You can often tell when someone emigrated from Italy if you know where they immigrated to. After the United States shut its door to Italians in 1924, immigrants had to choose another location – Canada, Europe South America, Brazil, Argentina. Mid-20th century immigrants often went to Australia. Vilma was born in Sydney, Australia, but her mother was born in Serracapriola and her father was born in Chieuti. Vilma’s mother and I are both 5th and 7th cousins!
The second trip I took to Italy with my family was at an age when I was old enough to remember it. I really do have to cast my mind back to remember what it was like and I know that I’ve forgotten many things, but one thing that did strike me at the time was the difference between what I expected to find and what I experienced.
Having grown up in Australia as the child of Italian immigrants, I was proud of my roots, but I had a very negative view of Italy. I’d heard many stories of how hard things were “back home.” Italy was poor, people struggled to find work, children were lucky to have at least one year of schooling and many were sent to work at a young age to help support their families. People left their country towns and went to the north of Italy in search of work or migrated overseas with all their possessions in one suitcase. If you couldn’t afford a suitcase you carried a wooden crate which was a sign of how poor you really were. The whole thing sounded so grim and for me Italy was a country that was old, poor, dark and depressing. Nevertheless, I was excited about taking the trip. After all we were going on a plane, I would be meeting many relatives for the first time and there were many interesting cities to see.
We arrived in mid-March, apparently spring time and it was freezing cold – colder than any winter in Australia. By the time we left three months later it was as hot and bright as any summer in Australia. As we approached the airport in Rome I was stunned by the view below and I swear we passed over the Coliseum! From Rome, it was a train trip to Foggia which took about four hours, and I remember passing through warm, bright, sunny countryside and being amazed at hearing small children speaking Italian. I don’t know exactly why but there was something impressive about the way they sounded. From Foggia we caught the “corriera” (coach) which took us to Serracapriola – my mother’s town and the neighboring town of Chieuti.
We stayed with my grandparents in Serracapriola and the homes were very different from Australia. Nobody had a house with a backyard as the country was too small and the population too large. Anything remotely similar to our houses in Australia could only be found on farms. People lived either in apartments or something similar to townhouses. These townhouses weren’t separate adjoining buildings, but all part of one larger building which seemed to fill up one street block.
During our stay we celebrated the “festa” (festival) of San Giorgio in Chieuti and the “festa” of San Fortunato in Serracapriola. The festas were like carnival time with rides, sideshows and fireworks. At night the streets were lit up with fairy lights hung on the trees that lined the main street. Every town had a different patron saint and there must have been festas going on all the time. I think it was also during this time that we witnessed “Il Corso de Buoi” on the outskirts of Chieuti – an Italian version of “running with the bulls.” My brothers and I were horrified. As the animals came running past they were poked by men holding long javelin like poles with pointy sharp metal ends causing them to be wounded and bleed. We didn’t get it and thought it was very cruel. I wonder if the practice still exists today.
The towns had many “bars” unlike our cafes back home and we were always keen to go there for gelato which was nothing like our ice cream. There were so many more flavors, ones we’d never heard of like cherry, coffee and hazelnut. For 100 lira (or was it 1000 lira) you could have three flavors and because of it’s smooth texture, the flavors were wrapped around each other on a cone using a metal spatula rather than piled on top of each other as scoops. The bars were also always full of the old men of the town who would meet their to socialize and they were always seated out front on the footpaths – something that would have been very unusual to see in Australia.
Some of the daily “customs” were also very different. People stopped work during the middle of the day for the siesta. This meant you returned home for a midday meal and a nap and all businesses would be shut. During the evenings the piazza or main street would be full of the townspeople as they went for a “passeggiata” (stroll) giving them an opportunity to meet and catch up with others. The schoolchildren didn’t wear school uniforms and had to go to school for half a day on Saturdays, unlike ourselves in Australia. The markets would “come to town” every Saturday and was an important source of shopping. There were no department stores and the closest thing I remember to seeing one was La Standa in Rome, which sold low priced items. I remember that the water tasted very different and access was “shut off” during the middle of the day for a few hours to conserve water supplies as the south is naturally arid. Sometimes this meant we would have to fill up tubs in the morning if we knew we would be needing extra water during the day.
Even though it was too cold for swimming, we visited the beach at Chieuti and it was very different to our beaches in Australia. This was no wide, open ocean. There was no surf, no waves – the water was calmer, shallower and darker and you could walk out a lot further. Also, there were no jellyfish or bluebottles that could sting you or threat from sharks!
As the seasons began to change I noticed that the trees lining the piazza were painted white. Apparently this was done to protect and rid the trees of bugs. There have been times when I’ve passed a house in Australia and seen the same thing and thought to myself there must be Italians living there.
We did do some sightseeing and visited Rome, Venice, Florence, Monte Cassino, San Marino, Modena and Bologna. We hired the services and van of a cousin and travelled via the autostradas, what I understood to be Italy’s highway system. Each city was very different and reflected a different period in art and history. I particularly enjoyed Rome as it was bright, sunny and gardenlike. Its buildings and sites represented a variety of eras in Italian history and it wasn’t just about churches and cathedrals.
Italy did not turn out to be the dark, poor, depressing place I had pictured it to be and I remember that I absolutely loved it. I suspect that even during times of poverty and hardship it was never dark or dreary. Being such a small country with so many people, it was very social and lively, but it didn’t seem to be frantic or fast paced. The everyday way of life – the fresh coffee in the morning, the siesta in the middle of the day, the passeggiata in the evening – seems to have evolved into one whereby people take the time to enjoy every moment so much more. Anyway these are the memories of my then 12-year-old mind!
Chieuti and Serracapriola ancestors immigrated to: Sydney, Australia
Chieuti and Serracapriola Surnames: Fiadino, Popolo, Orlando, Manna