NICOLA WALKED WITH his back straight and his shoulders scarcely moving. His upper body perfectly balanced and relaxed, his legs propelled him forward in a gait that seemed to have been born in him instead of learnt – a steady, flowing movement of maximum efficiency.
Venetians walk as others breathe. Who knows how far one walks in Venice? There are no rectangular city blocks that one can count; none of the yardsticks are familiar. When we had covered three campos, four bridges, skirted twice as many canals and passageways…how far is that? The map has names for only half of the streets and the numbers of the houses rise one by one into the thousands, counted by the sestiere (the district) not the street. Nicola, at seventeen years old, guided us home because Venice is his city and thus we are his guests, because his parents had asked him to, and because of what had happened between his grandfather and mine back in the 1940s, in a place as foreign to a Venetian as any could be: the little farming community of Muradup, in the south-west of Western Australia.
NICOLA’S GRANDFATHER GIUSEPPE Garizzo was, to our family, always Joe. The last time I saw Joe was in 2009, and he was in his nineties. His legs would no longer carry him down the narrow stairs from his apartment to the almost-as-narrow Venetian calle below. Although it was more than sixty years since he had left Rocky Glen – my grandfather’s farm near Muradup – for good, the memory shone still in his eyes. Sitting at his kitchen table, he wanted to show us – Linda, me and our kids – the project that Nicola, his only grandchild, had made for high school. It was headed in English in the emphatic block letters of a high school project: pow prisoner of war. Beneath it was written, ‘Diaro di un prigionero di guerra’ (Diary of a prisoner of war). Joe turned the pages with his weathered bronzesmith’s hands, peering at the scans Nicola had interspersed with the writing. Two pages from Joe’s diary of 1941, recording the day he was captured in Bardia, Libya, by Allied troops; the lovingly preserved envelope bearing a letter from his family that reached him months after it was sent, addressed Giuseppe Garrizo, No.12 Camp, c/o GPO Bombay; and here – he points – a photograph of a twelve-year-old Australian girl sitting on a horse in the front of the toolshed Joe helped to build on Rocky Glen. ‘Joan,’ he says and beams at me, ‘your mother.’ Directly below that photograph is another in which Joan appears, this one a holiday snap from 2005. She is posing with family – Joe’s and ours – at the Lido di Venezia, against a sky of watercolour blues.
My grandfather, Jack Stewart, was a very reserved man. A classic Scottish–Australian. But when he accompanied Joe in 1946, to farewell him as the Italian prisoners of war were finally sent home from Australia, they stood together beside the car to say goodbye – the boss and the prison labourer, the cockie and the dago – and Joe says that Jack told him: ‘If I can do anything for you, just let me know. If you need anything, just let me know.’
In his project, Nicola transcribes his grandfather’s reaction to the emotion of the moment: ‘I don’t know what to say. It is a moment of confusion.’ This simple debt of kindness was one that Giuseppe Garizzo would never stop repaying.
I ONCE ASKED Joe’s daughter, Alessandra (or Sandra for short: Nicola’s mother), how long her family had lived in Venice. She looked perplexed. ‘Always,’ she said. ‘A long time.’ Joe’s father and his father before him were bronzesmiths – bronzisti – artisans in metal whose work ornamented gondolas and palazzi.
Before Mussolini’s war, Giuseppe was learning the trade while courting a beautiful young woman, Venetian style: I imagine them strolling alongside faded canals. He was called upon to fight in May 1940. After one week’s training, his unit was packed onto a train to Naples. He was issued with a small revolver but was warned that every bullet cost 1.25 lire (about ten cents at the time). At the train station in Venice he said goodbye to his family, and the girlfriend he would never see again. ‘This is all they’ve given me to fight the war,’ he said to them on the platform, showing them the little gun.
In early June, Giuseppe took a boat to Tripoli and the North African frontline. The first night they landed, they camped in a forest while the French dropped bombs from the sky. This would become the pattern for the next six months, as his unit traipsed across Libya in the blazing heat. They worked as firemen and guards at hospitals, military depots and foodstores. Each night the bombs would come. ‘There was nothing to be done except lay and wait, and afterwards go out and look for food,’ he told Nicola.
One day, there was ‘complete silence instead of the usual bombings. A stronger than usual feeling of impending danger. After a while, an aircraft flew over the area leaving a strong trail of black smoke. It was an omen.’ The Allied troops had arrived with tanks and guns pointed. Giuseppe asked his captors to wait while he went to fetch his books, photographs and diary. Wherever they were to take him, these things alone would be his constant companions.
