Looking for Filamena
Welcome to the first Sempre Affamato blog and I'm really excited to share with you the joys of southern Italian cooking and the culture of the land called mezzogiorno, or midday sun by the Italians. Today’s blog is nothing about food, but is the story of my southern Italian family and the journey of rediscovering my Italian heritage.
I was born in a time in Australia where we could not be who we are, where we struggled to release the shackles of being a wog. I even went as far as having to anglicise my name when I started school, Stefano became Stephen, with a ‘ph’ of course as thats how good catholics spell Stephen and not with a V, as that was protestant , heavens forbid.
Going to school in the 70’s I was still that wog boy even though I changed my name to Stephen, not sure what gave it away? Was the ciabatta bread sandwich with mortadella and ricotta wrapped up in foil? Or my last name of Marvello? During school I worked hard at not being a ‘Dago’, as we were known then, and tried to be an Anglo, even going as far as having just vegemite sandwiches for lunch. Seriously what was I thinking, thank god I snapped out of that after 1 day.
Fast forward 30 years and I made my first trip to Italy on a Contiki tour, but that trip was just to the “ Disneyland” cities of Italy as I call them, Rome, Florence and Venice. While it was interesting I didn't find any connection to Italy.
A few years before my second trip in 2007, I started to talk more with my Dad about his home in Opido Mammatina, a little village in Calabria at the tip of the boot. I wanted to know more about his childhood, as the need to understand your roots becomes very important in your 30’s. I asked Dad if he would come back to Calabria with my brother and myself, which this time would take us down south to Calabria. Dad said that he would go with us if we could find his mother grave, her name was Filamena.
You see my father never had a chance to say to goodbye to his mother Filamena when she died at the young age of 28. Filamena was sent to a hospital far away from Opido, where she later died and was buried in a paupers grave. My brother worked with the Italian Consulate here in Sydney to see if we could find Filamena’s grave so we could take Dad back and he can say goodbye to his beautiful mother, but our efforts were in vain as no documentation was kept for paupers grave. So Filamena was lost to Dad, and to our family.
We went to Italy, without my Dad and Mum, and we still managed to get Opido. The day we walked the streets of this small village, in the hills of Calabria, I was feeling a connection. A connection of knowing that my Dad and my Aunty played on these streets, a connection that my Nono Antonio and Nonna Filamena married here and started the branch of the Marvello family. I felt that I was home, even though I did not know how to speak Italian or know anyone in this village.
Fast forward to 2015 and I started a quest to know my how to speak basic Italian. This was driven by need as my dear Dad had been diagnosed with dementia. A well-known fact is that dementia patients eventually only speak their first language, and I was determined that I would be able to still talk with my Dad. So I booked a 4-week Italian language course, in where else, but in the South of Italy, but this time in Puglia. When I got there, I felt the connection grow. I could see that in modern life that Southern Italians still made time for the rituals that I experienced as a young child like tomato pasata day, salami and sausage making day, and cooking bread in the forno (brick ovens). These rituals for me sadly, had been pushed away in an effort to be more ‘Anglo’. I attended a fiesta in a small village called Parabita, to celebrate a feast day of the Virgin Mary. Whilst watching the fireworks, listening to the excitement of the crowd, the smell of the foods being cooked, I couldn't help but wonder where did my Italian culture and heritage go? Yeah I can cook Italian food, and to be honest I am a damn good cook. Something was missing. And I realised it was the culture.
When I came back to Sydney I was determined to bring back the culture of the Southern Italian back in my life. I suppose for me knowing the culture allows me to know my nonna Filamena, and in a way I feel like every time I make ciabatta, pepperonata, and pasta that I am having a conversation with Filamena, and that her rough farm hands are guiding mine every time I knead the flour. We may not have a grave that I can lay flowers on, but I feel I finally have my nonna in my heart, and she is beautiful.
Dedicated to my father Tony who sadly passed away on 26 July.