The following interview is by Shelley Jones, the winner of New Conversations, Dumbo Feather’s high school storytelling competition.
SHELLEY JONES: I guess I’ll keep it brief and start with the most basic of questions: How old were you when you left Italy?
MARIA DECARLI: Well, I know things are never “brief” with you, Shelley, but to answer your question, I was 15.
Were you upset to leave?
No, no, no! I was more than happy to leave; it was a difficult time over there! We left because it was hard to make a whole new life for ourselves after the war, people had died, there were dead bodies everywhere, I couldn’t sleep, the only choice we really had if we wanted a good life was to leave.
What was immigration like? I know these days it’s really quite a long process, but was it the same when you came over here?
It was quite a long process because before we were accepted we had to go for a medical check, all our teeth and X-rays had to be good, no sickness, no criminal records of any kind, then we would have to wait a while, and if you were all cleared you’d get accepted. They would give us the okay and then we received the dates for when we would sail. There were a lot of people on the ship. People your age these days would never really have to think about immigration because of the lives you live. I’m sure you’ve never thought about having to immigrate.
No, I haven’t actually. I’ve thought about holidays though.
[Laughs] we all have, but it was a bad situation we were in, and despite the long wait we were put through, it was worth it.
For a 15-year-old girl who had been through war, being on a ship probably wasn’t too bad. But I’m curious to know, where there any difficulties you faced?
Well of course it was nothing like it was when we were in Italy during the war, but the 28 days of sea sickness was an absolute nightmare. [Laughs] every single day I felt sick, there were heaps of people throwing up over the sides of the boat and into the water. It was horrible.
Did you stop along the way?
We went to Greece and picked up more people there who were just like us, finding a better place to live and make a better life. Then we went down past Egypt. We didn’t stop there though, we came right around to Australia.
You said before you went through 28 days of sea sickness? Is that how long it took you to get to Australia?
Yes, yes. We arrived here in Melbourne 28 days later and were dropped off at Port Melbourne with our family and belongings.
Where did you go?
Well, they put us on the train and we stopped at Albury for a cup of tea and to stretch our legs, then we were back on the train and off to Bonegilla. We stayed there for about four or six weeks, waiting at a camp. We didn’t do too much, actually, we didn’t do anything [laughs] it was an army camp, so we did nothing but wait. Then we travelled to Fairy Meadow where my father worked at the steel works at Port Campbell and we stayed at the camp that was there, waiting yet again.
Waiting for what exactly?
Waiting for my father to earn enough money where he was working so we could buy a house and get out of there. It took a fair while as he was the only one who was working, we weren’t allowed to work, us women.
My mother looked after both me and my sister at the camp whilst my dad worked.
After he got enough money to buy a house, where exactly did you move?
We bought a place in Oak Flats in New South Wales. It didn’t take him as long as we initially thought to earn the money. He and his friend, who was on the ship with us, joined their money together and we all lived together. I say “house” like it was a glamorous lifestyle [laughs] it was anything but! We all shared the shed with a toilet, but it was only little. It was better than the camp, and Italy.
A lot of girls would have had to get married at that stage, wouldn’t they? So they could buy a place of their own and start a family. Who did you marry? And how old were you?
I married the friend my dad joined the money with. I was 16, but rather than moving out straight away and starting our own lives, we still lived with my mother, father, sister and even her husband. It was very crowded.
Was it an arranged marriage? Or was it your decision?
No it wasn’t arranged. I made the choice to marry him when he asked me. My mother and father were happy. If it wasn’t for him, it would have taken longer for us to buy a place. After I was married I needed to get a job. We needed to move out of the small and confined place. It was in a little Men’s suit factory in Unanderra in New South Wales.
Did your husband work as well? Or did he leave that all up to you, like, “I worked in order to buy the house, now it’s your turn to do it.”?
No we both worked. Whilst I was at the men’s shop, he worked with my father at the steel works in Port Campbell. It was better that way: we would both be earning an income and be able to buy a house faster.
Italy was your home, and now you found yourself in a completely different country, married and working, living with your husband, your sister and her husband, and your mother and father. It must have been hard.
Well, considering what we had come from, it was a great life. We had plenty of good food and water, and a lot of freedom, and plenty of fresh air [laughs] I didn’t think I would have left my home, but I doubt I would have this kind of life if I hadn’t.
Where did you get your food from? Did you grow it?
No, we’re city people [laughs] we didn’t know how to grow it.
It sounds like life here was pretty good for you, you had a place to live, money, food. So did you stay in Oak Flats?
We stayed for around six months and then we moved to Melbourne because my father was curious.
Melbourne must have been a very different place back then.
Well… it was very empty [laughs]. It was good though, plenty of room, you could walk around without hitting people, there was little traffic, the weather was good in summer, very hot, but very cold in winter, people still smoking, but the smell wasn’t as bad, you could still breathe the fresh air. There were bakeries and stores with all the old fashioned clothing, you could actually walk past one and look through the window without being bowled over, or being in such a rush.
It’s so different now; everyone is walking so fast you forget to breathe!
So this would be the third or fourth time you had to rebuild your life. How did that feel?
We lived in North Fitzroy, everyone in the same house. We were all together; my mum, my dad, my sister, her husband, my husband and my brother. It was pretty crowded, but it was still better than being in Italy. To be perfectly honest, I think anywhere was better than Italy at that time. We had a real chance to make an actual life.
I considered myself lucky with the work I was getting. A lot of people did want jobs in those times because they needed money. I worked in a lolly shop in North Fitzroy. Once a week I’d be paid four pounds, I worked every single day except on a Saturday and Sunday for eight hours, every single week. It wasn’t a great deal, but it kept us up to speed with food and rent. My husband was earning nine pounds.
I’m assuming you went somewhere after Melbourne?
We did leave Melbourne. We went to Queensland when I was 22 with my sister and her husband. They ended up coming back to Melbourne while we stayed in Queensland for nine years.
Describe how life has been since you moved to Australia. Was it the utopia you were searching for?
I would say beautiful. When we were first coming here, at my age, I wasn’t sure what it was going to be like, but with everything I had seen with the wars, lives lost, dead bodies, life anywhere but there seemed so good and so tempting and it’s turned out great. It turned out to be one of the best decisions made for me. I’ve had a chance at a better life, and had a much better one too, I guess I would have liked to have lived where I was born, but considering the circumstances, I’m really happy with the way things have turned out.
Now that you are living comfortably in Australia, what do you like to do in your free time?
I don’t have free time. I’m always busy. When I don’t do manual jobs, I read. I love romance. I love reading Mills and Boons novels. It is my equivalent to Nonna’s Porn [laughs] they’re exciting stories and very nice ones too. Sometimes when I read them I wonder why the stuff that’s going on didn’t happen to me in my younger days!
If you were able to move back to Italy now, would you go?
If it were just a holiday, I would go, but I wouldn’t move there. My home is here now,
I’ve spent most of my life trying to make a home here and I have. I wouldn’t give that up for anything.
I’m happy here, I can sleep at night, I have good food, clean water, and I feel settled. Now that I’ve got somewhere like this to live, I wouldn’t just pick up and go, leaving all of this behind. Never! This is my home.
I’m glad that you found a life here, because I love it here too.
I’m glad I moved here to [laughs] you’re welcome. I think that a lot of girls your age need to be able to hear these things so they can understand what it’s really like.
What would your advice be to someone who has to leave their country?
I suppose just to embrace the opportunities that come your way which are going to help you make a better life.