How much? “Volganic Bargaining”

“Ding Ding!” I put my pillow over my head. “No, it can’t be morning yet”, I assured myself.  I went back into a deep slumber again despite the bell call.  I had heard my Uncle’s truck leave for work earlier and had learned that this household was a happening one- especially in the morning. The little cafe truck came every morning or at least most mornings to sell the Italian typical breakfast street to street. Coffee, Italian croissants they call a “cornetto” plain or filled with almond cream, custard, or Nutella. But the classic and Sicilian specialty is the “granita”, a crushed ice flavoured drink thick enough to spoon with a texture somewhere across between a sorbet and a snow cone.  And with the granita is always served the brioche. Often round and fat and shiny, this baked dough ball of sheer delight is traditionally broken in bits at a time, to use as a spoon to scoop and collect the sparkly ice cold liquid confection. The granita flavours are usually lemon, chocolate, strawberry, or my favourite- coffee.

I awoke again sometime later and this time with more motivation to get up. I saw beside my bed, the very breakfast I wanted. My Aunty had ordered a coffee granita brioche and granita for me and left it in my room. I had been visiting the beach a lot and exhausted each night from my adventures.  The nearby infrastructure of souvenir and other specialty shops in Riposto in one direction and Mascali in another sold all sorts of interesting and pretty things worth packing to take home in my suitcase. But I was looking for something. I wanted to buy what Dad had asked for.  A “Carettu Sicilianu”.  A significant mascot of a donkey pulled Sicilian folk art hand painted cart with kinsfolk sitting inside in full traditional costume, this Carettu souvenir was made by hand in miniature model size and entirely of wood.

When buying things though, I had some serious concerns. I noticed that at least in the shops I explored the items never had price tags, so I would have to ask the store person the million dollar (hope not) question.   How much? “Quanto costa?…”  My main drama with the shopping experience was I had no clue what a souvenir would cost usually in one shop to another to be able to compare it to a price the shopkeeper told me.  And they knew I was a foreigner, so I didn’t know at the time, but they probably made sure to charge me more than they should.  I didn’t even think to bargain.  I was very ignorant of this cultural practice.  Dad ended up treasuring this carettu gift from me so much that he never took it out of its plastic box he stored upon his prized coffee table in the lounge room as a centrepiece for all guests to see. He said he had always since a small boy wanted his own carettu.  When he passed away it was the only thing I asked for to now have in my kitchen where I spend a lot of my time each day, being a colourful inspirational memo of la Sicilia bedda to me – and of course my Dad.

I looked at my watch and realised my Uncle would be by now in his fruit and vegetable stall/shop.   He would leave in his little Piaggio Ape truck in the wee hours of the morning way before any daylight and go to the markets to bid and buy produce for his roadside shop that he had not grown himself.  He had his own large acreage with seedlings and a greenhouse with his own crops and some fruit trees.  And in front of this land at the side of the road he had his selling point for his produce so passers by could buy fresh from him.  My Uncle’s “shop” was not really a market stall so I couldn’t call it a “bancarella”.  But it was too small to be a shop so I couldn’t call it that either.  Let’s call it a cross between a stall and a shop say- a “stall-op”.

I gobbled my breakfast and raced down to say good morning to my Aunty and told her I was going to visit Zio.  The sun was extra bright and the morning was another scorcher. I walked just 4 minutes to get to his “stall-op”. I wanted to spend some extra time with him today. I had been indulging in the beach, the restaurants, the shops, and tourist must experience such things but wanted to see more of my Dads brother. Unlike my Aunty (my dad’s sister) who spent a lot of time at home and wanted me with her most of the time, Zio was more like my Dad- have a good chat and then have a nice day- liking to have more space and giving me loads of independence.

Grotesquely yet bulging with red bread stainable joy, my eyes were fixed first thing on my Uncle’s collection of well grown tomatoes. These tomatoes are not just huge and round. They are grown in the local volcanic soil. The lava strewn soil is injected with special vitamins that make most things grow bigger, sweeter juicier and better.  Is that why sometimes I feel like the spirit of local Sicilian people I met – including my family- are just so similarly to my Uncles produce well- bigger in heart, sweeter, juicier in character and for me, better than some people I have met in other places in the world- though there are indeed good and bad people everywhere.

Living under the constant watch of a cranky and unsettled volcano I believe makes the locals more in the moment, brave and more willing to live the best they can. My Uncle interrupted my love affair with his tomatoes with a wave to me to come in.  And I had to in our little chat talk about the “organic” frenzy in my home country.  “Organic” he said did exist, but it was not very common because, so many growers just didn’t need to use chemicals in the process of growing stuff. Then he opened a can of worms. The volcanic soil factor. He said the volcanic richness in the soil made it easier to grow them – that the things just grew so healthy and so fast. In his experience, he hadn’t used any pesticides or chemicals, so he didn’t understand the concept of separating normal produce in his stall from “organic” produce because it was volcanic organic – I have coined the term together “Volganic”.  Growing in and around volcanic soil makes plants organic naturally.  Apparently bugs don’t like the volcanic soil as much or something.  More than that, I noted that there were so few bugs at all in my visit to Sicily that summer, not like in the “bugland” back home.

A lady came into the “stall-op” joining in our chat. “There is nothing like volcanically grown food” is how I understood her expressed phrase. She put a large lettuce, some peaches, grapes, onions, and carrots on the counter. Then she went and brought some tomatoes. My Uncle started bagging them and adding them up, weighing each item with such devoted concentration. “Is that everything Signora?”, he asked. She nodded. “€12 please” my Uncle pointed out.  And then as she was about to get her money out she exclaimed “Ah! The fagioli!” She almost as it seemed to have raced to the green beans like a long-lost lover, to be reunited in her arms. She went to pay again and placed the beans on the scale. She started murmuring and muttering something under her breath. She went to get more tomatoes. “Good move they look tasty”, I thought to myself.  But she went with the tomatoes to the counter and then paced the shop a little (there wasn’t much floor space to pace really) and added more…and then more and each time she added something and at this stage my Uncle while her back was turned rolled his eyes and heaved a heavy sigh as if to say, “this woman is driving me crazy”. Finally, she said “Ok finito. Questo è tutto.”

