On the kitchen table today… roses and lemons from a friend’s garden. (With glorious fresh, crisp and sweet musky scents!) The vase came from Nanna Francesca’s ‘good cabinet’ and was a bonbonniere from a 1970s or 80s Italian wedding. (Some will remember those!) It’s fairly solid – perfect for carrying home after at least nine hours of wedding celebrating! Have a lovely day. 😊 Zoe xx
Tag Archives: growing up Italian Australian
A lovely surprise to hear of this article in Il Capoluogo that talks about my books. You may read it in Italian via this link or the English-translated version below. Some of the translation from Italian may come across a little differently in English. Interesting to find out how some of my posts are interpreted from afar, especially in Italy. (And in line with the article’s title, I can say that despite earthquakes, pandemics and all else that has kept me from the family house in Fossa, I still love the beauty and history of Fossa, the Aterno Valley and Abruzzo and now that I’ve finished, The Proxy Bride, I’m delving back into this remarkable area of Italy and some unanticipated family trails for my next book.) Many thanks to giornalista, Sergio Venditti for the article.
Zoë Boccabella, the Australian writer in love with Fossa and its Abruzzo.
by Sergio Venditti
In 2022, not only Italy, but also Abruzzo begins to emerge from the “shadow cone” of marginalisation and irrelevance in a society with a strong Anglo-Saxon imprint, such as Australia. In fact, in this magical year a real political-institutional miracle took place with the election as Prime Minister of that great country the Hon. Anthony Albanese, son of an Apulian from Barletta (known only in 2011) and raised by a single mother. An outcome that was not taken for granted, with the victory of Labor, after a decade under conservative leadership, but who wanted to experience change in the post-pandemic. The Albanian government has thirteen ministers, even with a representation of Islamic faith. At his oath, the Prime Minister declared, “I am proud of my government, which reflects Australia in its inclusiveness and diversity”.
Of course, half a century has passed since that film by L. Zampa (“A Girl in Australia” starring C. Cardinale and A. Sordi), which made an era: “Handsome, Honest, Australian Emigrant would marry a respectable countrywoman”. The critic G. Grazzini wrote about the film: “It is not only fun, it evokes the nostalgia for the distant homeland…. where everything is possible “. In fact, in recent decades the Italian community has conquered, with tenacity, a central space in Australian society, as already highlighted in all fields.
This is also the case for an emigrant like Annibale, who arrived in the country from his small village of Fossa in the province of L’Aquila. Childhood memories of him are now inspirational for his granddaughter, Zoë Boccabella, an emerging author. The latter reports her family background in the book: “Mezza Italiana“, featured in a 2019 interview (to Abruzzo Economia): “I grew up as a descendant of Italian immigrants in the 70s and 80s, when having Mediterranean origins it was not as well regarded as it is now”.
In this autobiographical book, Zoë describes her discovery of Abruzzo and her home in Fossa (damaged in the same 2009 earthquake). In these memories, Boccabella touches the central heart of the return to the origins: “The first time I travelled to Abruzzo, where my paternal grandfather comes from, I had the feeling of returning home”.
Thus visiting Calabria itself, from which her grandmother came. And again memory becomes writing: “Walking through villages, hills, woods and abandoned castles, I felt that Abruzzo was a unique land” and … “I was reflecting more and more on my life experience … and on how I felt divided in half, as if I did not entirely belong to either culture”.
A journey to rediscover her origins as Zoë (with her husband Roger), after a childhood in which she was sometimes harassed at school, in Brisbane (in the north-eastern state of Queensland), insulted as a “Wog“, for non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants. “I started writing what would become ‘Mezza Italiana’, while I was sitting at the kitchen table of our family house in Fossa”. Still in the kitchen, this time in Australia, Zoë describes: “pumpkins, which we bought from a farmer, along the road, near Esk”. And after also their symbolic role in the land of the ancestors: “For centuries in Abruzzo pumpkins have remained a significant part of folklore and the agricultural calendar, with late autumn, which was a moment of reconciliation and gratitude at the end of the harvest” … “With the end of the seasons the arrival of the moment of gratitude for those who preceded us, who have now disappeared”.
