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Today's quote:

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Tales from a Suitcase


Imagine this. You have just survived the war, in which you lost everything. Many members of your family were killed, some died in camps; others, you just don't know about. Many of your neighbours have disappeared. Your house is now little more than a pile of rubble. All you own is what's on your back, but all the same you are thankful to be alive after three very long years in a displaced persons camp where your constant companion were sickness and the cold.

Your homeland has gone, taken over by the communists and absorbed into one of the new socialist countries behind the 'Iron Curtain'. You are homeless, stateless and virtually destitute.

You weigh your options. At the point where everything seems so meaningless and hopeless you hear of a faraway land, unscathed by war, that is looking for workers. A place where you can start a new life. A place called Australia.

Australia? Where is it? What is it? Someone tells you it's near the South Pole; someone else tells you that it's where kangaroos come from. You eventually discover that it is at the bottom of the world, remote, hot and with the seasons around the wrong way.

But the possibility of a new life, another chance, in a land where there is work and peace, is too great an opportunity to let go. The war is barely over and already there is talk of another war, the Cold War. So, with no idea what it will mean and what it will be like, you decide to go - the further away, the better. The queues are shorter for Australia - certainly shorter than for America and Canada - and it is warmer there, they say: a nice change from the bitter cold of northern Europe. You apply.

You fit the criteria: you're young and healthy, free of tuberculosis and educated; you are neither a communist nor a criminal and you already have a few words of English. They tell you you're welcome, but there is a catch: if you want to migrate, you must agree to sign a contract to work at the direction of the government for two years. You will be designated a 'labourer' and your wife a 'domestic'. If you break your contract or return to your homeland before your time is up, you will owe the government for your passage. This is serious but what have you got to lose?

You sign up and start to pack. The weight limit is strict: fifty kilograms per person and that is all. What do you take? What are the most important fifty kilograms of your life? What will you need in this new land? Will the weather be hot or cold when you arrive? How do the people dress? And anyway, how will you fit all you need into those small suitcases? The time for such decisions begins to run out.

The day arrives. You stand in one of the lines on the wharf with many just like you. All of you are wondering what lies ahead, on the sea voyage and in a new life, far from family and friends. You don't know when or whether you'll return. In the silent throng you all look the same: strangely pathetic, apprehensive, clutching bulging suitcases of faded leather, carpetbags and bundles of tightly wrapped bed linen.

Once aboard, you find yourself deep in the bowels of the ship without air or natural light, in a cabin that is small and dank - always dark, always grim ... and, though shared with others, somehow lonely.

The voyage seems endless. The smell of vomit and engine fumes are never far away and the metal sides of your narrow bunk quiver with the distant thump of the engines. The long propeller shaft, you realise, must somehow pass close by; the air has a static buzz that makes your hair frizz and your skin crawl. You never get comfortable, you never sleep.

Over the days, the weeks, the dull grey sea slowly changes to a deep aqua and then a cobalt blue. You have tired of the curling wake and the long line of churn behind the ship and the diving seabirds. As the seas warm, the rare sight of tropical flying fish comes as a fresh visual escape.

Then the ports start to go by and the ship docks. All vibration momentarily stops, as does the stench of shipboard life. From the grubby port, another unknown stench: putrid water, salt and slime. Then away. Where to next?

Another port. Far below, boys dive for coins that spin endlessly from high decks above. Maybe the rich have a coin to temp these youngsters. You have nothing. Pedlars fight for space by the seaward stairs that descend to the waterline, selling exotic trinkets you have never seen before and cannot imagine a need for. You want to move on, you want to get to this place called Australia and get on with life - whatever that might be now.

The days take on a rhythm. There are things to do, now that you know where to find them. Movies on Australia are being shown - weird flickering images from faded film reels that chatter behind you, images of smiling faces, beaches, kangaroos (yes, you know what these are) and strange-looking houses. There are also English classes to go to, and talks about your new country. (Years later, you will reflect on how many now-familiar words were missing from these classes - words like 'wog' and 'reffo' and 'wop' and 'dago' and 'commie' ...)

Fremantle. So this is Australia! The lay-over is short, but the country has an aroma you've never known before. The circling, screeching seagulls swoop and dive in warm air thick with the scent of eucalyptus. The people seem informal, even rude, but they know how to relax and they seem proud.

Now you are being processed as an immigrant. Officials swarm about the boat, speaking in a way that neither you nor your fellow passengers understand. There is a desperate need for more translators. Tempers fray and apprehension and confusion rise. Facing arrival, you realise how comfortable you have grown with your little cabin on your smelly little ship.

