Why I Am Proud to Be Australian and Aeolian

The story of our islands goes back to a dim past where history merges into mythology, and it is difficult to distinguish one from the other. What follows is, of course, mythology, of the kind which today appears on every tourist brochure.

Southern Italy was once known as Ausonia. Its king Ausonion, who gave the region its name, had a son called Liparo. Upon his fathers death, Liparo inherited the kingdom. This included the Aeolian Islands. The present Lipari then known as Meligunis was settled about B.C. 1240. It later changed its name fo Lipari, in honour of King Liparo. Fifty years later Aelos, accompanied by many others, fled from Troy after its destruction. They reached Lipari where they were well received by King Liparo, Aelos eventually marrying the king’s daughter. During the reign of Liparo, the islands reputedly enjoyed freedom, tranquillity and prosperity and continued to participate in commercial and cultural exchanges with other people in the Mediterranean perimeter. Later Aelos moved his royal palace from Lipari to Stromboli, where because of volcanic eruption and violent winds, he was given the name, “King of the Wind”. Homer, in his Odyssey, mentions that Ulysses visited the islands, formed a friendship with Aelos, who when his guest became becalmed put the winds behind him fo propel his small vessel into the main trade route between Southern Italy and Greece.

Such is the myth.

Whether or not myth is transformed into history, in the interim in 580-577 B.C. a group of Cnidians and Rhodians, expelled from Sicily by the Carthaginians, passed through Lipari heading for their Greek homeland. They were welcomed by the inhabitants who encouraged them to remain and help them with the reconstruction and cultivation of the island. The gifts of the islanders to the homeland shrine of the Oracle at Delphi were legendary.

it is a long distance from these mythical foundations to the Aeolians who, infused with French, Spanish, Saracen and Sephardic blood, ultimately came to this country. So many centuries later, my two parents, Joseph and Maria Terzita, were both bom on the island of Salina, which, after Lipari, is the largest of the Aeolian islands. They came from different villages, my father from what was then known as Mare, my mother from Val Di Chiesa. They had not met while they remained on the island, nor do their families seem to have known each other. They met only when they both came to Australia, but it was in the usual “arranged” kind - of -way, more or less normal for Aeolian migrants of that time. They married and brought six children into the world, of whom four are still alive. Like almost every other Aeolian family which I came to know, they worked and lived in a humble fruit-shop, in what was then the poor industrial suburb of Brunswick. Both were compelled to work very hard in “the shop”, my mother almost as much as my father. So did the three eldest children in the time available after school.

In the end, like almost all of the others, my parents achieved a modest financial success, enough to take a trip to Italy in 1921 when I was less then six years old. Later, they used what money they had to give their children a secondary education, at Catholic schools. Four won scholarships and went to Melbourne University. The other two worked, at different times, in “the shop” which later became a licensed grocery.

That brief recital of early events explains some of the most important things which have happened to me in the course of my life. They meant that I was born into an Aeolian family which like the eight million other Italians who were forced by poverty to leave their country between 1900 and 1914, ultimately settled either in the United States, Argentina or Australia. Thus I was - and am - both an Australian by birth and an Aeolian by origin.

Nevertheless, unlike those who kowtow to the fashionable multiculturalism, I have never had any doubts about my identity. I was born in Australia. It is my country and I owe my primary loyalty to it. About this, there is no room for confusion. The rest of me is Aeolian, my blood, my background, my earliest memories.

I cannot possibly reckon the number of years over which my father, who was one of the founders of the Aeolian Society, used to take me to its monthly meetings. But I grew to know the families whose fathers I met there and with which I felt a deeper personal bond than to those of any of my school friends at any of the three Christian Brothers schools I attended.

Not necessarily in order of importance, but as they are recalled in my memory, I remember the Dimattinas, the Bongiornos, the Tesorieros, the Casamentos, the Fontis, the Santospiritos and so many others, constituting, outside my own family, some of the most important influences in my life.

The chance of events was to take me into a different world. But I can honestly say that I had no desire to advance professionally so that I could translate myself into the high society of the Australian professional and business classes. Although what I have called “the chance of events” took me more and more from the Aeolian world of my youth, the Aeolian community remained its most important formative influence.

For it was the Aeolian families who gave me the things which were most significant of all: the sense of the family, which is more important to the peasant than it is to the nobleman; the necessity of religious belief, without which life is meaningless; the importance of accumulating some modest property of one’s own in order to achieve a degree of independence which always eludes the wage-earner dependent of a boss; the love of Italy and the Italian way of life, at least as it was until the Italian avant’garde whose doings - apart from those of the Mafia - are the only ones reported on the media, began to ape the Americans. And so many other things of the same kind.

And so it was until just a few years ago. For the first time since 1921, I was able to visit the islands on which my parents were bom, to discover that they were no more than a mosaic of volcanic rocks rising above a indescribably blue sea. I could only ask myself how it was possible that those tiny pieces of land could have bred so sturdy a people who, even if they were compelled to migrate, to find a future for their children, could contain within themselves the instinct for stability we all experienced in the small world of Melbourne’s first Aeolian families.

I do not often speak or write in these terms, which I am sure that some, of a later generation, will dismiss as sentimental. But if I am asked what being of Aeolian blood means to me, that is what it means. Perhaps it will explain why, only a little removed from my primary loyalty as an Australian, I am proud that the blood I inherit from both my parents is Aeolian.

Original publication unknown.

Portrait of B.A. Santamaria included alongside original publication

Published by using 1205 words.