Stories of a storyteller

Learning about my great-grandfather.

You never know the true story behind someone until you actually ask. To me as a young kid, through the photos in nonna’s photo albums all her father looked like to me was like any friendly old man. Now, I realise how much I didn’t know about this amazing man.

My bisnonno (great-grandfather) or nonnino as we like to call him, Ettore Travaglini was born on the 23rd of October 1910 in the village of Taponecco, nestled in the foothills of the Lunigiana region, Toscana. At this time, he had an older brother Albino at age 8 and a sister Felicia, age 6. He also had an infant sister, Ercolina, that had died 7 years before at age 1 month and an infant brother with the same name, Ettore, who had passed 4 years before.

A childhood

Through the pain of loss, Ettore was cared for by his mother Pasquina Nardi, and father Giovanni Travaglini. Giovanni was a tall, fair-haired farmer and successful landowner in the village who had worked in America and worked hard to build a family.

Five days after the birth of her son Alcide, Ettore’s mother Pasquina was seen by her husband’s relative Luigi Travaglini, going towards the river with a large tub filled with clothes to wash, balanced on her head. He called out to her, telling her that she shouldn’t be doing such strenuous work after giving birth. She answered that she was strong and not to worry. That night she ran a high fever and died 18 days later on the 30th of April 1916. Ettore was just 5 years old.

Consequently, his sister Felicia was left to care for the baby Alcide when she was about 10 years old. Alcide died a month later. To this day we’ve been unable to find records of Felicia, who died around the same time at 12 years old from an unknown cause. All Ettore remembered was that she was in deep pain, and was constantly screaming. His father Giovanni was now left as a widow and had lost 4 children.

By 1922, with the rise in fascism in Italy and with Benito Mussolini elected Prime Minister, the group cracked down on discerners of the fascist rule everywhere from small villages to big cities. Mussolini’s Blackshirts approached many vulnerable peasants who had little choice but to join their syndicates. These men often inflicted ritual humiliation and torture on any ‘enemies’. They eventually reached Ettore’s village of Taponecco, where they approached his father Giovanni. Giovanni refused their wishes to join and was consequently tied down and forced to drink large amounts of castor oil. Weeks later he died from his subsequent horrible sickness on the 16th of November, 1922. Ettore was just 12 years old.

This pain and suffering left Ettore alone for much of his childhood, with his older brother Albino always working in the fields to make his own living, Ettore became extremely poor at a young age, and now had to make a life for himself.

Without a mother and father, and enough money to keep him in good order, Ettore wore no shoes and often had torn pants. After Sunday mass at the church, the men would often gather together in the piazza, while the women prepared lunch. One day after mass Ettore walked into the piazza and was seen by his maternal uncle Luigi Nardi, nicknamed ‘Nardi’. He called out to Ettore in front of the men, denigrating the way he looked. ‘There is no hope for this child’ he said, ‘he will be an “assassino”, a criminal when he grows up’. Ettore left the piazza in tears but all the more determined to prove Nardi wrong. In the months that followed Ettore did every little bit of work he could, any job that anyone in the village and surrounding villages had for him.

Eventually, Ettore earned enough money to buy himself new clothes and was able to sustain himself. One day after mass, Ettore walked up to Nardi in front of the men; “as far as I’m concerned, you’re the assassin,” he said.

Even though his father Giovanni owned a lot of property in the area, as minors, he and his brother were kept in the dark of their inheritance; while his father’s ‘trustees’, a group of men related to Giovanni in some form, maintained control over the properties. It was rumoured that many properties were sold off without notice, and that the boys’ inheritance was dwindling away. One of the trustees, known as Zio Giovan, was a thoughtful man who after some time felt uncomfortable about how the trust was managed and left the group in anger.

