no way to transport it. We had our 3rd baby and when she was 18 months old he left for Australia which was about 7 years after the war had ended.
Why did you choose to come to Australia? Who did he come with and what did you all know about Australia?
Nonno’s cousin told us about it. Other family members had come and said there was lots of work here. He came alone and the boat took 32 days exactly to arrive. He was 34 years old and he couldn’t speak English. He knew nothing. Nothing. Bush and kangaroos that’s all. But it doesn't matter.
What work did nonno do when he arrived and how long after he arrived did you come?
He first lived in Balcatta. He would go to work in the bush cutting wood and burning to clear for wheat. Then he went to ‘Wes Feely River’ (Westfield River) in Adelaide. They all got taken by train.
I left 3 years later with our 3 children. I was very nervous and scared but I was happy we would see nonno again.
What was it like travelling with your children alone on a boat all the way to Australia ?
It was a little bit scary. There were about 300 people on the boat. Italian, Polish, Macedonian, Yugoslav & Greek. The ship left from Genova and travelled down to Sicily to pick up the Italians.
How did you pay for the boat trip and what did they give you to eat on the trip?
Nonno sent the money after he had been working in Australia for a while. On the boat we ate soup and sometimes a little bit of meat.
What was it like to leave your mum and your family?
It was very hard, very painful. My mum died 3 years after I left so I never saw her again.
When you got off the boat did nonno pick you up and how did he get to Fremantle?
Yes he came by bus. We didn’t have a car of course. We had to save money to buy a car.
Where did you live first?
We lived in East Perth. It’s very fancy now but East Perth was a very very poor area when we moved. Lots of Italians, other immigrants and Aboriginals lived there. Many husbands would leave to work in the bush so sometimes I would send one of my daughters to sleep at a neighbours house who’s husband had gone away, just to keep them company. They hated it but I made them go. We all looked after each other and helped each other.
Did the Australian Government give you money to help you?
The government gave money towards school books. There was no dole but there was lots of work so our eldest children left school early to go to work and help us with the bills and feeding the family. We did jobs like cleaning, and washing dishes. They weren’t paying well but it was better than what we had come from. There was a lot of opportunity.
Were the English/Australian people kind?
Not too bad. Yes they were very nice. They mingled with Italians. The people I worked in hospital with when I was cleaning were nice. Nonno used to work at Thompson Steel making railway tracks, and at night he washed dishes in a restaurant. Work was usually where we mixed with other people. At home we had a very big Italian community so we all understood each other. The language, the culture, the feelings. We understood what we were all feeling and that made it easy. We all pulled together, we helped each other. It was very nice. We didn’t have much to share but we shared whatever we had.
Did you always want to go back home to Italy when you first migrated?
I always thought about Italy and wanted to go home but after the 4th baby was born I settled and I liked Australia. When I was 68 years old I went back to visit. I found the ‘paese’ the same as when we left it but I was happy to see some familiar faces.
It doesn’t matter where you are. You have to be happy. You have to be happy you are healthy, you have family, you have friends. Just be happy inside. It doesn’t matter where you are. You have food, you have family, you have friends. Just be happy child.