Memoir

At home in both places

I STILL CALL Australia home. But I have another home in Italy. Virtual bilocat­ion is my thing rather than geographic schizophrenia: I am at home in both places. Having insufficient money to move between them at will, I am not anguished by having to make a choice.

I did not realise Italy was to be my home when I sailed from Melbourne in 1955. It was merely to be the first European port of call on a working trip of a few years before settling back in Australia.

My family did not think of England as home in a personal way and, although sentimentally attached to Ireland, there had been no direct contact for more than half a century. My generation realised that the St Patrick's Day Parade and the Freemason bogey were old hat. Unlike some contemporaries, I was imbued with Australian and Australian-Irish culture, but it was all too monochrome. "Where are the poor?" I remember asking in Flinders Street. I objected to the "biggest-and-best-in-the-southern hemisphere" mentality and my father's conviction that Europe or, rather, continental Europe and particularly France, were finished. France was my alternative culture, a respite from Anglo-Saxondom, and French Catholicism, with figures such as Jacques Maritain, Yves Congar and the Belgian Joseph Cardijn, proof that Europe was not effete.

Italy was a much more dubious proposition. Anti-Italian prejudices had been reinforced by newsreel shots of endless lines of Italian prisoners of war in North Africa. Italians ran to fat. True, the headquarters of the Catholic Church was in Rome but at times the Italians there seemed to be all thumbs.

However, rather than pass through Italy, I stayed. After three months' learning Italian in Perugia, it was as if I had made an investment. I found work in Rome. My father had been upset when I walked out on my Educa­tion Department bond to go to Europe and worried that, if I did not return before I was 28, I could not enter the Public Service, where he was employed. I did return but brought something of Italy with me, a Roman wife. That proved decisive: five years later, I left my post as literary editor of The Bul­letin to return to Italy because of the illness of my wife's widowed mother. My intention had been to have a piece of Italy with me in Australia but instead my wife found me, the travelling nation, back with her in Rome. I had to survive by writing.

 

AUSTRALIANS LIVING IN Italy may be envied or suspected of betrayal, perhaps due to a conviction that our national identity is a veneer that quickly rubs off. Instead, national identity is confirmed by the impact of a different culture. It may be easier to know you are an Australian in Italy than in Australia. It is an experience parallel to that of many Italian migrants who become more aware of their nationality in Australia. But even old friends vis­iting have asked, "Are you still Australian?" Thank goodness my family in Australia did not have this attitude or make a fuss, even though hurt by my departure. Some home-based Australians falsely imagine I inhabit a sybaritic paradise, with my main interests being good food and wines. But I can take or leave wine, do not drink coffee and rarely go to the opera. A few feel betrayed. The painter Justin O'Brien, who spent his last years in Rome, had similar experiences. He recalled a former staff sergeant at a returned sol­diers' dinner in Chatswood who rebuked him with "aren't we good enough for you out here?" At a Sydney cocktail party, a man challenged him to "come back and face it". This implies that a migrant "flees from" rather than "runs to" and is a reminder that among those who do not change countries there are internal exiles.

Barry Oakley, who had planned to leave with me but instead married in Melbourne, later wrote in The Australian about my influence on him. It read like a bulletin from a Committee for UnAustralian Activities. He sum­marised our story as classmates interested in writing but who took different paths: "I got married and so did you. I was married, in an ill-fitting double­breaster from The Leviathan, to Carmel Catherine Hart, of Maryborough, at St Mary's, East St Kilda. You, to Giuseppina Culotta, at St Peter's, Rome."

The ill-fitting suit bemused me. Both of us believe that the validity of a marriage is independent of where it takes place. St Peter's may sound a big deal but it was chosen because, as part of the Vatican, it enabled me to avoid Italian bureaucracy. In fact, the ceremony was held in a closed-off chapel and not in front of the main altar which, to put it mildly, lacks intimacy. Barry then contrasted my departure from Australia with his staying there: "Perhaps inertia was one of the reasons I did not [leave] but it was also because of a kind of faith that the ground of experience was here. St Mary's church means more to me than St Peter's, East St Kilda, where I grew up, is as storied for me as the ruins of the Forum."