My Uncle told her the total to be paid and she started what I have come to call the “Volganic Bargaining” game. You act like Volcanic soil enriching the crops, convincing the vendor that you are a valuable customer and they need your purchase, so you can manipulate the vendor to seize your item of longing for the best price. There are certain steps to follow in this game as the buyer.

How much? After the seller tells you his first price you innocently ask him to repeat his price with a polite “how much?” To make them think you are not sure. Then when the seller confirms their set price again, you question the price given and compare it to other times you bought the same goods at a lower price.

“I’m sorry”, the lady buying half his shop said, I don’t think that is right”.
“No?” Questioned my Uncle.
“No”, she quickly answered, “It wasn’t this expensive the last time and I bought the same amount of things”.
The next step is to wait for the seller to start bargaining his original set price down or if they ask you what price you are willing to offer.
“You think I charged you too much?” My Zio argued. “How much do you have?” Zio reasoned.
Next step as a buyer. Be sure of the lowest price you are willing to set and then don’t budge.
“Just this note here. It’s good no?” the lady said with pleading eyes.
“Ok”, Zio replied with a sigh.

My cousin swiped past the content lady customer as she left the shop. “This lady giving you trouble hey” she smirked. “It’s okay” I teased, “She bought half the shop so there is only half produce left now to sell”.
Zio grinned – “she’s alright but a little err, you know- (he made signs with his finger swirling around his ear meaning she’s crazy)”.
“Come on, let’s go to the markets”, my cousin said dragging me away.
“Here”, my Uncle gestured and gave some money to my cousin, “Buy her something but make sure they don’t charge too much”.
“Of course”, my cousin assured him, “I’ll be with her don’t worry!”

Along the way in the car, my cousin explained that we were going to the markets where things were all very cheap. She said that all the sellers would see me coming and know I am a foreigner, so they would try to overcharge me. She said, “Leave the buying part to me and I will make sure you get what you want for a lowest price possible.”  If I liked something she advised that I let her know with a code word. We agreed I would use the word “forse” to mean maybe in literal terms but in our code language it was to mean “I like it and want it.” Then she instructed me with these wise words:
“When you like something don’t show the seller that you like it. Pretend you haven’t decided yet. Even pretend that you are not interested at all. And then leave the rest to me.”

“Why?” I timidly asked, thinking she may think I am stupid for not understanding.
“If the person at the bancarella thinks you like his things even a little, he may think he can have better bargaining power and charge you more.” She has a lot of experience in bargaining, I thought to myself.

As soon as I got out of the car the senses in my whole body knew I was somewhere fun. I could hear traditional Sicilian folk music and smell charcoal smoke from the grill. The colours hit my eyes like paint on a canvas, but this was not an art gallery, but an exhibition made up of little tents and stalls – many of them made from a wooden cart on wheels with the brightly coloured umbrella like rooftops.

Walking through the line of bancarellas all shouting vendors could be heard saying “buy this” or “buy that” or “taste this”. My cousin grabbed my arm and linked hers in mine. “Fresh fish!” yelled one vendor and “Pears pears! Ripe and delicious and so cheap!” exclaimed another. We came to the clothing and I knew what I wanted. It was staring at me. A typical Italian leather jacket. “Ti piace?” She implored. “Forse”, I said trying to look like a snob and using the code word we said I would use.  I really liked it and was screaming with delight inside secretly.  The vendor sure enough came our way.  He tried to speak to me, but my cousin (thank goodness) cut in and answered for me.  “50 euros for that one, its real leather”, the vendor said.  My cousin picked up the jacket and looked at it carefully, feeling the sleeves and looking at the underside.  “Not bad, but we have seen jackets like this one in another place cheaper”, my cousin replied.  “Cheaper, no you can’t be serious!  I give you the best price”, the vendor insisted.  “Thank you, but we will find a better one for a better price elsewhere.  It’s only worth 35 euro”, my cousin debated.  I was enjoying the show.  She was good.  “35 euro then”, the vendor said.  “30”, my cousin said. “It’s yours!” the vendor hesitantly agreed.  As soon as we were clear from the vendor’s ears I squealed with delight.  “Grazie, cugina! You are too good! That was marvellous!” I cheered. 

I couldn’t wait to get into my new Jacket and my jeans when I got back to my Uncle’s place, and just when I was getting changed I heard my Aunty shouting at me from downstairs.  “Mareesa, come down you have a visitor!”  I came outside to find a red Ferrari in the driveway.  It was my cousin who had taken me to the markets with her husband, this time in their Ferrari.  My cousin introduced me to her husband and we had some photos in front of his car.  “How was your day?” he asked.  “It was great.  Your wife taught me quite a lot about bargaining”, I said playfully.  “Oh, did she now”, he said glaring cheekily at his wife.  “So, you must have used your bargaining skills too Mr, when purchasing this red beast”, I teased.  He grimaced.  His wife gave a good chuckle and my Aunty standing nearby asked my cousin to repeat what I said.  My Aunty gave a short giggle too.  “How much was it?” I asked him.  He went a little serious and quiet before changing the subject.  I feel a little embarrassed and that it was rude asking him how much his Ferrari was but really, it was a little funny because how would you seriously bargain for a brand-new Ferrari?  And only “Volganic Bargaining” would do.  The type that gets you a best price.  Period.

