The diaspora from Abruzzo to Canada has left a profound mark on both and forged a connection that spans continents. Many Abruzzesi sought economic opportunities and a better life in Canada post the 2nd World War leading to a vibrant community of Italians in cities like Toronto. This city holds 80,000 Abruzzesi and is only second to Pescara in the number of Abruzzesi inhabitants. However, the ties to their homeland remain strong, and each summer, a beautiful migration occurs as Abruzzesi who have settled in Canada return to Italy to reconnect with their roots. They bring with them a wealth of experiences, new cultural traditions, and family members and friends of differing nationalities.
To the diaspora, migration represents a duality of experiences. On one hand, it signifies the pursuit of new opportunities, economic stability, and a chance for a better future. On the other hand, it evokes a sense of longing, nostalgia, and a deep connection to their homeland, as they strive to maintain their cultural identity and pass down traditions to future generations. The annual pilgrimage bridges the distance and keeps the spirit of Abruzzo alive in the hearts of those who have ventured afar.
Celebrating Canada in Abruzzo
Here we talk to one such Abruzzese Canadian, Giovanni Polidori who with his American wife Marilyn Ray is so very kindly hosting a celebration on Sunday 2nd July, for a weather-delayed Canada Day for members of our Life In Abruzzo Facebook group in Francavilla al mare. Both navigate the complexities of embracing a new land while preserving their unique cultural identity. This duality enriches their lives and contributes to the diverse tapestry of global migration stories.
When and where were you born and where did you go to school in Abruzzo?
I was born in 1950 in Tollo, Province of Chieti in Abruzzo. I attended elementary and middle school in Tollo. Unfortunately, there was no secondary school in the town. The closest secondary school was in Pescara/Chieti and even a bus ticket back and forth for a day was a dream. Thus my parents withdrew me from school and I went to work as a woodworker from age 13.
How would you define your locality and the region when you left?
Tollo, along with many towns was almost completely destroyed in WWII. Thus, economic opportunities were few, pushing many towards immigration. However, I do remember a rich heritage where people read the newspaper, participated in cultural events in the town square, and were knowledgeable of world events.
How old were you when you migrated?
18 years old—oldest son…cardboard suitcase in hand, less than $10 in pocket.
Did you leave with family, friends or alone?
Alone….some family followed in years to come, but all eventually returned.
Where did you first live when you left? What made you pick this location if it wasn’t your family?
I arrived in Toronto, Canada in 1968 and took a cab to the home of a cousin. They did not know I was coming due to a postal strike and at first, told the driver they were not expecting anyone! I lived with them (a family of 6) for some months as I got established. I got there on a Friday and went to work as a construction worker on Monday morning—no English. A family member arranged the job.
How did this change, and when did you move if you did change your new location?
Eventually, I moved into a series of rooms and apartments on my own in Toronto. In 1978, exactly ten years after I arrived, I purchased a newly constructed home in the burgeoning city of Mississauga, Ontario, for $80,000. I paid at least 75% of the purchase price in cash, leaving only a small mortgage that I quickly paid off within a few years. I still reside in that home when I am in Canada, and recent estimates value it at well over a million dollars.
How easy was moving to your ‘new’ country full-time and gaining residency or citizenship? Did you need a specific visa, to be a particular profession or to have an amount in the bank to be considered legal and given residency or citizenship?
I applied for a visa from Italy to Canada while I was still in Italy. There was a considerable amount of paperwork with immigration offices, and my cousins in Canada provided a bond. I underwent medical checks as part of the process. An interesting anecdote from my application experience was when the immigration officer in Rome questioned me about my work as a woodworker. He requested to examine my hands and, upon finding calluses, was satisfied that I was indeed a woodworker as I had claimed. Once in Canada, I did not immediately apply for citizenship, but eventually, the need for travel and legal protection led me to apply.
Has that changed for new migrants since you moved there?
I am not fully knowledgeable about the current process, but I would assume it has become more difficult over time.
Are there many Abruzzesi where you now live? What attracted them? Is there a community/social group?
