Tag Archives: Italian migrant stories

From the page to the village…

It’s such a lovely surprise to find out that after reading my books, some of you have sought out Fossa to see it for yourselves! And what a thrill to be sent these photos by Mel of her parents, Doris and Domenico, who were recently among a group guided by local, Edmondo, and given a tour of Fossa and the places I wrote about. Thank you to all of you! xx I never dreamed of seeing my books in Fossa or held up outside the door of my family’s house there. Can you imagine what Nonno Anni would’ve thought?! I can almost see him shaking his head and half-smiling in disbelief and happiness, his eyes a little bit wet.

It was in 1996 that I stood outside this same doorway for the first time, feeling so many emotions amid a chip on my shoulder and yet that tugging sense of ‘coming home’ to a place I’d never been before. And it was at the kitchen table inside that I began writing what would become Mezza Italiana and my later books over several visits. I had no clue then that what I wrote might be published one day, or that in 2009 an earthquake would hit, rendering the house and most of the town so damaged as to be uninhabitable. (As you can see, red scaffolding remains for now outside my family’s house.)

Fossa currently is a ghost town that requires much care and it is quite a moving experience to visit, while still beautiful and also fascinating in its mystical and lively past. I keep holding hope that its centuries of history, art, life and beauty on Monte Circolo will prevail and in future the town will once more surge with people, animals, vespas, church bells, music and wonderful cooking aromas. Heartfelt thanks to Doris and Domenico and all those who’ve sought out Fossa with respect and interest and again, thank you to all of you who’ve embraced these books so.

Oh, and Mel also wrote to me that her parents would’ve held Joe’s Fruit Shop and Milk Bar in the photos as well but her aunt had it and was busy reading it. That Joe’s is being read all these years on is just so terrific to hear. For Nonno Anni who, in 1939, aged 15 walked down that cobblestoned road carrying one suitcase on his way to the other side of the world, having to leave Fossa that he loved so much, not knowing if he’d ever return, I’m truly grateful that this story lives on more than 80 years later. For him and for all those who’ve taken that same, sometimes rough, brave journey of migrating and made the best they could of it. Grazie mille and auguri. Zoë xx

Books…

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Handed-down stories…

Paperback copies of, Joe’s Fruit Shop and Milk Bar have currently sold out but there is another reprint underway so they should be available again by early December. Thank you to all of you who’ve embraced, Joe’s over many years and to those who’ve recently sent me messages wanting to read it but unable to get a copy. If you’re after a copy, please order one through your local bookshop or online as they’ll definitely be coming in 3-4 weeks (and in time for Christmas too!) 😉 If you’ve been following my website here for years or even just a short time, you’ll know I never ‘sell’ my books and I hate even sounding so. I just wanted to let you know if you’re interested in Joe’s that it’s definitely coming back. For me the main thing is sharing the story of Nonno Anni’s life and those around him, because so many elements are all of our stories really and precious and my one hope is to preserve them.

It was actually Nonno Anni who originally gave me the idea for, The Proxy Bride. When I was talking to him about his life for Joe’s, he mentioned by chance that during WW2 when he and other Italian men were taken from farms around Stanthorpe and sent to internment camps, the women and children suddenly left alone did it very tough. He later heard they were given no assistance and with curfews and restrictions weren’t allowed to drive, many didn’t know how to use the farm equipment or ride a horse and faced poverty and starvation. He mentioned this group of women who banded together to keep their farms going. That really struck me and I felt I’d come back and write about it. When I learnt that some of these women were also proxy brides, it opened up more to the story.

It seems all my life Nonno Anni was telling me different stories, usually at a table after a meal together. Perhaps when I was young, he saw in me that I might write them down one day, even before I saw that in myself. I chose this photo as it’s such a lovely one of him, though I feel unsure at sharing this one of myself in pigtails but trying to look sophisticated, haha! 😄 It was the ‘80s and I was about 13 and my favourite things were roller-skating, dancing and writing stories (yes, even then!) Nanna Francesca took this photo of us after a stop at Lake Jindabyne during a summer road trip. I spent some time with my grandparents every school holiday and while at times I took it for granted or wished I was doing stuff with my friends (yes, just like Sofie in Proxy Bride), I really appreciate those times now and the precious stories they both gave me. Zoë ❤️ xx

Zoë Boccabella books…

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Extract in the Australian Women’s Weekly…

The Australian Women’s Weekly has chosen, The Proxy Bride to feature in their latest issue – out today! I just picked up a copy and still can’t quite believe it. I thought it only fitting to share with you it sitting on Nanna Francesca and Nonno Anni’s pink-marble Laminex 1950s kitchen table. (The table from their very first house in Wyandra Street – yes, I’m so fortunate to be its current custodian!)

In almost 30 years of writing for all different organisations and publications from academic journals to tv ads, I didn’t expect to have something I’d written featured in such a long-loved institution as the Women’s Weekly. I have to smile as I think this is the one that definitely would’ve resonated for Nanna Francesca compared to all the others. And considering all those years ago her birthplace of Palmi in Calabria was unheard of in Australia – who’d have thought it would ever appear in the Women’s Weekly let alone my writing along with it! Deepest thanks to the AWW for choosing an extract of The Proxy Bride for their December issue. (Nanna Francesca especially would’ve been so happy too!) Zoë xx

The Proxy Bride

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Melanzane fritte and a cornicello…

Melanzane fritte – made with eggplants from the backyard vegie patch, just like the crumbed, fried eggplant slices that Nonna Gia and Sofie cook together in, The Proxy Bride. I’ve put these ones on one of Nanna Francesca’s plates and next to them is a little pot I bought in Italy to stand in as a ‘chilli pot’ (though I confess mine has salt in it at present!)

I hadn’t planned to include recipes at the end of this book but when I was writing about the food in it, I found myself cooking many of the dishes to remind myself of them. Since the way I learned to cook from my grandmother was mostly by watching and tasting, measurements were always a ‘handful of this’, a ‘dash of that’ and if I asked, ‘But how much?’, the answer would be a shrug and something like, ‘Just enough, of course, see?’ It was certainly interesting to try to pin down exact recipe measurements and in the end I thought it might be lovely to share these too.

You might also recognise the cornicello, that amulet of luck that can only be given as a gift, never bought for oneself. A symbol of the earth, fertility, healing and protection that’s endured from as far back as 3400BC in a long-held connection with and reverence for nature as well as humans’ reliance on it for food and survival. Looking at this picture I have to smile – eggplants, a cornicello and handed-down recipes, that’s certainly a little bit of southern Italy going on in northern Australia. 💛 Zoë xx

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Return to the secret internment camp for the first time – and two new discoveries…

It’s been almost a decade since I headed to Millmerran and Western Creek with Roger to try and find the internment camp where ‘Joe’, Nonno Anni and many other Italian men were held in 1942. Back then, hardly anyone knew of the camp, either authorities or locals, and to find its location I was relying on my grandfather’s memories from decades before and scant information I’d been able to garner. For those who’ve read, Joe’s Fruit Shop and Milk Bar, you may recall I stopped at a spot out at Western Creek largely on a ‘feeling’. It seems absurd, I know, and hardly scientific. However, since then, more research and investigating has been done by others to locate the camp site and I can hardly believe it but the spot I had a feeling about ended up being the exact right location. So wonderful to discover this (and a bit spooky too perhaps!)

Clockwise from top left: Location of the internment camp Western Creek, the memorial stone, internees in 1942 (Nonno Anni standing on right), with Cec at the crossroads near the camp, Nonno Anni there in 1964 and the possible spot now, Western Creek, at the memorial stone, red dot marks the spot. And centre: Roger at the galley cook area find, and how it would’ve looked based on a similar one from the era still standing.