 

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Beyond the Clouds

“Flip flop flip flop…Flip”.  My backless sandals or really in Aussie terms they could be passed down as “thongs” were the only sound I could hear as I walked the hot dry footpath.  I was walking in my chosen direction.  Lunch with my Uncle and Auntie and their family had been simply delightful, but I needed some serious air and leg stretching activities.  I had asked just moments earlier my cousin what should I do or where to go for some amusement for the afternoon.  She told me that I just had to choose one of two directions out of my Uncle’s driveway and go straight ahead.  To the left straight ahead (there we go again with the “diritto” thing) was the shops and some more infrastructure and to the right – the sea.

Those last two words from her lips “il mare” had me sold.  I had no idea that my Uncle lived near the beach – “Eeek” I gave a shrill of excitement to myself.  I was finally going to experience the “mare mediterraneo”.  I had quickly without hesitation chosen my next adventure.  The sea was waiting for me.  The sky was hazy from the dry heat and so pale a blue it was almost grey.  I could see the trail of smoke shooting through the horizon from the direction of the feisty Mount Etna, and I am sure that mountain is a woman and has eyes in the back of her head.  There is something about her stillness and yet, when you gaze over at her mighty form, you feel so small and helpless in her unforgivingly hostile lava potentially explosive and fatal path.

It is to me as if she, Miss Mount Etna (she cannot have ever been a “Mrs” in a committed relationship with her constant crankiness) has many times in her life as an active volcano chosen her path and this can be to us all, another one of nature’s wonderful lessons.  No matter how long you have been boiling over waiting to use that fired up energy, be sure to be ready to choose your path.  Even after exploding knowing that you are going to be in control of where the lava flows.

I was so deep in my own thoughts walking this long stretch of road with little traffic passing by that it was a gush of sweet salty breeze that made me realise just 11 minutes later I had arrived at the sea.  This particular beach had no sand – rather was strewn with endless small pebbles.  My heart and soul sank into the sight before me.  The ocean was generally calm – almost like a swimming pool with small waves lapping at the pebbled shore.  The colour of the sea was enchanting, and unique to this part of the world being to the eyes more greenish than bluish.

To my left in the distance was Miss Etna still beaming at me and puffing her continual chain of smoke across the horizon.  To my right was the charming town of Riposto where my Nonna was born.  Riposto was shining in its charming skyline of semi-baroque styled and Greek influenced churches and other buildings with ancient stories to tell.   What kind of stories did my Nonna have to tell, I wondered to myself.  She died in Sicily when I was just 9 years old and I never got to meet her.

The questions I felt shooting through my mind all at once.  What church did she go to as a little girl? In that town I can see from here on this beach, which house did she grow up in?  What was her favourite colour?  What was her favourite food?  Did she like school?  Did she have certain dreams as a girl about who she wanted to be?  I know that my Nonna did work very hard.  And that she had to choose many paths, including to escort her youngest of three children to faraway Australia, the land down under, to seek a better life.

I did not know my Nonna but there is one woman who has always, in retrospect, been just like a Nonna.  She has eyes that twinkle and smile all on their own.  Her delicate lips nearly always form the most endearing of smiles and these smiles just send warm fuzzies right through your bones.  Never does she fail to praise me and compliment me to remind me of the “good” person that she thinks I am.  Such words of encouragement leave me always feeling on top of the world.  Just sitting in her lounge room and being in her presence, listening to her telling of memories of her childhood and her memory even at 94 years of age is simply crystal clear, is such a joy to share.  And in this sweetest of temperaments you can still see a very strong unmoveable core.  Though she is so often happy and pleasantly spoken, she also knows how to change in a flash to serious and direct tones.  She knows how to tell people straight when she does not agree with something or needs to set a boundary with someone.

And all of these above traits in my view, simply make her such a charming human being but to me she is more than that – she has been my Spiritual inspiration also.  She prays a lot.  She not only believes in God but she breathes in and out the very presence of God.  She has such a strong faith that religious affairs to me no longer seem as the often do in church just make believe like Santa Claus and Fairies.  Her expression of her faith in her character as a person is so convincing that God is put up on the pedestal that He deserves, and He becomes a very real being in our very midst and an entity to be revered, respected, honoured and adored.

This is the essence of what I have learned in my many visits with this tremendous lady of whom her mother was my Nonna’s sister.  It was my Nonna’s sister Concettina, with her husband Giuseppe who were the first from the Sicilian family to migrate to Australia more than 20 years before my Nonna and my Dad did.  Such brave pioneers of the great Italian Australian cultural change sweeping through Australia.  An unknown world and language.  They made the most of what they could and worked very hard to make it their home.

My Nonna figure I call my Auntie, as though she is in fact my second cousin, she is my elder so out of respect and to honour her position as my superior I have come to call her Auntie or “Zia”.  And in Italian traditions and I believe in other cultures around the world also, any woman who is older than you and is close to you just gets named “Auntie”.  As soon as you do that, as I did with my Zia, it was like she became a kind of Godmother, very involved and ever caring with a watchful eye about the unfolding and prosperity of my youth and womanhood.   She has been there to share my journey after my first ever trip to Italy and then at my wedding.  She has been there to share my joy when I have had my two little girls.  I named my youngest daughter after her.  She has been here with me, outliving my Dad who was some 20 years younger than her, to share in my grief when he passed away.

I was about 21 years old when I started coming regularly to see her.  Since then I have never looked back and now I visit with my husband and two daughters still.   Visits to her home have always been so special.  There has always a good cup of tea but at a table set so beautifully it is fit for a Queen.  Matching teapot, milk jug, sugar pot and teacups and saucers, then the side plate and dessert folks and teaspoons.  The table is always laid with several platters,  some piled with sweet biscotti, then fruit cake and miniature jam filled fairy cakes.  The tea is hot and sweet, the conversation always pleasant.  My Zia is such a Nonna.  “Have some more”, she always says.  And you know after a piece of cake, a full cup of tea and two biscuits that you cannot or you may erupt like Etna.

