The Big Issue : Edition 532
“I arrived in Melbourne on Tuesday and by Thursday I was working.” I WAS BORN 13 December 1945, the day of Santa Lucia, in Calabria. It was the end of the war, so my father thought it would be better to get me registered in the New Year. So my passport says my birthday is 1 January 1946. This was for conscription reasons, in case there was another war. My parents worked on a farm. Olive trees, mostly, also vineyards and orange trees. The problem in Italy at that time was the rich would get three quarters of the crop, and the poor only one quarter. But if the crop goes bad you get nothing. That’s how you survive. In Grade 5 I went to tailoring school. There were two trades for kids in Italy, tailoring or shoemaker. Myself and my two sisters became dressmakers because my father used to go to work and if it rained he would come back home and never get paid for it. My parents could not read or write. So he said, “I want you to go to school to learn to read and write because every time I have to get something done I have to pay someone else to do it.” My mother was an orphan and she was given a one-room cottage from her grandmother as a gift when she got married. It was a large room and we all slept in it. I used to sleep with Mum and Dad and my two sisters slept on another bed. We didn’t have any lights or water or a toilet. This was 1950. We used to keep potatoes under the bed because it was cool and dark. When it was springtime they would have sprouted like soldiers and my mother would give them to my uncle to replant. So we didn’t starve. We didn’t have milk in the morning, just bread and plenty of olives, and meat once a month, or maybe at festa time. On Sundays my dad used to stand in the city square and wait for the rich man to come down and say to him, “Giuseppe, you worked four days, here’s your money”. We never had a fridge or a television or a radio until 1960. 28 THE BIG ISSUE 10 – 23 MAR 2017 When I became 16 I wanted to buy an ice-cream or a beer, but we couldn’t do it, we had no money. So I said to my dad I want to go Milano to be a tailor but my father said, I would prefer you to go to Australia because you have a sister there. My sister made the request to the Australian government for me to come and they paid the deposit – 10 pounds. When I left Italy for Australia there were four ships a week leaving. My mama was crying because I was the only son. I had never seen a ship before. I had never seen a train before! The day before I left we got a big trunk [pictured]; my mother even packed hammer and nails because we might need it in Australia. On the ship there were about 2500 people onboard. There was singing, “When we arrived in Port Melbourne everything felt new.” dancing… There were some Greeks but the majority were Italians. There were some from Croatia and Slovenia – they used to have fights over religion but I couldn’t work out why they fight, I was too young to understand. I took English lessons. We stopped overnight in the Suez Canal and I saw a camel walk over the top of the hills. I had never seen a camel in my life! When we arrived in Port Melbourne everything felt new. The thing that struck us was all the houses were weatherboard, not stone. Later when I went to Footscray, when people got the bus they would stand in line – they don’t queue in Italy. I also couldn’t work out why the postman whistled. The other thing is in the cinema you had to stand up for the Queen – I didn’t know what was the Queen. I didn’t stand and this fella told me to “stand up, mate”. And all the women wore a lot of make-up. In Italy only the rich people wore make-up. But here working-class people wore lipstick. My first job was in North Melbourne at the Arnott’s Biscuits factory. My brother-in-law was a baker there. So I arrived in Melbourne on Tuesday and by Thursday I was working. I made six pounds. My sister took one pound for rent, and two pounds went to the bank and two pounds was for me to go out dancing in Footscray. I also bought a Ford Cortina so the girls can sit closer to me because it has the big chair. I went to night school after work to learn English. At Arnott’s I found a friend who was a tailor and he asked if I wanted to work with him, so I went and made jackets in Fitzroy. My sister was a dressmaker too and she worked in a factory in North Melbourne. I used to share a room with her and make vests, trousers for my friends…whatever people wanted. I was very happy. Footscray was a very good centre for us because there were a lot of Italians – Italian shops, Italian cinema, furniture shops and coffee shops. Soon I was getting paid 16 pounds every week and I remember coming home and putting it on the kitchen table and saying to myself, for 16 pound my father had to work one month in Italy. Who wants to go back to Italy? Not me. I met my wife on New Year’s Eve at a dancing club in St Kilda. My wife’s parents had a concrete business and my father-in-law said, “Vincent, no-one in Australia wears suits anymore”, so I started to work with my father-in-law as a concreter. I worked there until five years ago. It was hard work – I worked six days a week from six in the morning – but we made good money. Like all Europeans, I educated my three children. One’s a lawyer, one's an architect and the other is a chef. Australia gave me an opportunity Italy couldn’t give to me. Australia is still one of the best countries in the world. We are all equals.