The Italians - Paolo Rotondo
"Da dove sei?" "Where are you from?" The answer to this usually
simple question, for me, depends on language. If I'm asked in
English, easy; New Zealand. If Italian, that's easy too;
I came to New Zealand when I was eleven with my Kiwi mother and my Neapolitan father. Until then Napoli was the only home I knew and loved, but because I had a New Zealand mother I was always different - "other".
Coming to New Zealand made some of that otherness make sense. But here - especially in the New Zealand of the early 80s - I was "other" too. Although I looked like the other kids, I sounded so different; my English was pretty poncy and I had none of the lingo, the idioms.
My attitude to food was also different, as was the food I ate. As soon as I opened my lunchbox, the difference between me and the other kids was clear! No marmite sandwiches for me - I had frittata. No tinned spaghetti - we had the real stuff! And Weetbix? I just didn't understand it. Why would you eat mushy glue? At first the other kids were suspicious of what I had for lunch. That was until they tasted it. Then it was trading gold!
I've lost my accent and learned to like weetbix in the intervening years, but I've kept my love of Neapolitan food. If I'm feeling run-down or tired, or just like I need to settle, I'll make traditional Neapolitan sauce. It's the most basic thing - tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, basil. But it has to be done just right. That's my comfort food. The food of my childhood.
So for Here to Stay it was really fantastic to get out amongst the Italians of New Zealand; the fishermen, the tomato growers, the artists, the football fanatics, the cooks, and more. I guess because I have a Kiwi mother I didn't really associate being Italian with being in New Zealand so I hadn't sought an Italian community here. It was such a great experience to become part of our local Italian community; to learn its history and hear its stories.
It really moved me learning about what the first Italian immigrants sacrificed in leaving Italy. Like all immigrant groups they were desperate to make a better life, and Italy was in famine when a lot of them left. But it must've been so hard for them here. For a start, the language; English is really hard for Italians. And Anglo Saxon culture is so different. No wonder there were so many misunderstandings! Even for me, even today, I sometimes have to stop and remind myself to think like a New Zealander, not an Italian.
The documentary can have only soundbites of the relationships formed with these people, but the conversations I had with them were so enjoyable, especially the Italian fishermen of Island Bay in Wellington. Every New Zealand Italian has heard of these guys. They're the most famous group of wogs in the country! And now I can say "yeah, I know them." Going fishing with them was one of my favourite times. My Neapolitan blood surged through me as the salt air reactivated my sea legs.
I also loved meeting the Maori-Italians, particularly because I feel our two cultures are so connected. For both people, life is about whanau or iwi or tribalism, pride and utu and song, turangawaewae, and spirituality.
I think that's partly why my Maori mate Rob Mokoraka and I researched and wrote the play we've been touring, called Strange Resting Places. It's set in Italy in World War II, when the Maori Battalion was pushing its way up through Italy. An Italian soldier - that'll be me - finds himself in No Man's Land, holed up with a Maori soldier. As they work out if they're friend or foe they discover they're practically whanau. It's a great yarn, a good laugh, and reveals a lot about both cultures.
So, after 27 years or so in New Zealand, am I still a stereotypical Italian bloke? In a lot of ways, I'd have to be honest and say yes. I love food, I'm hot-headed, I'm passionate and intense, which sometimes doesn't work well in an Anglo Saxon culture!
Yes, I love my mama and yes, I ride a Vespa. But I don't love everything about Italian culture; there's a conservatism there, and I react to the strict demand to live only like that culture decrees. I adore my family, but sometimes my Italian-ness seems to conflict with my Kiwi drive to be an individual.
I doubt I'd be doing what I am today if I still lived in Italy. Rather than working in theatre and film, I'd have taken a profession - probably architecture. That's still artistic, sure, but more respectable and within expectations.
I know I've benefited from the move, as an 11-year old, from Napoli to New Zealand. Now I've got the best of both worlds. I've got a love of the arts and the ability to express it; the fierce love of my family and the freedom to be an individual; a proud immigrant history, but the knowledge that New Zealand is my turangawaewae - my "da dove sei."
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