“The cocce de morte” (heads of the dead), are carved in the pumpkins and inside with a lit candle to illuminate, welcoming the loved ones of the past, to join those present and their homes “. In this, Zoë Boccabella represents a cultured writer (with a degree in Literature and Sociology, with a master’s degree in Philosophy), determined and coherent in her narrative plots.
Now she announces her third book, forthcoming, entitled “The Proxy Bride“, which takes up the old custom of proxy weddings in a foreign land. An extraordinarily lively novel, “About family, secrets and adversity, imagining marrying someone you’ve never met. How she arrived in Australia on a bridal ship, among many brides by proxy, knowing little of the husbands they had married from afar, most of them coming to find someone, very different from what was described “.
The author recalls the same added value of feminist culture, in “Three Shades of Mimosas“, as a symbol to celebrate the first International Women’s Day, in 1946. A shared appeal also to denounce the Russian invasion, the loss of many paintings by the Ukrainian artist M. Prymachenko (1909-1997), with her symbolic work, “A Dove Has Spread Her Wings and Asks for Peace”, 1982. Yet a great Russian literature like F. Dostoevsky wrote: “Man loves to build and trace roads, he is peaceful. But where does it come from that you also passionately love destruction and chaos”.
Just under a month until, The Proxy Bride arrives on 7 September. With it being on the way for a little while now and drawing nearer, the time feels somewhat like the time it took for the ship journey from Italy to Australia. Such a journey of anticipation, fear and excitement for so many migrants but perhaps even more so for the women, the proxy brides, destined to meet husbands, many of them, for the first time. It makes me feel even more admiration for these courageous women who took that journey on what were called ‘bride ships’.
I must admit to feeling a bit of trepidation myself as the book date approaches while at the same time looking forward to sharing it with you. Thank you to so many of you who have been steadfast in the years of my researching and writing to share these stories, it is truly wonderful to have you here in this little corner of the world and I love how you share your own sentiments and stories here too.
You may notice here that the book also includes a dozen recipes. I didn’t plan this but then, considering there is a fair but of cooking and eating along the way in this story (and it’s such a part of Italian life!) it seemed right to include them. I think the names of just a few might start to reveal a little more of the book… ‘Angry Spaghetti’, ‘Mixed Grill’ and ‘Crostoli in Cioccolato’, recipes passed down, connecting different generations, countries and stories, sometimes with a bit of an unexpected twist too… Zoe x
Bisnonna Francesca… a companion post to the previous on Bisnonno Domenico. Likewise, I didn’t get to meet her yet each photo has a little to reveal and brings the past somewhat closer in that moment. A rare photo, circa 1930 (bottom right) shows Francesca in Palmi, Calabria with her mother, Soccorsa, the baker and her daughter (Nanna Francesca). The three who lived together for years after Domenico was in Australia. And then (top left), just Francesca and her daughter, soon to leave to join him in 1934. She and her mother had worked hard to help raise the ship fares, determined as she was to be reunited.
I long for a photo of Francesca in her Applethorpe kitchen, cooking at the wood-fired stove, but sadly there are none. Often, I find her standing a little way behind in photos or to the side so it’s nice to see her front and centre (top right) with family and friends happy at harvest time.
For, by the photo of her and Domenico, it wasn’t long before he died, she becoming a widow at only forty-six. Sadly, their orchards were sold and she moved to her own house in the city – Teneriffe, Brisbane (bottom centre) but missed the farm and her life in Stanthorpe. At a picnic day with friends and family (top centre), still wearing her dark, mourning clothes, again Francesca stands to the back, as in many photos. Dad told me she remained heartbroken at losing Domenico and it truly must have affected her heart for she died just over a couple of years later, aged only 50.
