The past is a foreign country

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. 
L.P. Hartley


In front of my old house in Bergamo. The one that I used to live before I emigrated to Australia.

Thinking of Australia. Thinking of the ‘migration experience’. Some willingly going there and leaving behind a life they no longer want in their country of birth. Some forced to leave by economic reasons, by poverty, or the trauma of war.

Like SBS says, there are one million stories, and mine is quite uneventful. My father’s career was stalling, Italy was going through a terribly violent period of political terrorism, so when an ex-boss proposed to him the idea that he build a factory in Australia, he jumped at the chance.

It is impossible to say whether it was the right decision to move. I can’t run a control test of my life, whether to stay in Bergamo or to move, as in a ‘Sliding Doors‘ type scenario.

When I migrated my whole existence was to adjust to a totally new reality. It was sink or swim. What I left behind was irrelevant and perhaps a hinder in my realisation that I had to let it go to make a hash of where I was now.

But as I get older, my past returns to me often.  When someones decides to emigrate it is a decision they will be responsible for. They will have to wear the success or failure of it.

When the decision is made for you, like in my case, there is still a lingering thread of anger that your life changed radically without your consent. This feeling got stronger as I became older.  Perhaps as you have less life in front of you than behind, you start questioning things that were left on the backburner.  Since I left Italy I adjusted to a new country and new schools and a new language. Did my (what it was called then) HSC. Did undergraduate and a postgraduate university studies. Got a job, changed, started new studies, got retrenched and got a new job. Also partnered, and had a child.

In the meantime the life that I left in Italy went its own parallel way. Friends that I had, that I initially corresponded with, are now lost. Things changed, and time moved on.

Slowly my past in Italy receded from my conscousness But as I got older the issue of my migration became more prominent.  The fact that I left when I was 13 is probably an issue. That is the watershed between childhood and adolescence and my migration to Australia happened smack in the middle of it.

The question remains that something that I thought I resolved decades ago has come back with vengeance.  Bergamo, my childhood, came back in my thoughts more and more.  That is this was partly a trip as a pilgrimage. As I’ve done somewhat before. In previous trips to Italy I’ve come to the neighbourhood of my childhood to see how it has changed.  But now I realise that this place draws me in because my 13 year old never want it to leave it.  It is in my memory and often appears in my thoughts.  Being there with my son was a strange feeling. My Australian life (which is now of 40 years standing) and my my old Italian one (which became also one based on memory over the years) were juxtaposed for that time, like some weird ‘Twilight Zone‘ moment.

The weirdness was increased by the fact that the building was basically unchanged since I left it in 1974. Of course there have been minor changes, but even small things like the hedge around the garden in the front, the grate on the front doors, the car garages, the lobby looked exactly the same as I have left them.

The sense of weirdness was fortunately diminished by a fortuitus meeting. As I was in the yard and explaining to my son about how I played there etc. a man who was fixing the back door heard us and in broken English asked us if we needed help.  In Italian I explained why we were there and he exclaimed that he remembered my parents.  He was now retired, and helping around the place.  He had been living in the block of apartments even before we arrived in the 1960’s. We reminisced about people that lived there when I was a child. He told me that probably I played with his kids that now are about my age and they payed for a holiday for him and his wife to Australia two years ago. 

I am glad that I came back to my old house. I still did have a sense of loss as we drove away. I had a strong feeling that I’d like to come back as much as I liked, but can’t living so far away.  I still haven’t resolved it.  That 13 year old in my still feels the loss of his home and childhood.  Despite rationally my brain tells me that realistically, while Bergamo,and Italy may still be part of my life, the past is a foreign country. And it will remain so forever.

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