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Photograph, Kris Reichl.

Nada means hope in my language. Many women from Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia are called Nada.

When I arrived in Australia my hope was to go back home to Croatia. I wanted to stay in Australia for two years, make some money and then go back home. But I changed and became involved with life here and I’ve now been here for thirty years.

I came to Australia in 1970 with my husband and three children, Dennis, Mia and Mario. We left Croatia to escape Communism and to find a better life for our children. My husband and I had a good lifestyle in Yugoslavia. I worked in a school and my husband was a cabinet maker. We had a house, a car, a motorbike, money and housemaids but what we really wanted was to live in freedom in a democratic country. We wanted to be able to say what we liked, to go to church and bring up our children in the Christian way.

In those days, many people were migrating to Australia and we heard funny stories about this country. We heard that the meat doesn’t have any taste, the birds don’t sing and the flowers don’t have any smell. I thought, “what a strange country” but still, it was a free country.

When we left Croatia my husband packed his cabinet making tools and I filled my bags with books. Books are precious things for me and I still have my books from Croatia.

We first went to Vienna in Austria to collect our visa and then flew to Sydney. I loved Vienna but when we arrived in Sydney I started crying. It was very hot and the sky was grey, not blue. On the Dalmatian coast, where I was born, the Adriatic Sea and the sky are heavenly blue but Sydney was just hot and grey.

We stayed with friends for a month before renting a house of our own. In those days, many people from the former Yugoslavia rented houses with two or three families but I needed the freedom of our own home.

After a very short time in Australia my husband and children loved being here but I was very unhappy. I would have crawled back to Europe. I didn’t write to my parents for more than two years because I couldn’t lie and tell them I was happy and I knew the truth would upset them. I learnt a lot about myself at that time. I learnt that maybe I wasn’t as well adjusted and secure as I thought I was.

It wasn’t the Australian people I found difficult. It was the culture, the climate, the lifestyle and especially the language. For me, the hardest thing about living in Australia was learning English. I had taken English classes back home and I was so proud because I thought I could read and write English but when I came here I found that speaking English was difficult. I had a strong accent and it felt like a disability.

An accent travels with you wherever you go and after thirty years I still have a strong accent. Many people are very understanding but some people speak loudly, thinking I am deaf.

At first I was very shy about speaking English because I was ashamed. I always apologised about my English until somebody told me to stop apologising. “You never hear someone from Scotland or Ireland apologising. Your voice is cute. You sound like Zsa Zsa Gabor”. I didn’t know if that was a compliment or an insult but I took it as a compliment and I never again apologised for my accent.

Everywhere I went I carried my English-Croatian dictionary. It took me many years to learn to think in English. I constructed sentences in my mind in Croatian and then translated them into English. Finally, when I could do the crossword puzzle in English, I thought I had made it. I am now a qualified interpreter and translator for Croatian, Serbian and Bosnian languages.

But even after I could speak English I still had problems with Australian slang and local expressions. One day I was sitting in a meeting at work and the lady sitting opposite said to me “You are pulling my leg!” “No, I didn’t touch you,” I cried. “I am on the other side of the room. It must be someone else.” Everyone was laughing.

Another time my son brought a letter from school with information about a parent-teacher evening. The letter asked parents to “bring a plate”. I was so proud that I could read this beautiful letter without a dictionary. ‘What sort of plate should I take? Should I take a bowl for soup or should I take my best German china? Should I take cutlery as well? I decided I would take two plates in case another parent forgot. I thought the school was cooking and didn’t have enough plates. So you can imagine my shock when I went to school and saw parents putting food on the table.’

I was also amazed that so many people in Australia went to church. In Yugoslavia many people were frightened about losing their jobs or their position in the Communist Party if they went to church. But I did find Australian ladies very different. They just give each other pecks on the cheek instead of hugs and kisses like European women. This was another thing for me to learn.

My husband thought this country was beautiful from the start because Australia had a shortage of tradespeople and he had a job waiting for him. We had agreed that I would stay home and look after the children but it is very hard to live on one salary with three children. Back home I had worked in offices and schools and work was part of my life. I desperately wanted to work in a school again and every time I saw a school I cried. But I thought my English wasn’t good enough so I found a job in a factory.

Also my lifestyle was actually harder in Australia than in Croatia. Back home I had housemaids to help me cook and clean. In Australia I had to come home from the factory and cook and clean.

After two or three years I began to feel more settled. Citizenship also helped me to feel like I belonged here. I was pregnant with my youngest child and the government organised a special ceremony a few days before Ben was born. I was so proud that he was born an Australian citizen.

We moved to Melbourne about ten years after we arrived in Australia. My daughter married a man in Melbourne and our house seemed so sad without her. As we didn’t have any other family in Australia I felt we should stick together so we all moved to Melbourne. I had one child starting university, one starting high school and one starting kindergarten. Clayton South had all of these things so we bought in this area.

There were many Europeans living in Clayton South when we first came to Melbourne and we used to shop at the Italian and Greek shops in Springvale Road. This has changed now as Chinese, Vietnamese and Cambodians have moved into Springvale and Clayton. I can’t find my dress size in Springvale Road any more! But I love all the different nationalities. I am fascinated by other cultures.

I started doing voluntary and later paid work at Westall Secondary College in Clayton South twenty years ago, organising multicultural festivals and doing community work with other migrant people. Now I work as the school nurse. I have always loved my job and even now I wake up every morning and can’t wait to get to work.

I am sad that my children grew up without grandmas, grandpas, aunties or uncles. When you have relatives you don’t think about them much and you probably don’t get along with them but when you don’t have them you miss them. My neighbours have become my extended family. When I first arrived in Australia they helped me write notes for the milkman and the bread deliverer and always invited me into their homes.

The brightest moments of my life were when the City of Oakleigh and later the City of Kingston selected me as Citizen of the Year for my work helping people settle in Australia. I was cooking plum jam when the Mayor of Kingston phoned and told me I had been selected. I was so touched that someone from a non-English speaking country could be recognised as a Citizen of the Year. I burnt the jam that day.

I went home to Croatia a few years ago. It was spring and I saw all the grasses and flowers blossoming and I started crying because it was so beautiful. I would love to live one year in Croatia and one year in Australia but I think Australia is my home now. Croatia is my country because I was born there but Australia is the country I have come to love.

Article Cat. Blended Voices
Article Ref. 150

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