The second discovery we made was while walking around and deeper into the site, this time in search for where Nonno Anni had his photo taken when he returned there in 1964. I’m not convinced we found exactly where he stood, even though there was a stump where the other tree behind him had been, but nearby, we made a new discovery, the concrete slab where the crude, galley cooking area of corrugated iron had been. Again, by chance.

To return to this location, now confirmed, on the 80th anniversary that the internment camp was there, felt very special. I’d been invited to speak at an event for this back in May but it was cancelled due to rain and I felt sad in not being able to honour the internees that day. I’d vowed to still return to the site anyway when I could, just quietly, and I picked some nearby wildflowers (and weeds – but pretty!) and left them at the memorial stone that now marks the site.

It was lovely to share this moment with both Roger and also Cecil Gibson, born and of Millmerran and Western Creek for all of his 86 years. While others later became involved, for which I’m very thankful, Cec deserves special mention because he was the first local to pick up on this hidden history after reading about it in, Joe’s Fruit Shop and Milk Bar, and to contact me. He remained focussed on honouring the history both at the site and the Millmerran Museum, even when much seemed against him at times.

The first internment camps in Australia were established under the Menzies government in 1940 and most of these were full by the time the war really ramped up in 1942 and the ‘overflow’ of ‘enemy aliens’ were interned in unofficial and secret camps in isolated state forest and bushland. While other countries like Canada apologised to its Italian-Canadian WW2 internees in 2021 and the U.S.A. has introduced a Bill towards doing so, Australia remains silent on this. And sadly, most Italian-Australian internees are no longer able to receive an apology. That doesn’t mean it’s not important also for their descendants though and all those others who care deeply for their local history.

To write about this internment camp and what happened to Italian-Australians in the 20th century is the most important part of what I’m fortunate to do. And I don’t think the people of Millmerran were given enough credit with the camp being kept secret from them for so long. All of those I’ve spoken to from the area have had nothing but respect, acceptance and the will to help preserve this history and for that I’ll always be grateful. Zoë x

Thank you if you read until the very end! 😊 I just couldn’t skimp on this one. 💛 xx

Joe’s Fruit Shop and Milk Bar

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The Proxy Bride book out today…

Today’s the day! The Proxy Bride has arrived and is in book shops! Kind of incredible to be holding it in my hands. For many decades the term, ‘proxy bride’ has been whispered, rarely spoken of, let alone written about – a long-hidden part of our history. It’s unlikely we’ll see Italian-Australian proxy marriages again and I wanted to write about them because these women especially were remarkably brave and their stories deserve more than a whisper.

It was actually Nonno Anni who set me to writing this book. When I was talking to him about his life for, Joe’s Fruit Shop and Milk Bar, by chance he mentioned that during WW2 in Australia when he and other Italians got sent to internment camps, the wives and children suddenly left alone on the farms did it very tough and almost starved. But a group of them banded together, he told me, and kept their farms going. That struck and I knew I’d return one day to write about it.

When I learned some of these women were proxy brides, it opened up even more to the story. Of course, this is just one part of, The Proxy Bride. There’s much more including some laughs, cooking, music inspired by Nanna Francesca’s 1950s stereogram, secrets and quite a few Italian brands and traditions you may recognise! I hope you enjoy reading it.❤️🍝🎶 Zoë x

Available today in paperback and ebook in book shops, department stores and online. (Will let you know when there is audio book news.) Thanks to all those at HQ Fiction and HarperCollins who helped bring this about and to you for your lovely ongoing support for all my books. So very much appreciated! Zoë xx

Click for booksellers…

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Article by Il Capoluogo news in Italy…

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.

PERSONAGGI

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”.

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Coming soon…

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

More about The Proxy Bride

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Inklings of the past…

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

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Clues in black and white…

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

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Roasted spaghetti squash…

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 💛🍝

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The Proxy Bride – new book coming

Four months until, The Proxy Bride is out and the book cover has landed at my desk. It’s always interesting to see what the publisher creates for a cover and even though this is book three, each time it still feels astonishing to see my name on the front!