The southern sea from Perth to Melbourne is like dark ink and constantly rough. It heaves and swells, again making all on board sick and wishing for landfall. The immigration officers continue to ask questions. You have many questions of your own, but your language skills, although improved, do not allow you the confidence to speak.

The ship slides into that quiet, open bay: Port Phillip. The sea is grey again, but calm. Gulls circle and scream, much as they did in Perth, uttering a universal language - perhaps a welcome.

From Station Pier, ramshackle and uninviting, inquisitive faces stare up: the dark, tanned faces of Australians or the olive-skinned complexion of southern Europeans, you know not which. Eventually the cacophony of noise from the chatter of voices and the constant whirr of the engines gives way to silence and you can hear again.

Then that first footstep ashore. You feel wobbly and ill-at-ease on the hard asphalt of the wharf. Your sea legs are of no use here; they let you down. Other folk stumble and fall. Off to your left, there is a call for workers - strong, unskilled men - to work in a brick pit somewhere. There are no takers, but it is good to know work is readily available.

You and your possessions - both increasingly inadequate - are directed towards a row of ageing buses at the end of the wharf. It has been some time since breakfast and you are hungry - but not so hungry as those who missed the last ship meal, clinging to the rail, searching for answers through the dawn haze smudging the line of the shore. Your line shuffles forward, one small pace at a time, until you are on a bus. Crammed in, you all stare through the misty windows to the street outside. The air thickens with acrid cigarette smoke and the pungent odour of sweat. Seated above the rear wheel, you feel the broken surface of the road as you lurch and bump over the silver tramlines that score the city streets.

Then there is the sight of a train: a large, belching steam engine and a line of dirty maroon carriages waiting for you. Trains still have dark overtones for many and there is a certain reluctance and silent concern about boarding for an unknown destination.

Given no choice, you steam out through the suburbs. First, the tiny slum suburbs of inner Melbourne with their peeling paint, rusting ironwork and tin roofs. Further out, enclosed backyards with small outbuildings - could these possibly be toilets? - arranged along the fence lines like silent sentries. The city looks drab, but there is no sign of the war damage of your homeland.

A place called Albury and another bus. Finally you reach a holding camp, Bonegilla. This is where you will wait, for God knows how long. Originally built for the army, it is devoid of comforts and its functional layout belies its unhappiness. You are issued with a hut and told to remember the number, as they all look the same. The amenities are Spartan yet adequate. Mealtime takes care of your hunger, even if the food is unlike anything you have ever tasted before. Soft, white bread, boiled vegetables and endless mountains of mutton. The smell of mutton fat seems to cling to your hair and lips - it won't go away. Some heave and vomit up their food.

You ask about work and when you might start. You know they can send you anywhere to do anything and you wonder about your fate. Your qualifications as an engineer will be ignored and you wish you had a trade - were a carpenter or a stonemason - as they need these skills. Your wife is a teacher and she has asked about the local school, but there is little chance. They need a woman in the hospital laundry, she is told. At least this is close to the camp. You are selected to go east to the new Snowy Mountains Scheme. The mountains, the vastness of the scheme and the offers of plenty of shifts and lucrative pay sound attractive. You go.

But it is Hell. Home, in Guthega, is a tent in mid-winter, with the snow two metres deep. You work in a wet, dank tunnel deep underground where screaming drill bits and explosives split the air. Didn't they say Australia had a warm and comfortable climate?

You wonder why you came, but then you remember: you are free here, you are no longer hungry, you live a strong and healthy life among fellow migrants and friendly Australians. Though you are new in this place, you already feel a certain attraction as you build this country - actually build it and change it and make your mark.

And in two years you will be free of the government contract, free to build your own life, your own home, your own family. At last you feel that a future is possible and that this future is truly in your hands.

You are proud to be a 'new Australian'.




Being a two-finger typist, this has taking quite a bit of time but I just couldn't help myself typing out the full preface to the book "Tales from a Suitcase" which is based on the SBS television program by the same name. I couldn't help myself - and I hope I haven't broken any copyright laws - because this preface echoes so much of my own start in Australia.

Thirteen stories of hurt and humour, of hope and heroism, of the struggle to survive, to resettle, to forge and shape, to give and take, and ultimately to live life expansively. They came in the 40s and 50s and 60s, and although they're either dead now or very old, their stories shouldn't be forgotten because they made Australia what it is today: a patchwork-quilt nation, a new nation born of the detritus of old nations.

As the authors of "Tales from a Suitcase" put it so well at the end of this little gem of a book, "If this series and book achieve nothing else, I hope they achieve an awareness that the old person doddering in the shopping centre car park in the car ahead of you could be the same person who introduced gelato to Australia or helped build the Snowy Mountains Scheme. Australia's old are just as important as its young."

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