My Nonni From Abruzzo – Zoë Boccabella

The characteristics historically used to define the Abruzzesi are ‘forte e gentile’ (strong & kind), a description first penned by the C19th Italian journalist Primo Levi. But this defining blend of strength & kindness exists to this day, and the reach of its charm exceeds well beyond the borders of Abruzzo, a testament to how far & wide the people of Abruzzo have travelled the world to provide for their families.

We take a look at the  () through the eyes of their grandchildren whose futures they helped to determine.

Zoë Boccabella is an Italian-Australian author whose writing is often influenced by her migrant ancestry, handed-down recipes and spoken histories, as well as travels in Europe and her birth country, Australia. She gained an Arts degree in literature and sociology then worked for many years as a writer and researcher for government, universities and freelance, later attaining a Master of Philosophy in writing. Zoë’s books have been much acclaimed, shortlisted for awards in both popular and literary categories and published internationally.

For many centuries, as far back as my family tree can be traced in Abruzzo, my ancestors came mainly from a village in the L’Aquila province called Fossa, as well as some of its nearby villages. I was the first girl born in my direct line since at least 1644. I was also born on the other side of the world, in Australia. And yet, Abruzzo would come to have a great influence on my life and my work, and remain close to my heart, largely due to the love my grandfather retained for his birthplace.

As I was growing up in Australia, my grandfather, Annibale Boccabella told me stories of Abruzzo, his early life in Fossa where he was born, Poggio Picenze where his mother’s family was from on the opposite side of the Aterno Valley, and also the nearby capital, L’Aquila. Depending on my age at the time, my listening to these stories oscillated between interest and being jaded. Rather than explore my Italian heritage, I just wanted to fit in among my Australian peers. It felt hard always feeling ‘half and half’, mezza Italiana, half Australian, in a way not quite fully belonging to either culture, particularly back in the 1970s and early 80s when foods and ways that were Italian were not so accepted and sought-after.

Then, in my early twenties, I went to Abruzzo for the first time. I found myself looking up at the Apennines in wonder, the splendid valleys and towns of biscuit-coloured stone. Unexpectedly, I felt a stir of recognition within. I realised how significant it was to see where so many of my ancestors had lived their lives, that in a way I belonged to this place too. And as my grandfather led me around the lanes of Fossa telling me its stories, I began to understand how important it was to acknowledge this past and how it was also a part of me.


I felt grateful then that he’d persisted in telling me stories of Abruzzo and his life. I began to write them down. First at the kitchen table in the small house in Fossa, that had been in my family for centuries. Then at my grandparents’ kitchen table back in Australia. For me, it was a way to preserve these stories before this little part of history was lost, not knowing then they would one day become books.

Annibale was born in Fossa in 1923, his father, Vitale from a long line of Boccabellas in the village, his mother, Maddalena Urbani, from the other side of the Aterno Valley in Poggio Picenze where her family had an inn, a butchery and grain mill. Maddalena was known in Fossa as the village witch, a healer. Since there was no doctor or dentist for many miles then, whether it was for her collecting wild greens from the hillsides to make herbal remedies, lancing a boil or pulling a tooth, villagers came to see Maddalena for such help, including for rituals like removing the malocchio, evil eye.

After generations of divided and redivided inherited land and abodes, my bisnonni, Vitale and Maddalena found it harder to make a living from their smaller plot of land. When Annibale was still a boy, Vitale decided to try his luck in 1920s Australia (unaware of the Depression looming and how long it would take to save to bring the rest of the family over). It took years to save enough for just Annibale to join him in Australia to help earn the rest for Maddalena and their other son to come too. Aged fifteen, Annibale made the journey alone from Fossa to Naples and then on the ship to Australia.

The following years were hard. Vitale and Annibale were separated again almost at once to work on different farms and cut cane. They lost contact as each were interned enemy aliens during World War II. During the war, they were also cut off from Maddalena who met her own challenges including the callousness of German soldiers who came to Abruzzo. It wasn’t until 1948 that she could be reunited with Vitale and Annibale in Australia. By then, her eldest son was twenty-five, married, a father and running his own fruit shop and milk bar with his wife, Francesca – a success that would lead them to become the prosperous owners of much real estate.

Although able to retire at the age of forty-six, Annibale never stopped working in a volunteer capacity, helping other Italian migrants find work and accommodation when they arrived in Australia, often he and Francesca housing them in their own home. In addition, for almost forty years they worked voluntarily each week and contributed financially to where Annibale was the long-serving president of A.N.F.E., an establishment in Brisbane where Italian migrants could come together for support, to carry on traditions and adjust to their new life in Australia.

In 1975, for the first time Annibale revisited Fossa. He never lost his affection for Abruzzo and instilled it in his sons and five grandchildren. For decades, he and Francesca returned to the family house in Fossa for the Italian summer every year. Annibale’s love and pride for our ancestral history in Abruzzo never wavered. With that gentle strength and forbearance that is an Abruzzese trait, he recounted to me memories his grandfather had told him of seeing Garibaldi’s army storming the castle above the village, spoke of secret places and hidden bone rooms within the village. If it wasn’t for his persistence and lively storytelling in passing on such histories I may never have known or visited this place far from Australia that was actually so close in that it was a part of us.

Annibale did not live to see either of the two books that would come to be about his life and Abruzzo. But he did see the first part of what I’d begun to write and his eyes filled with tears of emotion and pride, a contented smile on his lips, for he knew he’d finally got through to me, even though I’d been born far from Abruzzo I had come to love and be proud of our heritage as much as he. Abruzzo with its exquisite and sometimes perilous mountainous beauty, the humour, traditions and fortitude of its people would remain a close part of my life, and stories to come.


Read our Reviews of Zoe’s Book, Mezza Italiana

* In 2009, the earthquake that affected the areas around L’Aquila brought loss of life and much damage to the village of Fossa where Zoë’s family is from. As at 2018 most of the villagers remain in temporary housing. The Boccabella family house was badly damaged and at present uninhabitable.

Sam Dunham
Author: Sam Dunham

Sam is a very lucky midlife 'mamma' to A who is 12 and juggles her work as a self-employed freelance SEO food and travel copywriter and EFL teacher. She is the founder of the Life In Abruzzo Cultural Association, co-founder of Let's Blog Abruzzo. she is the founder of the 'English in the Woods' initiative, teaching English outdoors in a forest style school.

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