Cultural background: Italian
Place of origin: Crespano del Grappa, Veneto, Italy
Date of arrival: 1953
First home in Australia: Cousin’s house, Yenda, NSW
Nella Piva’s migration story
My name is Marianna Nella Piva (Maiden name; Torresan) but ever since I was little, I was always called Nella. I was born in a small agricultural village called Crespano del Grappa, Veneto Italy on 10 Feb 1928 to Giovanni and Theresa Torresan (Salvestrin).
My family lived in a large house with four floors and the top floor was like a storage room for our farm produce such as grain, vegetables and hay. We lived with my Uncles family, in total, there were 4 adults and 8 children. I was expected to uphold many responsibilities being the eldest so I helped mum look after my siblings and worked hard on my parents farm. They were always busy, my mother was a kind woman, she usually was in the kitchen cooking the home grown farm produce, mending clothes or feeding the children. My father was very strict and unforgiving and many times did not allow me to go to school because I had to either mind my Aunty’s children while she helped my father on the farm or I too would go picking corn, cutting hay by hand or tend to the cattle and sheep. Out of 5 siblings, my father favoured his only son, my brother Danillo. For his baptism, we held a great party with plenty of food to feed the relatives who filled the house and overflowed out into the yard. Even one of my father’s sisters who was a bit stingy despite owning a restaurant, cooked up a feast of her renowned delicious ravioli.
When Danillo was about 7 years old, my father thought it was a good idea to teach him how to sow grain on the farm instead of go to school. My father drove the machinery while Danillo sat on it until he fell amongst the machinery. His knee was badly injured, he could not walk and this nearly crushed my father. My father carried him back to the house where he laid him on the bed. Danillo was in a lot of pain but my Mother and Father thought it was best to rest him in bed for two days. They didn’t want him to miss too much school so they encouraged him to walk. I escorted him half way to school but he was in too much pain so we walked back home. My parents said for me to take him to hospital on the bicycle as we had no car. It was a mens racing bike without a basket so Danillo sat on the cross bar and held on so that he would not fall and hurt his leg again. When the doctor saw his blue knee he said he had to go to surgery immediately. Danillo stayed in hospital for a week and he would cry when I would visit him twice everyday. When Danillo was well enough to return home, my father thanked the doctor who said to him angrily that Danillo should have been taken to the hospital as soon as the accident happened and was very lucky that he didn’t get Tetanus. I prayed to the Madonna del Covolo for the miracle of his survival.
My village was surrounded by corn fields, which was milled to make polenta, a type of corn bread that is a very common staple in the area. It wasn’t always slave labour on the farm. In the evenings of October during the corn harvest, family and friends gathered to peel the corn while singing and laughing. We were very fortunate that the location of our farm did not suffer from hail damage so we were able to sell a sack or two of corn so that we could pay the rates electricity and water bills. There was no such thing as pocket money back then to spend on little luxuries we’d like. But on occasions, one of my Aunties who was a successful tailor bought me an ice cream.
When I did go to school, I remember that the nuns and teachers were very strict and were generous with using the cane. Except on Sunday when they were happy to teach us about the Bible. During the week school finished at 1pm and my sisters, cousins and I, looked forward to walking home because we would play and chase each other freely. Often we would come home to find an unappetizing lunch of dry pasta covered in fly’s since there was no cling wrap, flyscreens or fly sprays in the house. We reluctantly ate a couple of spoonfuls then would go out to work on the farm. If we were still hungry we’d take some polenta with us to eat it with grapes or walnuts or whatever was in season on the farm. I finished school at the age of 11, about the time WWII started, when Italy joined Germany in the war against England. I just barely learned to write and I remember they taught us a war song. ‘England you’ll lose the war and Italy will be victors’.
Once in September during Spring, I was hoeing the weeds in the corn fields with my Aunty and while my cousins planted clover for the cows to eat. The fields grew high so no one could see you in between the rows and the leaves were long enough to scratch my neck so I’d wear a scarf. When I reached the end of my row first, I was surprised to see five men with guns and ammunition hiding in the hedges alongside the road. They spotted me and one turned and said,’ Keep quiet, don’t speak, go away. We going to ambush a jeep full of Germans from Asolo going to the hospital in Crespano to visit injured German soldiers. It’s not safe for you here.’ I understood that they were Partisans. As if I wasn’t going to tell anyone, without uttering a word, I backed away and ran down towards my Aunty and cousins to warn them not to go towards the armed men. Moments later, we heard sirens so we waited until it was safe to return home. As the evening progressed, we found out that the Partisans had killed two Germans and interrogated the other soldiers before stripping them of their clothes and making them walk naked into the village. Later, a squadron of Germans arrived in the area and searched houses close by including mine. At the time only my cousin’s elderly mother was home who said to them naively that she hadn’t seen anyone for three days. Luckily they left her alone and didn’t burn the house down. But in frustration they shot the dog, took the cows and salamis.
