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John

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Photograph, John Owens.

We sailed into Port Melbourne on a liner called The Australia around Christmas, 1952. It took us 30 days from Italy. I was only 16 and I thought it was a fabulous adventure to come to a new country, although I had no idea what to expect. The day after we arrived, we travelled by train to Gippsland. Looking out of the window, my first impression of Australia was of open country with rabbits running everywhere. Mum loved rabbits because they were easy to catch and good to eat.

I came to Australia with my mother and my two younger brothers. Mumís decision to come to Australia changed our lives completely. In Italy, we lived in Tresche Conca, near the Austrian border, and we were very poor. After my father died in 1946 we sometimes went to bed at four oíclock in the afternoon because when you are asleep you are not hungry.

There was no life for us there because when you are really poor you have no future. I was happy to leave and I knew that coming to Australia would be a great opening for us. But it was difficult for mum because she loved her house in Tresche Conca and didnít want to leave it.

People from Italy were migrating all over the world in the 1940s and 1950s. If we hadnít come to Australia we would have gone somewhere else, maybe Argentina or Brazil. After the war, there was a lot of publicity in Italy about Australia. At that time, it was easier to migrate to Australia than many other countries. My older sister and brother came to Australia after the war and this opened up the possibility for us to come too.

My first job in Australia was cleaning toilets in The Criterion hotel in Sale. I didnít like it much but it payed 30 shillings a week. I used to come home, catch a couple of rabbits and skin them for mum. I only stayed at the hotel for three months because I wanted more money.

My family had a large debt to repay because we paid for our own passage to Australia. We were not assisted migrants. We had to repay two million lire or lose our house in Italy. My younger brothers were still at school, my mother couldnít work and my older sister and brother were married, so I worked to pay off our debt. I got a job with top money building a briquette factory in Morwell. I worked from six in the morning until four in the afternoon and then I rode my bike home to Traralgon. I stayed at home for a couple of hours, then rode back to Morwell and worked the late shift until midnight. I made big money in that job and paid back our debts.

After the job in Morwell, I moved to Melbourne and since then I have worked in the construction industry. Iíve been lucky because Iíve never been without a dayís work in Australia. In fact, Iíve usually had more than one job. I worked three jobs for a while in Richmond and earned enough money to put a deposit on a house.

I really enjoyed construction work, although I never wanted to work with the Italian building contractors. Many of them had come to Australia in the 1920s and 1930s and used to treat new migrants very badly. I was involved in a few scuffles about that. The later generation of migrants were much more tolerant and I find it different now.

When I was younger, I took this country as my country and I never really became involved with the Italian community. From the beginning, I mixed with Australians so I picked up English quite easily even though Iím still not much good at writing or reading.

In the long run mum wasnít happy in Australia. She missed her friends and her house and she travelled backwards and forwards between Italy and Australia, staying a few months there, then returning here. I had many opportunities to go back to Italy with mum but I didnít want to. I didnít want to return for the simple reason that I didnít want to remember our life in Tresche Conca. I just wanted to forget all that.

I visited Italy again for the first time last year with my wife. Trecha Conca was very beautiful but after 48 years I expected it to have changed and progressed. I was a bit disappointed.

I would have liked to teach my children Italian when they were little but I watched my sistersí children growing up and at the age of five, Italian was all they knew. Then they went to school and by 12 or 13 spoke only English because thatís what their mates spoke at school. So I let my children speak whatever they wanted to and when they grew up I knew they could learn Italian if they wished. My children are adults now and they want to learn Italian. I am proud of that but I never pushed them into learning it.

My wife and I now belong to an Italian club, the Freccia Azzura, where we go for a good meal, music, dancing and the pokies.

We have many nationalities living in Clarinda, not just Italians and Greeks. Our neighbours are fantastic. If we need them, they are there and if they need me, I am ready to help but we donít live in each otherís pockets.

When Iím sitting down and having a beer with my friends after a game of bowls, people ask me, ďHow did you settle in like this?Ē I donít know. I took to life in this country easily. My kids were born here and my wife is Australian. Iím an Australian citizen and thatís good enough for me.

Article Cat. Blended Voices
Article Ref. 160

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