The 1960s continued to see increasing numbers of Italians immigrating to Canada. Virtually all those who came, did so on the promise of a better future, and with the idea of returning to Italy – either permanently or just to visit – once they could show they had “made it.” Though few and far between, some Italians in Canada during this time had different motives for travelling back to the Old Continent, as the following text by Adriana A. Davies reveals.
To recapture the romance of my transatlantic voyage from Italy as a seven-year-old child, I chose to go to the UK by boat to begin my doctoral studies. My brother Giuseppe, who was in Montreal to attend l’École des Beaux-Arts, saw me off on this grand adventure. All my worldly goods, at least those that were transportable, were packed in a brand-new, dark blue trunk with brass trim.
The port of Montreal was an incredibly busy place because, in 1967, it had become a container port and, in 1968, Manchester Liners began weekly shipping services to the UK. The Canadian Pacific Montreal-to-Liverpool-and-return passenger service was provided by liners such as the Empress of England, which carried about 900 passengers (first class and tourist) with a crew of nearly 500. The ship was air conditioned and tourist class cabins had their own small bathrooms with showers. I didn’t realize at the time that the romance of the transatlantic voyage was ending and, in 1970, Canadian Pacific would sell the Empress. My voyage was thus historic in many ways.
I don’t know what I expected when I boarded, but I was surprised to discover that the majority of the passengers were British seniors returning home for a visit after a life-time spent in Canada. There was a buzz of excitement in the air and they treated the voyage as a cruise. The only person my own age among the passengers was a young man but, after several stilted conversations, it became clear that I wasn’t interested in him nor he in me. I remember eating too much: there was nothing else to do other than eat and read, since I was not into board games or other types of official entertainment. This meant not only the three normal meals but also morning coffee with biscuits and afternoon high tea with sandwiches and pastries.
I shared my tourist cabin with two women, one of whom was the mother of Canadian dancer Veronica Tennant, going to visit her daughter who was performing with the Royal Ballet in London. Doris Tennant was a very attractive middle-aged woman, who had been widowed in 1964 and worked as a researcher and script writer at the CBC. She was born in England in 1921 and thus my mother’s age, but totally unlike her. The elderly men buzzed around her like bees around a honeypot and she enjoyed the attention enormously. She asked me to help her choose who she should focus on, and what clothing to wear for dinner. It was actually very sweet. Her life was certainly more interesting than mine: the only romance I was getting was through the novels I borrowed from the ship’s library, which I consumed voraciously. I read my way through Jean Plaidy’s fictionalized histories of European royals as well as the Gothic romances of Victoria Holt. I didn’t know at the time that they were both pen names for English author Eleanor Alice Hibbert. I also read Nikos Kazantzakis’s Zorba the Greek.
The journey across the north Atlantic seemed endless but, eventually, we arrived at Liverpool and I debarked and boarded the train for London with my trunk. We sped south through the English countryside and I was captivated by the large brick houses on both sides of the tracks. I loved the beautiful gardens and the various types of climbing roses that appeared to be a feature. When we reached Euston Station I was overwhelmed by the crowds but managed to find a taxi driver willing to take me, and my trunk, to the nearby YWCA where I had a booking. It was an old building and my metal-framed bed was in a large dormitory occupied by only a few girls, who had left their homes in other parts of the UK to find work in London. I knew that I had to find a place to live; one of the girls told me about agencies on Oxford Street that would help.
While the countryside had been beautiful, the area around the station was a nightmare, particularly at night. The air was thick with the fumes of cheap booze and one had to be careful not to step on the bodies of drunken men, who lived rough in the square and used the amenities of the station. I had an irrational fear that one might grab me. My friend Nat, who was doing his PhD at University College and who had been in London for a year, told me that they were unemployed meths drinkers. (While today the word “meth” refers to the drug “methamphetamine,” at the time, the word was short for “methylated spirits,” which was used for cleaning products or paint thinner.) I had never before encountered such misery.