My truly favourite photo of her is one of happiness (centre). She stands in her orchards and it seems light is falling upon her. To me, what’s most beautiful is her bare feet. My great-uncle, Vincenzo tells me his mum was always walking barefoot in the orchards and I love this so much. Her feet on the ground, feeling the earth. For someone who worked her entire life from a very young age and with no holidays, thankfully it seems there were these small moments of beauty in the everyday. 💛
Companion post –
Clues in black and white… Domenico
When writing of the past, two of the most valuable things I can hope for are handed-down spoken stories and photographs. I never knew my bisnonno, Domenico yet each photo can say so much…
In his work clothes (top left), one knee patched, behind him his Applethorpe orchards on land he’d hand-cleared, long before he could afford the horse.
Below, just a teenager in his navy uniform, this studio portrait in Palmi at the time of WWI. (For most of his life a cigarette never far from his hand – he smoked Capstans).
Other photos reveal the camaraderie of the migrant men in Australia. Their evident love of music and dance in those rare times they weren’t working and could get together, Domenico often asked to play his guitar. Bonds built up in the years they’d been compelled to be apart from family in Italy, and now reunited with wives and children, WW2 over, the future promising.
In the centre photo, Domenico stands between two fellows, well-dressed, behind them the truck he’d bought – that sign of success for many. By this time he owned the farm, had his wife and three children near, a first grandchild. It must be one of the last photos of him. Domenico only lived to be fifty-three but by then, the risk he’d taken in emigrating to Australia with so little, knowing he could never again see his parents and relatives back in Italy, had set up a future for ongoing generations of his descendants. It never fails to impress me what these first generations of migrants accomplished.
Companion post –
Inklings of the past… Francesca
Spaghetti squash… a sunny winter vegetable. It grows on a vine like pumpkin and has yellow, star-shaped blossoms that only open for one day. Love how, once tender, you can gently fork the strands from the sides to create spaghetti in its own bowl.
I never encountered spaghetti squash when growing up. And when it came to spaghetti pasta, when I was a child in the 1970s, at home we mostly had fettucine not spaghetti. Going to Australian friends’ houses I envied how they had spaghetti and added bolognaise sauce on top. I felt self-conscious that at my house we had fettucine with my grandparents’ homemade passata mixed all through and twirled it onto a fork. I’d get tied up in knots about doing anything ‘different’ and not fitting in.
Now I think it’s wonderful that Australia having migrants from more than two hundred countries also means people cooking and sharing more than two hundred traditional cuisines and that’s as well as our First Australians’ rich culture of food and cooking. It’s said that different groups often come to be accepted when their food becomes known, enjoyed and sought after. To think, once spaghetti was so strange and foreign to some and now it’s such a beloved dish in all its forms. Hopefully there are now kids with Italian ancestry happily twirling their spaghetti in front of their friends and even teaching them to do so too. Maybe even with spaghetti squash! Zoë x 💛🍝
A post script – there were too many little incidents to include them all in, Joe’s Fruit Shop and Milk Bar, but in relation to the previous post, here is a small, extra story…
Just up from the family house in Wyandra Street, Teneriffe was a Gospel Hall that had Scout meetings on Friday nights. By then, it was the early 1950s and Remo, not yet ten, went along.
To his dismay, when Granny Maddalena found out, she turned up and told him to get home. ‘You’re not going to any more of these meetings, the devil is in there!’ – Perhaps because the Gospel Hall wasn’t Catholic?! – Bewildered, Remo said to her, ‘But we were just learning how to tie knots!’
Nearly thirty years on, the Gospel Hall was still there, next to the land Annibale was hoping to purchase to build the ANFE premises. He made an appointment with the Minister to see if he was willing to sell it. The Minister took a long look at him and said, ‘But I can’t sell this hall to you! The devil is in it!”, and then he winked. He and Annibale had a good laugh, remembering, and then the Minister said, “All right, I’m happy to sell it since the land will be used for another community venture.”