THE FIRST TIME I went to Venice to visit Joe and his family was in 1973. I was ten years old and travelling with my widowed mother, on our first great adventure overseas. It was winter in upside-down Europe. For reasons now obscure, I wore a tartan beret everywhere: in the Piazza San Marco, on a vaparetto on the Grand Canal, at the church of San Zanipolo. Joe took us to his bronze workshop, which was one in a row of similar establishments fronting a workaday canal, beyond the tourist’s gaze. On my desk at home I still treasure an ornately molded bronze inkwell – a gift he must have made in that workshop, by that canal.
My most vivid memory of that trip is the dinner we were served at Joe’s kitchen table – cooked by his wife, who spoke no English, and his wife’s aunt who lived, with her brother, in the second bedroom of their small apartment. For a child far from my sunny home, there in an old, damp and largely incomprehensible city that was barely afloat, that dinner was perfect in every way: not only the warmth with which it was served, but the succession of wondrous dishes brought to the table. Homemade ravioli with a delicate tomato sauce, roast beef with chips, a delicious apricot pastry for dessert, and climax of the meal – the aunt’s specialty – dainty doughnut-like apparitions, which Sandra told me were galani, a traditional sweet made during Carnivale. I couldn’t believe it – two desserts! That wouldn’t happen in Perth. I recorded every detail of the meal in neat pencil hand (alongside pictures of me, beret-clad, in front of monuments) in the scrapbook I made when we returned home to a February of summer.
AS A PRISONER in North Africa thirty years earlier, Giuseppe had kept pebbles in his mouth to fight the thirst. Fear of starvation replaced fear of bombs. He ate dried orange peels that he found on the ground, and stole potato skins. After six months in POW camps in Egypt, he was relocated by ship to India, where he would spend another two and a half years marooned in a succession of camps near Bhopal and Bombay, as if forgotten by both the Italians and the Allies. To stay sane he drew pictures of anything he could see – scorpions, local women, copies of the illustrations in his books. He made wooden ornaments and metal trays for the camp kitchen. He read constantly, whatever he could find. He began to learn English from books that the guards exchanged with him for the things he made.
By 1944, the Allies were suffering from a shortage of rural labour. Giuseppe Garizzo and thousands of other Italian POWs were shipped in to work on farms across Australia. It is worth remembering that Australians at the time, in the full flush of the White Australia Policy, deemed Italians – like other southern Europeans – to be quasi-White at best. They were dagoes and wops, dark-skinned and ‘dirty’. They were shifty and unreliable. Fears circulated that they planned to stay permanently and drive down Australian wages; or else that they were fifth columnists – Nazi sympathisers. In this climate, the Army issued instructions for farmers like my grandfather who had nominated to put Italian POWs to work on their farms: their ‘mentality is childlike’, the Army advised, but ‘it is possible to gain his confidence by fairness and firmness. Great care must be taken from a disciplinary point of view for he can become sly and objectionable if badly handled.’
My grandfather requested two POWs to work on his farm. One of them was a man named Gino. He was a good person, Giuseppe told his grandson, but he never learnt much English. It was the other prisoner, Giuseppe – or Joe – with whom the Stewarts clearly forged a bond.
Muradup was then a small but thriving outpost: a single street lined with wooden houses, just like you would see in an old American Western, said Joe, ‘complete with a saloon but without the cowboys and the sheriff’. Jack and his wife Barbara (my grandmother) collected Joe from Muradup in their car and drove him along the dusty track to Rocky Glen.
Jack and Barbara were originally city people. Well educated and genteel, you might have said. After a hard day’s work on the farm, they always showered and sat down for a sherry or a whisky before dinner. They never voted Country Party, always Liberal – a sign, supposedly, of relative wisdom and discernment in that time and place. Jack was an engineer by trade and an early adopter of technologies – one of the first in the state to own a car and to install a telephone. Barbara held a torch for England and this extended, by and large, to all things civilised and Continental. They were able to see Joe not as an enemy prisoner, but as a sophisticated European artisan who was well read as well as skilful with his hands. Thus, they were happy to ignore the government regulations that prohibited fraternisation with the Italian POWs.
‘They introduced me to their friends around the district as a cultured man from Europe,’ Joe told us in his kitchen in Venice. In Kojonup, the big(ger) smoke twenty kilometres away, ‘people knew us and treated us with respect’.
