Italians Down Under

NIAF President and COO John M. Viola shares his current travels around Australia, in the first of a five-part series on Pensieri Italo-Americani.

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John making a friend?

Greetings from Down Under! I have been invited by the Ambassador of Italy to Australia, the Honorable Pier Francesco Zazo, to participate in the inaugural “Conference on Italians Down Under” here in Canberra, Australia.

As part of my trip, I have decided to spend some time getting to know the Italo-Australian communities in Sydney and Melbourne as well. The NIAF Team and I thought these travels might interest some of you, so I am going to be “live-blogging” in real-time (or as close to real-time as one can get with a 14 hour difference) my experiences searching out the Italianità in these three Australian cities!

Australian capital

Australian capital

I’m a pretty avid traveler, and it might come as little surprise considering my line of work that anytime I can I like to find my foothold in a new place by finding the Italian community there. From Eritrea to Argentina, Belgium to Brazil, I have always found that finding our people in a foreign land makes me feel a little bit more at home. On this, my first trip to Australia, I have to say I have found a wonderfully familiar feeling in the first Little Italy I discovered.

This morning I set out on a two-hour stroll from my hotel on the Sydney waterfront to the neighborhood of Leichhardt (pronounced Lie-cot) on the city’s outskirts. While its name comes from an Austrian explorer, Leichhardt became Sydney’s most bustling Little Italy in the post-war boom of Italian migration to Australia in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Norton Street, its major thoroughfare and my destination this morning, serves as the main artery for the fairly large and, in my brief experience, rather proud Italo-Australian spread throughout the neighboring suburbs.

Outside of Bar Italia

Outside of Bar Italia

I found Norton Street at Pioneers Memorial Park, which seemed like the northern border of the Italian neighborhood. Once I turned down Norton Street, I was met with the pleasant sight of Italian surnames gracing a majority of the local businesses. Travel agencies specializing in travel to Italy (a much bigger trip for this slice of the Italian diaspora than we in the states have to contend with), wedding shops selling bomboniere, and, of course, a plethora of restaurants advertising Italian cuisine.

For me, the first stop was to be the iconic Bar Italia, established in 1957. Its vibrant, colorful tricolore awning is like a beacon to the Italian soul from the end of Norton Street, and I am like a moth to a tricolored flame. On this day, as I assume on most, the café was inhabited by a clearly local clientele. Famous for its authentic homemade gelato, the staff of Italians was eager to share some samples with me. If you make it to Sydney, this is a must stop.

Yum, gelato!

Yum, gelato!

After the strong coffee to sure up my legs after my two-hour hike, I found myself ready to continue down Norton Street. Across the street from Bar Italia is the headquarters of both Sydney’s Italian radio station Rete Italia and Sydney’s Italian language newspaper La Fiamma.

The newspaper is the partner of Melbourne’s il Globo and has been serving the Italo-Australians of Sydney for 67 years. Inside the offices is a bookstore and gift shop selling Italian language books, toys and games for young Italo-Australians, and all of the CDs, movies and magazines direct from Italy that an Italophile or homesick Italian could want.

Dona, a Sicilian immigrant who ran the bookshop, gave me a sense that the Sydney community is very much like our own—dealing with a shrinking neighborhood and the arrival of new immigrant groups, such as Thais and Chinese, into their close-knit community.

After stocking up on some books and DVDs about the Italo-Australians, I went to meet Gina Papa, a longtime community leader and the owner of La Gardenia, a children’s-wear shop specializing in Christening and Communion dresses—a familiar community staple in Little Italys all over the USA.

Gina Papa

La Gardenia owner Gina Papa

Gina shared some photos with me and even some books about the National Italian-Australian Women’s Association (NIAWA), a group she helped found 30 years ago. She even shared a picture of NIAWA’s leadership with Dr. Aileen Sirey, a former NIAF Board member and the founder of our National Organization of Italian American Women (NOIAW).

What fascinated me about Gina, and many of the people I met in Leichhardt, was their bilingualism. Often in our communities, I find that if someone greets you in conversational Italian, it’s probably because that is their preferred (or perhaps only) language.

But here, it was nearly 15 minutes before Gina asked if I spoke English, and when I told her it was the far stronger of my languages, she switched right into perfect English, which she told me she preferred. The whole time she had been speaking to me in Italian to make me feel comfortable!

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