Art & Design
Posted by Paul Andrew
19. Jan, 2011
Well-known actor, broadcaster and entertainer Roland Rocchiccioli reveals the story behind the documentary- “The Italian Girls From Gwalia”
What is your earliest memory of Gwalia being a Goldfield in WA?
From wherever you were in Gwalia you could see the tall black chimney stack from the Sons of Gwalia goldmine, belching black, sometimes white, smoke into the cloudless blue sky. For the ten years before I was sent away to boarding school it was the epicentre of my childhood universe. The regular roar of the gold bearing ore spilling into the crusher was as comforting as the heartbeat of a mother.
With a population of 60% Italian, 20% other Europeans and 20% British, it was, to all intents and purposes, an Italian village on the edge of the Great Victoria desert, 147-miles North-east of Kalgoorlie. The tempo of the town was regulated by the rising and setting of the sun, and the sound of the steam whistle on the Sons of Gwalia goldmine. The 360-degree uninterrupted view from the top of Mt. Leonora stretched to the beyond – and further. The sunsets in the summer were magnificent – turning the sky a hot magenta which always reminded me of the fires of hell and the souls in purgatory.
Tell me about the “Little Italy” of Gwalia; the people, the places, the aromas, the music?
At one time there were 28 nationalities working on the Sons of Gwalia mine. I grew up with the sound of other languages ringing in my ears. The Italians took every opportunity for a celebration – whether it was name-day, a wedding, a christening, a birthday, or Christmas. Tables groaned under the weight of the food which included lasagne, risotto, gnocchi, and roasted chickens and legs of pork and lamb.
Mazza’s store sold the best and charged accordingly. The peaches, plums and apricots were hand-packed in slat jarrah boxes lined with white butcher’s paper; pears and apples were hand-wrapped in a square of pale-green tissue paper. The one-pound bags of Watery Hall grapes from the Sandalford vineyard in the Swan Valley were packed in airflow plastic bags. The single Italian men bought and ate them sitting on the benches outside the shop. We only had cherries on Christmas Day; big dark and juicy, they were a taste explosion in your mouth.
What enchanted you as the woman of Gwalia set about their business?
Mrs Patroni’s boarding house was home to between twenty and thirty single European men working on the mine. The standard of the food made up for the lack of facilities. The dining room served three meals a day and a some of the surface workers came back for a hot midday meal. Full board included a crib or a cut lunch for the underground workers.
I often saw Mrs Patroni standing in the doorway on the front verandah watching the passing parade. With one hand on her hip, and the other resting high on the door frame it was an alluring sight. Whenever she saw me she waved, and invited me in to eat: ‘Ciao bello, vene qua. Vene qua per mangare.’ She took a shine to me and I was one of the few kids allowed inside her boarding house. I found her irresistible and her spaghetti with pork chops was delicious.
Mrs Scolari was the waitress. When we lived opposite I would see every afternoon setting off on her bike to the boarding house. There was something alluring – almost scandalous – about Mrs Scolari. She was a slim, attractive woman with dark hair. ‘What are you talking about? Of course she dies it,’ Beria scoffed.
It is so important that these oral histories- about ‘sisters’ and relatedness- are not lost, is this what prompted – Comme Facette Mammeta, Roland Rocchiccioli?
The documentary – THE ITALIAN GIRLS FROM GWALIA – is an opportunity to couple the anecdotal history of Gwalia with the stories of the Italian mothers as told by their daughters, many of whom are now themselves, “of an age”; to record how the mothers survived and made for themselves a new life in the sometimes living hell; how they eagerly embraced the new, while holding onto the past. They were women of remarkable courage; a courage borne out of necessity, desperation, and determination. And, eventually, a love for their new country. The Italians – the new Australians – came from the north and south of the old country, bringing with them a lifetime of memories, traditional food, and a culture which helped change the face of society. Their contribution to the shape of modern Australia cannot be over-estimated.
The Italian Girls from Gwalia plays Thursday, 20th Jan as part of the Midsumma Festival
Italian Cultural Institute (Elm Tree House)
233 Domain Rd, South Yarra
Bookings: firstname.lastname@example.org / 0408 137 037
Presented in English. Light refreshments available.
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