Suburban Perth Western Australia has always been a dull place, the most isolated capital of the world it exists in a bubble of reclusiveness, its inhabitants toiling away from the rest of the world trying to lead a beautiful and idealistic life filled with sunshine and wealth.
My Grandparents migrating from Sicily in the 1950’s found Perth to be little more than a country town dotted with colonial style wooden houses lifted up onto stilts leaving some fifty centimetres from the ground, to encourage natural air circulation to help cool down the houses when the desert air becomes subdued by the aptly named Fremantle Doctor, restoring health to the wilting population after a day of incandescent heat.
Over the years the cottages have been replaced by an urban sprawl made up of curious single storey double brick houses with coloured roofs like hundreds of tepees extending out along the coastline between the sea and the desert, with their essential air conditioners attached to them like cumbersome chunky headphones. The single level houses with their quarter acre blocks have gradually given way to townhouses and new generation apartments filled with glass windows and cold dull painted concrete. My childhood in Perth was idealistic, uneventful, almost dull if not for the fact I felt so different from the Anglo-Saxon majority.
Ironically my family tree could have easily found itself uprooted to Australia a generation earlier. Both of my great grandfathers found themselves in Australia in the early twentieth century. My great-grandfather Cosimo Gugliotta was working near Adelaide with a few compatriots when he was told the Great Depression was on its way, so he returned to Sicily with stories of not being able to make himself understood pointing at things he wanted like bread, drinking from the same places as the horses and terrifying native Aboriginals (certainly terrifying for someone who had never seen anyone different to himself). While at the same time Nonno Cosimo’s future Compare Filippo Bongiovanni was out clearing the bush for new housing deep in the South West corner of Western Australia. Fate made my family taste life in Australia but brought them back to Sicily.
My Grandfather visited Sicily before he passed away in 2009 and was surprised how abandoned Sicily has become. He always told the story how apart from the poverty the final thing which pushed him to leave was the fact he couldn’t find a piece of land to plant some potatoes for his own little family, all the land was cultivated by others as there were more people than space to maintain them. He remained shocked to see most of the fertile land in Sicily today abandoned in overgrowth when he recalled everything being occupied by agriculture. The Sicilian world left behind by post world war two immigrants to a large extent no longer exists.
I find Italo Australians, Italo Americans and Canadians to be strange creatures who feel deeply attached to Italy, but theirs is an idealistic time capsuled passion. I know I used to be like them but now after living here for more than a decade I can see their naivety, they idealise a country which no longer exists, often pilgrimages back to Italy are filled with awe and disappointment. Those born here are saddened by the decay, the loss of traditions and the changing language makes them feel excluded from a once inclusive island home. While their children and grandchildren brought up with those stories of Sicily will find history is all that remains of their Siculu roots.
No one speaks the old dialects anymore and it is a slow and painful realisation that being a ‘wog’ is an artificial creation shaped by a life of plenty in a new place on the other side of the world from Italy. In Australia, a ‘wog’ used to be an Anglo-Saxon racial slur used to describe Italian migrants, but today it has been claimed by new generations of Italo Australians to describe their connection to Italy. Italy isn’t about eating pasta and pizza or speaking an outdated dialect, it is a complex country and culture which is in constant evolution as are all other societies around the world.
Coming back to Sicily, you will not be welcomed openly, you are considered a foreigner. I have been living in Sicily for nearly fifteen years and there isn’t a moment that has passed when I am not reminded of my status as an outsider, as soon as I open my mouth.
6 thoughts on “Shifting family trees: Australia and being a foreigner in Sicily”
Foreigners here are even those who have left the village for just five years!
Yes, that’s true as soon as you step out of the community you’re a straniero. They are quite unforgiving aren’t they 😉
Rochelle – I like that you call the descendants of Italians emigrated to the west as idealistic and naive. Speaking for myself, I know that it is true. Though I look forward to future Sicilian encounters, I know that my fantasy of what it will be is far removed from what it actually will be.
Well of course my experience was idealistic because I’m second generation,I grew up blissfully unaware of my Grandparents and Parents sacrifices.But I have long since lost my naivety and I am no longer a starry eyed expat. There is much beauty but it coexists with much ugliness. You can’t change it, just like anything else take the good with the bad.
They say that it is not always good to go back. Memories and dreams are so special and maybe that is what we sometimes must treat ourselves to. I have Italian friends here in Aus who came out when they were very young and although they love to visit Italy from time to time, they are happy to live here. I adore Italy and dream about returning all the time but I would struggle with many of their laws. So, I am very content to stay living here in Aus and visit bella Italia whenever I can.
It’s good to visit isn’t it. I think if you live in a place it loses it’s novelty really fast.Sometimes it’s best to visit isn’t it, you get to experience it in small doses and choose the best parts but if you are here it is everything at 100%. Thanks for commenting Lyn, really appreciate it 🙂
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