Not long after, whilst struggling and working in the mines in Linari, a nearly 3-hour walk from Taponecco, Ettore was lucky enough to be advised by an unknown man. He told Ettore to go to Tavernelle, a nearby village, where at the courthouse the trustees were discussing the future of his father’s properties. Putting two sandwiches in his pocket, Ettore headed to Tavernelle. In the courthouse, Ettore was still a minor so it was inappropriate for him to speak. However, he knew that if he or his brother didn’t say anything, they could lose their livelihood. So he stood up, as a 12 year old boy, and got the judge’s attention. He expressed to the judge the truth in stating that these men (trustees) had been selling their father’s properties, while he and his brother were suffering in poverty. He pulled out the two sandwiches from his pocket. ‘This is what I live off every day,’ he said. He explained that given his brother Albino was an adult, the properties should be in his name and under his control. The judge agreed and their family properties were now rightfully under their control.

An experience

Once reaching adulthood he, like all other Italian males, was inscripted into military service.

As part of my research, I contacted the Archives of the Massa-Carrara province about the military history of Ettore. I received many documents of where and when Ettore was conducting his compulsory service. Enlisted in the army in 1928 at age 18, Ettore went on to travel to not only many cities and towns across Italy but also into the former Yugoslavia. According to his first record in the military district of Massa-Carrara, although his highest degree of education was grade 3 elementary, he could read and write very well. His first army post was in the 5th Lancieri Regiment of Novara, a cavalry regiment, serving in Verona on the 3rd March 1931. From then on, on the 8th of April 1932, he was sent in convalescence (recovery) by the Infirmary unit of Parma for an unknown illness. After some time in service he was presented with the declaration of having held good conduct and of having held it with fidelity and honour in October 1932. However when World War II came around the peaceful service did not last long. He was eventually called to arms on the 7th June 1940 in the 7th Artillery Regiment in Pisa, just less than a year after my nonna (Elisa) was born. A month later the department moved to Magreta (Modena) and then to Salvarola (Sassuolo, Province of Modena). He was discharged from the regiment in October of the same year. Following this he was assigned to the 13th Regiment Monferato Bagnone and then in November 1941 he was called up and transferred to the 3rd Savoia Cavalleria – the 3rd Savoy Cavalry in Milan. Not long after, the cavalry was deployed to Croatia in the former Yugoslavia. He participated in the Balkan operations from December 1941 to April 1942. In either Yugoslavia or elsewhere in northern Italy he was shot and admitted to the Baveno military hospital on the 17th of April 1942 for a wound. In June he had not recovered and was transferred to the military hospital of Livorno, and a month later to the Marina di Massa hospital until August. After he recovered he was finally assigned to the ‘Reggimento Piemonte Reale Cavalleria’ (Piedmont Real Cavalry Regiment) in November of 1942, and soon returned home.

These records ultimately linked to the stories I recorded with Nonna.

One time when Ettore was posted in northern Italy it was deep in winter and constantly snowing. At one point he was hiding in a cave for two days with his close friend with no food or water. When he tried to get out, his friend went first and was shot. Ettore went back in, and when he came back out again he got shot in the knee. In an effort to get back to camp, he was struggling to walk in the snow with near frozen feet. Halfway he remembered just falling in the snow. From a distance, men at the nearby camp saw him and assisted him to the nearest hospital. He was there for about three to four months. From military records he was first recovering at a military hospital in Baveno, a town on Lake Maggiore.

What Ettore loved most about being in the army were the horses. When he went back the second time in World War II, he went in the cavalry. Ettore remembered his friend always jumping with the horse, and could never understand how he did it. So when he reached the jumping fence with his horse, he said the horse just stopped and he flew off, “I told you, don’t look at the fence, look further out and then the horse will jump” his friend told him. After finishing in the army, they were having a celebration. Ettore recalled when they were eating, his close friend choked on a piece of meat. He died right there and then, before he even got home. Nonna remembers her father Ettore always being so sad about his friend, “…especially when he looked at a photo of him, he was a really good friend”.

Ettore enjoyed his time in the military. Nonna told me what her father felt. “Army is sometimes good and sometimes bad, but to dad it was good because he learnt a lot. When he went into the army he hardly had any schooling, and when he came out he was pretty good. To him even though he suffered a lot, before the war in his childhood, when he went there he really learnt a lot. To him, it was better than anything else because first of all he got fed and clothed and everything like that. Secondly, he learnt how to do so many things.” He also sang lots of songs about his time in the army. In particular a song about Ponte di Vassano, a place near the town of Marostica, in the province of Vicenza. He sang all the time when working in the fields back in Taponecco.

