Culture /

Growing Up Italian

I was born and raised in Melbourne, Australia, but people always ask me where I come from. My parents were born in Italia; my Mum in Abruzzo and my Dad in Friuli. They migrated to Australia separately, with their respective families, and met in Melbourne when they were in their twenties. 

Growing up, I wasn’t sure where I was placed. I was Australian, but not completely. I was Italian, but not fully. At home, in Australia, they call me The Italian. In Italy, when I visit, they refer to me as L’Australiana

My surname, prior to getting married, was Tighello. An Italian one, but not as palatable as Ferrari or Romano, surnames the Anglo vernacular could handle. Tighello wasn’t one many teachers could pronounce at roll call. It didn’t slide off the tongue in the same way Jones or Williams or Rossi did. It was different. I was different. 

Other kids at school didn’t have peperonata sandwiches for lunch, or prosciutto e melanzane panini, or leftover polenta. They didn’t appear to wear una canottiera under their school uniform. They didn’t have salami hanging from the roof in their garage. 

I grew up as an Italian, in Australia, and that meant una festa every third weekend; un matrimonio, una comunione, un battesimo, una cresima. Sometimes, with a family as big as mine, it was un funerale. There was always le condoglianze to be given, for a family friend, un terzo cugino, o la moglie di un amico del fratello di Giovanni. It meant someone was always coming or going through our revolving front door; gli zii o i nonni o i cugini. It was setting la tavola on constant rotation, amid noise and laughter and boisterous rounds of briscola.  

Some might think Italians, being Catholic, observe the ritual of Sundays so steadfastly because it’s a holy day, one to attend la messa in chiesa, but any real Italian will tell you Sundays are hallowed because it’s the day you have lunch or dinner, sometimes both, at Nonnas. 

There is no tradition more revered than pranzo o cena with the family. Followed, only perhaps, by Sauce Day. Fare la salsa involves waiting until tomatoes are at their very best, usually sometime during Australia’s dry, hot summer, and turning your garage, backyard or carport into a makeshift production line filled with family, music, and never-ending boxes of tomatoes that need to be chopped, boiled and bottled. 

Growing up Italian meant food – everywhere, all the time. Fresh pasta being rolled by hand, the slap of the cast iron sizzling pizelle into shape, foccaccia rising in the outdoor brick oven, spiducci spinning on the charcoal BBQ, muset e bruade in winter, baccala by the bucketload, porchetta, gnocchi, panettone, caffè, vino…it goes on and on and on. 

Growing up Italian meant a thermos filled with brodo at the football on weekends. It was a chorus of fa la brava during the day and fa la nanna at night. And, if passing a road accident or un poverino with a flat tyre, it was always, always fa la corne

If I felt slightly diversa growing up, then I wonder how much harder it was for my parents. Arriving in Australia for them was a culture shock. They were not Australian, and they were reminded of it every day. While I may have had the occasional taunt, my father met with daily fist fights. While someone may have sneered at the contents of my lunchbox, my mother chased men with a broom out of the delicatessen she worked at because she’d be spat on. I might have battled with which culture I belonged to, but my Nonna spent a month at sea with seven kids in tow to arrive in a country literally on the other side of the world where she didn’t speak the language and had to start from scratch. 

I used to think I didn’t quite fit, not here, in Australia, and not there, in Italy. It’s like I’m perpetually un altra, an “other.” I used to think that maybe it would be easier to just be one thing. Just Australian. Just Italian. But I know now that easy is overrated.

I have come from something. From people that crossed oceans and started new lives with nothing but gumption and hope. I have come from smart people, kind people, talented people. People that gave up everything they knew and loved for the prospect that their children, and their unborn grandchildren, could have a chance at something. 

People often say I am strong, courageous, and tenacious. They say I am loyal, and fierce, and gregarious. I suppose I am, but it is thanks to those that have come before me. Those that did it the hard way, so I could have it a little easier. Those that fought, so I wouldn’t have to. My privilege has never been lost on me. The opportunities afforded to me have not been wasted. And that is how it will continue. 

I don’t know what it’s like to grow up with only one culture. And I’m so grateful for that. I live in the best country in the world, and I come from the greatest country in the world. It’s not either or. 

I am Australian. I am Italian. And I ride through life on the shoulders of i miei parenti, the shoulders of giants.