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My Buddy Mario – A True World Traveller and Conoisseur of Intercultural Experiences
In the 16 years that I have known my friend Mario, I have heard many stories about his travels around the world and he is one of the people who has lived, worked and traveled in different countries. Mario is a high school teacher in Toronto and teaches French and international studies. He spent a lot of time living and working in places like Thailand, Indonesia, Mexico and Quebec and experienced very different cultures.
Mario is also a foreigner in two different countries, Australia, where he immigrated as a young child in the 50s, and Canada, where he arrived as a teenager. Here is his story, the story of a stranger, traveler and world traveler.
1. Please tell us a little about your background. Where were you born and raised?
I was born in San Vita al Tagliamento in northeastern Italy in the Friuli region. But my parents are Calabrese from Southern Italy. After serving in the army in northern Italy, my father decided to live there because he loved the culture of Friuli. In 1953 my father moved our family to Australia where he worked for a French contracting company and we settled in Brisbane, Queensland when I was 2.5 years old. It was there that I had my first memories of the refugees which was a simple house made of wood. The roof caved in on our house and we had plants growing on the kitchen floor. The conditions were very important, but this would lead to 11 years of difficult cultural adjustment, after which my father moved us to Canada in 1964.
At that time, Italians were strongly opposed, even tortured or sometimes subjected to various physical and mental abuses. My family was the target of various attacks because we were immigrants. It made for a quiet life, looking over your shoulder.
Remember, this was the 50s and Australia was still ruled by the “White Australia Policy”, a form of institutionalized apartheid. I saw a lot of abuse towards aboriginal people in Australia that I was often mistaken for, because of the darkness of my skin. The proximity to the ocean, however, made me appreciate the beauty of Australia in its pure form. During this time I gained confidence and learned the importance of self-preservation.
In the mid 70’s I returned to Australia and saw that the work of many of the immigrants had paid off in the way of free living and middle class experiences. Italians became popular and accepted. This is also in line with Australia’s new multicultural policy. Australia began to open up to different countries, which led to a more tolerant society.
2. You are a multilingual person. How many languages do you speak and which ones?
English and Italian are my two first languages. I also speak French, Spanish and Portuguese at a very high level. In addition, I also pass through Indonesian and speak basic German and some Russian words. The understanding of different foreign languages makes me happy and I also appreciate that speaking this language is the secret of these strange cultures. Apart from the first time in high school when I learned English, French and German for the first time, the rest of my languages were acquired through being in a culture.
3. What was it like when you first came to Canada?
I remember it was very cold since we arrived in Canada on February 16, 1964. The first thing I noticed was the sudden familiarity with the Canadian weather. For several years I found it very difficult to adjust to the weather. On the other hand, as far as culture goes, I was able to adopt my Italian culture. It was actually in Toronto that the whole idea of being Italian took on a whole new meaning for me because I felt accepted. I felt embraced here and I felt that I could express my Italian heritage which allowed me to perfect my Italian, considering that I had been banned from speaking Italian in Australia. As soon as we arrived in Toronto I wanted to learn the language.
In high school in Canada there was an appreciation of many other languages. We were taught French, German, Latin and Spanish in high school. The school I went to reflected the changing culture of Toronto at the time, which was WASP (white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant) until the 1960s and then began to change into a more inclusive place. There were people from different cultures that made you feel free to express yourself. When I went to university I was comfortable with my social status.
My appreciation for Portuguese began at a construction site in Tecumseh, Ontario, where two groups of construction workers, one Italian, one Portuguese, were trapped in a very small house, provided by the construction company and forced to interact with each other. . I began to appreciate the similarities and differences in Portuguese culture, which I found very interesting. This was my introduction to the Portuguese language.
4. What did you experience while traveling?
Aside from the immigration boat trips, my first travel memories are when I drove to Niagara Falls and Barrie, a small town 90 minutes north of Toronto, when I was 15 years old. This gave me independence and the ability to make my own way through each journey. I felt capable and decided where I wanted to go. We didn’t realize we needed a passport to cross into the United States, so we learned that you need your documents when traveling to foreign countries.
The next big trip was at the age of 17, crossing Canada with a fellow student in a VW beetle. We went to Vancouver for a month, picking strawberries, working on farms to survive. The second leg of the trip was to Mexico via California. This was the Height-Ashbury era, the Summer of ’68, and we met Flower Power in San Francisco. This really impressed me because of the freedom and friendship of the youth. Anyone will open their home to you and you will feel that you are friendly with many young people.
