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Over the years the cottages have been replaced by an urban sprawl made up of curious single storey double brick houses with coloured roofs like hundreds of tepees extending out along the coastline between the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.
I recently got an email from a woman who was contemplating moving to Sicily from the US as she desired a change in her life and felt connected to her Sicilian heritage. She was looking for some advice and here is what I said to her:
Thanks so much for your email, I feel privileged you choose to contact me about such an important choice in your life, I will do my best to be honest and hope I can give you what you are looking for.
As an Italo Australian I can honestly say Italy and Sicily will always be quite alluring to you as it is a part of your upbringing, your family and heritage so you will always feel emotionally connected to Sicily in one way or another.
Living in Italy is never going to be the same as simply visiting it, even if you have gone back and forth for years to visit relatives being here full-time will be a deeply challenging and at times isolating.
I moved to Sicily ten years ago with my Sicilian husband and I can tell you it has not been an easy journey. Yes, Sicily is a beautiful place, great food, wine and the people are amazing. At the same time it is a land of crippling bureaucracy, it’s an old country and so with it’s ancientness comes the problems of an archaic place, it’s not all museums and Greek ruins, it is corrupt, inefficient at an infuriating level, people will try to rip you off and at times the culture shock will be mind numbing. The bigger cities in Sicily have the usual problems of big metropolis, they are densely populated, with high crime rates, they are dirty and confusing. I guarantee you will always feel like an excluded outsider, despite acquiring a fluent level of Italian, there is nothing you can do about it you will always stick out, whether it’s the way you dress, your accent or diverse point of view, a Sicilian will always pick you out as a foreigner and you will be constantly reminded of this.
I suggest if you are feeling strongly about moving overseas why not simply test the waters a little, if you have long service leave coming up why not try to spend a few months here and see how you go? Rent a house for a few months, perhaps instead of coming in the summer try 3 months in the fall when things are more relaxed and real. I think the secret to life in Sicily to create your own community, projects and work towards your goals and above all do not let anyone get you down, Sicily can be a negative place.
The language is going to be important for you too, Sicily more so than anything else will mean one hundred percent Italian as it is a thoroughly monolingual country and it would help if you understood a little dialect too!
Be sure you have a project to keep you busy and connected while you are here, be it doing a language course, teaching english, volunteering, learning about Sicilian cuisine, wine, art, writing a book or whatever else you might enjoy as it will help you feel more connected to the place. The connections to make to the place are what will sustain you if you are not actively experiencing Sicily and not simply complaining about it constantly you will never get anything out of your experience here.
The best advice I can give to you is to be honest and tell you the truth, moving to Sicily isn’t going to be a bed of roses, but if you want to be challenged the an expat life can be rewarding.
So try it and see.
Life’s a journey feel free to try new experiences.
Good luck to you and let me know if you make it to Sicily.
I have the honour of being both Italian and Australian. Thanks to the strength of character of my maternal grandparents who had the determined idea to migrate to Perth, Western Australia from Sicily. It is a privilege to have a foot in both of these intriguing countries.
I now live in Italy but my first 25 years were spent in the care-free sunshine of the youthful culture of Australia. This gave me a wonderful sense of liberty, multiculturalism and a positive outlook on life.
(My home town Perth, Western Australia, which is in a constant state of change)
Living in Italy for nearly a decade now has allowed me to immerse myself into some family history and see the realities of this complex, chaotic but all the same extravagant country.
I’m lucky to be a part of two fascinating countries.