For this book it’s been an honour to write about a part of our hidden history – the courageous women who married by proxy and travelled to the other side of the world to husbands they’d mostly never met. And also of the Italian wives left behind on farms in Australia after their husbands were interned during WW2 and how these women banded together to survive against tough odds and much hostility towards them at the time.

Not least, it’s also about Nonnas and granddaughters in the 1980s when those stories and secrets from the past began to emerge and cultures clashed along with old Italian traditions and Australian life. Of course, while it’s a novel, so much of this book is inspired by true happenings, family stories and even a bit of my own experience as a teenager in the ’80s. Looking forward to sharing it with you! Zoë xx

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Next book out in September…

HarperCollins have released the blurb about the next book! The Proxy Bride will be out on 7th September and I can’t wait to share it with you. 

“In 1939, Giacinta sets sail from Italy to Australia. Decades later, a granddaughter discovers the true story of her family… A stunningly crafted novel of family, secrets and facing adversity.

Imagine marrying someone you’ve never met …

When Sofie comes to stay with her grandmother in Stanthorpe, she knows little of Nonna Gia’s past. In the heat of that 1984 summer, the two clash over Gia’s strict Italian ways and superstitions, her chilli-laden spaghetti and the evasive silence surrounding Sofie’s father, who died before she was born. Then Sofie learns Gia had an arranged marriage. From there, the past begins to reveal why no-one will talk of her father.

As Nonna Gia cooks, furtively adding a little more chilli each time, she also begins feeding Sofie her stories. How she came to Australia on a ‘bride ship’, among many proxy brides, knowing little about the husbands they had married from afar, most arriving to find someone much different than described.

Then, as World War II takes over the nation, and in the face of the growing animosity towards Italians that sees their husbands interned, Gia and her friends are left alone. Impoverished. Desperate. To keep their farms going, their only hope is banding together, along with Edie, a reclusive artist on the neighbouring farm and two Women’s Land Army workers. But the venture is made near-impossible by the hatred towards the women held by the local publican and an illicit love between Gia and an Australian, Keith.

The summer burns on and the truth that unfolds is nothing like what Sofie expected …

The author of Mezza Italiana brings to life a unique point of migrant women’s untold experience, in a resonant novel of family, food and love.”

The Proxy Bride…

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Art, another year… and coffee

Verso buoni finali e buoni inizi! To good endings and good beginnings (and good coffee too!) What a time it is at present. “Mamma mia!” as Nanna Francesca would say, while Nonno Anni would likely raise his hands, palms up, as if all we can do is get on with it as best we can.
And so we do.

I’ve been back at my desk a week and Roger is back at work too so I no longer have my ‘personal barista’ in the house. Those who know, Mezza Italiana, may recall that on his first trip to Italy, Roger didn’t drink coffee and wouldn’t even go into a café with me, until he came to fall in love with all that is Italian, right up to growing and roasting coffee beans and even doing a barista course!

He’s never learnt coffee art but over our Christmas ‘holiday at home’ I asked if he wanted to try to create a different picture on our coffees each day and he happily gave it a go. Some are great, some maybe a little iffy, but that’s life really, a bit different each day and for the most part you sort of know what you’re going to get, but not truly and then there is the unexpected.

Auguri per l’anno and thank you for joining me here again. I can’t wait to share the next book with you later this year! Zoe xx

PS. I think my favourite might be ‘Aladdin’s lamp’.

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A place to meet, share food and stories…

Forty years ago today, the Brisbane ANFE Italian Club opened its premises in Wyandra Street, Teneriffe, built on the same spot Nonno Anni and Nanna Francesca bought their first house in 1947 (pictured top left and on Mezza Italiana). Yesterday, ANFE celebrated the occasion and as I gazed around the club building it felt poignant, for I couldn’t help thinking of how my grandparents put so much of their time, finances and their hearts into this place and that this time next year, the building would be demolished.

