Stories of Moving and Migrating

I’m always fascinated by other people’s stories: where they come from; their cultural heritage; and the experiences that have shaped how they think and act. Last week I attended a talk at a local library, “Migrant Stories: Arnold Zable in conversation with Rose Stone and Rita Price”. For those that don’t know Arnold, he is a published and much-loved author, storyteller, educator and human rights advocate. I love how he described story-telling as the most inclusive of all art forms. That’s so true; all you need is a voice and the confidence to let your voice be heard.

The first speaker/storyteller, Rose Stone, certainly had no issues with confidence. At 93 she has a remarkably strong voice and great sense of humour. She came to Australia aged 16 as the war in Europe loomed. She migrated from Poland, where her grandfather was a tailor. Alone and with no knowledge of the English language, she went straight into a job at a Jewish factory where she spoke Yiddish. She learnt English phonetically, going on to do her HSC later in life and then joining a U3A writing group.

She shared a wonderful tale from a collection she has written. It was about her father or grandfather (my notes are incomplete) expressing his distaste for the chicken soup served by his wife on the Sabbath. And not just as a one-off but a few Fridays in a row. It transpired that the kerosene lamp – perhaps part of the Shabbat table decoration – was dripping into his soup. The way she wove together the characters, the food, the flavours and the humour was masterful and very much in the folk tale tradition.

The other writer, Rita Price, was born in Melbourne to Sicilian parents, who came to Australia after the war seeking a better life. Her parents bought the Princes Pier Cafe (sadly no longer) in Port Melbourne. Rita’s book Cafe at the Edge of the Bay celebrates the first fifteen years of her life when her parents and grand-parents ran the cafe. Interestingly, they served Australian food – pie, steaks and chips – rather than Italian-style food. She recalls that her parents had very limited English but could read, write and add up, and her grand-parents were illiterate but great story-tellers.

Arnold compared the immigrant experience to a play in Three Acts. Act One is where the person lived before they migrated, Act Two represents the move or ‘the rupture’, a momentous decision which can be a journey in itself, and which often originates in horrific events such as the Holocaust or current day religious and political persecution. Act Three is about assimilation, the rest of your life. For some this is the hardest part and they never cease to yearn for their homeland.

I migrated to Australia from the UK ten years ago motivated by a sense of adventure and in search of a new life. I had been through a tough patch and the only thing I was escaping were the demons in my own head! How lucky was I to move here by choice, at a time of fast and reliable e-enabled global communications, knowing that my decision was reversible. Nevertheless, I did move to the other side of the world alone , and it was rather a blind date. Although my brother lived here, I didn’t have a job, man or private income to get me started!

The first few months were hell. Shortly after moving to Melbourne, I dreamt that England and Australia were geographically joined at the hip and that you could easily drive from one to the other. Clearly, I was homesick and missing family and friends.

I arrived in winter and struggled to find furnished accommodation (my furniture was on the High Seas). I ended up renting a sunless flat with an oven that wouldn’t turn off, taps that dripped endlessly and a vacuum cleaner that belched out more vomit-scented dust than it sucked up. Then there was the married man (a friend of friends in the UK) who hit on me: “Would you like to have an affair?” he asked point blank. And this hot on the heels of dinner with him and his wife where they waxed lyrical about how they first met and got together. He and his wife ran a B & B in the CBD and he had taken me out to lunch to discuss whether I was interested in providing occasional weekend relief. He gave me a lift after lunch, and so we were driving along Beach Road in St Kilda when he popped the question.

Manipulative and hugely chauvinist, he took my (equally point blank) refusal badly. I was glad to get out of the car and went into Safeway to do my groceries, pretending nothing had happened as I filled my basket with broccoli and other veggies. The next day the stress caught up with me, and when my computer froze for the umpteenth time as I was searching online for jobs, I threw it across the room in a fit of frustration. That was the end of my (luckily second-hand) computer but only just the beginning of Act Three of my story, which, I am happy to say, got a lot easier as time went on.

Boris’s Blockbuster

Many of my blog posts seem to end up being about my puppy dog Bertie – not by design, more by default. It’s amazing how a curly-eared, doe-eyed, mischief-making, feather-legged, smooth-as-silk-coated, chocolate brown cocker spaniel cross can take up so much of my time, not to mention affection.

But today I’m writing about something different. Last week (yes, I’ve been inundated with work and a bit slow to post) I went to hear Mayor of London Boris Johnson present the Keynote Speech at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival. Actually, thinking about it, Boris, whose full name is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (the Pfeffel bit sounds like a German cookie to me) is rather spaniel-like with his floppy hair and cuddly appearance. Oh dear, I can’t go more than a few sentences without mentioning dogs…

Anyway, back to BJ. Spending an hour listening to him talk was one of the best things I’ve done all year. Boris is a dazzling speaker – witty, engaging, erudite, encyclopaedic in his knowledge and self-deprecating in the way only the English can be; he referred, for example, to a small sporting event that took place in London last year and seemed to go quite well!

Our man in London, Boris

Our man in London, Boris

He was given the theme ‘the power of the written word’ but he also spoke in praise of urbanisation reminding us that 89 per cent of the Australian population live in urban areas, a density which rivals that of Monaco. He wove in all sorts of literary and cultural references from Virgil to Chaucer, Star Wars and Harry Potter never missing a beat or an opportunity to refer to his beloved London, Routemaster buses and the Oyster card (with a little side swipe at our Myki system). And, of course, he mentioned his book Johnson’s Life of London here and there. This was a writers’ festival after all.

He’s clearly fond of Australia and Melbourne – like Prince Charles, he spent some time at Timber Tops – and talked about London as Melbourne’s Antipodean mirror. With so many Aussies in London (are they still all in Earl’s Court?), he declared himself Mayor of Australia’s 12th largest city! It was heartening to hear a politician – and a Conservative at that – talk so passionately about cultural and linguistic diversity. London wouldn’t be London without its rich blend of migrants from different countries and cultures with over 300 different languages spoken. What a pleasant contrast to the inhumane refugee and asylum-seeker policies cooked up by our ‘turn back the boats’ politicians on both sides of the divide.

He wrapped up his talk by coming back to words and writing. Asked what he will do when he retires, Boris owned up to a secret desire to write a rip-roaring blockbuster, the kind of book that you’d find at an airport bookshop complete with pink embossed writing on the cover. He’d write under a pseudonym, something like Rosie M Banks. If his thriller is anything like his speeches, it will be utterly compelling.