It's the Italian week here in Montreal and if you are Italian or Italo-Canadian like myself, you have most probably been associated to quite a lot of stereotypes. For example: how most of us have two kitchens in our home and that we like prosciutto, mortadella and tarantellas. All too often when I discuss Italian immigration however, I am hit by the misconception of individuals who think most Italians made their move to Canada because they were penniless. As a first generation born in Canada having heard the reasons of why both my paternal and maternal grandparents and parents left their beautiful country time and time again, I feel the need to share a little of their point of view. My goal here isn't to claim I know the history of all Italian immigrants and the reasons as to why they came to Canada but rather, to add variety and truth to these reasons by writing about the story I know so well.
In the late 1880s, the Italian immigrant population consisted mostly of Northern Italian artisans and shopkeepers seeking a new market in which to grow and practice their trades*. Throughout the 1950s, over 20,000 Italian immigrants entered Canada annually. In contrast during this time, primarily farmers and laborers made the move in search of a steady source of income*. This is, I presume, the part where people misunderstood Italian farmers and laborers for a "lower" class and are depicted as poor peasants. Farmers (who also exist in Canada) were used to working outside all day, eating al fresco and coming back to their home at night only when they were done tending to their herds. No wonder they appeared different from the highly industrialized movements that were ongoing in "l'America". While it is true that some were indeed less fortunate and suffered hardships especially following WWI, WWII and natural disasters and did leave to find better opportunities, not all Italian immigrants left for those reasons. Some of these harvesting farmers, like both my grand-parents, were doing quite well and left for other reasons.
Farmers are providers
In a mountainous panorama like that of Italy, being a farmer was something to be quite envious of. Farmers were land owners and usually provided for the nearby villages; selling their fresh harvests and goods. You have land? it means you can be independent from the rest. If taken care of well, your soil gives you back the fruits of your hard labor. Whether you had acres of land or a small patch, you could work for yourself and feed your family through the year and other villagers often came knocking at your door to work on your property. In other words, you had crops? you were an employer, a provider, a supplier and had the potential to be quite prosperous. Apparently, in both my parents' villages, all land owners were quite anal with the definition of their crops as they were often back to back to the neighbour's crops. Big rocks were carefully lined to separate each patch and don't even THINK of getting an inch more on your side.
Both my paternal and maternal grandparents had rather large properties and worked off their own land. The farming business was very patriarchal though. The estates were usually ran by the head father figure who had either purchased or inherited the property. This person usually dispatched work and managed revenue and employee wages.
La Masseria is the name of the estate on my mother's side of the family. Masseria refers to "fortified farm house" usually found in the countryside. Sitting on the lower end of a valley and looking up to its nearby village, La Masseria was well known to the citizens who lived around the area. Its acres of land, its architectural beauty, the sheer size running up to three stories high and all painted in white adorned with a balcony slightly hidden under a lovely arch. That's not counting the fountain that had fresh running water all year round. This dreamlike estate was home first to my great-great-grandparents who bought the property. Through the years, La Masseria evolved to have up to 30 men and women working the fields, tending to the animals (chickens, sheep, pigs, cows, rabbits, pigeons, horses, mules and even 110 bees hives!) and essentially running the place like a true business.
La Masseria knew many years of glory and became known as a reputable employer and provider for many who came knocking at its doors. It also withstood the unforgiving repercussions of the war with its sturdy walls and endless food supply; a heavenly refuge to a few soldiers as well.
Contrada (meaning "zone')"Rizia" was the name of the estate, also a masseria, on my father's side. It was my great grandparents who purchased the land as well. Facing an exquisite panoramic view of hills and never ending sky. Decorated with an orange terracotta rooftop, Rizia was home to five families and counted up 40 individuals working there at one time. With fresh well water and large stone floors, it was once a harmonious and well ran business of its own as well. Not only that, it was the home to many animals including my grandfather's beautiful black horse that was apparently well known in the village.
"Rizia", like the Masseria, also held its share of crazy WWII stories and was in a similar situation to that of la Masseria but in the next door village. It too, like most, was a family estate ran by a patriarchy system. All the same, every member of the family laboured hard, harvesting the land and living by their fresh produce.
Reputation is identity
As it often happens in small towns, each family has its identity; one that enabled any family member including the children to walk in a grocery store, grab a handful of candy and the parents paid it later. Families were well known in town and earned the trust of others. My grandfather on my mother's side was recognized for his thirst for learning, he was fascinated with books and reading everything and anything, even the back of cereal boxes or bottles always in a quest to know more. Knowledge is power and, curious by nature, this is something my grand-father understood and applied very well and through which he earned his reputation in town.