I recalled Nanna Francesca in the kitchen cooking with the other lovely volunteers, Nonno Anni running fund-raising dinner dances for several hundred people, working the bar and waiting tables with others and, when no one else was around, vacuuming the huge floor area or cleaning toilets among the myriad humble jobs he did for the club, despite being its president. He was a driving force in getting this building for ANFE built with both steadfast support from many and at times in the face of indifference from some.

The Brisbane part of the organisation had verged on closing when he took over in 1972 as president, (a position he’d be annually re-elected into every year until his death in 2006). He strongly believed local Italian migrants needed ANFE to continue and found the block of land where he’d once lived in Wyandra Street and even helped build the actual building, along with his brother and other volunteers. (The photo Nanna Francesca took of him unloading bricks from his ute alone on a Sunday perhaps says it all!)

I love how proud he looks among the other ANFE members when the building was officially opened by Brisbane’s mayor, Frank Sleeman 40 years ago (Nonno Anni holding plaque, standing tall, centre) and decades later, the happiness on his face when he (kneeling front) and other members gathered for another photo – it’s almost like, “we did it”. All those decades of voluntary work, events and fundraisers had kept the club going.

For forty years the building has stood, solid, strong, however, it’s been sold and while ANFE will move, like the timber houses that once made way for it and other commercial premises, this building so hard-won and built by volunteers will be demolished, to be built over by a high-rise apartment building, another among dozens now dominating the area. I admit it’s with sadness I write this, as again, another small part of Brisbane’s history will be razed.

I didn’t always understand my grandparents’ connection and drive for ANFE – it was mostly a different part of their lives when I was off busy in my own. Yet I’ve come to be so proud of what they and other like-minded ANFE volunteers achieved. Just recently, I learned about a group of migrants from Afghanistan, some of whom run a modest café with a kitchen garden out the back. While they are now Australian citizens, as they learn English and adjust to a new culture, this back garden offers a place to meet, share food and stories of their struggles and triumphs, keeping some of their birth culture while embracing a new life in Australia. In way, just like ANFE was for Italians all those decades ago.

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Sneak peek… next book

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

About The Proxy Bride…

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Four generations…

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

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From one hand to another…

I’m so thrilled that, Joe’s Fruit Shop and Milk Bar has now been translated and published in braille. In a way, the story is completing a lovely circle in travelling from my mind to be written by hand then to be read by hand and to another mind.

Thank you to all those at Braille House who made this possible. It really feels very special! 💙 Zoe xx

[Image descriptions: Image 1: blue book cover with braille along the spine and a black and white photo of Joe and Francesca and their little boy, Remo in front of their 1950s milk bar.
Image 2: a braille alphabet.]

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Polpette and peas in gravy…

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

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Rich blue skies in the Apennines…

View from Fossa.

The torre, Fossa’s oldest structure dating back to the 12th century.

I can’t quite believe it’s twenty-five years since the first time I went to Italy… And those who know Mezza Italiana know that, for me, going to see where my family came from was a trip I took with some trepidation and mixed feelings, and yet it turned out to be incredibly life-changing. Little did I know then, I’d one day write a book about it and that the best thing about that would be connecting with so many of you and discovering how you shared either similar experiences about your ancestry and/or a love for Italy. It still amazes me to think that trip became the start of Mezza Italiana, especially as I wrote about something that I’d kept so close inside for my whole life until then.

Monastery on the outskirts of Fossa… Il Convento di Sant’ Angelo d’Ocre, founded in the 13th century.

Rich blue skies in the middle of the day.