Joe and Gino lived in the shearers’ quarters on Rocky Glen, a hundred metres up the hill from the farmhouse. The Stewarts invited them in to drink tea and share Sunday lunch, and treated them as equals. Joe’s English improved rapidly; Jack gave him a pocket English dictionary, which Joe used to read the newspapers and took home with him after the war. On the farm he became a favourite companion of the Stewart children – Joan and her siblings, Marg and Graeme. They would go out shooting rabbits and riding horses across the paddocks on weekends and on the holidays.
Joe and Gino built a tool shed on the farm, which still stands today. They devised a ‘system of levers’ to improve the operations of the tractor, and played midwife to the sheep in lambing season. In the mornings, Joe was tasked with making porridge, ‘a white gruel which’, he said, ‘I couldn’t stand’. In turn, Barbara made the effort to learn to make spaghetti. This was much appreciated by the Italians even though it was served bland, accompanied only by homemade butter. Rabbit ragu was a bridge too far for the Stewarts’ menu in the 1940s.
One day, after eighteen months on the farm, a letter arrived for Joe from his brother with the heartbreaking news that Joe’s girlfriend and elder brother had both died from illnesses. Soon afterwards came more news, disaster on an unfathomable scale. Joe recalled Jack running to the sheds: ‘Joe, atom bomb! Atom bomb!’ It had fallen on Hiroshima. For Joe it meant at last the war was over and the long voyage back to Venice could begin.
Jack and Joe promised to keep in touch. If Joe wanted to return to Australia after the war, Jack would help him. In less fraught circumstances, Joe might have taken up this offer; but Europe was in ruins, and his father needed him to help make a living in the bronze workshop. He later married his former sweetheart’s sister, but his new wife was afraid to travel so far away and the trip never eventuated.
Jack and Barbara visited Joe and his family in Venice several times before they died. The last of these occasions was in the northern summer of 1973. Sandra, who was sixteen at the time, remembers having lunch with her father, Jack and Barbara, at the hotel the Australians were staying in, which overlooked the Grand Canal. When it was time to leave, she recalls, Jack’s eyes were misty. He and Joe embraced.
FORTY-ONE YEARS later, in the hot days of July 2014, our daughter Esther was staying in Joe’s old apartment by the Rialto, which had been shuttered up since his death some two years earlier. She was on her gap year, and had brought two Melbourne schoolmates to meet her family friends in Venice. Sandra and her husband, Gigi, took the footloose young Australians out for dinner in a local square. There was a festival, and they watched fireworks explode over rooftops and the water. And for four days Nicola, now in his early twenties, took on the role of host, guiding the three young women through the backstreets of the city, day and night. Each evening he came to the apartment and cooked for them. They were quite capable of cooking for themselves, but his mother was afraid the apartment would catch fire. The pipes had grown old and heavy wooden beams weighed down the ceiling. Venice is becoming hollowed out, fears Sandra. Her ancient city is dissolving from neglect, suffocating from the superficial gaze of strangers.
Muradup, too, is not what it once was. The pub and shops are gone. It’s not even obvious where the main street used to be. But this year, finally, we got to repay Sandra and Gigi for all of those years of hospitality in Venice. No longer bound by caring for her father, Sandra could fulfil a lifelong desire to visit the place he had carried with him for most of his life. It was our turn to play host. My mother, brother, sister and I hired a mini-van to take our Venetian guests deep into the Western Australian countryside. On the highway down from Perth, Sandra and Gigi gazed out the windows at the endless stretches of pasture and forest. They were fascinated by the sheep: did the farmers bring them inside in the evenings?
Rocky Glen was covered in canola, an iridescent yellow shag carpeting the rolling hills. The farm had been recently sold, but the new owners were very happy to indulge us visiting – two carloads of extended family. A man perched high up in a massive gum tree, lopping branches with a chainsaw. Nyeeaaarrgg. Nyeeaaarrgg. Sandra took photo after photo to show Nicola, and to remember this brief, precious time. She lingered in the deserted shearers’ quarters where her father slept and ate. She smelt the air.
As it started to mist with springtime rain, Sandra posed with Joan for a picture on the steps of the old farmhouse, the two of them standing in the place their fathers walked. I tried to take a decent snap and thought about the small miracle of friendship.
‘I had such a strong feeling on the farm,’ Sandra told me afterwards, when we were flying together across the continent of Australia, ‘that I wanted to call my father and say: I am here. And I imagined him on the other end of the line. He was so excited! He wanted to know: what has changed?’
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