Wednesdays, my mother prepared her most international, exotic meal: Spaghetti Bolagnaise, or her provided name of ‘Wog Spag Boll’, at least, a censored version. Mince, tin tomatoes and onion (no suspicious herbs). I would sit at our brown Formica table and chairs next to the kitchen entrance and anticipate this meal with dread. As I squirmed on the carpet padding of the seat I would pre-empt the offending onion taste trying to conceal the bland mince background. The only way I could soldier through the meal was to battle the villainous flavor with my own allied cheese and tomato sauce (which luckily always stood proudly in the middle of our dining table – after all what meal couldn’t be enhanced by ‘marty sauce’?). My defence tactics never held up and the nasty presence of my mother’s pride and joy would sneak back and linger in my throat for hours.
Only years of complaining had my mother reluctantly consider the doctor’s preposterous notion of my possessing an onion allergy. Her creative solution to this situation was to dice the onion much smaller and scoff, “How can you taste it when it’s cut so small? Don’t be stupid!”.
It was an exciting treat when we ventured out on our regular take-away nights. Rugged up in flannel pyjamas, robe and slippers (even now my mother believes no child can leave the house without a vest and jumper, apparently even on humid nights children catch chills) to head for exotic but familiar venues to pick up our meal.
Nowadays when ordering takeaway I simply phone ahead, my mother could never do that, because the chances were that the incoherent numskull on the over end would stuff up our order (we never varied our choices and God forbid something alien turned up in our order). So instead we would be in a Chinese restaurant waiting room with a pretty partition failing to conceal the Oriental glamour of the dining area, dim with flickering of red and gold. Other times it was the pizza parlour where you got to wait amongst the other diners, looking at posters of travel adverts or photos of bread and listening to ‘The Village People’ on the jukebox. Of course the fish and chip shop, run by the Greeks, was less glamorous with its lino floor, long continuos counter protecting baskets of battered goods crackling away in oil. A few tables would adorn the remaining wall for those teenagers who just didn’t have anywhere better to take their meal, waiting for their parcels of chips soaked in vinegar at the pinball machine or the coin hungry table of Space Invaders.
When ordering foreign food, the rule was to talk LOUD and pause … between … each … word. My mother was sophisticated enough to include a slight imitation of the proprietors accent, to make it easier for them to understand. I’m sure Mr. Lee, who had to take orders for his restaurant for ten years from inconsiderate patrons not showing the same ‘accent copying’ courtesy, appreciated my mother’s thoughtful efforts.
We played it safe when ordering foreign foods. We never took risks by straying from our regular providers. Who knows what the other Chinese restaurants were trying to pass off as pork. Many rumours openly bandied about revealed that most Chinese chefs would prefer to spend their nights scouring the streets for children’s beloved Snowballs, Socks’ and Scruffys, risking closure, deportation and even prison rather than simply purchasing their meat from a wholesaler. Still my mother cautiously trusted familiar outlets where she grew to know the staff who always showed polite interest.
As much as my mother delighted in friendly chitchat with these resident foreigners, she scowled at the ones that dared to invade her street, her workplace, her daughter’s school and her supermarket car park.
Of course in those days we only knew three nationalities of immigrants. The Chinese included anyone with Asian features, who came to steal jobs and cause car accidents. The Wogs were from one country that included Italians, Greeks and Maltese. Likeable, amusing people that provided us with endless food services, pizza, corner stores, fish and chips and fruit and veg. These were the immigrants that my mother least minded. Even if their outspoken mannerisms were questionable, they were more tolerable than many of our original residents. Nearby to us was a scenic beach suburb that was mostly occupied by Aboriginal families, which she always said was, “Such a shame.”.
The third most intriguing race to reach the shores of our awareness was Indians. We knew nothing of them (they were suspiciously quiet people) and certainly wouldn’t be trying these weird ‘curries’.
It is not surprising that my mother never travelled, never desired to leave her comfort zone. She would constantly tell me, “We live in the best country in the world, why would you want to go anywhere else?” (hint: under no circumstances volunteer an answer). I’m pretty sure by ‘country’ she meant Sydney and surrounding suburbs because until I was eleven, we never ventured outside this circle.
I can’t imagine my mother touring a country where residents are rude enough to speak any language other than English. She had enough trouble tolerating foreigners here that speak their home language freely in public. I think they infringe on her given right to eavesdrop. Often she would raise the point, “How do I know they’re not talking about me?” I remember the distasteful look I received when suggesting she listen for the name "Joyce".
Although my mother proudly displayed her own version of tolerance to immigrants that were a constant irritation to her, I was still surprised when as a teen I learned my Nanna had once remarried. My birth certificate revealed that my mother’s maiden name was not ‘Wright’ as I had always thought, but instead ‘Valentini'.