More than 80,000 Abruzzesi live in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). They were attracted by the job opportunities and many had family sponsorship. Italian immigrants played a significant role in building Toronto, and certain areas, like Woodbridge north of Toronto, are predominantly Italian, with many residents still speaking Italian. These areas have Italian groceries, Italian-speaking dentists and doctors, and even politicians with Italian last names who are elected. Older immigrants may speak a combination of Italian and English, creating Italo-English, with words like “backyarda” for the backyard. There are clubs, social groups, and even a Tollo Club. Italian nursing homes proudly offer pasta for lunch every day. Gelato, pizza, and Italian restaurants can be found throughout the area.
How would you define your relationship with your homeland?
Throughout my life, I have closely followed news events. politically, economically, and socially in Italy throughout my life and have visited often, more so as I got older. (Note: This question was difficult for Giovanni so the following is some observations from his wife). Giovanni speaks of Italy often, detailing in often vivid detail his memories of his childhood in the “casa popolare” with his little buddies. I know their names and the activities that the little boys got up to with their games and adventures. Gio gives wonderful accounts of all of Tollo’s town characters many like from a Fellini movie. His accounts show me people who struggled economically but were rich in community. He remembers fondly sitting in the tiny house that served as a home for a family of 7, the living area double serving as his father’s barbershop with the old farmers dropping in at all hours for a haircut and shave. He tells of adventures on the Ortona hills collecting metals left from bombs which the little boys would drag home to sell to a local man for a few cents. His memories are rich, and warm, though at times conflicted as he reflects on a lack of proper medical care, lack of educational opportunities and lack of resources. Perhaps many dreams were deferred.
When you return, where do you stay, in your family’s accommodation, a new place that you purchased or in a local B&B?
In the 80s I purchased a condominium in Francavilla Al Mare and for many years it was rented out. It was primarily an investment decision. However about 10 years ago as I retired I remodelled the condo and now I and my family come every summer for 3 months to stay here.
What made you decide to buy a property in Abruzzo if you did? If you have children, how do they perceive it? Will they carry on regularly visiting and keeping the property?
Having no children of my own, I will assume this property will be sold and divided among my heirs.
Are there any noticeable differences in Abruzzo from when you migrated compared to today?
Yes—obviously there are many significant differences. Too many to list. Though I am Canadian and my wife is American, I am most struck by the cultural subservience that many Italians seem to have for anything “American”…from slogans in English on their teeshirts (which they often ask me what it means), to American music blaring at the beach lido, to the bastardisation of the beautiful Italian language with English, to drinking coca cola and eating fast food which seems to be mirroring the American obesity trend, to the young people who wear American sports tees like the “Los Angeles Lakers” and use words like “the American dream”. They are shocked when we tell them that Los Angeles has homeless people under every bridge and the bridges are falling. The worse, however, maybe the Italian trend towards being a “vassal” state of the American Empire and celebrating the symbols of that empire.
What do you eat in your new home to remind you of your birthplace? What do you eat in your birthplace to remind you of your new home?
My cuisine has always been Italian-based, always beginning with olive oil, pepperoncini and pasta! Initially, upon arrival in Canada, I ate a lot of red meat, and fried chicken, reflecting the shortage of meat in Italy when I left. I soon righted that ship and returned to the food of Italy, eventually even becoming the owner of my own pizza place in Mississauga.
What are the three things that you miss most when not in Abruzzo?
I appreciate things wherever I am at the moment. I don’t dwell on what I miss when away. But for sake of argument—the sea…..
What three things don’t you miss when away from Abruzzo?
This one was easier—-THE BUREAUCRACY…..I find it difficult even to pay property taxes in an efficient way. Oh, and the scooters at 2:00 am!
What are your three favourite places to visit in Abuzzo?
I’ll be general here—-the coast (though I rue the privatisation of the public spaces), the pebble beaches south of Ortona and any mountain town.
Vital Statistics and Depopulation
How many Canadians live full-time in Abruzzo?
In 2022, 66 Canadian citizens were living full-time in Abruzzo. No records are kept of the number of Abruzzesi who have dual nationality and return each summer.
Tollo stands proudly as the wine capital of Chieti, showcasing a rich heritage of viticulture and winemaking. Its picturesque vineyards and renowned wineries, estate and cooperatives make it a haven for wine enthusiasts, offering a delightful experience for those seeking the finest Chieti wines.
What is the current population of Tollo?
In the 1960s it hovered at 5000 residents.
What is the nationality mix of Tollo?
In 2022 there were 260 ‘foreigners’, 6.6% of the population living in Tollo