Angelo Pricolo reflects on experiencing racism as a kid in the 1970s… and how it’s shaped his approach to his patients
Growing up Italian in Australia in the 70s was my definition of growing pains. Being different when you are a kid and you don’t understand the law of the land is exactly what you don’t want.
My parents came to Australia in the early fifties. Mum came with the whole family: seven siblings and her parents. Numerous relatives who had already completed the passage were here to greet them. That probably lessened the cultural blow, but not knowing one word of English wasn’t ideal.
Dad told us the story of arriving in Australia for the first time and seeing lots of signs in shop windows announcing ‘SALE’. ‘Sale’ is the Italian word for salt. As he explored his new home for the first time, he pondered this Australian fascination for salt.
He arrived from Napoli in Italia, on a ship appropriately named La Napoli, which departed some 40 days earlier. On board he turned 17 years of age in the company of new friends and no family.
Mum and Dad met here, enjoyed a long traditional courtship (lots of meals with all the extended family) and dad eventually set up one of Australia’s first espresso coffee bars in Melbourne in 1956. Ciccio’s Espresso Bar underwent the same baptism of fire as their own arrival years earlier.
He proceeded to make coffee while the sun shone on this already sunburnt land. Eventually the coffee culture flourished, but I’ve skipped about 30 years. That interim period was challenging and sometimes very exciting for the family in so many ways.
But the reality was Italians were not welcome in the 50s, they lost the war, dressed differently and had to contend with a youth subculture that existed in Australia in the 1950s, the bodgies and the widgies.
The bodgies (guys) and the widgies (girls) rode motorbikes or drove hotted-up cars with mag wheels or hot dog mufflers. Not surprisingly these rebels gave the new immigrants a pretty hard time just for being different.
Then there was the food. The Italian culinary preferences were looked upon with what could best be described as cautious trepidation. Calamari, eggplant, mozzarella and spaghetti!
But as a preppy at the local Catholic primary school, it was the green stuff that got me into the most trouble. That beautiful, tender, green leaf spinach that packed my sandwich was, it seemed, the most curious thing the Aussies had ever seen.
It was natural enough to me, seeing it grow at home as I watered it dutifully every night while Dad was still at work. Didn’t everyone grow green stuff in their backyard vegetable patch?
As I watched the other kids open lunch boxes to reveal square white bread adorned with lashings of butter, hundreds and thousands or Vegemite, I exposed a treat of my own.
From a carefully packaged parcel I tentatively unwrapped my humble lunch. Half a loaf of ciabatta bread cut long ways and housing a coarsely hacked slab of provolone piccante (tasty cheese) with a generous layer of the green stuff, gently sautéed in EVOO, garlic and fresh chilli.
The smell filled the classroom and this focused attention on my lunch. Twenty children and a trying-not-to-look teacher almost toasted my bread with their unbroken, open-mouthed stare. I wanted the hundreds and thousands but I could only hear one thing.
He’s got the green stuff again.
It is still audible today ringing in my ears every time I eat spinach. Far from flexing my muscles like Popeye, in a distracted gaze I disappear back in thought to that classroom and the emotion that overwhelmed a five-year-old boy. I was preparing to devour my mystery super food.
If I ate it quickly the stares would not last as long but some of the green juice would spill in my haste, heightening the attention. The laughter would escalate like the crescendo in any good musical composition. It was one strategy I occasionally employed.
If I ate slowly the torture lasted longer, but I could be more discreet and pretend in my mind at least that I had square bread. Either way it was my cross to bear. It was a formidable challenge for a young boy struggling with his second language (we spoke Italian at home) and the desire to be accepted.
Racism is a powerful tormentor and I was to learn to live with it throughout my schooling, as did so many others and many more to come. Racism is an insecurity that protects against a willingness to expand one’s horizons and accept people for who they are.
I can only imagine how tough things would have been for Mum dropping me off at school, or Dad standing behind a coffee machine that must have looked like a nuclear reactor. How funny to see the proliferation of those coffee machines and the normalisation of drinking water that has passed under pressure through ground roasted coffee beans (some now grown in Northern Queensland).
And the green stuff appears on menus and on big white plates at silver service restaurants. Isn’t it funny and a little ironic that some of those sniggering children are now probably paying exorbitant prices at fancy eateries to enjoy the very meal that needlessly made my early years hell?
These lessons shape us. They have informed my actions and deportment with patients every day. They remind me constantly not to judge others but to sensitively understand their lot.
Australia has learnt these lessons by and large. We enjoy a country that is worlds apart from a monoculture, and is in fact a multicultural triumph.
Angelo Pricolo is an addiction medicine pharmacist and former National Councillor of the Pharmacy Guild of Australia.