I am not an immigrant, nor am I a child of immigrants. I am Australian by many generations. But watching Bruce Beresford’s Ladies in Blackrecently, I realised what an impact immigration has had on my life.
The Ladies in Black, based on Madeleine St John’s book The Women in Black, is set in 1959 some years after the wave of post-war European immigration. At the department store where the main female characters work, Magda, a Slovenian refugee, gradually introduces some of the other shop girls to her Hungarian husband and friends. For 16-year-old Lisa and late 20s Fay, this starts an infatuation with all things European. They see a love of food and wine, literature and music. Fay meets Magda’s friend, Rudi, a handsome Hungarian immigrant who woos her with his charm and cultured ways. Fay quakes when Rudi asks her if she prefers Liszt or Beethoven. By the end of the film, Lisa’s “ocker” father has tried red wine and salami, a change from his usual beer. Lisa’s father’s introduction to wine is in itself is a metaphor for how much colour and life Europeans have brought to our lives.
My first introduction to European immigrants was at the age of seven when I met my future sister-in-law’s parents. Having escaped from what was known as Czechoslovakia in 1949, they settled in Sydney. On a visit to their house I was mesmerised by their colourful and busy lounge room, full of paintings, glass cabinets and Persian carpets. They bowled us over with their charm and hospitality and fed us delicious food and cake. They spoke of music and in later years went to many Sydney Symphony concerts at the Opera House.
A few years later, I met my sister’s future parents-in-law. They were Jewish and had fled from Germany just before the war. Their story connected me to the realities of the holocaust. They had a great love of people and also of art and music.
Fast forward many years and I met my husband, David, whose parents had migrated from Portugal in 1960. David’s parents kept a very neat house without a thing out of place as well as a garden which flourished under David’s father’s green thumb. They always served me cake whenever I visited (they still do). On my first trip to Portugal in 1996 to see David’s relatives, I was dazzled by the southern European lifestyle, the late dinners, strolling through the town for coffee at 11.00 pm at night, the abundance of food at dinners set on long tables with countless relatives and being pressed to eat more than my fair share of trays of lamb, hunks of bread, olives, home-made wine, and watermelon cut at the table. I developed a love of pasteis de nata (Portuguese tarts) as well as pasteis de balcaulau (cod fish patties).
Now I have two children whose recent ancestry hails from Southern Europe. As immigration has blessed my life, it has created theirs.