…Dad reminded me of this story just the other day. I didn’t recall ever seeing any photographs with this Gospel Hall in them but then, not long afterward, a curious thing happened. I went back to work looking through old photographs for another book I’m working on, and by chance, out fell a photo Nanna Francesca took in Wyandra Street when they lived there and in the background behind the car is the timber, Gospel Hall. All these years on and I happen to see this for the first time now.
Perhaps I was a bit too sentimental in my previous post, (I can be at the best of times!) It might’ve been because Wyandra Street features so strongly in my family history and now, little remains of how the area once was and another bit will soon vanish. But I accept life keeps going on, change happens and so it is. In the meantime, we connect and live on in our stories and I feel very blessed to be able to share these stories with you and to hear yours in return. Gentile auguri! Zoe xx
PPS Apologies for the picture quality, these photos are almost 70 years old now. (The older boy is a cousin possibly dressed up for an occasion and Dad as a little boy seems to be copying his stance!)
The Proxy Bride is a novel inspired by true stories and set between the 1940s and the 1980s in Italy and Australia. There will be angry spaghetti, mixed grills, mixed tapes, Dean Martin on the 1950s stereogram and plastic on the lounge suite and, above all, hopefully characters you may come to love who band together amid tough times for a new life.
To be released 7 September, 2022…
The plaited chillies hanging in the kitchen are on their way!
Buona settimana! 💛🍝 Zoe x
I have this one treasured photo with three generations of the Boccabella men in my life – Dad, Nonno Anni, Bisnonno Vitale (and my zio).
When I was born, I was the first girl in centuries of generations in my Boccabella line and very fortunate to have these older men around me. Men who showed me kindness, love, respect and generosity, who never hit or yelled, worked very hard and who could also be infuriatingly stubborn at times! Am very proud to share their name and their stories.
Happy Father’s Day to all the Dads and tight hugs to those missing Dads (and also Grandpas and Great-Granddads as I do too). With much love, Zoë xx
Polpette and peas in gravy, such an ‘Australitaliano’ combination – meatballs and peas in tomato sauce. Comfort food at its best. Nanna Francesca cooked this a lot (and when I was a kid, I found it a bit confusing that, being southern Italian, she called the tomato passata or sugo – ‘gravy’ considering my Australian Mum called gravy a deep-brown liquid accompanying a roast). Nanna Francesca would’ve been 95 today so it seems fitting to cook her polpette e piselli in gravy. We always celebrated her birthday on the 12th, the day she was born though the official date on her birth certificate was the 19th (lodged late as her parents argued who to name her after). Tradition won, as did her father, and being the first-born, Francesca was named after her paternal grandmother.
This photograph of Nanna Francesca isn’t the clearest unfortunately, but she just looks so natural and happy in it, I couldn’t go past it. It’s from the 1960s and I love how the flowers she holds look like they’re from a garden rather than bought. It seemed all her life she worked so hard – at the farm, at home, in the fruit shop and milk bar, at the ANFE club and always looking after family. And she spent many hours at the stove cooking for four generations of us. It’s lovely to see her dressed to go out and given some flowers.
While it’s almost twenty years she’s been gone, I feel lucky to have had her in my life for the time I did and of course, the memory of our loved ones lives on, especially when we cook the dishes they cooked. (I’ve included the recipe that was printed in Delicious magazine and yes, the dish they made for the article photo is much more elegant than my at home version you see pictured here!)
Buon compleanno a mia Nonna, with love and recognition for all your love and hard work – and your polpette and peas in gravy! xx
“On Boxing Day, Annibale, Francesca and the others loaded the back of the Chevrolet with cold drinks, some roast chickens and a couple of large watermelons. After several years of keeping the fruit shop and milk bar open almost every day, Annibale had decided they’d close for a couple of days over Christmas and the family would head to the beach for the day…
They chose a grassy spot in the stippled shade of a Norfolk Pine and set out the Esky on top of an old canvas tarpaulin. Maddalena and Vitale sat on fold-out chairs in the shade while everyone else headed for the beach. The sand was rough with bits of broken shell underfoot but it was a perfect day for the seaside, warm, with little wind, sunlight glinting on the water. Francesca hadn’t stood on a beach since her childhood in Palmi. Just the sound of the gentle waves breaking in little bubbly ripples around her feet brought a smile. None of them could swim but they only went in waist-deep, crouching and talking, ducking under at times to cool their heads.