Nonna still remembers the second time he came back home. “After he had been in hospital, I didn’t recognise him, because he had a beard, and I’d never seen him with a beard. I can still see him at the door”.

“Even when we were home, we had no television or anything, or radio, so after dinner dad would first go to the osteria with his friends, drink and play cards maybe, and then when he would come home, he would always bring me something, not to the boys but to me. I would sit on his knee, and he would tell me all these stories, that’s how I know all these stories”.

On October 13, 1943, the Italians declared war on Nazi Germany. At this time, Lunigiana was under German control while the Allies were advancing up the south of the peninsula. Many of the men in the villages of Taponecco and Apella had to hide when the Germans regularly stopped by to find young men. One day when the Germans were coming up the road from nearby Tavernelle, my Nonna remembers her father Ettore and their close relative Battista planning where to go. As many parts of the village were walled, they ran to the horse stables and jumped through the tiny window up the top of the stable, making their way to hide in the mountain caves. To this day Nonna still can’t believe how her father and Battista managed to fit through that small window.

War was a frightening time for the family. We mustn’t forget that by his side was his wife Ines who often had to defend the whole family including her husband, kids, and parents from the German soldiers who frequently entered, searching the house. They often looked through photos and asked her where this man was who was in the picture frames (Ettore). She would say he died “è morto! è morto!”. Even though not knowing any German, she knew they were after men like him, who were hiding in the caves.

Another three records showed us what Ettore was up to after the Italian surrender and declaration of war against the Germans. The first indicated that after the ‘September act’ or the ‘Armistice of Cassibile’ when the Kingdom of Italy and the Allies signed an armistice (formal agreement to stop fighting), Ettore didn’t engage in any more military activities and stayed at home. The second was particularly special. This identified that Ettore did not cooperate with Nazi-fascist troops during the German occupation;

“The year 1946 and this 9th of March in the (Licciana Nardi) Municipal House.

Next to me Caotzia Cav. Adolfo. Mayor of the aforementioned Municipality, assisted by the undersigned Municipal Secretary, have personally appeared:

1. Boschetti Gasparo di Aristide of 26 years

2. Meloni Umberto di Pietro of 23 years

3. Canori Bruno di Pietro of 22 years

4. Barbieri Guerrino di Pietro of 28 years

Suitable and knowledgeable witnesses, worthy of faith, known, who having sworn by me, referred to them and by these lends … legal forms, have unanimously and separately declared to be to their knowledge that Travaglini Ettore son of Giovanni of farmer profession born October 23, 1910, in Tavernelle di Licciana Nardi and living resident, on September 8, 1943, he was a military man, belonging to the 5 Lancieri Regiment of Novara, serving in Verona; that on that date he fled home, where he remained until his release; that in this period of time he did not cooperate with Nazi-fascist troops; who has always had residence in Tavernelle of this Municipality. 

Signed by the registrants

Mayor – National Liberation Committee Apuania – Licciana”

The third document was similar, and was signed by Ettore himself on the 7th April 1946;

“Subject: Outcome information on the account of soldiers disbanded since 8 September 1943…

It does not appear that he has joined, sworn or otherwise served or worked with the Nazi-fascist government in Italy, in Germany, or in another occupied territory of the Germans. Signed Travaglini Ettore”

One true love

Dances often occurred in many villages in the area. When a dance was on in one village, everyone from the other nearby villages went over to dance. Ettore was amicable with Antonio Bastiani – an older, rough man who had 4 daughters. He was fond of Antonio’s 3rd oldest, Ines, and wanted to take her for a dance. One dance night in Taponecco, Ettore heard that Antonio’s daughters weren’t allowed to go to the dance. He went to the local osteria where he found Antonio at the bar drinking. Ettore asked if his daughters could go to the dance, but he refused. Then he tried some convincing. “They’ve worked all day in the fields, at least give them a chance to go out and enjoy themselves for a bit”. Already a bit tipsy from drinking, Antonio finally agreed even though it was already midnight and the dancing was practically over. He banged on the door, forcing all his daughters to get up and go out to dance. Now Ettore finally had his chance to dance with Ines.