Being twenty-five years on, I decided to dig out the photos I took on that first trip to Fossa in Abruzzo. (Some of them certainly look like they’re that old now!) I also had a modest Pentax camera that took rolls of film so some photos mightn’t be the best or as many as I’d take now on a phone camera, considering the cost to get rolls of films developed on a backpacker’s budget then! Still, it’s lovely to look back, especially to see Nanna Francesca and Nonno Anni next to me on the front steps the day I arrived as well as beautiful Fossa when there was no hint of the earthquake to come more than a decade later. And I still can’t get over the rich blueness of the sky some days up there in the Apennine Mountains! No filters or tricks on these photos, just nature at its most exquisite. Thank you for taking the Mezza Italiana journey with me and for sharing your stories too. Grazie infinite cari amici! Zoe xx

Early morning mist over the mountain with the romance of chimneys, terracotta roofs… and a quite tall tv antenna. 👀

Fossa at dusk. Almost timeless.

 

 

 

 

More photos here

 

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At the end of the year…

“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.”

From, Joe’s Fruit Shop and Milk Bar.

(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

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Two dishes, from two regions and two bisnonne… Abruzzo and Calabria

When we cook the same dishes that our ancestors cooked it connects us to them, to our history and it also brings us back to something within ourselves that we mightn’t have thought of for some time or something we hadn’t yet discovered. Just the aroma of a dish cooking can release a trigger of deep memories that lets things rise up and take shape in us.

I grew up in Australia, far from where my great-grandmothers, Maddalena and Francesca lived in Italy. And yet, here I am, almost a century on, cooking the same dishes they cooked, a lovely connection to these two strong women. The dishes are maccheroni Calabrese (knitting needle pasta) and pasta alla chitarra (guitar pasta) made on a ‘chitarra box’ I got from Abruzzo. I sought to make sauces that reflected their history too. The maccheroni Calabrese (pasta rolled on a knitting needle for its shape) has a richer red sauce with melanzane and chillies that Francesca’s town of Palmi is known for. And the chitarra pasta has bitter, wild greens added to the passata, inspired by Maddalena walking hillsides near Fossa picking wild greens into her upturned apron and taking them back to cook with. It also has pecorino cheese on top because that part of Abruzzo is known for its sheep.

These dishes (pictured) are from my kitchen so they are a little rustic (as are their photos!) and mightn’t live up to those cooked by my bisnonne, but they made me feel happy and reminded me of those before and sometimes maybe that’s all we need when it comes to cooking.
Hope your next time cooking is delicious and joyful! Zoë xx

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Bisnonna Francesca in her orchards, early 1950s…

I never usually know what ‘international day’ it is but happened to see that today it’s in honour of rural women, so thought I’d share with you this rare photo of my great-grandmother taken of her alone.

For much of her life she worked on their fruit farm at Applethorpe, also keeping it going for a time with her young children after her husband suddenly died aged 54. I believe the only holiday she ever really had was on the ship journey she took from Italy to Australia in 1934. She was a hard worker, determined, a loyal wife and raised three children. Sadly, she was also to die young at just 50, only a couple of years after her husband.

I love that in this picture it appears like a shaft of light is falling across her. I also love that this is the only one of her in bare feet. xxx

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Some book news…

So pleased I can share with you that Mezza Italiana is going to be broadcast on ABC radio’s, Nightlife from early December and into January. The audio book is voiced by actor and voice-over artist, Marcella Russo, who was fantastic to work with. I also recently found out that, Joe’s Fruit Shop and Milk Bar is to be translated into braille, which is a wonderful surprise. A few years back, I had the opportunity to do a literary talk at a luncheon at NSW Parliament House to support the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children and I’m really thrilled that this translation has come about.

In other book news I’m gradually coming toward the end of what has been a massive project of writing two books back-to-back including a lot of research over the past few years. I’m not yet sure what effect the current pandemic situation is going to have on this and to be honest it does feel a bit overwhelming and uncertain to be in the arts at present, but when the time comes that I have more news I can share with you, I will do so straightaway! In the meantime, I hope you are well, especially those who have been enduring longer lockdowns than others. My heart and thoughts stay with you and am wishing you hope, more fortitude and some light in your day, even if it is something as small and special as a bird popping by the window. In bocca al lupo. Zoe xx

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Don’t know what it is, but just like seeing the sign, “spectacle maker” so much more than “optometrist”.