There should be Literature Board brownie points for such worthy senti­ments. I have written fiction set in East St Kilda, none set in the Forum. But I have never imagined that the "ground of experience" is confined to St Mary's or thereabouts. Barry may consider that I have been damaged as a writer by living so long away, and he could be right, but who can balance the pros against the cons?

He cited an episode when we were hitchhiking: while insomniac near Wilcannia. He felt at the world's end but somehow the marginality was transformed into meaningfulness and he believes he had a part in something similar in the Australian theatre. As he noted, I slept through that crucial experience in Wilcannia. But in dealing with Australian newspapers, I am constantly reminded of the marginality of Italy in respect to Australia and the difficulty of transforming this into meaningfulness.

Who you are is more important than where you are, but where you are affects people's perception of you. If you marry in St Peter's, it is presumed that it is in a handmade suit almost stitched to your body. If you have a Roman background, you must strut. An imagined life attributed to you becomes a rebuke for those who stuck it out on Gander Flat. But living and working in Italy is not like inhabiting the pages of Vogue. The question becomes: why should an Australian who writes from Italy be seen not as a mediator, or an Australian eye on Italy, but as one who has abandoned his culture for another?

 

I HAVE TO ask myself which Italian events will interest Australians or, rather, Australian editors. Interpreting Italy for Australia is difficult because of the limited space and the huge gap between the experience of Italy and its image as the land of style and ease of living. It is also a land that has a national morning radio program subtitled "how to live in this country without going mad from frustration" and where a recent prime minister, Massimo D'Alema, wistfully expressed the hope that it might become a "normal country".

I would like to convey that Italy has similar problems to other contem­porary societies, but suspect that outsiders do not want to know, cosseting an idea of it as the playground of the Western world. I would also like to do something that seems at odds with my first aim: show that Italy faces its problems in a distinctive way. If, as we are told, the world is becoming homogenised, it still has some way to go. Martin Boyd was perceptive in Much Else in Italy (Macmillan, 1958) when he said that although the spiritual world has been destroyed wherever puritans and materialists rule the roost, it persists in Italy. A crucial issue now is how much of it persists when mater­ialists have power in Italy, but it cannot be handled in 500 words at the bottom of page 17.

Anyway, Australian newspapers seem tepid about cultivating corre­spondents with a distinctive Australian viewpoint. They prefer to use syndicated agency copy paid for yearly rather than pay something addi­tional for articles from Australians. This makes short-term economic sense but seems a myopic policy. Australians may spot Australian "angles" that escape someone writing for The Baltimore Sun. A simple example is an article about the Lipari Islands off Sicily written for The Observer, London, and picked up by an Australian daily, which acquires rights to the weekly's articles. There is an interesting story in migration from the Lipari Islands to Australia and abundant evidence of it because people of Lipari descent return for the northern summer to run guesthouses there. The United Kingdom does not have similar links and there was no mention of these migrants in the article.

Another annoying aspect is the cockeyed stories that are given credence. For years there has been a concerted attempt to reinforce the myth of Mafia invincibility, as if Australians just love to read of concentrated evil at a dis­tance. Good Weekend ran a Mafia story that highlighted a wildly exaggerated claim that in the 1980s "10,000 Sicilians died violent deaths – three times more than were murdered in Northern Ireland during the whole 30 years of troubles there".

Another example is Peter Robb's Midnight in Sicily (Duffy and Snellgrove, 1996). It presents the prosecution case against the former prime minister Giulio Andreotti for alleged collusion with the Mafia as if it were the whole truth. When I mentioned this to a literary editor he said, "no one has looked into that angle", meaning veracity, which is surely basic in assessing a non-fiction work. It is odd to be living in one of your homes and find that in the other it has become a fantasy realm.

Italo-Australians have complained to me about the clichés about Italy in the Australian press. They say that Italy is presented simply as the Mafia, trivia and the Vatican. The trivia and the Mafia tend to be taken seriously. They find their former home becoming a fantasy realm but they, too, reinvent their new country. Although I welcomed the arrival of Italian and other migrants in Australia, it is a pity that many think Australian history began with their arrival. They have contributed significantly but I appreciate also the previous narrow, matey, plucky Anglo-Irish Australia. Contrary to those who see an ever more radiant future beckoning, I think Australia was more of a world leader in social matters about 1910 than today. I am an Old Aus­tralian (the O'Gradys arrived in the 1850s and the Kiernans in the 1870s.), which is a basic reason that I often use Australia as a benchmark for Italy. It is comparatively healthy as regards institutions such as parliament, the judi­ciary, the bureaucracy and the education system. It has an institutional solidity that Italy lacks but compensates for with historical depth and wide­spread pietas. Talking of benchmarks, they can become double when one has two homes. Raffaello Carboni of the Eureka Stockade is a case in point: he saw his Australian experiences according to a pattern developed in Italy, where he had been engaged in conspiracy, arrested for high treason, involved in an insurrection, which for him was also a saga of solidarity.

Not only was this the background of the Italian goldminer in Ballarat but it influ­enced how he shaped his account of the goldfields events. The high point for him was not the armed clash but the diggers swearing solidarity beneath the Southern Cross flag. In his writing after he returned to Italy, he applied formal patterns he had developed to frame events in Australia. Patterns, benchmarks – if you apply them in one country it means that where you developed them is home in a certain sense.

Some of my fiction, such as the story "A Dedicated Young Man", concerns Australians overseas who end up with what they fled from in Australia or find the reverse of what they expected. Other Australians have found their passionate true selves in Italy; in Shirley Hazzard's words, "it brings out the best" in a person.

However, many Australians live in Italy because of circumstances rather than choice. Some are vague about why they are where they are, as if they have forgotten why they came or the path home. They could use the words Gore Vidal borrowed from Howard Hughes: when the multimillionaire was asked why he passed his time sitting in a darkened room, hair down to his shoulders, with his feet in empty Kleenex boxes, he responded, "It's just something I drifted into." They see the up and down side of Italy, while a few have been so hurt by Australia as to reject it. Although they have not made Australia their home, most still consider it home because it shaped them. Kate Inglis, a musicologist who admires Italians' outspokenness and says she was reshaped by Italy, says, "On visits home I always find Australia pleasant and relaxed whereas Italy is hectic, overcrowded and conflicted. That's closer I think to what the world really is. Italy's made me." But she still refers to Australia as home.

There are enough Australians in Italy to prevent nostalgia but they are not easy to find. Unlike some larger foreign communities whose members can live in an enclave, there is little that brings Australians in Italy together – only Anzac Day and Australia Day, which are now regarded by the embassy as a chance to assemble not so much Australians as potential Italian business clients. There is no Australian cultural institute and no Australian papers are available at kiosks, as are the Philippine dailies.

Even the Qantas office has been moved out of central Rome and the "flying kangaroo" no longer leaps directly from Rome to Australia. There used to be many student priests, sufficient to be the mainstay of an Australian cricket team that won the Roman competition, but now their training is given in Australia. There are simply isolated Australians with dif­ferent bonds – one I share with a Jesuit here is that, although we did not know each other at the time, we were both present supporting South Mel­bourne in the memorable 1945 VFL final against Carlton in which South lost the match but won the stoush. When together, some delight in using proba­bly outdated Australian slang.

There are 16,000 of Italian origin who have returned after years in Aus­tralia, publish a periodical Il Canguroand meet for nostalgic barbecues. Like a few surviving Italians who made friends as prisoners of war in Australia, some take group vacations in Australia. It has remained their second home. Then there are Australian-reared children of Italian migrants who dislike the narrow streets of their parents' villages, which tourists find picturesque, pre­ferring the broad streets of Melbourne suburbia with their central nature strips. They are in no doubt as to which is their home.

