so you want the life story?
– Henry James, American writer.
The year was 1950 when my grandfather left Italy and first arrived in Australia with his two eldest sons. He first worked in a foundry in Footscray, a suburb west of Melbourne Victoria and then, after a time, Vincenzo opened a fruit shop in Sandringham where all his boys would eventually work. Vincenzo worked double shifts between the foundry and the fruit shop saving for a house for his wife, Maria Concetta and the remaining seven children still in Calabria.
In 1955 my Nonna Concetta finally set sail for Australia with her remaining children including my father, Joseph who was eight years old. As a mother, I can only imagine what emotions my young Nonna would have been feeling as she sat on that boat for twenty-eight days on her way to a country she had no idea about. Many Italians during this time were in search of a better life in Australia and history has shown that these immigrating Italians fearlessly adapted to their new homelands. Their strong work ethic combined with strong family values helped them though many difficult times and I believe that my father has passed these values down to me and my siblings.
Having my father always involved in the fruit business means that I have always been very spoilt with beautiful fresh fruit and vegetables delivered daily by dad but I was also blessed with a mother who was an excellent cook, so my love and appreciation of good quality ingredients and gorgeous food began at a very young age. Our evening family meals were the time when we would all sit together and talk about our day. We never saw our dad in the morning during the week as he used to leave the house in the very early hours to go to the market.
My father's village in Motticella, Reggio Calabria
Once a year, my family would get together at my Uncle Dick and Aunty Nancy’s house for ‘sauce day’, where we would make ‘la conserva’, our pureed tomato sauce that would last the whole year. We would process between thirty - forty cases of tomatoes in a day. The tomatoes would be washed, cut in half and then passed though the puree machine which separated the skin and seeds from the pulp. This was always Nonno’s job. The ‘passata di pomodoro’ was then poured into bottles and a sprig of basilica placed in the top (my job) before they were sealed and then placed in large barrels of water and left to boil for at least two hours. Late afternoon once the work was finished, we would all sit down to a wonderful bowl of pasta, barbecue and salad.
While in Florence in 1993, I travelled to Calabria to see where my father had lived as a child. I couldn’t believe how his home-town seemed to have been frozen in time. The family home still standing, albeit empty and deserted and it seemed that this was how it was left on that day in 1955. As I walked around the mostly deserted village, I came upon some old ladies slicing tomatoes in front of their house. I stopped to watch, recognising the ritual of cutting tomatoes, passing them through the press and bottling the ‘passata’. It was at this moment that I understood the tradition and how special our annual ‘sauce day’ was.
La mia Storia
“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart”
Of all his seven brothers and one sister, my father was the only one who didn’t marry an Italian and so therefore we were not brought up knowing the language. When the whole family would get together for those large Italian feasts, Dad and his brothers would play cards after lunch (while the women did the dishes as was the usual custom)
They would all speak Calabrese which is a dialect that I never understood and even now that I can speak Italian, I still don’t understand it and most Italians don’t either. As a child, I took the obligatory Italian lessons at school and then extra classes after school but I never really learned much more than the days-of-the-week, numbers, colours and the basic greetings.
When I was approaching my 21st birthday, mum & dad gave us the choice of a big party or the airfare to travel overseas. I jumped at the chance to travel and started to plan my first overseas flight to Italy. I decided that Florence was where I wanted to live and I would stay with an Italian family for the month while I was studying the language.
In March of 1993, I boarded a one-way flight to Italy, full of excitement but also a ball of nerves, not knowing exactly what I was to find in my father's homeland and what adventures awaited me in this new chapter of my life.
– Helen Keller
“Life is a combination of magic and pasta”
A lot of thought went into packing my suitcase for my first trip to Europe. After all, I was going to Italy, the fashion capital, and as a student of 'Moda' I felt the pressure of making a good impression. I stayed later at work so that I could use the industrial sewing machines which helped me put together quite a few impressive creations using excess sample fabrics.
My black clogs and lime green Kicker boots with the matching green shorts were packed, my favorite two dresses from Scanlan and Theodore and of course some other necessities from my favourite stores of that era; Sempre L'Unico, Indigo and of course Sportsgirl and Portmans! I packed my vintage beaded cashmere cardigan and well, the truth be told, I packed most of my bloody wardrobe! Or so it seemed once I arrived in Rome and had to carry my suitcase for myself!! (Good ol' Dad had helped me to the check-in gate and I didn't notice him struggling!!) My luggage was so incredibly heavy and as I didn't take the most direct route to Florence, I was soon to regret packing so much!
After passing through customs and immigration and making my way to the train station at Rome Fiumicino, I asked someone for directions to the correct platform for the train going to Florence. I didn't realize that I had to go first to the Roma Termini and from there take a different train to Florence. First error for this naive traveller even though I prefer to blame jetlag!
There were only a few platforms to choose from at the station and after being told by three different people, three different platforms, I finally boarded what I thought was the correct train. After about 15 minutes, I asked the nice man sitting next to me if he spoke English. Suddenly the confident girl who thought she knew enough Italian to get by was a bit too nervous to actually use her new language. Real life situations were hardly the same as those once a week classroom lessons. "Dove la stazione?", (where is the station) "Come ti chiami?" (what is your name?) and "Che ora sono?" (what time is it?) somehow weren't the phrases I needed right now! My fellow passenger advised that he spoke 'poco' English and so I asked him how long before the train arrived at the Florence station. He looked at me strangely before replying, "But this train is not going to Firenze!" You can imagine the panic that began to rise inside my chest. The man sitting next to me advised that I would have to get off at the next station and then go to the Roma Termini where I could find the train that would take me to Florence.