London was the largest city that I had ever visited and I had to adjust to the grandeur of the royal palaces, Houses of Parliament, the British Museum, Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s, and the squalor that I encountered sometimes when I diverged from the well-trodden paths. There were still ruined buildings enclosed in high fences, the casualties of Second-World-War bombing raids. Since I had no idea where to live, the only criterion was that the flat be attractive and relatively close to King’s College on the Strand. My visits to possible flats to rent took me to some unsavory places, including the working-class East End of London. The class system that I had encountered in Dickens’ novels still seemed to be prevalent.
Eventually, I found a place in North London at Willesden Green, then on the Bakerloo Line. I got off the train and walked up to ground level to discover a village main street. I walked down Walm Lane and about ten minutes later reached a gorgeous, three-storey red brick house. I rang the bell and was shown inside by a young woman in her thirties accompanied by a little boy, three or four years of age. She told me that the house was owned by her brother David and that the flat was in the attic. The house was in process of being restored. The ground floor entry had stained glass windows surrounding the door, floral tiles on the floor and a grand staircase leading upstairs. The flat comprised two rooms under the eaves: one a bedroom with a lovely bed with a floral quilt, and the other a sitting room with a tiny kitchen located in a cupboard. I fell in love with it; rented it immediately; and moved in. I wasn’t bothered by the fact that I had to share the bath on the second floor with Paula and another tenant.
Paula befriended me and I spent many happy hours drinking instant coffee and strong tea with milk, both cloyingly sweetened with multiple cubes of sugar. Her apartment comprised two large rooms on the second floor and she lived there with her son, Charles. She was a chain smoker with a deep, throaty voice and the face of a Renaissance angel. She was divorced and unemployed but had various boyfriends. Her two best friends were Maureen, a young, unmarried woman with a baby who cleaned the house, and Ann, an older, bleached blond who dated men from the Middle East, with flats in the St. John’s Wood area. She liked to party and drink, and may have been a call girl.
All of the rooms in the house appeared to have been designed by a decorator. There were some lovely old, stripped-pine pieces of furniture including tables and chairs, as well as wicker furniture with large cushions covered with William Morris fabrics. The same fabric was used for curtains that spanned the large windows from floor to ceiling. Paula told me a great deal about her brother, who was on holiday in Greece. He was a former art student. (There were some of his paintings in the house as well as a clay sculpture bust of a man with a scythe.) He owned a wicker furniture manufacturing company in the East End of London and was doing extremely well since that type of furniture was experiencing a revival. She mentioned that he was gay. Having settled into my flat, I took the tube train to Trafalgar Square and visited the Canadian Embassy. A street photographer snapped a photo of me feeding the pigeons, which I still have.
I felt like Alice in Wonderland. Things were both familiar and strange. Because of my extensive readings in British literature, everywhere I went I found streets with familiar names, and I loved the blue plaques on historic buildings where famous people (mostly men) had lived or worked. I always stopped to read them and was thrilled when I knew their works. I felt adrift and used the Canadian Embassy as a surrogate home and went there frequently to read the newspapers and magazines to remind me of who I was. I registered as a student abroad and was invited to a talk and reception to be given by Pierre-Elliott Trudeau, on his first visit to the UK as Prime Minister. In my International Politics class at the University of Alberta, I had read an essay by Trudeau on the European Common Market and viewed him as a respected academic. However, like other young women of my generation, I was caught up in “Trudeaumania” and, before leaving Canada, I had my friend Doris take a photograph of me in front of an election poster in the window of the small grocery store in the Jack Tar building in London, Ontario where we lived. His talk was inspirational and reinforced my sense of how wonderful it was to be Canadian, young and in London at this important time in history.
Since university would not begin until early October, I had planned a six-week trip around Western Europe with my friend Sydney. She didn’t finish her Master’s thesis on Wilfred Watson in time so I had to travel alone. I was young enough to still have that sense of being “immortal” and, fortunately, had not had any dangerous experiences to deter me. In mid-July I took the boat train to France and began my travels around Europe using my Eurail Pass.
*Excerpt from My Theatre of Memory: A Life in Words by Adriana A. Davies (Guernica Editions 2023). Reprinted by permission of the author and the publisher.
Adriana (Albi) Davies was born in Grimaldi, Cosenza, Italy and grew up in Canada. She received B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Alberta, and a Ph.D. from the University of London, England. For more than 40 years, she has worked as a researcher, writer, editor, lecturer, executive director, and curator in England and Canada.