My paternal grandfather on the other hand was very well known for his brilliant craftsmanship. He built and carved almost anything out of wood: chariots, utensils, tools, toys and even skis for my father. With his own two hands and precise calculations, he brought his ideas to life and turned them into impressive and very practical creations. There wasn't anything he couldn't fix. Grandpa' Lemme was also quite gifted with the ability to understand and play music. He was talented with his accordion and played it by ear and straight from the heart, especially in festive occasions of course. In essence, both my grandfathers were instigators of their own and sought brighter futures.
Entrepreneurial dreams and freedom
Being ambitious and visionary workers, the patriarch business model that was running La Masseria and the Rizia contrada caused significant feelings of distress and resistance for both my grandfathers who yearned to grow and manage their own home and revenue in a more modern way. They both envisioned more options for their family and of course, for their children and definitely did not want anyone else to be calling the shots.
Being aware of the Italians moving to Canada as its constructions and manufacturing industries required labor and having family members who had done the move before, they decided it was time to seek out new opportunities. In 1958, by coincidence, my grandparents from both sides purchased their tickets to Canada.
One foot in Canada the other in Italia
Of course opening the door to a new adventure means leaving another behind. The price of leaving was quite high: leaving the comforts of home and the security of the Masseria and the Rizia estates. Leaving family and friends behind. Being stripped of your identity when you arrive in a new city, no longer being able to use your family name and reputation as trusted value.
All of these sacrifices to answer their entrepreneurial and be independent. Free of patriarchal rules. Free to be the creator of your own future. Learn a new language, a new trade. Still, leaving Italia must not have been easy and I cannot even imagine leaving my hometown not knowing what to expect. Lest we forget though that many, including both my grandfathers, had survived the war and were used to braving the unknown. They kept contact with their families and had pieces of home shipped to them by ordering books and things regularly, keeping up with both countries all at once.
On both paternal and maternal sides, the families were crop owners and had endless food supplies. They, as many others did, I have no doubt, sacrificed a lot to come to Canada and left behind a home that they very much loved. They rebuilt their social life and eased the estrangement that came with the process of moving to a new country with the help of clubs and banquets.* They found jobs, contributed to the economy and in building the city, all the while bringing their salsiccia, vino and tarantellas along with them.
This is most likely why my parents insisted we maintain the Italian culture and enrolled us in Saturday Italian school (12 years!), sensitized us to old traditions but kept an open mind for new ones as we returned to the old country regularly. They told us the stories of our ancestors to ascertain we properly understand and remember where we came from. We do.
Funnily enough now, with the bio and environmental movements, everyone seems to want a piece of land! ;)
Bee Italo-Canadian and proud.
If you are a Montrealer, living in the city and are thinking about making a move, this question has for sure crossed your mind more than once. You're looking at properties on centris.ca and suddenly, your heart jumps as you spot an actual good price for what seems like a small townhouse in a downtown neighborhood you like and it's a 10 minute walk to the nearest metro line! You enthusiastically start calculating and decide to go to the open house until you get there only to realize the house is smaller than anticipated, has no parking or needs major renovations. The other townhouses in the city are...do you have 1.5 million dollars? Me neither. Oiiii....with desperation, you shake your head and hold your forehead in your hand and it's back to the drawing board.
I can hear some of you snort already "Pfff! what is so hard about that? Ditch the small condo and move into an affordable castle in the suburbs already!". Unfortunately, for those of us who have now grown accustomed to the downtown life, a move anywhere off the island or, more importantly, away from any metro line (even the blue one), is cause for concern and will make us hyperventilate and reconsider our move altogether.
Seven years ago, when I moved from the west island to Griffintown, my morning commute and daily outings became quasi non-existent and this impacted my life a little more than I expected. For years I had traveled back and forth from Beaconsfield to downtown Montreal to go to elementary school, high school, CEGEP and finally Concordia and UQÀM. All these years, getting up early and rushing, hopping in the car (I DO miss the Jeep a little) and leaving an hour early as well to make it on time, you know, just in case traffic was bad. God forbid I'd forget the essay that was due that day at school. I had printed three copies, emailed myself one and had another copy in my usb key. If something happened, home was far away and I only had access to computer labs back then, no laptop. So that's approximately minimum a 75$ tank of gas, registration, insurance and parking when required. Not to mention the time loss.
To go back home in high school was even worse. It was the BMW: Bus Metro Walk! The famous joke except it was two metro lines and add a train ride in between for me. I did have my Sony Walkman back then so I enjoyed the musical recharge it provided me.
My commute now? Ha! Now?!! I laugh as I make my way to work or, any where for that matter. Most of the time I either walk, grab a metro and I'm there. In the summer? bonus! I can ride my Vespa. Nothing is ever more than 20 minutes away. Consequently this allows me to have more time in my 24 hour day to invest into other pleasant activities. More time to sleep-in, ballet class , or go to the gym in the morning, or stay longer at work if I need to since I don't have to worry about the snow storm affecting my travels or just trying to avoid traffic at all. As I get off at Bonaventure station, I cross paths with those who wait for their "Rive-Sud" bus and watch them waiting. Eeeeiiish...they have another hour or so before they get home. I have 3 minutes left.
Ever notice that those who live far from the city always arrive very early to work while downtowners are no more than 15 minutes early? When you live far from the city or wherever you work, you are at the mercy of your daily commute. Having to get up extra early to catch that train because it only comes every 30 minutes or worse, you need to take the bus to get to the express bus (i.e. 211 bus West Island style). When you live close to your work environment, the entire commute system is at your service, especially in the metro at rush hour. You got yourself a metro every 4 minutes!
Space versus proximity
Then again, it was also pleasant to have both the suburban and urban life back then. During the day I would stream through the city grounds and in the evening, return to the calm suburban home which I am certain those commuting folks are happy to go back to as I did back then.
Right, so it's fun to be close to everything and everyone but what about space? Indeed. Sharing 700 square feet with another person can have its challenges. For example...the ridiculous closet space. Carrie Bradshaw had a pretty good deal with her small appartment but ginormous walk-through closet and she knew it. I pretty much won the battle on that one even before moving in, my husband knowing full well the large collection of outfits I own. Then there is the simple linen and kitchen storage that is quite limited. I mean it. One more Tupperware and the drawer will burst. "Yeah but everyone's Tupperware drawer is full" sure, but if you own a house, you'll have a spare room in which to put it: a garage, a basement cantina, another closet, something. We on the other hand don't. It will either be given back or it is going in the recycling bin. I also can no longer accept the following gifts: bed sheets, towels, plates, bowls, vases and even books are starting to be counted and carefully managed. You may be thinking woah, you're really due to get moving which is indeed true if we only consider space. However, we have at least 4 sets of sheets, all the pots and pans we need, tons of vases and 100 books that's not counting the lovely record collection. We work around the clock to manage and keep the nest clutter-free since we are limited in buffer zones to hide anything. It's not such a bad thing since it forces us to be highly organized and practical.
It would be nice to have a few more rooms to have an office in or a musical instruments with a library and not worry about storage. At the same time, we never have to sweat about mowing the lawn, shoveling snow and we have a gym and a pool with barbecues.
Natural tranquility versus the city buzz
I was walking downtown yesterday, returning to my Vespa after running an errand. It was a beautiful and hot summer day and civilians like myself were all out and about. Behind me, a man and a woman were discussing and at one point the man exclaims: "coudonc, y'a ben du monde!". I smiled to myself and felt like responding dude...we are standing at the corner of Peel and St-Catherine's, exactly what are you expecting? True, the streets were slightly more loaded than usual since it's July, but you're still downtown. I suppose it is aggravating to squeeze through a crowd when you are used to having your own backyard. I guess it would be frustrating to share the sidewalk with a ton other people if one is used to driving everywhere.
Which made me wonder, did I lose my perspective? Do I now actually like for my personal space to be invaded by strangers? Do I enjoy swirming through a crowd of people on the street? Have I now grown a little addicted to the city buzz the city provides for me. Why, yes I have.
After almost ten years of city living, I have grown quite fond of the hussle. The sirens, the construction, the dirt, the weirdos, the rat race in the metro lines and this constantly being surrounded by people. Mixed into this to counterbalance however are all of the beautiful old architectured buildings perfectly juxtapositioned. The quaint coffee shops with the adorable bistro terraces, the mount royal mountain that makes its appearance at the top of McGill college and so much more. I can see all of this in one evening as I walk back home. Downtown, any spot is good for an improvised 5 à 7. Even if you're staring at a parking lot, there's some sort of ambiance to it stemming from the city buzz. Men in suits and briefcases, women in skirts dashing in heels, everyone going places. This constance of activity is strangely enough that which gives me energy. The people that I cross are all part of my world in some way and their energy feeds into mine.
Can all that turmoil get wearing after a while? Sometimes.
Every now and again, I like to escape the chaos and drive to the grassy and calming suburbs to tame my wired self and spend time with the family. Every time I appreciate just how big the spaces are and how much room I would have should I own a house there. The peace and quiet is almost overwhelming. The suburbs have more curb appeal, privacy and space. It is unbeatable. I would host great big Christmas dinners and have people sleep over. I'd have my own music room and play the drums all I want. Buy all the books in the world without worrying about shelving them. Wait, wait...what about work? I'd need to get a car ($$$). Or take the commute?
I'm back to that horrible nightmare of catching the 4:45pm train and arriving home at 6:15pm? What if there's a 5 à 7? Do those still exist in the suburbs or does everyone just go home? Clearly, I would miss the simplicity of pedestrian life and the city vibe. But the space....Argh!
What about you? How are you deciding?
Bee, still in the city! ;)
My name is Ivana. I love photography and meeting people. I hold a Master's in counselling psychology and work as a career consultant. Music is my fuel and an important source of energy in my life. I drive my vespa around the city and I love what I do! :) About this blog: me on my artistic soap box!
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