So how does a girl from Melbourne, Australia end up living in Florence, Italy (via Albuquerque, London and Iowa)?
And coincidentally my twin sister also lives in Italy. Or maybe it was just our destiny.
The Early Years
I feel very at home here in Florence. I always have, from the very first time I walked her streets gazing in awe at her beauty. My breath taken away by the history, the buildings and the smells wafting around me. This city can overwhelm the senses, especially when you’re a twenty two year old on her first trip abroad……. alone.
How I came to be here is a long story and I’m not sure where to start. As the child of an Italian immigrant, I have always felt that I was half Italian anyway and with a surname like Brancatisano, it’s kind of obvious what my background is. I have a twin sister, Toni, and two brothers, Vincent who is eighteen months older than me and Chris who is six years younger.
Apparently, as many people have told me, I don’t look Italian though, or should I say the stereo typical black haired, dark eyed image of what an Italian looks like. Or, because I am blonde with blue eyes, people say with a knowing smile, oh, you are from Northern Italy. This is so far from the truth actually, given that my father is actually from Reggio Calabria, one of the Southern most parts of Italy – the ‘toe of the boot’ that is the map of Italy. Joseph or Giuseppe, my father was eight years old when he immigrated to Australia with my Nonna and five of his brothers, Pat/Pasquale, John/Giovanni, Mick/Domenico, Leo/Leone, Tony/Antonio and one sister, Val/Veneranda. His eldest two brothers, Paul/Paolo and Dick/Diego had already been in Australia with Nonno for the previous four years looking for work and a house. It is incredibly difficult to imagine in this information overloaded, internet addicted world of today getting on a boat for 30 days to go to a country you have no idea about.
When my grandfather first arrived in Australia, he worked in a foundry in Footscray, a suburb west of Melbourne Victoria. He had no idea then that Footscray, where the wholesale Fruit markets stand would be the future place of work for his sons and grandsons for many years to come. After a time, Vincenzo opened a fruit shop in Sandringham, Victoria where all the 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.
The year was 1955 when Nonna Concetta with her children including my father set sail for Australia. 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 start in the early hours at the market.
I have vivid memories of when the whole Brancatisano clan would get together for Christmas and Easter at our grandparents house. We were always such a large group. I had seven uncles, one auntie and thirty-four cousins! My Nonna was quite amazing when i think of the meals she prepared. I wonder how many kilos of pasta it took to feed us all? To this day I can still taste her pasta sauce and I don’t think I have ever had meatballs as good as hers.
Of all his 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 we did all get together for those large Italian feasts, after lunch Dad would sit with his brothers and play cards (while the women did the dishes of course!!) They would all speak Calabrese which is a dialect that I never understood and even now that I can speak Italian, I don’t really understand Calabrese. 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. Oh and what the Italian word for fart was (scoreggia for those desperate to know! – funny the humour that amuses young minds and the things one never forgets!)
Once a year, my family would get together at my Uncle Dick and Aunty Nancy’s house to 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 and then cut in half. They are then passed though the puree machine which separated the skin and pips 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. Of course food played an important part in this ritual and morning tea was always so delicious! Aunty Nancy made (and still does) the most wonderful scones that I would layer with strawberry jam and double cream. My mother made her very popular deluxe coffee cake which was best served warm with once again, a nice dollop of double cream! Late afternoon once the work was finished, we would all sit down to a wonderful bowl of pasta, barbecue and salad.
I definitely caught the travel bug when at the age of fifteen, my sister Toni and I took off for a year of exchange to the USA. Toni went to Phoenix, Arizona and I was placed with a family in Albuquerque, New Mexico. At the time we couldn’t believe our strict Southern Italian father allowed us to go but looking back now, we realize that he was not really that severe, just a normal concerned parent! Isn’t it funny how at the age of fifteen, we think we know it all! And of course think our parents have no idea about anything! The whole exchange experience was so fantastic and the education was so much more about life and culture and also so much more than what you can learn in a classroom. I think Toni and I grew up an awful lot in those eleven months. My host father was a geologist and showed me many ancient American Indian ruins. I appreciate it more now than I did at the time – at that age, I just wanted to hang out with my friends and flirt with the boys! I am pleased that I am still in touch with my host family today and have been back to Albuquerque to visit them on quite a few occasions. I love the Southwest, especially the history, culture and art of the American Indian. And the food! I have to thank my host dad Mike for introducing me to some of the best chilli I have ever tasted! I also experienced my first hot air balloon ride at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta.
My parents visited me while I was there and bought a beautiful Storyteller doll when they were visiting Santa Fe. Looking at it always evokes beautiful memories of my time spent in such a beautiful and colourful part of America.
At sixteen, I had decided that I wanted to become a fashion designer. When I returned to Australia after my year in New Mexico, I had to repeat Year ten so the idea of another three years of High School followed by a three – four year fashion design course didn’t appeal to me at all. Following the advice of my dear Uncle Bernie, a pattern maker, I found a Fashion Technical course and left school the following year to pursue my dream of studying fashion.
The Fashion years
The Florence years Part One
The Florence years Part Two
The London year (then Deported)
Florence beckons again
Love in Florence
An Italian Wedding