– Federico Fellini
He then very kindly not only told me which station to get off at but accompanied me (and my wardrobe) back to the Roma Termini. I kept telling myself to be careful, be wary and most of all be sensible while trying to appear mature and street-wise. I didn't think my Papa Joe would be too impressed about me following a strange man around the Rome train stations. I soon discovered that the stranger's name was Giuseppe (same as dad so a good sign!) and that he was a lawyer from Sicily in Rome for business. I did feel a little bit guilty watching Sicilian Giuseppe struggling with the weight of my suitcase but he insisted on carrying it (dragging it) for me and really, what sort of impression would he have made if he left me carry it myself? Once we arrived at Rome Fiumicino, Giuseppe bought my train ticket to Florence and then called the family I was to stay with for the next month and advised them that I had missed my scheduled train so would be arriving later.
My Italian adventure had definitely started on an interesting note!
I then said Grazie Mille to Giuseppe and went and sat on the platform waiting finally for the correct Intercity train to Florence.
My train trip to Florence passed without incident. As tired as I was, I had my face pressed to the window admiring the countryside. I couldn't believe that I was finally in Italy. The daughter of the family I was staying with met me at the station and helped me get my very heavy suitcase to the taxi and then unfortunately up four flights of stairs to what was to be my home for the next four weeks.
My room held a single bed and small desk. My favorite part were the double doors that opened out to a tiny balcony overlooking a view of neighboring rooftops. I breathed in Florence and it was then that I felt like I was truly in Italy.
My 'host' parents didn't speak any english and this was the reason I had chosen to live with a family instead of an apartment. I was here to learn the language and learn it as quickly as possible. I figured after my four week course, I'd be able to converse in everyday conversations............ Second mistake for this naive traveller!
It was a Saturday when I arrived in Florence and classes started on Monday so after a big sleep, I got up on Sunday and decided to go and explore the city and discover where my Italian classes were to be held. I was living near the Porta al Prato, one of the old doors from the wall that once surrounded the historical center of Florence. I had a map of the city and knew the general direction that would lead me to Piazza Santo Spirito, where I would be studying Italian for the next four weeks. It's a wonder I didn't trip over as I gazed upwards at the palazzi in awe. I was so impressed by the buildings, history and beauty of what I was seeing around me. I fell in love instantly with the bottle-green shutters at the windows, the ochre and terracotta colours of the buildings, and with the Florentines and their effortless style.
I literally stopped in my tracks when I turned a corner and was confronted by The Duomo, the centerpiece and architectural giant overseeing this city. I would soon learn that the Florence Cathedral, formally the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, was begun in 1296 in the Gothic style to a design of Arnolfo di Cambio and was structurally completed by 1436, with the dome engineered by Filippo Brunelleschi.
The bell tower standing at 84.7 meters was designed by Giotto.
I found my way to the Arno River and crossed over the Ponte Santa Trinita to the 'Oltrarno' the area literally called the 'other side of the Arno'. After rounding a few more corners, I arrived at Piazza Santo Spirito and found the large front doors for the Eurocenter where I would be studying Italian. A fountain surrounded by trees was in the center of the piazza and there were also a few cafes. The spring sunshine bathed the piazza in a beautiful light and I was pretty happy about the location of my school. You couldn't get more Florentine than this!
I decided to explore the city further and so crossed over the Ponte Vecchio admiring all the windows filled with jewelry. At the end of the bridge I turned right following the river until I came to the Uffizzi Gallery. Here I stopped to admire the artwork of the street artists, some specializing in portraits, others in landscapes, poppies, sunflowers and all things that one associates with Tuscany. My eyes fell upon some beautiful watercolor paintings that were far superior to many of the others I had seen. I thought how much my mum would love them then noticed the price and thought again. They may have been the nicest watercolors I had seen so far but they were also the most expensive.
I complimented the artist by saying in Italian, "molto bello, bravo". He thanked me in english and asked me where I was from - clearly my Italian was not so impressive! As I replied, I noticed how good looking this artist was so had another look through his portfolio, dragging out the time before I moved on. His name was Marco and he asked me if I wanted a portrait. I declined but he said that he needed the practice and would do it for free. I sat down for my first ever portrait and looked out towards the Ponte Vecchio as the portrait started to take shape. I spoke about my Italian origins proudly and Marco told me how he was an architect who had started to paint in the street for a hobby in the evenings. After a while, he saw that he was making some decent money and frustrated with his job as an architect decided to leave that profession behind and dedicate himself full-time to his art.
As my Italian classes only took place in the morning, I would spend my afternoons exploring Florence and sitting with Marco as he painted and sold his watercolours to the passing tourists. I really admired watching how effortlessly Marco transferred his page into a beautiful Tuscan scene. I would help with translations when needed and Marco would help me with my Italian and eventually taught me how to paint too. And now I have come full circle after 27 years to once again paint watercolours in Florence.
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A Traditional Tuscan treat using grapes from the Vine Schiacciata con l’Uva is a wine-grape slice and is a traditional cake made in Florence and the Chianti region during the Autumn Vendemmia.
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