The smoke from Etna actually blended into the clouds as few as there were, and I too, blended right in with the surrounding ocean orchestrated premiere.  Whenever I come into the presence of nature at its most natural state with as little interference of man-made elements as possible, I cannot help in my world view think of the reality of a God above all this wonder.  That there is a Great Hand we cannot see holding together the laws of nature.  Telling the air to behave so we can breathe it, the water to keep filling the rivers and seas so we can drink it, the sun to keep shining so we can have warmth and Vitamin D and light and the Moon to keep in that exact position to reflect the sun’s light and be a night light for us all when we go to sleep.

I am not one to believe though that anyone should be forced or manipulatively guided into believing in anything.  I believe we are all free agents and that life is a gift.  But it is up to our own free will to choose what to believe and what is right or wrong according to our own conscience.  But for me, through the eyes I possess, all I can see is that God surely exists and certainly has had a large hand in the guidance of my life’s path.  The main reason I know of such guidance is because I asked for it and the evidence of this continual care over me is imprinted on my life’s story.  Whether a subtle sweet and inviting impression to my heart or a strong message given like thunder, I have experienced first hand what it feels like to ask a big God up there for help and then, have the help that He knew I needed.  Sometimes it would be the help I wanted, and other times, I would even be ungrateful and quite annoyed at His response, but then later, understand why He responded in that way after all.

I cannot also help but think of my dear sweet ageing Zia when I ponder the wonder of my God in heaven.  This world is sometimes so dull and it is very broken.  But when heaven is such a real place you can touch from all the way down on Earth, the beauty of Spiritual dimensions becomes your daily inspiration.  Not of what we see with our eyes but sense with our constant connection with a higher and loving Being.  I am forever grateful to my Zia for her love and attention, and being the Spiritually strong woman in my life to keep my head where it always should be, not just on this earth but above, beyond this mess into a serene world of perfection and bliss, above way up, “Su” and beyond the clouds into a land of the twinkling stars where God abides.

 

Forward Gear

The car came to a very sudden halt. Here we were driving to meet my Uncle, my Dad’s brother and for me, it would be for the first time. I don’t know how my cousins drive in Sicily – or anywhere in Italy the road rules (whatever they may be) it seems are just a guide or something.   My cousin waved her hands out the window and muttered some phrase that I wouldn’t put in a public blog page and kept driving with confidence as if nothing happened.  So many near hits and yet, the Italians still get back in the driver’s seat to experience the same flush of road rage all over again. What can I say, I admire them! That’s optimism and courage at its best!

I have had so many experiences on the road. Some good and some not so willingly memorable. It’s very significant to me when you are in a car as to whether you are the passenger or the driver. When someone is driving you around your life is completely in their hands on that steering wheel. When you are driving you have full control. And it is all your responsibility to drive safely – whether you do or not.  Some of my best memories in a car with Dad are spins in his Holden Statesmen 1975 beast. He used to only use that car for special outings when not bashing around his Ute for work. And he only took me with him.   So it was Daddy daughter one on one time. There are 8 years plus difference between me and my siblings – I was a pleasant surprise after this large gap.

And cute. At least Dad used to treat me like I was. He used to go to the fruit shop with me holding my hand and then to the butcher and then to the deli and in all places he would find his “cummari’s” to speak his dialect with and show me off like a trophy. I loved the attention naturally. “Idda sta bedda” they would always say. They thought I was adorable.  Then sometimes I would be taken to meet with his circle of friends to have coffee well – for me hot chocolate of course and the kind where you spoon it it’s so thick. They would talk for a long time about this and that.  There would be joking and laughing and the random debate which could lead into a heated argument.   But every now and then he would say something about me to them and he would pinch my cheeks and then the others at the table would wave their hands at me and smile with affection and give an adoring chuckle my way.

Then there were the trips to the park which of course were my absolute favourite. Dad would drive me just for me to this child’s paradise of climbing frames and swinging sliding objects. That made me feel special. No trips to the shop or to see his friends just to the park. And he would delight in my playtime and be in that time the best Dad ever in my 4-year-old eyes.

Little did I know how much that dreamy world with my Dad was going to change. A year later, my world turned upside down. My mum drove me for a gruelling hour away from Dad’s house the night she left him for good. I did not enjoy that ride to say the least. I was literally driving further and further away from him and despite the fact that I wanted to stay with Dad, and stay as close to him as possible but there was nothing I could do about it.

I was 12 years old when I could make my own decisions and moved back in with dad. We had lost 7 years of my childhood together but we were going to make up for that. Dad would drive me to the train station to visit mum on weekends. “Get on your side of the road you idiot! “ He would always tell other passing cars.  I couldn’t get over the way he drove. It was amazing he hadn’t had any accidents to be noted. He was the one in the middle of the road. When I asked Dad how he got his licence, he said he had to fill in some paperwork. That was it! No copious records of log learner driver hours, no multiple choice written test that does your head in after failing it twice and no knee wobbling teeth grinding nail-biting practical driving test? He had it too easy I always thought. And that’s the way things once were. No need to test your driving skills to permit you to possess a licence. Just put down your name and you win! It really is like finding it in a cereal box.

Driving in Italy for me was terrifying to say the least. I had done a defensive driving test through my work back in Australia but it didn’t seem to have prepared me for the road conditions and driving discourse of the local Italian vehicles. Every time I would get in the driver’s seat I would assure myself “I will get through this alive.” The car I had borrowed months earlier when I was staying in Tuscany in my Italian trip was a mini golf Volkswagen. And it had this gearbox that would play games with me. For some reason, when I would shift the gear from neutral into first it would trick me and go into reverse instead. Not good when parked uphill.