The irony of this time was that it was the time of the Vietnam War. So just as you had young people tying each other, believing that peace is the answer to the world’s problems, people were being killed on the other side of the world. The administration in Washington believed that war was the answer and these young people got out of the system.
Mexico in itself was an eye opener. It was my introduction to Latino culture and a reduction in the international standards of many people. This was my politics when I realized the suffering of many people and it made me want to go back and meet these people.
When I came back from Mexico it was very difficult to get used to the behavior of ordinary people, just to fit into my place in my system. So I dropped out of university in my 2nd year and continued to travel without a plan.
I went to Europe first, starting in London, I worked in a hospital, and I spent two months traveling in Europe on a Eurail pass. After going to Spain I went to Morocco where I met a man named Giovanni Pozzi who showed me pictures and fantasy about Afghanistan, where he had been before. This created a great desire in me to regain part of the world.
After I left Morocco I wanted to meet Giovanni and travel with him from Brindisi, Italy, to Afghanistan. In September 1971 I visited him in Milan after returning to find my Italian heritage, and joined him in Brindisi from where we boarded a ferry to Greece and began our overland journey to Afghanistan.
We arrived at the Turkish-Iranian border after a tragic incident on a Turkish train that had derailed. Unfortunately, I hadn’t learned the lesson of my youth and hadn’t checked the visa requirements for Canadians. Iran wanted a visa for Canadians, so I went back to the Iranian embassy in the Black Sea where I got a visa for Iran. Somehow Giovanni and I got separated and this was the beginning of a true independent journey. I learned not to rely on other people’s information, always do your own research.
3. Please tell us about your experience and what you saw on your first trip to Asia.
After passing through Iran for about a week, which was during the Shah’s dictatorship, I took 2 Pakistani drivers from Tehran to Mashad, the site of the Blue Mosque, one of the most beautiful mosques in the Islamic world. From there we went to Herat, Kandahar and Kabul in Afghanistan, where I got to know the best pictures of Afghan culture. I saw horsemen wearing green silk trousers, dressed more appropriately for the Middle Ages than in the 1970s. The Afghanis appeared to be a very proud, dignified and fiercely independent people.
After a short stay in Kabul I crossed the Khyber Pass to Peshawar in Pakistan. This was also very interesting for the gun culture in the region. Each man had a gun 4, 5 in length and it was really impressive to see the many weapons on display. Unfortunately this had to continue as war broke out between Pakistan and India at this time, and after I left Pakistan I was able to pass through India during the war.
I was traveling on a train with an army, a group of people who were scared and didn’t know what to do. There was an uproar throughout the country. Visitors were asked to leave the country, so after a month in New Delhi I had to change my plans to visit Ceylon (now in Sri Lanka) and take the next flight from Calcutta to Bangkok. A plane ticket at that time cost US$80 one way in 1971. Calcutta was also home to millions of refugees who flocked from what eventually became Bangladesh. They actually conquered Calcutta. I was about to sleep outside when I was accosted by several Anglo-Bengalis who insisted that it was improper for a European to lie down in that manner. Then they insisted that I go and stay with them for a few nights. All they asked for was to send them a Levi’s jacket when I returned to Australia.
4. You moved to Thailand from India. Please tell us about your experiences in South East Asia.
In Bangkok in 1971 I stayed at the Atlantic Hotel for $1 a night, Bangkok was still a small capital at that time. I left Bangkok and headed south, hitchhiking where I was given a brutal education in Thai culture. I was at the back of a cargo truck and hanging down, the cargo truck passed another truck whose occupants got out and threatened me, pointing at my feet. Luckily a young Canadian from Saskatoon, Murray Wright, was sitting in front of my painting and explained that it was a big mistake to show your feet. This is a huge insult in Thai culture. Then I realized that when traveling it is important to also understand non-verbal communication. This was a great lesson for me.
This meeting with Murray was fortuitous. He had an accident while building a sugar factory in Japan and asked me if I would let him work as a carpenter. This led to a month of working with Thais and understanding Thai culture. This was also the first case of amoebic dysentery, which almost killed me. This is how I was introduced to eating in poor countries.
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