Living in the village changed a lot when the war began. There were German soldiers everywhere and we were cautious to go about our business and avoided any unnecessary attention to ourselves in case we were randomly interrogated. The regular soldiers were not as terrifying as the Gestapo who stood out with their black uniforms. General commodities of the village were reduced and the town folk and occasionally German soldiers would ask us farmers for something to eat. Things became so desperate that one day when a German parachutist was found dead amongst some trees, the body was quickly disposed of (to avoid attracting suspiciousness ) and all his clothes and parachute was divided up and made into useful items. I still have a small bag that was made out of the parachute material.
One evening on my way down to the cellar to collect some potatoes, I got such a fright when I opened the door to see three American soldiers hiding. Before I could scream, my father appeared and hurried me away. He told me not to say anything to anyone and to stay away from the basement. The next evening, my mother was busy and she asked me to take bread and wine to the Americans. I was nervous as I opened the cellar door but I had nothing to fear because they were more interested in filling their empty stomachs. One spoke Italian and I blushed when he said that I had beautiful brown eyes.
When the war ended, the village people were relieved from the terror of war and praised the efforts of the American soldiers. I remember some soldiers gave us some chocolate bars and to savour them, we would eat little bits at a time with bread to make the flavour last longer.
I met Giovanni Piva in my town, he was a handsome and gentle man. I was old enough to get married but I had no money and I owned nothing like sheets or towels to make up a dowry. When the war ended, my town was in poverty so an opportunity came up that I could earn some money in Rome. I would take the place of one of my Auntys who returned home and I would babysit for the rich Marchesa family in Rome for 8 months. Via del Corso No. 36 Rome. I looked after the children and did the groceries. I remember taking their elevator for the first time, I was so nervous I forgot the shopping list. They were strict Catholics and warned me against the Roman boys who liked the company of naïve young girls from the country side. The Marchesa family were lovely people and enjoyed having me there. They were very disappointed when I reluctantly showed them the letter from my finance’ Giovanni saying that we would migrate to Australia.
I returned home and I was surprised that I was overcome by the smells of the farm, the manure, the cows that I didn’t even want to be there. The only items that I was able to buy that reminded me of Rome was a beautiful pair of shoes and a bag. The rest of the money I earned from babysitting was sent home to pay for a labourer who was working in my place on the farm. I was not ready for marriage but Giovanni was a nice enough man and he had been helping my father on the farm that I had no choice but to stay home. In one and half months I was married on the 2 February 1951 at 23 years of age.
Giovanni began his journey to Australia at midnight by car on 2 July 1951 to board the Greek ship Cirenia in Genova. There was plenty of work in Australia and with the help of his sister who was already there, he wanted to establish himself first in Australia. If things went well he would return to Italy or I would follow him there. I was so worried about Giovanni leaving me on my own in Italy. He tried to console me that I would be in the good hands of his sisters for a year however little did he know. They would read every letter that he wrote to me and probably kept some of the money he sent too.
In March 1953, along with others from my town, I took the packed bus to Genova with my daughter Claudia, and my father escorting me all the way to my room on the ship. It was the only time that my father acknowledged my work on the farm and he said as I was departing “I’m losing my right hand today”. The ship was called SS Oceania and it was a modern ship at that time, one of 3 sister ships (Australia and Neptunia) that took migrants to Australia. The journey to Sydney was going to take 28 days and was glad I had a cabin for my daughter Claudia and I shared it with a friend Catina Racconello and her daughter who both disembarked in Melbourne. The cabin had 4 bunk beds and enough room for necessary clothes. Passengers shared the bathroom and there was always a long queue for it so we showered only when necessary with 3 or 4 kids in the bath at a time. To ensure passengers were cleaning themselves regularly, at the equator, the stewards would encourage passengers to bathe in the ocean with lifejackets on. Some people would refuse as they did not want to go against their husbands words “I want to see you the way I left you”.
I remember a large room where we would eat but during rough seas, not many were hungry and would be seasick. On occasions people and plates would fly off tables and the poor stewards would be busy cleaning up the terrible mess. During nice weather I would take my daughter up on the top deck and one time Claudia threw one of her only pair of shoes overboard. We generally were comfortable on the ship and there was only one time where I was worried when Claudia caught the chicken pox. But after three days in the on board medical room she recovered.