 

IN THE POEM A burning fiery furnace Peter Porter asks why Australians wonder who they are. Perhaps a spiritual cringe in respect to Aboriginal culture has followed a cultural cringe towards Europe. But our identity prob­lems pale beside those of many peoples in Central Europe. In the past century, without changing residence, many of them were raised in a differ­ent country from that in which they were born, then they were incorporated in another and grew old in a fourth, with all the attendant complications over roots, language, culture and identity. Latvians have the problem of a large proportion of Russians imposed on them. Belgians, looking to Holland and France, have a more obvious claim to identity problems than Australians. Argentinians, previously our rivals in the "biggest-and-best-in-the southern-hemisphere" boast, could well feel punch-drunk after their nation's regression from an "improved Europe" to a country in debt. Moreover, we are no longer a wee community: citizens of countless other nations have better reason to fear their homelands count for little on the world scene.

If, despite this, white Australians do wonder who they are, it may be because they feel a detached part of a source culture. They do not have the identity reinforcement that comes from a unique language and have to travel a long way to experience the self-definition that comes through dealing with other cultures.

But the problems involved can be exaggerated. The Italian resident, painter Jeffrey Smart, has said, "It's perfectly normal for an Australian artist to live in Italy – he can draw inspiration from both Italy and Australia. It's just that a huge cultural industry has grown up about navel gazing." A broader gap has to be bridged in coming to terms with Aboriginal or Asian cultures than with other parts of the West, such as Europe or America.

My first reaction to Italy was an upsurge of chauvinism that quickly sub­sided, although it still persists in a desire to challenge as well as appreciate. But my contrasts with Italy are not as distressing as were those with my home culture. Living in a foreign culture is living on a cusp between the dif­ferent configurations of the human. Displacement relativises the customs of your own tribe because you see others do things differently but not neces­sarily better or worse. You are in a neutral (neutered?) zone, a no-man's-land that may seem privileged. But this demilitarised zone can turn into a trap where one is shot at from all sides.

Importantly, Italians do not expect foreigners to conform. At least in Rome, they are tolerant of "resident aliens" even if they are "extra-communitarians" (from outside the European Union). At meetings of my condominium committee, I have achieved a special status, never burdened with onerous tasks, such as keeping minutes.

As I am tall and fair, I am sometimes taken as German or Austrian. My surname convinces many that I am Irish – or Scottish ("because your name begins with O you must be Scottish") or even Dutch; that is getting close – probably the fair Irish descend from the Danes. Perhaps I am a case of retarded reverse migration. I feel the belief that we are all pilgrims a long way from our home beyond the Jordan makes moving from one country to another easier, as was shown by the internationalism of medieval Europe. And the belief that we are all outcasts shifts the questions from who we are to why we are.

From another point of view, I am a citizen of what Raffaello Carboni called the Republic of Letters (living by writing superior material at inferior rates and recognising an affinity with others on the treadmill).

There is a saying that a man with two lovers is divided but a man with two countries is distraught. I think two can be accommodated but the number cannot be raised indefinitely – I mean countries rather than lovers. The actress Greta Scacchi, who has three (Australia, Italy and England), com­plains that "it becomes hard to know from which viewpoint to assess things. And wherever you are, there's always something missing."

I enjoy travelling but am as glad to turn for home as to set out. I have friends who always want to be on the move whereas I feel rooted – even if in more than one place. They seem to want to go off the map whereas I know the world is round. Inevitably, those who have several homes find those con­fined to one provincial but I also find many cosmopolitans supercilious. I am wary of rootless modernity and of the void of virtuality. Several wheres beat nowhere hands down.

Some countries seem to resent expatriates, others just ignore them. Italy paid little attention to its millions of emigrants even though their remittances shored the economy. It seems to have been a case of out-of-sight, out-of-mind and Italy has learnt little about handling the problems of its present influx from the experiences of its emigrants. They were disenfranchised until granted a postal vote recently, which was probably some decades after it mattered. Now there is an attempt to reinforce cultural links, for instance, by an interest in writers of Italian origin, such as John Fante, who wrote in other languages.