At noon, Maddalena waved everyone in, and they traipsed up the beach for lunch. Towels wrapped about their waists, they sat on the edge of the tarpaulin, feet caked with wet sand sticking out onto the grass. Everyone devoured pieces of roast chicken, licking salt and grease from their fingers, before biting into slices of watermelon, the sugary juice flooding their mouths. Remo and a few of the young migrants who’d come with them competed in how far they could shoot black seeds from between their lips onto the grass.
After lunch, while the others went to get an ice cream or for another dip in the sea, Annibale lay back on the tarp snoozing, one arm flung over his eyes. The waves slapped with calming monotony. Children shrieked in their games along the sand. Seagulls strolled, squabbled and scooped water into their beaks at the water’s edge. With a chuckle, Francesca took a photo as Annibale dozed, unaware. Then she sat down next to him, watching Remo and Lorenzo building a sandcastle with a moat. There was no way the incoming tide would fill it until they’d long gone back to Brisbane. Francesca felt so happy being at a beach again she didn’t want it to end.”
(Nonno Anni at Suttons Beach, Redcliffe.)
Like so many migrants running their own businesses, for years, my grandparents worked every day, including nights and weekends to keep their fruit shop and milk bar open from 7am to 11pm, and after several years of no holidays at all, only had a one-day holiday at the beach each year for decades. I will forever be inspired by their work ethic and have so much respect for all those migrants working hard in the same situation today. Grazie con molto rispetto. Zoë xx
Nonno Anni told me when he received an orange for Christmas during his childhood in the 1920s, he treasured it. I knew he and his Mum were poor and village life in Italy was hard at that time, especially with his father far away in Australia to seek work, but an orange… I couldn’t quite believe it when I found this out as a child in the 1970s and oranges were so easy to get then. But fresh oranges were considered treasures before refrigeration and faster transport. Especially at Christmas considering that since ancient times, oranges have been said to bring joy, good luck and to ward off evil. (What must Nonno Anni have thought once he had a whole display of oranges at his fruit shop and milk bar!)
So, with Christmas oranges in mind, I decided to bake an orange cake since it’s that time of year and it wasn’t until making it that I realised, this one cake of simple ingredients is also made up of elements from several generations… the Christmas orange story from Nonno’s Italian childhood, the cake tin well-used in baking for countless cake stalls and Australian country shows before my mother-in-law handed it onto us, the orange cake recipe in her mother’s 1930s cookbook, also passed on to us with affection. (And I love how the recipe’s first line is, three eggs and their weight in sugar…)
If I’m honest, Christmas isn’t always the easiest time for me as it feels bittersweet with the happiness of those present mingled with the quiet of those unable to be or now gone. But food is so special in that certain dishes can trigger those lovely memories of people dear to us no matter how long it may be since we’ve seen them and this year, I feel happy that oranges can bring that little bit of sunshine.
Warmest wishes and thank you for your lovely support and messages throughout the year. May 2020 be filled with light and some happiness no matter what else it may bring! Wishing you tante belle cose – many beautiful things, Zoe xx
Doing things like an Italian you’d never have thought you would when growing up…
“Putting on the tree net to protect the figs.”
Yes, I did this last weekend and those familiar with Mezza Italiana will know there was a time I would never have imagined myself doing so. (Not sure my modest tree and net is any match for Nonno Anni’s past efforts! Although I think Roger’s makeshift stake of a star picket and old piece of hose is in keeping with honouring making do and not letting anything go to waste – no matter how it looks!) 😁😊💛