I brought with me 2 suit cases, one was filled with Claudia’s clothes and nappies, the other was a wooden chest filled with my wedding dowry, sheets, cutlery and crockery. Giovanni told me not to bring any electrical appliances because the house in Australia where we were going to stay didn’t have electricity connected yet so I brought an iron that heated up with wooden embers or corn cobs. I brought strong metal scissors to cut chicken bones for cooking, a blue venetian jug with glasses, 2 grey army blankets that soldiers left at the house. I brought a bag and tea towel that I had made with material. I had a camera that some German soldiers exchanged with my parents for bread, wine and salami. I cannot remember if I ever used it. I hand hemp sheets. The leaves were given to the cows for feed and the stalks were soaked before they woven into sheets. I was afraid that the expensive handmade blue woollen doona that was a precious gift from my family, may get taken from me at Sydney because I saw suit cases been opened and searched in Melbourne. I prayed to Father Leopoldo for a miracle. They searched passengers belongings alphabetically so by the time they got up to my name, they didn’t bother checking the case. The doona was good for the winters and lasted for some time.
I arrived in Sydney where Giovanni came to pick me up and I spent the first night in Australia at his friends place on a lounge. The next day we caught the train for a long 8 hour trip through the arid scenery to Yenda NSW. I didn’t see any kangaroos or emus Australia was known for, only on bocce bus trips to Melbourne many years later.
We were picked up by Paolina Racconello with a truck to stay at Johnny Zandonas house with Dino Zamin. The house was small with a wooden stove, no fridge, a kerosene lamp and a tennis table that was used as a dining table. We were given a chook with chicks to tend for and for provide us with food. Yenda was a small town outside Griffith and it a cinema.
We lived in Yenda for 2 years. I fell pregnant with my second daughter Alice and when it was time to go to hospital, my relative, Joe Racconello drove me along the bumpy road. He was only 14 at the time and could speak English so he was translating between the doctor and I. What a learning curve for him. I stayed overnight in hospital and I remember one nurse tried to speak to me in Italian. She said’ don’t cry’.
One day I put Alice in a little bed I made from Giovannis old trousers. I stuffed rags inside the trousers and tied up the waist and legs with a rope. I gave her a bottle of milk and placed on the bed her outside on the veranda when a brown snake slithered next to her. I tried to look for a broom but by then the snake had slithered between a crack in the floor of the kitchen. I picked up Alice and I ran down to the paddock where Giovanni was picking apricots. He returned with Johnny Zandona with a stick but could not find the snake. From that day, I never put Alice on the floor again. Then the crows started to crow. The sounds that the crows would make were frightening. I said to Giovanni my husband “Those birds they are calling the dead!” I was afraid that they would peck out my children’s eyes or maybe they were just calling out to say hello to me!
At Alices baptism in Yenda I prepared a chicken and vegetables for lunch. I looked in the pot to start to cook the chicken and there were maggots on the chicken! I washed in hot water to remove the maggots and cooked it anyway! They said it was the nicest chicken risotto, even too much food!
In 1954 we placed a house deposit of 30 pounds in Yoogali which was previously owned by Angelo and Maria Salvestro. I still live there to this day.
When Giovanni got sick I rode my bike to work on farms to pick whatever produce was around while nuns looked after Claudia and Alice. I was used to the hard work on the farm because she was used to it on the farm in Italy. Her first dining table for the family was bought with the money I earned from picking 150 buckets of tomatoes. I remember counting every bucket, knowing that each one would contribute to a splinter to make the table.
I took on a kitchen hand job at the Yoogali Club in 1959 for 8 years. Many Italians worked there and catered for functions and provided food for the nearby outdoor cinema. Initially I was embarrassed that by the age of 26, I still did not know how to cook basic Italian recipes like minestrone because I had only worked on the farm for most of my life. I had faith in myself and when water touches your backside, you learn to swim. Peter Ceccato and Mario Cardolana taught me how to cook minestrone and pasta sauce. An Australian chef also worked at the club and we would exchange and translate recipes to cater for Australian and Italian cuisines.
After many enjoyable years at the club, I knew that I needed to find kitchen work amongst Australians to improve my English. Mario understood that I wanted to leave but was disappointed because no one else would make tasty sauces like me. I heard that the Irrigana hotel had built a new kitchen and it was owned by Mr Jones, who I had worked for before on his prune farm. The Chef at the Irrigana would show me the menu for the month and I would go home to have it translated by Claudia. The second chef there, was Czech who was a very good cook but would drink too much of the cooking wine. One day he asked for my permission to take my youngest daughter Alice out on a date. Alice didn’t want to and I did not like mixing business with pleasure. The Chef became spiteful and difficult to work with. I decided to find work elsewhere and I knew that my good reputation and work ethic would be helpful in my job application.
After 7 years at the Irrigana, I went to work at the Womens club until my retirement. I specialised in Italian cooking of course and really enjoyed cooking for Italian weddings. I remember telling the club to put more than just one bread roll out per person on the table because I knew Italians love to “toccia”, clean their plates clean with bread.