Third generation Italian-Australian Gianni Vitellone talks about personal identity and family pride
I recently chatted with Gianni Vitellone, Director of Pronto Travel/Vita Italian Tours in Collingwood, about his life and love of all things Italian. (Photo Wide Shut Photography)
Though Gianni’s family story might sound familiar to many of our readers, being born into an Italian migrant family of the post-Second World War period, it’s Gianni’s day job that might leave many of you with your tongues wagging.
‘In my professional life I am lucky enough to accompany school aged children and adults to Italy as a tour leader for our company Vita Italian Tours’, he tells me. ‘I love being able to share Italy with people especially to show them the out of the way little towns or little trattorie, so they get a real sense of what I like to think is ‘authentic Italy’. Whether it is a primary aged child or a mature traveller, the reaction and joy on people's faces when they see an iconic landmark such as the Colosseum, or try their hand at making pasta, is one of the things I love most about what we do’.
Not all of us are lucky enough to have Gianni’s job, though we can dream, right? But as he shares more and more of his story with me, it becomes plainly clear that Gianni’s passion and motivation for his beloved Italia stem from a deep-seated sense of personal identity and family pride. ‘I was born into a family that was heavily influenced by their cultural heritage. Similar to most migrant stories, my family immigrated in the fifties and whilst they made a home here in Melbourne as new Australians, a lot of our Italian traditions were kept. I have grown up participating in annual tomato sauce days, long family Sunday lunches and family celebrations around the wood fired pizza oven. Good food and family seem to be a common thread in my upbringing’!
I ask Gianni what his Italian heritage means to him on a personal level. ‘It’s something that I love and am proud of. The Italian language is a huge part of my life and is spoken daily with interactions with my Grandmother, catch-ups with my family living in Italy or even reading Italian books and nursery rhymes to my daughter. I remember when I visited the hometowns of my parents for the first time. I was able to walk down the street where my dad was born and stand in front of the house that my mum grew up in. Whilst Australia is old, as a colonised country it is extremely young, and the difference between Australia and Italy is magnified when you can see how many of Italy's buildings are steeped in history. It’s important that I know how my family lived in Italy and the effort it took to come to Australia. I want to be able to teach my daughter her history. I want her to be able to speak the language and be proud of her heritage’.
Gianni’s intimate relationship with Italy began when he was just 16 years old, embarking upon his first trip across the seas. ‘I remember the feeling of familiarity and the welcoming feeling from not only our extended family but the many people we met along the way’. That initial voyage whet his appetite, being one of many ‘pilgrimages’, the term he uses, back to his family’s homeland. ‘I went on to study International Business and Italian Language here in Melbourne and by the time I was 21 I was assisting my father in guiding groups of Australian and New Zealand travellers in Italy’, he says, putting all the pieces together. I am curious about his love of Italy, asking what it is he most adores about the country and its culture. His response is a long list of expected icons and ideologies: ‘the food, the history, the art, the coffee, the people, the strong sense of community in the streets and squares of the small towns and cities. But above all else, the Italian philosophy of life and family’. His list plays at the heartstrings; a melting pot of memory-laced experiences, cultural identifiers and whimsical ideals.
Gianni is in a very privileged position professionally, able to have a significant impact on the experiences of others as they travel and explore all that Italy has to offer. I wonder if he feels at all obligated to carry on or spread Italian traditions and customs to the future generations in Australia, of which he assures me he does. ‘Absolutely’, he says, ‘I’m lucky enough to be in a position where I can do this both in a personal and professional manner. A lot of the traditions and customs that I want to continue are not only because of their Italian origin but also because they are just lovely things to do! Lunches and cooking as a family, pasta and sauce making, even the two-kiss greeting on the cheeks are very much a part of me. I have a one year old daughter and it is extremely important for my wife and I that she speaks the Italian language’.
I ask Gianni what he thinks is important to keep alive in our culture as we move further from the post-World War II generation of Italians in Australia. He identifies the linguistic challenge to be of greatest significance in his response. ‘I think the biggest challenge for post-World War Italian-Australians is to maintain and speak the Italian language. It is so important we are able to keep the Italian language alive in the future generations. My hope is that my daughter will be able to speak both Italian and English and will also pass on the language to the future generations’.