I have always reflected upon my driving experience with that mini golf and in that reflection I am still finding valuable life lessons.   One most obvious one has been to make sure you function in forward gear. No use going backwards because you’re only going to go into the unknown because you can’t see as well in reverse. It’s fine to look behind you to make sure all is well and have some backtrack contemplating time. But not only live in neutral in the present but to go further. To think ahead you know, forward thinking.

Forward gear. Live in who you want to be not just who you are. Like my Dad. If there was one person in my life who was forward it would be my Dad. His presence was well sensed in any room and he knew what he wanted. He knew what he thought was right and wrong. He knew he was right even when he wasn’t. That can be as his daughter most infuriating but only if he got to me. The trick was to disagree in private knowing it wouldn’t be worth the breath to tell him otherwise. I got to an adult age too quickly and then he could say what he thought but when it came to my life I would gently remind him that I have learned from him and know what I want and he can’t change my mind. It’s my life to live.

My life is like the ocean – filled with unknown treasures to be discovered and deeply enriched with experiences no one but God could predict. My Dad well, he has been like an iron strong ship sailing through the whole time, ripping through the current and clashing against my waves and furious storms and continually pressing on – full speed straight ahead onward and forward. He has been a consistent figure in my life and though I have not chosen to sail in the same way or the same direction I have found his sure headstrong presence to be an inspiration for going on and getting through this journey.

It was a large Ship the “MS Australia” from the Triestino line that moved forward and pushed Dad at just 13 years old to think ahead and know what he wanted in life. My Dad’s mother was also a forward thinker. She wanted Dad to have a better future. On 12 November, 1955 my Nonna, a widow since not long after my Dad was born, agreed through a matchmaker to an arranged marriage to a farmer in North Queensland.

Bravely notwithstanding the tradition of a woman staying single as a widow and in spite of not remaining in the town and country of her birth as the majority of women in that time did, my determined, fiery and courageous Nonna ventured out escorting my Dad 13 years of age on a voyage to Australia as two of many Italian immigrants taking advantage of the offer of free one year migrant Visas. With such little to contribute economically, marrying someone in Australia was the only way my Nonna could get her son his residence.

My Nonna’s sister Concettina whom my Dad was named after had gone to Australia some 24 years earlier with her husband and they had found solace and promising opportunities for a better life there. My Nonna was to find out that Australia was not for her but that indeed my Dad found his feet in this “lucky country” and chose to stay and marry, have 7 children, buy a modest family house and call Australia home.

That “MS Australia” ship went full steam ahead and forward to a new life. And there was to be no turning back and even though Dad looked back often and I believe never forgot his cultural roots and identity, he could only think ahead and change or be strong not to change in his strange new surroundings. One thing that Dad made me realise is that you can love soccer and rugby league at the same time. You can choose what you like from Australian culture and what you like from the Italian culture and apply this to your life how you want to. Yep. The best of both worlds.

I chose to play, watch and dive right into the world of soccer from the age of 14. It is so true that you can have different experiences in soccer matches when playing various positions. Life is a mirror to this. The goalie has to be ready for the ball to shoot their way and attack where possible to any offside limits. Protecting is what is important. The defence needs to be ever ready to block that ball from going too far behind them and ever ready to press the ball in passes back up where it needs to go. Surveillance is important. The midfield players need to in my view be ready to be a go between and a channel to pass or strike that ball further forward than the defensive line are able and possession is important so that the ball stays in control to push forward. I loved to be a forward to take penalty kicks, be ready for opportunities for deflections to the goal from corner and side kicks and most of all, just to attack and be in the right place at the right time. I begged my coach of 3 years in my early 20s in the Open Women’s Soccer team, to choose me to be a forward player on the team.  He always replied with something along the lines of “you are one of my only long distance runners and I need your endurance”.  I was never a great sprinter in short spurts but I was able to keep a faster speed for longer spurts.  That was my fate as a soccer amateur player.

I looked at the signs and shops we were passing by out the passenger window and noticed the name on those signs.  Many of them had my last name.  I was thrilled.  Of course!  I am no longer a minority here!  My name is here common as Smith in Australia.  In school, university and at work my superiors had so much trouble trying to pronounce and spell my name.  But here.  I was cool.  That was a great feeling.   My cousin said we were almost at my Uncle’s place and it was all “straight ahead” from here.  I chuckled to myself.

Before my adventure in Sicily I had started my travels in Italy in Tuscany, Veneto and Grosseto regions as some of my priorities to see.  I noticed that especially in Florence and Venice when I asked for directions, they would nearly always reply with a “diritto” straight ahead.  I am not good with maps and I am very advanced at knowing how to get lost.  So I would very well often ask for help to find my way.  And repeatedly I would note this expression of “diritto” “sempre diritto”.  I decided to share that little experience with my cousin about such a response when I had asked for directions and she laughed and agreed that well yes, not always but it often can be as easy as going straight ahead to find your destination.   How appropriate I thought to myself.  Dad was definitely a “straight ahead” forward watch out he’s coming kind of person.

Before I knew it, we pulled into a gated driveway.  My Uncle was still at his fruit and vegetable stall up the road, but my Auntie was ready to meet me with open arms.  “Zio will be over soon for lunch”, my Auntie explained.  This incredible lady had carried, bore, raised and kept 11 children.  This fact alone stuns me to this day.  I managed to say a little about myself, being the youngest of 7 children and that I was trying but struggling to learn Italian and that I had finished University.  I do not know if she understood my broken speech but it was nice to try.  A few of her children of course all older than me came to greet me also.  They all looked a little more like my Nonno than my Nonna I thought.  Tall and thin and fair eyes.

