20 / 2004
Aleksej Kalc


The article refers to the decades immediately after World War II and deals with mass migration from the Italian city of Trieste on the border with Slovenia (formerly with Yugoslavia) to Australia in the second half of the 1950s. This period and the establishment of Trieste communities in larger Australian cities coincided with some interesting changes in how emigrants kept contact with their native land. At the end of the 1950s, to wit, relatively cheap tape-recorders designed for the wider public became part of the house equipment of many families. For the emigrants and their relatives these appliances meant a kind of revolution, as beside traditional correspondence they were now able to exchange recording tapes as well. Although this type of communication became very common, it seems that audiotapes have been preserved to a much lesser extent than letters; this source has not been used in the research on migration from Trieste. The paper presents some characteristics of the correspondence of a single emigrant family as well as similarities and differences between their letters and tapes. The protagonists of this communication are members of the Kovačič family (father Albert, mother Lina and three daughters) who left Trieste in 1955 and landed in Adelaide (South Australia), and Albert Kovačič's stem family in Trieste.

Letters and audio tapes are basic though partial components of the communication system, through which the Kovačič family has maintained its contacts for almost half a century with its relatives and acquaintances not only in Trieste, but in a series of European and North American countries as well. The other components of this system are postcards, congratulation cards, photographs, film tapes, videocassettes, telephone calls and, in the last few years, e-mail. The consignments from Australia, which have been received and preserved in Kovačič's native home in Trieste themselves, comprise more than 400 units of material. Among these, there are more than a hundred letters and 20 tapes (about 35 hours of listening time).

Each of the stated means of communication had its own features and played in the Kovačič’s family communication system its very specific role, where classical means (i.e. written communication and photographs) appeared, with oscillating frequency, continuously through the entire period, while the rest entered the system in compliance with the generally established technology or their adoption by the users. Some, however, fell out of the system after a certain phase. Therefore, the period of magnetic tapes coincided with the 1960s. Their decline in 1970 was associated with some events that greatly changed life dynamics in the Kovačič’s family and gave priority to letter correspondence. Still later, the establishment of the telephone link between Italy and Australia enabled more practical and direct phone contacts.

In its time phase, magnetic tapes partly replaced letter communication, without however driving it out. As for the production of the message tapes – it meant a great relief considering that to our protagonists in Australia and Trieste, writing was a fairly great effort. Most eloquent in this regard is the following sentence: "I am writing now, but my hand is rigid, so that I must often rest." Besides the physical effort for the awkward labourer's hand, writing letters especially required mental effort in forming the contents, and mainly in expressing thoughts with suitable vocabulary in literary language. Namely, our correspondents endeavoured to use standard Italian, which they scarcely mastered, since their customary colloquial language was the Trieste Italian dialect and, in Australia, English, as well as Slovene in Trieste. Tapes certainly surmounted these difficulties, for communication became less formal, more relaxed and direct, in everyday language and with no restraint, which can render letter writing very difficult indeed.

Still, the origin of audio recording met with certain difficulties, too, primarily of temporal and organizational character. Letter writing, while taking relatively little time, as far as the Kovačič family is concerned, required mental preparation, searching for a favourable moment and the necessary discipline. Besides, letters seldom contained more than 450 words. Tape recordings, on the other hand, lasted from one to two hours. Their implementation therefore demanded incomparably more time as well as certain temporal adjustment, for audio communication enabled all members of the family to express their thoughts, without discriminating the illiterate (i.e. children) or those unwilling to write. Moreover, the tendency was that on each tape all of them took part and, quite often, even some of their friends and acquaintances. At the time, they had no tape recorder of their own, this meant, for either recording the tape or listening to it, to gather simultaneously all the members of the family and those who wished to take part together in one place. The eventual purchase of the machine mitigated such preparations and allowed a greater recording flexibility. This reflects in two different audio recording typologies and in the different use of the appliance. The first tapes recorded with a borrowed recorder were made, so to speak, at a stroke, usually in a single Saturday evening, and were the fruit of lengthy preparations. They were very much like a public performance, in which a series of people take part in compliance with a carefully directed scenario. The actual purchase of the machine brought the first change: recordings were made piece by piece and often took several weeks to be completed. On each tape, all members of the family and a series of other people were still heard, however not necessarily all together but also individually or in groups. The greatest novelty, however, lay in the fact that the tape recorder soon became like a family member taking part in the everyday life. The recorder was mostly used by being simply switched on, while people were eating, ironing, sewing, washing up, tidying up, and so on. While doing so they were talking to the addressees of the messages, telling them whatever they had on their minds, drawing them into their mutual conversation, as if they were actually there.

Tapes could be called "sound letters". There are, however, some remarkable differences between the two means. While the letter contents are just essential and often expressed awkwardly, their extent is substantially increased and enlivened on tapes. The topics are dealt with very thoroughly, described down to the smallest detail, so that listeners could imagine them very vividly. The communication capacity of sound tracks, however, grossly surpasses the meaning of the words themselves. The expressive power of spoken words sounds out in all its direct immediateness, warmth and emotional charge. The voices of the people who had not heard each other for seven years were something indescribable by themselves alone. No wonder, therefore, that the first tape sent without notice from Australia caused a true shock in Trieste and that the highly excited addressees dreamed of it “all the night long”. Some could not get used to talking over the tape recorder for quite some time, for it was not simple to speak to somebody who was not listening to you, but above all – as claimed by themselves – because while thinking of the addressee "the emotions smothered all words in your throat".

