Made in Italy

The markings on the insole and under the shoe say “Made in Italy”: Angelo points to several signs that it is not an Italian shoe and illustrates his point by showing me a shoe that is genuinely Italian.

Angelo knows such things. He was, along with one of his brothers, a trained shoemaker before he left Italy in 1963 and for the best part of 60 years he has been a shoemaker in Melrose Street, North Melbourne. In the 1960s Italy was supreme in fashion from shoe to jacket. A pointed-toe shoe was the touch of class, even of daring. Above them, narrow cuffless trousers and a short jacket marked you as Italian.

Angelo and I have both been in North Melbourne since the 1960s and we agree that our part, on Hotham Hill, has not changed a great deal in that time. At least not yet, though developers are getting busy on the land below the hill which once was a swamp and now has the Arden Street oval amid abandoned factories. North Melbourne is no longer the working-class industrial suburb of old. The new high-rises won’t be public housing.

When Angelo came to Melrose Street he had a shop on the west side near Alfred Street. Within two years it was demolished to make way for the Housing Commission high-rises. I remember old Melrose Street coming to its end when we moved into Shiel Street. Angelo was promised a shop among the ones then being built near Canning Street but the authorities reneged on their promise. Fortunately for North Melbourne he found the shop he is now in on the east side of Melrose Street opposite the shops.

Of course, having been trained as a shoe-maker — or bootmaker or cobbler as we used to say — Angelo knows pretty much all there is to know about shoe leather, shoe design and shoe maintenance. In the 1960s most shopping centres had a shoemaker. Today Angelo’s is one of the few and deals almost entirely with repairs. ‘Almost’ points to a significant exception: certain disabilities call for specialised leg and footwear. Angelo’s work over the years providing for disabilities earned him a gold medal from the Italian government.

As we talked about his emigration from Italy, Angelo betrayed few signs of regret. When he left his homeland in the Colli Euganei area near Padua in the Veneto region, Italy was at the beginning of its industrial transformation, but the Veneto in the north and all the southern regions were still poor.

Ironically, shoe manufacture along with textiles would eventually transform the Veneto but in that era work for young men was hard to find. His family had land and were not especially hard-up but Angelo, against his Mother’s wishes, decided to join his brother already in Australia.

Travel between Italy and Australia then was by sea — a journey of about a month. Angelo landed in Queensland, quickly moved to Sydney and thence to the Snowy Mountains, where he bossed a group of 10 immigrants like himself working on the dams. This almost put an end to his adventure: he fell from a dam wall and only saved himself from death by grabbing hold of a projecting piece of steel. It was one of the lucky escapes on a project that claimed many lives — the official figure of 121 deaths over 10 years does not include the many injuries and narrow escapes such as Angelo’s.

Over his 50-odd years here, Angelo has revisited his homeland and family 10 times. He has seen the Veneto climb out of poverty to join the wealthy north and lately observed its troubles after the global financial crisis. His own experience of emigration is now being repeated as young people escape an uncertain future.

Although some emigrants see themselves as betrayed by their homeland, Angelo speaks as though migration is a practical matter — you go where life is better and you settle into what-ever a new society offers, in effect having two homelands. Like many Italian emigrants, the homeland lives on in the form of a club based, in his case, on the Veneto region, and in some cases on a single town.

He speaks enthusiastically of club activities such as bus trips around the country with other Veneti who have been here a long time, still have their language and know how to enjoy themselves. Unable for family reasons to travel to Italy, he was awarded his gold medal in a ceremony at the Veneto Club.

I chatted with Angelo in his shop, his hand often resting on the last in front of him. He no longer lives in the small dwelling behind the shop but, with his wife, in a larger house a few doors down the street on the corner. I often greet him on his morning walk — he is entirely comfortable in English but we use Italian.

by Lorna Hannan, chair of the Hotham History Project, summer 2016. (story first published in the North & West Melbourne News.)

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