I would like to call Australia home but there are times when a remark, an innuendo or a gesture conveys to me the message that I don’t belong. And occasionally someone, unable to decipher my accent, will ask, ‘Where is home?’ I then have to stop and think. Should I explain that although I know where I come from, I’m not so sure where home is?
We live in a period of mass dislocations with millions of people on the move from one country to another; many are unable to settle anywhere. this wasn’t the case with me. Circumstances were different and I was lucky. I left Italy because I wanted to travel, to live in another culture and learn to function in it. Otherness appealed to me.
I’ve now been in Melbourne for thirty years and consider myself an Italo-Australian. I don’t feel I have to choose between the two cultures. When in Italy I miss the Australian laid-back approach to life and in Australia I crave for the art world left behind. But it isn’t as simple as that. I still feel the need to identify with a specific place on the map.
I was born and grew up in northern Italy and taught for nine years in schools before migrating. Whenever I go back to visit, one of my relatives will say that I’ve been away far too long, that I’m no longer the person I used to be. ‘You’re too cold, too Anglo-Saxon,’ they say. An aunt once said reproachfully, ‘You didn’t go to Australia to get married. You had a good job. Why on earth did you leave?’
In their eyes, by choosing to stay here, I’ve neglected my parents and younger siblings and undermined the essence of family life. I remind them that I helped my parents pay off their mortgage, returned to attend weddings and other rites of passage, and to look after the sick and dying. ‘It’s not the same as sharing our daily humdrum,’ they say. ‘Remember the old proverb,’ a friend warned. ‘Those who are away, the absent ones, are always in the wrong.’
This matter of home is complicated by the fact that my father’s profession required him to move periodically within Italy. Each move demanded that my sister and I pick up the new idioms quickly or be made fun of by the local children. The mother tongue of most Italians is a dialect. Dialects differ between regions and can even vary within the same area from one town to the next. They influence and shape standard Italian so that even when speaking the official language people reveal in their accents and choice of words where they come from.
One dialect is very dear to my heart. It was the speech of my wet-nurse and of the children in the primary school I attended for three years, in a small town north of Bergamo.
In those days, within my family, we communicated in three ways. My parents, originally from Venice, spoke Veneziano between themselves. They used standard Italian with me and my little sister while my sister and I preferred Bergamasco, the dialect of our playmates. Bergamasco abounds in vowels and idioms that have no equivalent in Italian. It’s rich in dark, guttural sounds that have their roots in German and French; it’s incomprehensible to visitors from other areas.
Various rhymes, songs and games bring back memories of cobbled streets, foggy lanes, castles and stone buildings full of courtyards. I recall the winter my brother was born. It was announced by the arrival of Santa Lucia, the bearer of gifts for children on 13 December. There was an early snowstorm with large flakes hitting the windowpanes while persimmons, lined up along the windowsill, were ripening to a bright red-orange.
My parents’ Veneziano, on the other hand, full of lilting rhythms and sibilant tones, brings back memories of summer holidays by the sea, fishing trips and boat rides, collecting shells, the smell of watermelons, the taste of figs and of grandmother’s pasta e fasioi.
Some ten years ago, on one of my visits, I caught up with a friend who asked me to spend a weekend at her villa, near the Austrian border. My train compartment was filled with a group of Sicilian students on a guided tour. Their comments and repartee, interspersed with much laughter, were incomprehensible to me and I settled down to read.
Soon I was interrupted by the voices of the two women sitting opposite who were sharing news and gossip. I couldn’t help eavesdropping. I became engrossed in what they were saying not because of the content of their talk but because they spoke in pure Bergamasco. I was delighted and on the verge of tears. I promised myself to revisit my birth place, to sit in cafés and listen to people. I began to realise that there was, after all, somewhere I could call home.
In Melbourne, the Christmas before last, I was browsing in the Myer Emporium. In the lift between the fourth and third floors, between electrical and travel goods, I heard a young couple talking in my dialect. I was so taken by surprise that, at first, I didn’t react. When the lift was stationary and filling with shoppers, I stood shyly behind the couple trying to work out what to say to them. The words came just after the lift reached the ground floor and the two had disappeared into the crowd. I wanted to ask, ‘Are you from the old suburbs of Bergamo or the new part?’ A simple question, but needing to be expressed in those deep vowels and sharp consonants, couched in words that only the three of us could understand.
I searched for the couple and eventually spotted them crossing over Elizabeth Street and hopping onto a tram. The red light stopped me. I watched the tram leave. I stood near the kerb, overwhelmed by a crushing feeling that now I can only call homesickness. I went back inside Myer’s for a drink. As I sipped my orange juice a forgotten song found its way into my consciousness.
I saw myself a five-year-old, holding a banded snail and singing a pleading tune, asking the snail to thrust out her feelers:
Pop out of your shell
Sweet little snail
Show me your feelers
Trust me little one.
And she did. Tentatively, slowly, she emerged from the shell, her pearly-brown body surging upward. Four silvery feelers shot up and down as she slid on the back of my hand and stopped to test the new surroundings. She crossed over my wrist-band and moved up my sleeve, leaving behind a translucent trail.