{And the café next door run by Abruzzese Italians has brilliant coffee.}

Castlemaine, Victoria.

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Mezza Italiana released in the US!

Mezza Italiana has been released in paperback in the US! With many thanks to HarperCollins 360, Mezza is now available at US bookstores, online or to order in.

So lovely and incredible to think this book that was first written on a kitchen table in Italy has made its way across another ocean! Thank you for embracing it!

Tante belle cose, Zoë xx

 

 

 

 

Mezza Italiana

 

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from Abruzzo to Australia…

Joe’s Fruit Shop and Milk Bar continues each weeknight on ABC Nightlife – thank you to all who’ve sent messages upon discovering the book – lovely to hear from you!

By chance, I came across this photograph when looking for something else for the next book and realised it might be the only one to show the family unit of Maddalena and Vitale and their two sons Elia (left) and Annibale/Joe (right) taken not long after they were reunited in Australia.

Financial hardship, separate migration, the Depression and WW2 forced Vitale and Maddalena apart for all but about three of their first 26 years of marriage, the boys without their father, and then Maddalena and Annibale apart for a decade after he migrated at 15. So lovely to see them reunited here. They remained close for the rest of their lives in Australia with Maddalena and Vitale even living with Annibale and his family for many years.

 

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My Nonni from Abruzzo….

Life in Abruzzo is currently doing a series called, My Nonni from Abruzzo that looks at how such migrant heritage may reach well beyond its original Italian borders to other areas of the world through the influence of grandparents. Such a pleasure to be asked to contribute and be among these family stories.

If you’d like to read the article you may do so here…   My Nonni from Abruzzo 

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From that first trip to Fossa…

With Nanna Francesca and Nonno Anni outside the family house in Fossa when I arrived there for the first time all those years ago (bearing in mind by then I’d been travelling and living out of a backpack for several months!!)

Little did I know how much this first trip to see where in Italy my family came from would come to have such an effect, and when this was taken I certainly didn’t imagine that Mezza and Joe’s would follow. Have just completed work on the next book (fingers crossed!) and wanted to take this opportunity to thank you for joining me here along the way. It’s so lovely to have your support and to know you a little through your messages. Thank you!! Xx

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via dei Beati… and being almost home

Coming up this street in Fossa always feels like being ‘almost home’ whether returning from nearby L’Aquila or a long flight from Australia. For just around the next corner is my family’s house and while it has centuries of history, to me it also has that comforting feel like coming to stay at your grandparents’ house.

In recent years, this street was renamed via dei Beati for two saints born here, Bernardino in 1420 and Cesidio, 1873. But for me, this is also where Granny Maddalena stood not far from the church door you can see and watched her son, Annibale, then 15, walk away from her as he carried just one port to start his journey to Australia. It changed the course of our family history from then on, but his keeping a part of Fossa in his heart to one day share with us showed me that in a way it was part of us too. (For which, after resisting it a long time, I’m now very grateful!)

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Italian Christmas treats…

CaggionettiCaggionetti/calcionetti are traditional Italian Christmas treats particularly popular in Abruzzo (where my Granny Maddalena made them). They have a filling of almonds, walnuts, chocolate, chickpeas, lemon zest, cinnamon and honey enclosed in paper-thin ravioli casings fried in white wine and olive oil then cooled and dusted with icing sugar.

Perfect for eating in front of a fire with nighttime snow falling outside… far from the heat and humidity that Brisbane promises for me this Christmas….

Merry Christmas! Buon Natale!

{Photo courtesy of Gabriella of Teramo, Abruzzo}
Find her recipe and step-by-step photographs here… http://ilrifugiodigabry.blogspot.com.au/2011/12/calcionetti.html

 

And also… Oranges and Christmas

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