It’s hard because I’m on my own. Even though the people around me are very respectful and caring, it’s hard work to continue … No, it’s not hard to continue believing in what you do, because I do believe in it, but the way you live here requires you to accept and take things slowly and to know that things will take time to work. Also, the way you handle people requires a great deal of respect. I’ve gained the respect of the locals which was important.
Was there any resistance to you at first?
No they’ve always been nice to me, I think because they relate to work and all I’ve done here is work, without benefitting personally from it. That’s gained their trust. With everyone who’s come before, it’s been about what’s been in it for them. I’ve gone to see officials; administration officers, town planners, and I’ve asked for things for the village and they’ve been surprised. I went to the mayor and said, “I don’t know anyone important, but I want you to know me. I’m not asking for any money because there isn’t any, I just want to know how you can help me.” For them, it’s such a strange concept that I’m not there to say, “I want this” or, “I’ll give you this, if you give me that.” I think people can see I’ve proven my sincerity and that I’m not here for myself. The hard work I do is because I believe in something. So yes, people are very respectful towards me and I hear voices coming back, saying nice things.
In the past three years or so, have there been any times when you’ve thought that you couldn’t continue?
There have been a lot of times when you’re so tired and you’re going to bed exhausted and waking up still exhausted and you’re wondering: is it me, or do they really want this? I’d have meetings and I’d say, “As far as I’m concerned I’m not here to push this, if you don’t want this I can walk away from it” and then they start to say, “Oh no, no, we really want this.”
It’s where you see yourself being for a while longer?
I think that I’d love to. It’s hard when you really believe in something, to give it up. Whenever you do feel like that, something small happens … Like when the young people in the village came to my door and asked me if I could find a room for them to meet in and play cards. I was in tears that the young people of the village actually came to me. When you get so involved, when do you walk away? I’ll go as far as I can with this and just trust that a drop in the ocean is better than nothing you try. The problem in the past, here in Sicily, is that there are a lot of people who want power and people do things to benefit themselves, but I don’t want any power. I can walk away from this, and maybe they won’t even remember my name, but it doesn’t matter. I’m here because I like it here and I think that by trying to promote the place, locals can benefit from it too and their children can get employment and to believe in something … The best film you can go and see if you want to understand what it’s like here is Baaria by the same director [Giuseppe Tornatore] as Cinema Paradiso. It talks about Sicily over the last 50 years. The set for the film was built in Tunisia – it cost 25 million Euros to do it there – but the town it talks about, Baaria, is only 50 km from where I live and has been ridden with mafia. At the end of this film, you see that, over the course of 50 years and three generations, nothing’s changed … it’s even worse. There was an article about it and about how at the end a son said to his father, “How can the town planner give permission to build houses when he’s blind?” and you see this guy who’s blind passing his hands over a map ‘reading’ it, when someone comes along and puts an envelope full of money in his pocket. It doesn’t really matter whether he has eyesight or not, that’s irrelevant when you’re town planning there. Things can change, it’s just that people have to do it, it won’t happen on its own.
You’re in an amazing position to be able to translate your general passion for traditional, indigenous culture, into a very personal project. It’s one thing to go and help the Bedouin keep their culture, but you’re able to do the same thing in a place and for a people who mean so much to you.
It is, it is. It’s so frustrating when you walk up the street and the people don’t know if they’ll be working from one day to another. I know people in Australia and England and they’re worried that they can’t afford a second week of holidays, you know … People forget. I’m not saying there’s no poverty in Australia and England, there’s poverty in any country, but man has gone beyond just providing food for himself to providing luxuries. At least, if all I can do is say that at the end of it I’ve tried and I’ve tried with my heart … I have great respect for where I was born and the people around me. They’re very, very important in my life. It’s real for me.
Do you maintain any ties back to Australia?
Well, I’ve still got my mother there.
She’s still alive?
She’s 75. There’s also my sister, my nieces … everyone’s there. I’m here on my own, apart from my older aunties, my father’s family. I’ve been on my own all this time here.
Does your family back home think you’re crazy?
Yeah, they do, because people tend to take the easy way. I always think that the easy way is good in the sense that you don’t get stressed, but if it’s easy then there’s no problem, is there? If you go somewhere to help someone, it’s because there’s a problem, so it’s going to be hard. My mother thinks I think of other people too much, but you’re either like that, or you’re not. I also look after the cats here in the village and have had them sterilised because everything’s important, even the animals. I’ve also planted plants, had rubbish bins made and I’m going to fix the seats It’s all the little things.
Did you ever have any children of your own?
No. I was married years ago, but he was the first man I met. We were brought up very traditionally and once we arrived in Australia we were much more closed in because the Australian people were seen as being very independent, with loose women. We weren’t allowed to go out with boys, so the first man, I married. Perhaps the divorce was when I started to get more freedom in my life … I feel like I’ve lived in so many different worlds and now I’ve come back to the one I was born in, but with a different understanding. I don’t feel any different to my neighbours here, it’s just that I have knowledge of different things. So what? We lead a very simple life. My neighbours here invite me to watch a TV program with them and we talk about nothing, but that’s fine. It’s about the affection given.