Some Italians say that the present asylum-seekers, who seem to arrive almost daily off Sicily, should be treated as Italians would like to have been received when they migrated in millions. This attitude is a factor in the debate inspired by the desperate asylum-seekers but there are many others such as the terrorist-Muslim link, the racist attitudes in the Northern League component of the governing coalition and the capacity of a struggling economy to absorb new arrivals.

For some Australians, expatriate seems to be a word covering a multitude of sinners. This is so to such an extent that there are clandestine expatriates who don't let it be known that they are out of the country. It may be possible to tab such traitors by inserting a chip in their heels. Distinctions can be made among expatriate experiences: between those who move to English-language zones and those who cross language barriers; between those who maintain only personal contacts with Australia and those who have work contacts (to what degree is patriotism a function of income?); between those whose partners are foreigners also and those living with indigenes; between those who had major formative experiences before leaving Australia and understood how the society worked and those who are lacking on both counts and woolly about how Australia compares with their new country. Expatriates tend to be composites learning different things in different places: I began playing cricket in Australia and began driving in Italy, which is different from learning cricket in Italy and beginning to drive in Australia.

As well as averaging a trip to Australia almost yearly, I have constant work contacts. I am in a non-English language zone that, although not a deliberate choice, is congenial because I wanted to go beyond Anglo-Saxondom. And I had major formative experiences before leaving Australia, such as at the University of Melbourne and working on The Observer and The Bul­letin. I am anchored in Australia but do not want to be defined by its confines. People too anchored are immobilised or, to change the metaphor, one has to graft the Australian background onto the local culture or run the risk of fos­silising and having a fossilised view of Australia.

One can keep calling Australia home but find the number has changed. People who move have to keep in mind that countries change, too.

What of Australia do I keep with me? On the walls of my lounge room is a French admiralty map of the Pacific in 1776 with most of Nouvelle Hollande's southern and eastern coast missing. To match this, I framed one side of a plastic bag from the NSW State Library (the Mitchell Library) bookshop, which shows the 1756 map Captain Cook used. The eastern seaboard is complete, although without the bulge. There is also an etching of a Suffolk tree by Arthur Boyd and, by his uncle Martin, a large painting of Frascati Cathedral with balloon-like coloured coffee-bar umbrellas float­ing in the foreground. In addition, there is a painting by a Japanese artist and the original for an illustration used with an article of mine in a New York magazine. The walls of my workroom are plastered with posters of Italian art exhibitions or buildings but there is also a postcard of a painting of the Harbour Bridge by Sydney-born Nikki Borghese, a postcard of bridge climbers and three photos of the bridge, one where the two sides of the span are about to join, another with "Eternity" blazoned on it. Close by is a copy of Clive James's poem on the scribe responsible for the "Eternity", which I used to see chalked on the pavements of Kings Cross.

There is also Vivian Smith's poem My Morning Dip and a shot of a ferry approaching the wharf at Mosman, Vivian's stamping ground, where he gives me refuge on my trips to Australia, but also my own when I went to school in Military Road. That is not all: there is a cover of The Melbournian featuring an article of mine, a poster from The National Times advertising one of my short stories, a Leunig calendar for 2003, reproductions of signatures of many Australian writers, which I picked up at the Mitchell, photos of the Swans' Roy Cazaly palming the ball from the ruck and of Warwick Capper marking. Last but not least, is a gift from one of my grandsons, Victor Desmond, a didgeridoo that was probably made no further away than Frascati.

 

MY TAKE ON Italy is very different from that of Gillian Bouras on Greece. I was irritated by the first articles I saw Gillian write about life in a Greek village, where she had moved after marrying a Greek in Melbourne, because they belonged to the consoling Australian writing genre of "you-don't-know-how-lucky-you-are". I thought the comparison between Melbourne and a village invidious.

But her books are another matter and made me reflect on our differences and similarities. We had both lived in the same street in East Malvern and studied English literature at the University of Melbourne, although at differ­ent times. Family entanglements were the reason we swapped Melbourne for the Mediterranean. So much for the similarities. The differences? She is a Presbyterian in the Peloponnese and finds the ritual of the Orthodox "made God seem far away".