They got on pretty well and on the 12th of October 1935 they decided to marry. They couldn’t afford to put on a wedding so Ines got her zio Attilio to be the best man and they went to the church at 6pm on a Saturday night and they tied the knot. They had a glass of wine with the best man back at their home and that was all that was needed. Nonna jokingly said “everyone on the Sunday morning went to mass at the church and realised the bride and the groom never turned up, probably still in bed” she said.

Two years later was the birth of their first child Guerino, then my nonna Lisetta (Elisa) in 1939 just over a month after the start of World War II.

Then in 1945 nearly two months after the end of the war they had their third child Remo. And their last Eugenio, three years later.

Ettore with his famiglia, circa 1940s

Life after war

Ettore wasn’t a fan of working in the fields, as he did as a child, and with the skills he learnt while in the military, he did any job around Taponecco or the surrounding villages that there was to do. This included working in the mines, making the roads (there were no machines in those days!), cutting trees, making charcoal. If any jobs were going, he would do them.

Working man, Taponecco

A journey

Like his father who went to America, Ettore held the same goal of working overseas for a couple years, and later returning with a good amount of money for the family to buy land. So he set off in 1951 to Australia with other men from the area including my nonno Ilario, to find work. He stayed at a boarding house on the corner of Canning and Palmerston Streets, Carlton, and made this his home for the next couple of years. With his eldest son Guerino old enough to work, he came over to join his father so the family could earn some extra money. Yet after spending time in Australia Guerino did not want to return to the hard life of Taponecco, and subsequently, the rest of the family joined them in Melbourne in 1954.

The boarding house in Carlton still standing today
Family festivities
Ettore was quite the joker

A new life

Throughout his life in Melbourne, Ettore had many jobs. His first was in the Macrobertson Chocolate Factory in Fitzroy, where he used to unload trucks of fruit used in the chocolate. At this time Nonna recalls him putting on a lot of weight because he said he used to eat a lot of the fruit that came off the trucks. He then worked at a cement factory then at a gas and fuel mine. He didn’t enjoy these jobs so he later worked at a shoe factory in Collingwood. Ettore was a very handy man, and his last job was making wheelbarrows in Thomastown. He retired in his 60s.

By his side all these years was nonnina Ines, who looked after the children and often cared for the grandkids.

On their 50th wedding anniversary in 1985, the family put on a proper wedding in a church for him and nonnina, of which they loved.

Having a proper wedding, 1985

Mum gave me an insight into what it was like being the granddaughter of this man.

“Nonno was a gentle man who loved to sing and tell snippets of stories from his past, which at times were difficult for me to piece together as a child.

I spent many of my Saturdays in the mid-seventies with both my nonna Ines and nonno Ettore. Most of the time they allowed me to watch all of my favourite Saturday morning TV shows, ‘Hey Hey it’s Saturday’ and ‘Sounds Unlimited’ with my mandatory “scatola di quei cosi di formaggio” – “box of those cheese things” (Cheezels).

From my perspective as a child Nonno seemed to appreciate his life, apart from complaining about his bad back and Nonna, who he said occasionally “mi fa girare il cervello” (‘turns my brain’ or does my head in). His escape was to go for a walk, something he did every day.

This included Saturday mornings when we would always walk to the Reservoir shops after he ate his breakfast of hot milk with coffee and bread. Along the way Nonno would tell me about all the neighbours, especially Bill next door who always parked his truck out the front and called him Trevor (as he couldn’t pronounce his name). The walk always seemed so long, although it probably wasn’t, as all I wanted to do was get to the Coles Variety Store to see what small trinket he might buy me. He always left that stop until last, first we had to visit the ‘Paper Shop’ (Newsagency) to get the Tattersalls lottery results sheet, to check when we got home, and put on the “TAZLOTTA” (Tattslotto) ticket. Next stop was the grocery store to get whatever Nonna had instructed us, this always included a crusty split vienna loaf of bread. There was always a stop at the Bizz Buzz hardware store to get some sort of handyman item, usually some Tarzan grip glue and rubber shoe soles and heels for the shoes my mother bought for him to repair. We always walked at a fast pace as we knew that Nonna would invariably want to know what took us so long, to which Nonno would roll his eyes at me and give me a smile.

