by Russell Crowe Posted on 04:12PM, 27 August 2010 1 comments
It was a couple of years ago now, but this is how I remember the story.
I went to Bill and Toni's restaurant one day. Ordered a latte and vegemite and tomato on Turkish bread. When I went outside the tables were all full. An elderly man at a table of aged gentlemen gestured to the empty chair beside him.
"Russell , please, come sit to Mario" is how I remember the offer of a seat.
I was working on a new record at the time. A morning or two previous I had sent to my song writing partner, Alan Doyle, a photograph of a Charles Blackman painting that depicted a cane cutter ,head bowed in the fields, a Florentine dome beyond the sugar cane and three women floating in the air. It was called "the dream of the cane cutter-passing angels". For some reason I thought there was a song in that painting. "Let's write a song about cane-cutters " was the note I attached to the picture.
Alan is from Newfoundland, a member of the Canadian band Great Big Sea " What is a cane cutter?" came the reply.
So there I am at Bill and Toni's an hour or two later and I took up Mario's offer and sat down.
We exchanged pleasantries for a while, coffee arrived. Our conversation got a little deeper. I asked Mario when he had come to Australia. That was the moment my morning disappeared and I was transported back in time. To the deprivation and lack of hope in post war Italy, to a town called Luka , outside Firenze and a young man working temporarily in the emigration office who managed to slip his own name on to the list of travellers. Initially the plan was that he and his girlfriend would go together, but her parents got involved and she didn't make the journey.
Soon he found himself aboard a ship, hearing the tall tales about this country of snakes and spiders and heat called Australia . His destination. It was on that ship that he first heard that cutting cane in Queensland was the best paid job for an unskilled migrant like himself.
He tried Sydney first, things didn't work out and he remembered that ship board conversation about Queensland so he headed that way.
After his first season he was able to buy a car, he drove to all the places he'd heard Italian immigrants had settled, looking for a wife. He found himself back at the cane fields, alone.
At one point somebody in Rockhampton arranged the marriages of 12 Italian men to 12 Spanish women. As he said to me , " Spanish is not Italian, but it's close". He told me he knew the moment he saw the woman allocated to him that their union would be impossible. She was too beautiful to want the likes of him. She made some comments about the stains on his teeth from chewing sugar cane all day and asked how he would feel about her seeing other men socially when he was away working. He told her that this was a new world that the ancient rules of their European homelands didn't count. She was very sceptical ,and told him his attitude was unworthy. He said to her he would prove his worth in the next harvesting season, working double shifts and he would bring back to her the money that he would make ,to show he was good husband material.
When he got back to Rockhampton flush with wealth, he found she had moved on, with someone else. "A handsome man" ,he told me.
It was then that Mario got taken up by two of his adopted homelands favourite pastimes. Drinking heavily and gambling.
One time he remembered getting drunk in Queensland and waking up in Sydney.
He took that as a sign ,sobered up and got himself a job on a building site. He made friends with the foreman on the basis that he had a car and could drive him to work every day.
There was a new product around then called aluminium windows. The foreman let Mario learn all about them because he couldn't see the use of them. A little time later though, with the advent of skyscrapers across the Sydney skyline , the man who knew all about aluminium windows was in great demand all over town.
Mario pointed out to me a few of the buildings he worked on. At some point he got married, he had children, they had children. The day I meet him, he’d just come back from the dentist with new dentures. He visits Italy every now and then, but the life he has had, the experiences that made him a man, are Australian experiences. Mario is a product of and has grown with his environment.
Mario is Australian.
Once a week, at Bill and Toni's, he'll get together with the men he has known since the 1950's. A lot of them former cane workers, it's casual, but it's formal enough to be weekly, they sit outside and tell the same stories, drink coffee and red wine out of the same small and sturdy glasses and to a man they thank God for the second chance at life that Australia gave them.
I walked home to Woolloomooloo, stared at the Blackman painting again .
You see, I'm an immigrant too, I understand the feeling and have experienced the gratitude of being blessed and accepted by a country that I wasn't born in.
I call Australia ,the land of the second chance, and that's what I called the song we wrote for Mario.
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Russell Crowe is a New Zealand-born, naturalised Australian actor and musician. His acting career began in the early 1990s with roles in Australian TV series such as Police Rescue and films such as Romper Stomper. In the late 1990s, he began appearing in US films such as the 1997 movie L.A. Confidential. He has been nominated for three Oscars, and in 2001, he won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his starring role in the film Gladiator. He also won the BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for A Beautiful Mind.