My thoughts were interrupted with a “Phut phut phut phut…” by a loud 3 wheeled Piaggio Ape style truck coming into the driveway.  A petite but taller than my Dad man jumped out of the hardworking vehicle.  He came straight to me with a Kiss.  He looked so much like my Nonno.  He was a quiet man, of few words but tears were streaming down his cheeks.  He was obviously happy to see his nipotina, the daughter of his little long-lost brother from Australia.  Everyone sat in the shade outside and gathered around.  I remember this big ring of fresh crusty beige coloured earthy bread being passed around followed by a big bowl of tomato and white onion salad with salt, oil and a dash of vinegar, and another bowl of my favorite vegetable in the world – finocchio or as we call it here, fennel.  The table home-made wine went down extremely well also. The tomatoes were so red and ripe and sweet that they stained the bread and the fennel was so refreshing and crisp and just what I needed on a Sicilian dry and hot summer’s day.

My Uncle noted my enthusiasm in eating his produce and he said I could come visit him at the fruit shop later to choose anything I would like to eat.  I felt so spoiled.  Free and fresh produce at my new doorstep for the next few weeks.  And I got to get them from my Uncle which meant I could have some short chats and try to know him better.  He seemed like a hard-working humble man and one to not muck around.  He also knew what he wanted in life it seemed.  I looked up as a ball went passed my face.  “Not here!” Shouted my Auntie.  A few of her grandsons were kicking the soccer ball around their cemented front yard.  I decided to join in.  I mean, soccer was so my thing and I wanted to see how good they were knowing full well because they take soccer very seriously and play like every day and competitively that they would be much better than me and would kick my backside so to speak.

The beauty with the world game of soccer is you need to with the team every split second be thinking about possible set ups to be in the right position and place at the right moment in time to make that possession more dominant and get those goals you want.  I used to sit on Dads knee as a 3-year-old amazed by the game and enjoyed listening to his remarks, abuse and complaints. I loved to watch the way they kicked the ball up and down side to side and how many times they would tackle and fall over. It was most exciting to me to see them kicking the penalty kicks because I felt like watching them I was actually in their shoes kicking with them and following with my eyeballs in slow motion as it seemed the ball’s path as it soared through the air, waiting in suspense for the ball to deflect, to be guarded by the goalkeeper, to bounce away or go right into the net with such force it could almost make a hole and tear through it. Kicking is empowering.  Those elements of your life you don’t want you just kick them out into oblivion. The question I was to ask myself was, was I going to run back and forth through life defending for the ones behind me or passing the ball to those in forward position or was I going to become a forward myself and Attack! If I am a passenger or driving, as long as we are driving in forward gear I know I am getting ahead.

 

A Mop, a Broom and a Bucket

“Over there!” was the phrase my Auntie taught me that day.  My Italian was not great and my Sicilian was pretty much nil.  Somehow though we managed to understand each other and get by.  The morning was crisp with the thin curtains flapping in the breeze as if jumping in and out of the window.  I happily accepted her command to bring her the item of longing she had wanted with so much passion and dire urgency.

Just a few split seconds came and went and it felt as if I had travelled in a time machine where that moment in time had slowed right down and even came to a standstill.  I somehow knew in this small errand I was part of something much bigger than it seemed at first.  I realised I was not able to control an exploding volcano in my stomach.  I had been building up inside with so many new experiences and confronted with new concepts about who I am and where I fit in this big wide world.  Here I was, for the first time in my life with my Dad’s sister who lived so far away yet, spoke with almost the same accent and relating with her was so familiar but yet different.  I couldn’t put my finger on it.

I did however drop back into the time machine vacuum to reality and put my finger on the mop oh yes, and the broom.  Before I was onto what was happening I found myself sweeping the floor of the quaint charming house.  Eight children had been raised in this home and all of them my first cousins.  “Eight children!” I thought to myself,  “How did my Auntie do it?”  As I was sweeping I felt strange.  With each swipe and brush of the bristles I felt I was changing my world.

I had only ever known my siblings – I am the seventh and youngest child.  I had no idea that I had this Auntie here until now and all those cousins! And the best part was, I had yet to meet my Dad’s brother who with his dear wife had eleven children.  So you know, another eleven first cousins that side of the family.  My Dad was the youngest of his two siblings and he used to quite often show me the photos of his brother and sister.

I looked over at my Auntie from the corner of my eye to find my instincts served me correctly.  She was watching my every move as if ready to tell me how to sweep better just in case I wasn’t doing the floor enough justice.  She definitely looked like a female version of my Dad – how weird.   But so wonderful at the same time.  I never could connect as well as I wanted to with my mother, so I was interested to see what other females were like in my tree of family branches.  “Ok, Ok!” She said.  I mean, I could say she shouted that phrase but yelling is actually the normal volume range and tone of voice when speaking just like when my Dad talked to me.

“Enough, it’s good.” “Now you can mop.” My Auntie instructed pointing sternly towards the mop.  I was happy to help, as she really struggled to get around the house and do life’s basic duties.  I was just so content to finally be in Sicily, the land of my Dad’s birth and be staying with his family who I was so hungry to know better.  Hungry was a good use of the word too I must say, because the local, homemade food at tables in my Sicilian family’s house is just lets say, something that can make you think your hungry even when you are not.

As I grabbed the mop handle, my Auntie looked almost troubled.  “You have to fill the bucket”.  She told me with pleading eyes.  I started thinking about the photo I saw of her in Dad’s house when she was young.  She of course, was a beautiful woman.  The tap squeaked at me and I turned it harder and faster to get the flow going.  I couldn’t help it.  My mind just started running like crazy as I watched the bucket filling up.  I was looking in the mirror.

