Laura Mecca and Mara Moustafine.
Laura Mecca describes arriving in Australia in the late 1970s, and both the sense of isolation and the strategies she used to recreate social networks.
17 February 2009
source not available
First of all, coming by ship, that was the strongest impact, because of the distance and Suez Canal was closed so it took us a month to circumnavigate Africa and then arrive in Melbourne. And it was never-ending, it was never-ending so you started to realise soon that you are going so far away. So it was a slow death.
I came from Milano, although I am born in the Veneto region, but I was brought up in Milano and my husband came from Genoa. It was a big [city] and slowly, slowly, this was going away, and then arriving in Melbourne. Fremantle was the first [the first port of call] and its impact was the flies. Then we were delayed in port very briefly for a few hours. [We wandered around and came back] just in time; [we had been] desperately look for something Italian which was the usual pizza shop.
And then we arrived in Melbourne, we arrived the Station Pier, and we were all looking at this station pier on the rise and early in the morning and that was Melbourne, but we were used to a big city. So, Melbourne appeared like a village, you know, coming into station pier and I said, “Gee, I said, anyway let’s see what we find.” The Australian immigration people had got on board in Fremantle and they were sort of screening us and allocating people to hostels. We knew already before leaving Italy whether we were to be ocated to Melbourne or Brisbane or Sydney or Perth or whatever.
So for us, it was Melbourne, but they wanted us to go to a hostel in Altona and of course, when you’re on board you ask people what life is like. Because some of them were coming back from a holiday so they had been [in Australia] before . So we kept asking for information and they said, “Oh don’t go to a hostel, you know, they separate you, husband from wife.” Which was true. We were destined for the Altona Hostel. Also on board came officers from the banks. So if you had any savings, you could open your account, so we opened our account with a bank. And when we came to this Australian Immigration officer said, “You have to go to Altona.” We said, “No, we don’t want to go to a hostel.” He said, “You have to.” I said, “No.” I spoke English a little bit, I had learnt some. My husband spoke less than me, but he could understand some. The officer said, “No you have to go to Altona Hostel.” I said, “No. This is an Italian ship and Italian flag, we’re not getting off board if you insist that we go to the hostel.”
He was very stroppy. He had two younger officers with him, so when he wasn’t around, they approached us and they said, “Look you can do what you want once you arrive at Station Pier, nobody’s there to chase you up.” And that’s exactly what we did. We had asked on board for a little hotel or something. And they said, “Look there’s the Victoria Hotel in Little Collins Street.” Because we wanted to be in the town, we didn’t want to be suburbs. It was the concept of suburb, that was not there with us.
So, we said, “In the heart of the town, Little Collins Street, fine.” So we jumped into a taxi and we told the taxi driver to take us to this Victoria Hotel in Little Collins Street. And we stayed there for over 10 days, a week or something like that.
My husband went to look for a job and it was a very successful day, we’ll always remember because one of the partners in this architectural firm was a Lithuanians, Mr Kesa and he said, “Look I see myself in you, you know, 30 years ago.” He was a displaced person who came soon after the war and he said, “We haven’t got really work but we want to help you so we give you a job and in the meantime you look for another job.” He said to my husband, “You have to improve your English while you’re here.”
I felt very lonely. Because being from a big city, having an extended family around you, which being Italian or Greek or whatever, European, the extended family is a very important element in your life, suddenly here I was feeling completely displaced, me, my daughter, my husband. No other relatives. So I felt very lonely. So every day at four o'clock, with my husband disappearing from nine, eight o'clock in the morning until the afternoon, no siesta break, nothing, so I was on my own, I had no furniture to dust, only a little girl to feed. There was not much I could do.
So I used to go into the train, the four o'clock at peak hours, because I went to Flinders Street and stayed there and people would touch me and push me and whatever and that felt like in Milano. I said, “Wow!” [laughs]. I used to come home, happy like anything, you know, because I’d been with the people, because here [in South yarra] it was so deserted. So I used to walk up and down South Yarra, Toorak Road, and there was an Italian greengrocer I met. I was trying to create a network because that’s what migrants do. They’re trying to recreate this extended family they left behind. It doesn’t matter if they’re not members of the family, they can be friends, very often that has been the case. So you need to create that network around you to support you and that’s how we started our Australian experience.