Thursday, 6 June 2013

New Italy Old Italy

Paddy and his sister in law
From Woodburn it's a straight run to our destination, a pit stop half way to nowhere along the Pacific Highway. Not 'Nuova Italia' as it would originally have been named, but simply New Italy. It's a collection of mud brick buildings housing a cafe, bookshop and the fading remnants of the Italian Pavilion from Brisbane's Expo '88. There's also a large barn structure with open beams and natural ventilation which houses memorabilia from the original 1885 settlement. By 1920 the last of the Italians had given up on this place, a site distressingly similar to the poor land of Veneto from which they had escaped. While not the utopian dream which had driven their journey, it did offer opportunity rather than the inevitability of poverty.

The descendants have moved to better land or moved away. My grandfather and his brother set up a thriving fruit and vegetable business in Leichhardt in Sydney; a branch of the Spinaze family had moved into sugar in the Pomona area north of Noosa Heads a good 400 kilometres north. Through hard work many purchased dairy farms and sugar holdings along the Richmond River.

One hundred years after the original descendants arrived, a group of descendants, none of whom spoke Italian, few of whom had immediate recollections of the original settlement, nevertheless felt driven to create a museum on the site. In the twenty first century the 'New Italy Carnivale' brings together a curious mix of descendants and locals to share stories and keep alive a memory.

Add caption
I'm travelling with my Uncle Paddy Powell, a name as Irish as the name of the closest regional town, Ballina. That's not uncommon. His mother was a Bazzo. My grandmother was a Kilcoyne. It went both ways. We arrive in time for Mass, the first event on each of these days.About 80 seriously Catholic people sit in a large unpretentious room. Curious life-size plaster cast Venetian peasants and aristocrats stare down at us from a mock balcony above the makeshift altar.

Paddy scans the seats for familiar faces. He's looking for his friend Maureen who has supported him through the hard years of caring for his wife Rita, my aunt. I only recognise two faces in the congregation, both of whom are relatives whom I have only met recently. As my eyes wander among the pews I'm conscious of looking for faces like mine. Angular faces with large noses and pale skin, blue eyed northerners.

There are plenty of ruddy complexions and pale skins but mostly broad Australian farmers faces - the Irish. Among the other there are dark eyes, dark haired, dark skinned southerners - more recent migrant arrivals. I can't see me anywhere.

My search is broken by the priest. He's welcoming us in Italian He's clearly not Italian but he is fluent. a Lismore priest with no Italian would be estranged from half his parishioners. Italian prayers, Italian hyms, Italian responses. Most of us don't have a clue. Two ladies in front of me sing with gusto and depart from the script with their own responses. They are real Italians. I concentrate on picking up a phrase here and there in preparation for my imminent trip to the villages of my descendants in Veneto. Paddy drifts off and causes a mild disruption when he attempts to rescue a skink who has become disoriented and finds itself in the no-mans land of the aisle space. Paddy knows it's about to fill with the feet of the fervent lining up for communion. The ladies in front react with shock as Paddy ushers his new friend from the aisle towards safety under their chairs.

Outside the numbers have begun to swell. Paddy is a bit overwhelmed. It's his first visit without Rita. "I think I'll just have a little wander around and see if I can find some familiar faces" he says. "Will you be okay Paddy?" I have a sense that I am Paddy's guardian for the day. And away he went, wobbling through the crowd on his twenty year old metal knees.I'd noticed that Paddy had a tendency to sway when stationary. I figured it was like the steering on an old car. There was a fair bit of play in the joints and he was forced to constantly rebalance himself.

I take the opportunity to reconnoitre the displays in the museum. I've taken on the task of organising a family  cabinet in which we'll tell our story. It's a great idea. With challenges. One hundred and thirty years after their arrival and with our original family being a blend of three families  - two mothers, two fathers, only one of each surviving and finally ending up as the family of Lorenzo with ten surviving children and carrying two family names means we have some serious gaps.

An hour later I find Paddy in animated conversation with fellow Richmond Valley locals. He's seated at a heavy wooden table alongside my new found second cousins, one of whom I've never met. In the background a slightly overweight Italian singer in his late forties is channelling Dean Martin and charming the ladies with his versions of 'Volare' and 'O Sol a Mio'. He's dressed in a cobalt blue jacket which, at one point, he casts aside, exposing his broad chest and his luxuriant growth of Sicilian hair - all part of his seduction of the audience. Having exhausted his Italian repertoire he launches into a set of Elvis numbers.

Paddy's in his late 80s and he's been on his feet for five hours now and he's beginning to fade. He's had his obligatory plate of  spaghetti bolognese and a glass of rough red. He's ready to go. As we prepare to exit, my second cousin is in animated conversion with his brother. He's convinced that the photo I've given him of his grandmother is definitely not her. I offer him as much information as I can and then decide to leave him to it. "You'd better take that up with Linda (another cousin in his line who has supplied the photo)" I say as I back away. "Let me know what you all decide."

I'd hoped to complete the family cabinet by the end of the year but with ten descendant lines these small details will become the sticking points.

No comments: