NIAF President and COO John M. Viola concludes his Australia adventure with a few days in Melbourne. The second-largest city in Australia, Melbourne is located in the state of Victoria, home to the largest concentration of Italian Australians on the continent.
I left the conference in Canberra with a sense of excitement for the future working relationship between our Italian American community in the states and the Italian Australian community here. Our two groups share many similarities, but we can also learn a lot from each other in various ways.
Canberra is a small and focus-driven place, so naturally my flight back to Melbourne was shared with innumerable Italian Australians whom I had just met over two days at the conference. In conversation at the boarding gate, I got around to speaking to Professor Ferdinando Colarossi, a manager of the Co. As. It. Italian Language, Culture and Heritage Department in Melbourne’s Little Italy of Lygon Street.
Co. As. It. is the comitato assistenza italiani, created in 1967 to support teachers and students of the Italian language and Italian language speakers throughout Australia in need of supplementary services. The group organizes classes for Italian language beginners, offers films and cultural series, elderly care, and a resource center for teachers of Italian. It also created the Museo Italiano of Melbourne.
I started my final day in Australia by walking down Lygon Street to the area of Carlton for a morning meeting with Professor and Mrs. Colarossi. We took a small tour in the Language Resource Center of Co. As. It., a room that anyone with an interest in the Italian language would find overwhelmingly joyous. Co. As. It. gathers as many teaching resources as they can and makes them available, in person or on the internet, six days a week, to anyone teaching the Italian language in the state of Victoria.
From what Professor Colarossi shared with me, the resource center is continually full and offers teachers a chance to expand on their lesson plans, interact with one another, and speak to professionals with decades of experience. The facility also houses multiple classrooms, teaches its own Italian classes, and has a children’s section in the library, which offers language and culture classes to the young people of the community to make sure that they, too, end up speaking Italian.
Downstairs from the facility was Melbourne’s unique Italian Australian museum. Though the facility was small, it was incredibly well-built with gallery space that often hosts exhibits from Italian Australians or visiting Italian artists and a permanent museum space dedicated to telling stories of Melbourne’s Italian community. What the team here has done, with a small and carefully thought out space, is nothing short of incredible. The museum is engaging and dynamic with multiple mediums to tell the story of their community in an entertaining and accessible way.
From collections of letters written by the first arrivals to their families in Italy, to the prize possessions brought with them in their immigrant journey, to some of the more disturbing pieces of stereotyping material that the community met in its earliest days, the museum tells a story of all aspects of Italian life in Melbourne.
There are wonderful interactive exhibits where people can listen to individual stories and record some of their own. Overall, the museum serves as an incredible resource for hundreds of school groups and private visitors over the course of every year.
From the museum, the Colarossis shared some of their personal favorite places throughout Little Italy of Melbourne with me. After a cappuccino at Brunetti that Mrs. Colarossi guaranteed me was the best outside of Italy, we stopped by the University Café, one of Melbourne’s oldest Italian Australian’s establishments.
The owner, Gian Carlo, shared with us some of the stories about the earliest settlers in this community when he arrived in the 1950s. He also introduced me to a couple celebrating their 75th wedding anniversary who he said were amongst the first wave of immigrants to arrive from Italy in Australia.
Overall, my time in Melbourne’s Little Italy was spent focusing on issues of the Italian language and education, but I could see from my brief interactions around the town itself that the area remains a vibrant and well-loved center for the largest Italian Australia community in Victoria.
After a brief break to rest my feet, I was back on Lygon Street that evening to meet with Vince Morfuni and a large contingent of gentlemen calling themselves the National Italian Australia Foundation. They told me that they had met representatives from NIAF over a decade ago, in both the United States and Australia, and admire what our foundation has done for the past 40 years to create a national consciousness and voice for our community here in the United States.
They were looking to build closer ties to our NIAF and expand on some of our programs and practices in order to bring the same sets of services to Australia. I found it very fascinating that they had met the expressed meeting with some resistance to our model and that they found their community to be perhaps ill prepared for an organization like our own.
Needless to say, the dinner was fascinating and filled with high hopes for the betterment of not only Italians in Australia, but around the world. It was an encouraging way to cap my eight days Down Under and to know that the work we do here at NIAF, day in and day out, could serve as a model for communities in other places.
For those of you who have ever heard me speak or read my writing, you are well aware that I think our future is one that will be in a closer engagement with Italians all over the world. And to have had the opportunity to spend this much time amongst another community so like our own only strengthened my belief that we really do make up one chunk of a large, global Italian family.