I felt just like that bucket filling up.  I had been trying so hard to find connection with the cultural surroundings back home at school or in my group of friends and especially between my mum and my siblings.  But not enough was there.  I felt too bare, hungry and wanting more.  I wanted something different but I didn’t know what.  My Dad was assuredly my point of connection.  There was something about his persona when he was in the room that made me feel I guess, at home.  I was filling up.

I was not some sponge but a gigantic bucket filling up with the experience of this long related to but only shortly acquainted with Auntie.  It was so replenishing.  Dad had never spoken to me in Sicilian.  I only started learning Italian in University when I was 20 years old and I seriously did not learn to speak as much as write.  I tried to practice with Dad and he responded to me in Italian.  I would ask him, “Why don’t you respond in your own native Sicilian language (Sicilian is another language not a dialect as some may believe)?”  “You need to speak Italian, that is the one most spoken” he would reason.

I always thought it sounded so attractive and inviting when Dad spoke Sicilian to his friends on the phone or even also with his sister or brother.  Sicilian is so rustic and closer to Latin then most languages in the world.  He was a different person when speaking his native tongue.  He was confident – no – more than confident, pompous and convincing.  In English, he struggled – I guess like me in Italian – funny that.  I came to understand in my first visit to Sicily a little – at least a taste –  of what Dad must have felt when he came to Australia as a teenager in 1955 with no English skills at all.

When I  started to with much embarrassment speak and stutter and with a most appalling accent the Italian language I was learning in University with my Dad, our relationship blossomed.  I could sense how proud he was that I was trying to speak his language.  He responded to my questions in Italian with such confidence and in such a quick time frame.  I wasn’t used to that conversational flow with him.  I was now the one, making our conversation slow down, not him.  I was the one struggling to be understood. Not him.  The table had turned over.

That bucket was full enough.  I dipped in the mop head and again, as it started to change the colour of the tiles on the floor I sensed this drifting away of my thoughts about how much the mopping  – just as the sweeping had – was inspiring my own interpretation of my self-evolving experience in Sicily.  I was full of the language, smells, sights, tastes and culture of my Sicilian Auntie and cousins already and I was like that Mount Etna, the nearby active volcano being stirred from any slumber, rumbling, rolling, and under extreme pressure just ready to erupt and burst my fun into the sky for everyone to see.

I decided that all I had learned in that visit with my Auntie and cousins was not going to end in Sicily.  I was going to take that stuff with me and as soon as I reach the airport in Australia, start to stain the ground I walk on with the mysterious liquid from my mop bucket, mop in hand.  I must, I thought, keep learning the language, keep eating that amazing food and stay in touch with these lovely people.  I decided that I wanted to take what I could with me and adopt parts of this culture as my own.  I wanted to spread this happiness too.  I thought that Dad was from a great culture, but I believe Dad has learned to tone down and hold back.

I cannot be certain as to why exactly Dad found the need to decide to or just perhaps without knowing fall into the state of denying parts of his culture.  He was part of the Australian 1950s and 1960s wave of immigration where “Assimilation” policy was in vogue.  Dad did maintain his language and was able to cook some of the family traditional recipes and passed these onto me.  But he seemed to be less open than his sister.  He had somehow become a little closed off and liked to stay a little distant at times, though he was clearly a large admirer and most affectionate in his own way with his precious “figghia ciu picciridda” (the Sicilian term for youngest daughter – not sure that I spelled that correctly).

It was not easy to see if it was a fear of being hurt, rejected or just being close.  Neither was it not a consideration to behold that he distanced himself due to not feeling like he belonged in his second homeland.  Then again, in having to grow up so fast at the age of 14 years when he arrived to Australia and work on the sugar cane farms cutting cane by hand and moving onto trade and contractor work for the remaining part of his life career, perhaps he didn’t know how to open up so much and just knew how to “be” after such a hardworking life.  He liked things to be simple.  He liked his routine.  He liked things to be predictable.

I looked over my shoulder to check where I had started mopping.  The tiles were looking shinier and now the stain from the dampness of the mop had faded.  I wrung out tight the mop head after plunging it up and down into the bucket repeatedly, trying to rinse it the best I could.  As the water dripped from the mop head into the bucket, I felt an uncomfortable tightening in my throat.  My Dad could have felt a little choked by his Sicilian culture he had been raised up to be part of.  He couldn’t have felt limited in his birthplace, as this was the place where the culture was born itself.  It would have been in Australia, especially in his time of youth in that mainstream culture of the time, that he noticed the negative response of those he related with whether at work, on the train or at the bank from parts of his culture.

The rich culture he has learned had to be wrung out a little, to lesson the intensity of difference when he walked all over the floor.  He must speak less Italian and more English.  He must speak with a more Australian accent.  He must watch the right Australian sports. Not just soccer, but rugby and tennis is good too.  He must drink the right kind of beer and dream the Australian dream.  To own a particular kind of house, and have a special kind of car.  To be only Italian or Sicilian as a person in the safe and private association of his friends – the drippings wrung out can only stay in the bucket.  Don’t want to wet the floor too much.  We wouldn’t want someone to slip, fall or get hurt.

Just as the tiles had faded behind me, I noticed, Dad must have toned down quite a lot that cheeky youthful face I can read through in his photo collection.  I froze.  I had been told by my own boss in my workplace in that period of my life those exact words.  “You must tone it down”.  Wow.  I am too much.  I have to tone down too to “fit in”.  I wanted so much to spread this love of this culture I had lapped up so eagerly around the floor of my homeland, but as I began mopping a new space of dirty tiles I knew it was inevitable.  I would have to be careful with whom I share it and how much I share and where.  I would in many cases have to hold back and “tone down”.