I am a Catholic in what in some way is the capital of Catholicism and, despite surprises, recognise the religion. From this point of view, I am more at home in Italy than Gillian in Greece. Moreover, I had moved from a city to what is the prototype of Western cities, whereas Gillian had regressed to a village, which was another sore point. But she made the difficulties of being plunged among peasants her subject matter.

She found in the Peloponnese what hardly exits in Australia: a peasant culture, partly illiterate or still oral, and captures its strengths and miseries, particularly through a memorable portrait of her mother-in-law Aphrodite in Aphrodite and Others. She contrasts the culture's suffocating narrowness with the inventive Anglo-Celtic pioneering tradition but admits it has "a grave enchantment which was almost my undoing".

Through suffering, Gillian becomes tied to Aphrodite with her blink­ered strength. It is a case of home is where the hurt is. Aphrodite reminds me of Artemisia, an Abruzzo peasant woman in Melbourne described in a short story by Gino Nibbi, who ran the path-blazing Leonardo bookshop in Little Collins Street and spent his life torn between Italy and Australia. Robust Artemisia joined her son and daughter-in-law in Hawthorn only six months before Nibbi wrote his story and knew little English but all the gossip in her street. In fact, she was more at home than her neighbours, the Nibbis, even though they had been there for 30 years, because she consid­ered Australians the foreigners. Rather than being assimilated, she assimilated Australia and always called Abruzzo home. In fact, she never moved out of it. One suspects Gino Nibbi envied her because, by this time, he was not too sure where home was.

Gillian may have had a similar attitude towards Aphrodite because of her assurance and knowingness about her small sphere. Gillian came to feel even affiliation. When she broke from the suffocation and enchantment of Greece, she did not return to Australia but, as recounted in A Stranger Here (Penguin, 1996), went instead to England because she found it the closest thing to the Australia she had left. Rather than still calling Australia home, she began calling England home. Although a migrant herself, she had reservations about the "hybridisation" of Australian society through migration. This Anglo-Celt records reservations in her family even about the Irish Catholic element in Australia. She lovingly recalls her grandparents who "doted on the Royal Family... read books about England and Scotland, sang traditional songs, danced traditional dances and were deeply suspicious of Irish Catholics".

That kind of Auld Lang Syne was one reason I welcomed the variety intro­duced by postwar migration.

A character in Living Nowhere by John Burnside says that home is "the place where you bury your dead". Is it true in a wired era that allows one to have more frequent contact with home but to live, as it were, nowhere? The statement, by contrast, reminds me of the earthquake survivors I inter­viewed living uncomfortably in tents in the hills behind Naples who refused offers from relatives in Australia to join them there because they did not want to leave their dead.

Claiming two homes is wanting to have it both ways. For those living in another country, the death of friends and relatives in their homeland is atten­uated by distance: they become new degrees of absence. But eventually expatriates suspect it might happen to them, too. That prospect, or the threat of old age and sickness, force some to decide where is home for them. But I recall Martin Boyd calmly facing the prospect of dying in Rome, saying that it was closer than Australia to where he had been born – Lucerne.

Matthew, in my story "You Haven't Changed a Bit", who wants to entwine Rome and home, is looking beyond death for a solution to his inabil­ity to bilocate. He has come from Rome to visit his parents in Melbourne and expresses concern that he might not see them again:

Sitting in the back garden after dinner, when he mentioned that he might not have the fare to fly out even if they were seriously ill, his father told him not to worry.

"It's strange," Matthew ventured, "It's so right sitting here with you both but it seems impossible when I'm in Rome."

His father, reclining in a deckchair, sat up. He wasn't at all sure what his son meant.

"When you're in Rome, it's hard to imagine being here," Matthew elaborated, "and when you're here, Rome seems unreal. But I'm at home in both places."

Matthew wasn't sure what he meant either he guessed he wanted imagina­tion to be the real thing, to be with his parents and to be in Rome at the same time, longing for a communion which was not of this world.

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