Tuesday, March 12, 2013

when Joe was Giuseppe

When I first left school, I studied a year of a Bachelor of Arts at Sydney University. It was the most interesting year of my life, learning Philosophy, Anthropology and Linguistics in dusty halls and roaming through sandstone archways entrenched in history and tradition. I was enamoured with the work of Margaret Mead, watching people of traditional, untouched cultures.

It wasn't until I stood pressing roasted tomatoes through a mouli over the weekend that the almost forgotten lessons of that year had a personal reality for me. I have no idea if my family of previous generations made passata this way. Probably not, as I took the recipe from the internet. I love hearing about the house that my mum grew up in, with Nonna and Uncle Hugo and the chickens and the veggie patch in the suburbs. But the stories could be from any family, really. A work of fiction.

My self is missing that piece. The piece that speaks loud, passionate, musical Italian. The piece that welcomes a family to the table for a long Sunday lunch with too much food and plenty of wine. My great-grandfather came to Australia from the tiny southern Italian island of Lipari, before the turn of the last century, as a fourteen-year old, with his family. Do I really have a right to lament the loss of a culture left behind more than a hundred years ago? Is it reasonable to believe that language and traditions could have continued over that time, throughout all the changes of our Australian social landscape? Do I have the right to feel ripped off that I have to refer to Jamie Oliver or Stephanie Alexander to learn to make fresh pasta and passata?

After all, for my ancestors, this was a choice. They left their home, packed up their family, and took a long trip over the seas to a new life.

With my grandfather-in-law's passing last year, knowledge circulated that he had been proud to discover his own lost Aboriginal heritage. Very little is known as his grandmother was of the Stolen Generation. Whisked away from her language and traditions and given new ones, by force. She passed on her beautiful skin that has paled over the generations, to the point of almost disappearing. I lament the loss of her stories, her language and her traditions in the same way that I lament my missing Italian piece. I am strongly drawn to researching my family histories. I want to travel to the places that my childrens' ancestors came from.

So what are a couple of people with cultural chunks missing to do, when confronted with the heavy task of instilling culture and heritage into three small, bright, incredible children? Well, we shall have to just make it up as we go along. We will, and do, choose the ideals and values we hold most true(because even when language and cultural tokens have long gone, these remain) and use them as a point of reference for all that we do. We will continue the beautiful traditions shown to us by our parents and grandparents, like cheese and bikkies with afternoon tea, or working with timber to make beautiful things, or going fishing, or playing canasta, without concern about their cultural authenticity. We shall build our own traditions, like lighting fires to toast marshmallows in the backyard on Saturday nights, or cooking a late barbeque breakfast after nippers, or making pizza on Friday nights.

And we will continue to search for the stories of our past. Because they matter. I will do my best to find out all I can to help my babies understand their role in one of the world's richest and most endangered cultures. I will continue to dream about climbing uneven stairs to a cottage at the top of a seaside village in Lipari, as I do exactly that, walking home from the school run many, many kilometres away.

Now, who would like to come to our home for Sunday lunch? There will be too much food and plenty of wine.


    I was actually just thinking that when you described sunday lunches... I really want to have that tradition.

    1. Come on over. You don't eat meat? I make lamb.

  2. I want to come! I will bring dessert...maybe cannolis?

    There was an Italian restaurant up the block from where I lived in NYC and on Sundays they did "family dinners" where they would just cook big plates of whatever they had in the kitchen...always really rustic and delicious...and you would come and sit at mixed tables and eat and drink and be merry.

    I am a little bit Italian too...my mother's family is from Sicily.
    I do know how to make my mother's pasta sauce and one day I was reading the paper and there was a recipe about pasta sauce that was exactly the same as my mother's and it turns out the lady who wrote the article was also from Sicily and had the same last name as my mother!

    1. That restaurant sounds like perfection to me. Lipari is just next door to Sicily- perhaps we are a-little-bit-Italian kin? And, I will need at least 12 cannoli. For myself.



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