Suddenly, I felt more connected to Dad then ever.  I felt nothing but compassion.  How much he has gone through.  The prejudice, the demeaning looks, the assumptions about him thinking with an accent not just speaking with one and the conclusions made without even allowing him to be known properly – yes, even discrimination.  Wait a moment, he wasn’t quite Sicilian enough to be in the same bucket holding Sicilian local culture.  But he wasn’t Australian enough to be fully accepted as a “true blue” “fair dinkum” (those Australian slang coined phrases simply translate to mean “real”) Australian bloke (man).  So where did he go? What bucket was he in?  And what could he do if he had to hold it inside and not let it out anywhere – neither Sicily or Australia?

I guess he was a pretty full on volcano then.  Angry, aggressive, yes that’s it.  He lived in a struggle of identity and frustration.  This volcano had to be put to sleep…or someone was going to get hurt or surprised at least.  I was about to empty the bucket into the sink as the job was done.  I put the bucket down.  If I didn’t understand as much why Dad is the way he is before my journey began into the unknown Italian half of my blood, I thought it also highly likely that my mother and siblings would have little opportunity to understand him either.  More disturbingly, I sensed a general hatred and anger towards my Dad from my mother and siblings and it was often because he was claimed to be selfish, angry, aggressive and rude.

Though he has been all of those things in my eyes too, I never felt unsafe or scared around him.  In fact, whilst I did not feel so secure in the care of my mother, I felt more sure of myself than ever when with my Dad.  Perhaps his strong will and knowing what he wanted all the time didn’t go down badly with me at all, rather, made me know how to do the same.  No time for thinking about things but just getting on with it, knowing what you like and don’t like, telling everyone who doesn’t agree that they have “rocks in the head” as my Dad would always say.  Then as a result of this knowing with such vigilance at least in your territory what is happening you go for it, onward as if marching into battle.

I hardly ever argued with my Dad.  I never could see the point.  He was always the winner.  As in, no matter what I would say, he nearly always would not back down.  I knew this, so I would just let him believe what he needed to.  I used to let him think I thought he was right and go with it.  Here I was helping my Auntie clean her floor and knowing that she was not one to pick a fight with either.  They were surely related.  My Dad and Auntie though I had never witnessed it had the same “mamma” and used to eat at the same table.  I looked over at my Auntie.  She managed a cheeky smile.  She mumbled to me something about getting lunch ready.  I asked her if she wanted help but she refused – no, this was her territory.  Dad was the same.  He hated me “helping” him cook but if I watched him cook and then made the same thing on my own that he made, he would eat it and sometimes throw in the most elevated compliment of  “It’s good”.  Was he thinking that his was better though? I am sure he was.

My train of thought was interrupted as I heard the groans of my Auntie as she moved from the stove to the cupboard, from the cupboard with the pot to the stove and then preparing the meal.  With every move she mad she would say “Avanti”, which means something like keep going.  I like to think it means more like the commanding word “onward” because it gives the idea of movement and inertia of some description yet is so powerful and maybe demanding.  Observing my Auntie made me feel helpless.  I wanted to help.  I was not aware if she was experiencing a lot of physical pain or any at all, but the way she did things caused me to think this way.  “Avanti” she commanded herself again as she poured the water into the pot.

I couldn’t help myself.  I asked her, “Auntie, why do you need to tell yourself ‘Avanti’?”  She looked displeased with my question.  Waving her hands about as if to shoo me away like a big old dirty fly she exclaimed, “It’s the only way I get things done.  I need to keep going.”  Wisdom had spoken.  She was so right.  I thought I was going to take that phrase and put it into my bucket.  She was in quite a lot of physical pain I found out later on in other conversations we had – however difficult due to my poor ability to understand her very confined Sicilian and her low level patience in my staggering and disconnected Italian when attempting to speak.  My Auntie continued throughout the remainder of my visit that year and the next to use that word to “get things done”.

When my Dad was in the hospital bed and little did I know that visit that it would be my last in seeing him fully conscious,  I told him that though he was sick, he had to get better and he had to tell himself “Avanti” like my Auntie always did.  My Auntie died more than a decade before my Dad, but I thought in that fragile time that he needed to hear those words as much as I did that day when my Auntie first shared it with me.  The nurse interrupted my visit with him with a quick check-up and she asked him how he was and he replied, “I’ma ok, you know ‘avanti’, I have to keepa going”.  Dad you did keep going, but I think you took the wrong turn.  You were supposed stay longer here with me.

My Auntie had made another great lunch and I was washing dishes when an unexpected visitor came – well at least I never heard about them coming.  It was my cousin. Ok.  It was one of my cousins from my Uncle’s side.  She had twin toddlers, a boy and a girl.  So adorable!  I got to put them on my lap and have a cuddle and was totally in the moment when suddenly not listening to any prior dialogue and ignoring the raised voices ruling them out as normal everyday talk, my Auntie started getting a little angry.  I only understood the gist of the discourse.  I was being abducted, at least according to my Auntie.  My cousin was impressive.  I had to take notes on her reasoning language.  She was saying that I had been with her for a while and my Auntie needed to now let her brother have some time with me also.  After some tennis match style moments of debating I found myself being asked to pack my bag and come with her.

I looked at my Auntie to seek her approval.  She started waving her hands frantically as if waving them hard enough would actually whisk me away.  I know she didn’t want me to go and I was so glad and honoured she loved having me around so much because I so happened to enjoy her company too.  As we were driving away to my Uncle’s I came to a very solid conclusion.  I was going to make my own bucket list.  Not a list of what I want to do in my life before I die, rather, this is a list I want to put in my bucket.  It is what I want to add to the recipe for baking my own culture.  I have my broom, and have swept away what I don’t like about my culture back home and even in my family.  I now have a very full bucket and I need to decide what is in it, and what I want to keep inside and what I want to mop up so I can change the ground I walk on, long term.  And hopefully saying the entire way in this walk, “Avanti” and “onward!”