The collective communication and the effects of the live voice most immediately captured the attention of the listener. The contents were often enriched by Trieste and Australian songs accompanied on the accordion or on the guitar. At the same time the tapes brought the most diverse sounds of temporary events and everyday life, such as those made during lunch or washing up, noises from the neighbouring room, voices from the neighbourhood, sirens of ambulances rushing to the hospital, road traffic or downpour noises, radio and TV programmes in the background, all kinds of situations in the family life, and so on. All of this was at times recorded on purpose, as the emigrants in Australia, for example, love to listen to the howling of the typical Trieste north-easterly winds or to the chatter in the street in which they used to live, while they themselves used to send to Trieste the sounds of their environment, including the buzzing of their new car, washing machine, lawn mower etc. All of this created a sensation of nearness and enabled the two so distant worlds to coexperience each other more directly, both in momentary and somewhat longer temporal sequences. Symptomatic in tape communication is, in comparison with letters, its temporal dimension, since it is capable of catching the course of events and to factually transmit fragments of life, including the momentary atmosphere and the speakers' state of mind.

In their letter and audio communication, our protagonists dealt with numerous topics, which would be worth examining in a longer study. This and other surviving documentation enables a fairly detailed historical reconstruction of the emigrant Kovačič family through a few generations period. With an exceptional number of explicit and implicit pieces of information, it offers an insight into numerous aspects of a personal and wider social character, which would otherwise have not been recorded or would show themselves in an utterly different light if told from memory. This material embraces the life cycle both of a group and of individuals, the factors that influenced this cycle in different ways, and everything else that accompanied it. Most clearly evident are, for example, planning, priorities, objectives and strategies for their attainment, organisation of family life and changes through time, the system of values, issues regarding the bringing up of children and the adoption of new ways of life, the change of mentality in the wider sense of the word, not to mention their keeping in touch with their old place and their creation of a new social network in their new town.

A very special attention, however, should be given to the problem of the people's identity, mainly to their ethnic identity. The "collision" with the new environment, acculturation, integration and identification are, as well known, the most eminent topics as far as the migrant complexities are concerned. From this aspect, our case happens to be somewhat special, since the members of the Kovačič family, as emigrants to Australia, did not face the problem of ethnic dissimilarity and its effects for the first time, but brought it, already well-rooted in their conscience and experience, with them from their old town, for as Slovenes they had been subjected, under fascism, to violent Italianisation. Apart from this, Trieste as a city situated on the border between Romance and Slav worlds had always been faced with the counterposition between the dominant Italian and the minor Slovene ethnic components, as well as the assimilation of the Slovene population. The city had long been divided in the issues concerning its identity and its national affiliation. Closely associated with these issues is also the mass migration of the Trieste people to Australia in the 1950s. Many did not leave merely owing to the economic crisis and to the lack of prospects for their future life, but also due to the disintegration of the small multiethnic state of the Free Territory of Trieste under the Anglo-American military administration, in which they saw the most impartial solution of the Trieste territorial question, and due to the annexation to the Italian state, of which the Slovenes in particular were very distrustful. Most eloquent for the understanding of the decisions made by many Trieste people to emigrate are, in my opinion, the thoughts expressed by our Albert Kovačič in one of his first letters sent from Australia: "Here you don’t think about national flags, nor about immortal mother-countries. Here you have what you can really call peace and freedom". It is undoubtedly significant that these were the words of a man who not only experienced the fascist deprivation of national rights, but came to Trieste, in May 1945, as Tito's partisan to liberate it, and eventually had to reconcile himself, as the majority of the Trieste Slovenes, to the bitter fact that the city would not belong to Yugoslavia, where he lived and served as a soldier for four years after the war.

This is the reason, therefore, why we should ask ourselves how is it at all possible that Albert Kovačič's written and audio communication with his home in Trieste has been for almost half a century carried out only in Italian and not even with a single word in Slovene, his mother tongue, as well as why the Italian Trieste dialect was the language the Kovačičs transfered to their daughters, although the father from Trieste had begged his son never to deny his mother tongue. This question concerns not only the Kovačič family, but opens a complex chapter of the identity of the Trieste communities in general. In Australia, they reproduced a mixed Italian-Slovene Trieste reality, in which the Trieste Italian dialect was affirmed as lingua franca and which parallel to the Australian acculturation still knew, within itself, the Italianisation of the Slovene component. Indeed, the complexities of the ethnic assimilation and identity, either in the emigrant communities or in Trieste itself, are still a very problematic issue, about which its protagonists are not particularly willing to speak. I believe that due to this fact, too, the emigrant correspondence in whichever form is a precious and in many respects essential material for the understanding of these particular problems.