There was always plenty to do:

  • check the tattersalls results from the long sheet of numbers and shout out when he’d won the $5 prize
  • shout out random numbers for him to add up and be thoroughly amazed at his math skills
  • get the eggs from the chicken coop, let the chickens out, put the chickens in
  • feed the rabbits
  • feed Paddy the dog and make sure the gate wasn’t left open
  • repair soles and heels of shoes in the shed
  • paint and bang nails in fences with chicken wire
  • taste how the wine was fermenting from the barrels that were in the garage
  • collect all the apricot kernels and put them in the sun so that Nonno could make his ‘cough elixir’
  • play solitaire
  • in the winter listen to the football on the transistor radio and shout out at Barassi and Jesaulenko (Jezza)
  • in the summer pick the figs and apricots from the trees before the birds got to them
  • watch ‘IL TENNIIIS’ on Channel Seven all day, much to Nonna’s disgust
  • have ‘UNA BELLA BIRRA FRESCA’ on a hot day

I wish I could have recorded his singing and stories as he always had a lot
to share, especially his heart.”

~ Rina, granddaughter

Some more memories and comments from family…

“My favourite memory was when the coffee was poured into the small espresso cups, the grappa would always come out. Nonno always from memory had tremors in his hands similar to Parkinson’s disease. When he poured the grappa, the shaking would start and of course a lot of grappa was shaken into the cups. Then the chorus from all the men around the table would start! “Ehhh Dad what are you doing? Ease up with the grappa!”. Another fond memory I have is Nonno watching his beloved Carlton Blues. He would be on the edge of his seat bouncing around on his chair with excitement. To this day my dad Remo is like a mirror image of Nonno, on the edge of his seat doing exactly the same thing except for the team. Collingwood! How Nonno would hate this! Every time I see my dad I think of Nonno.”

~ Lisa, granddaughter

“One thing I always think about is squeezing 20 people into their tiny tiny dining room and the men would sit at the top of the table and the girls all down the other end. Then once the dinner was done and the ladies were tiding up, the briscola cards would come out and Nonno would come out, and he would start to sing. So good!!!

He was such a gentle and gorgeous man.”

~ Nadia, granddaughter

“One standout moment for me was walking in to find Nonno reading Umberto Eco. I hadn’t appreciated that someone who had such limited education and a tough life could find room for such complex literature. He was quite mysterious about who he was deep down and I realised I’d underestimated or failed to see this side of him.”

~ Janine, granddaughter

“I always remember Nonnino as a friendly and warm personality who always loved to hand out IceMints at the Laminex kitchen table!”

~ Ruby, great-granddaughter

“I still remember always feeling comfortable around him, how much he clearly loved us and how proud he was of his children & grandchildren.”

~ Gemma, great-granddaughter

Along with his 4 children, nonnino Ettore had 12 grandchildren, and over 25 great-grandchildren.

He passed away 20 years ago on the 18th of June 1999, age 88.

Although through loss, pain, and hard life, Ettore made a great impression on the world. He was known for many things, but most of all, his love.

“I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdom.”

~ Umberto Eco, Italian novelist

Signing off…

Thank you to my Nonna, Elisa Bastiani, for sharing stories of her father.
Many thanks for the other comments; Rina Aitken, Lisa Travaglini, Nadia Travaglini, Janine Travaglini, Ruby Aitken and Gemma Bastiani.
Thanks to dad for the precious photo scanning
Editors: Rina and Ruby Aitken

8 thoughts on “Stories of a storyteller

Add yours

  1. Hi Charlie, this story is amazing. I never knew so much about Nonno. What a amazing life he lead. Thank you so much.

  2. Great work – I still remember ‘non rompare le mie scatole’ – don’t break my balls ! he used to say to nonnina. A tough life bred a tough determination.

    1. What an amazing story, Charlie. I am the one who just recently began researching the Travaglinis in the U.S. along with Bill Heston and I thoroughly enjoyed the story.


      1. Thanks very much Birgit. Yes! – lots to research on the Travaglinis.


  3. Just read the story this evening. Wonderful story that is and will be a continuing legacy for the entire family to enjoy. Very impressive.

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