Meet a Member, SCN (Issue 228)
In this new series, the Swiss Community News Magazine look at the fascinating lives, experiences and motivations of Swiss immigrants.
For this issue, Gabi Muff, Events Coordinator SCNSW, catches up with Sylvia Baselgia who gives us a glimpse into her long and fascinating time in Australia.
I can’t pick your Swiss accent. Where are you originally from?
I am from Appenzell. That’s why I am short and small. I grew up in a hotel, Hotel Sonne. My father managed the public swimming pool at the back, at the bottom was our dairy shop and further up the street was our tobacco shop. I had to mind the shop after school but when I was 16 ½ years old I was sent to the French part of Switzerland for the "Welschlandjahr" to learn French. I worked as an au pair in a family with four kids. The parents were really nice to me and we stayed in touch until a few years ago when they died.
After 18 months I moved to Zurich where I had a boyfriend and rented a room in Seebach. I worked at the headquarters of Naegeli Tobacconists. The boss was a creep. Every so often he would send me up the ladder to get something from one of the top shelves so that he could look under my skirt. I then bought pants to wear at work. Five or six weeks later, I was asked to manage one of the Naegeli shops in the suburb of Milchbuck. For three years I was working all by myself, six days a week, from seven in the morning until seven at night.
When my boyfriend and I wanted to get married my father said no. Wrong religion. I was heartbroken. You see, 60 years ago you obeyed your father, no questions asked.
But then one day in January this handsome man came into the shop to buy cigarettes. I found out his name and the next time he came I could greet him by his surname, Baselgia which really surprised him. Werner and I got engaged in July and married in October.
What made you come to Australia?
Werner made me come. He had just returned from Canada and wanted to immigrate to Australia where his brother lived. I didn't even know where Australia was but Werner said, unlike in Canada he could work there as a carpenter all year round because it’s always summer and I didn’t have to shovel snow. I liked the idea of not having to shovel snow but in reality, Werner had already set his mind and I had no choice.
The Australian Consulate needed three months to issue the visa. We had to go to two different doctors for check- ups, needed a police report and had to have knowledge in English. I did a Migros course and then we went to the Consulate in Geneva for the interview. We were so confident that we would receive the visas soon that we sent five wooden trunks ahead to Australia and booked the tickets for early January. But the visas didn’t come. We were terribly worried. Finally, on 22nd December they arrived. It was the perfect Christmas present and so we left Switzerland on 2nd January 1958 by train to Rome where we spent three days. This was our honeymoon. From there we continued to Naples and took the boat to Sydney. It took four weeks but I don’t remember much of this trip because for most of the time I was terribly seasick.
How did you end up in Cromer on Sydney’s North Shore?
We were looking to buy land because in those days you couldn’t rent anything and we couldn’t get a mortgage either. We then bought this acre from a German guy who had already built a garage on it.This was our house for the next five years. The toilet was the dunny with a bucket out the back and the shower was the garden hose. These were pioneering days. Once we had enough money, Werner built an extension for a bathroom and the kitchen. A plumber lived in the neighbourhood and in exchange for a new kitchen he built us a septic tank and put in the plumbing. Every time we had saved a bit of money, Werner would buy more building material to build another part of the house.
Cromer must have looked different in those days?
Indeed. We were surrounded by market gardens, a horse stud and a dairy farm. I grew vegetables in the backyard and at one stage we even had a horse and two goats. One of them was a Swiss Sarnen goat, which I found advertised for 10 pounds in the paper; the other was an Australian bush goat. I took a course on how to look after goats. Unfortunately, these were billy goats so I couldn’t milk them but they kept the grass mown.
We even made our own salami. We had an Italian man working in the business. One day he came over to show us how it’s done. He brought his whole extended family: grandmother, mother, wife, kids... It was like being in Italy. We filled the intestine skins with a mixture of meat, spices and capsicum sauce and then smoked the sausages. Werner made us a smoking cabinet in the garage and so for about 20 years we had our own, homemade salami.
You were a hard working family. How did you cope?
We had no choice. Werner worked for a builder for about ten years and then started his own business. I used to be his labourer: I helped him on the building sites, loaded and drove the truck. I was also sewing for a Hungarian bloke in Artarmon. It was piece work: the more you sewed, the more you earned. Later he gave me a sewing machine so I could work from home. When we came back from the building sites I continued with sewing and Werner cooked dinner.
Over the years I had various jobs and also taught spinning wool and later crocheting. I like knitting too, but the Swiss way of knitting is different; we hold the needles differently so I started a little class in crocheting until someone from the Cromer Community Centre asked me to teach there and later also in Frenchs Forest and Balgowlah. But then the costs for renting the classrooms, paying insurance and advertising became too much and so for the next twelve years I continued to teach from home. I didn’t charge our students, most of them were pensioners, but they took turns in bringing a plate for tea.
We had the business for about 35 years. Werner liked carpentry and joinery work. That's why he made all the furniture around here: the kitchen cabinets, traditional Swiss chairs, the corner bench and slate table. He took the black slate from a billiard table. We had two kids and they used to do their homework on it, writing with chalk and doing their math work.
I love collecting antiques and folk art, some of which I found in junk shops; others we traded or brought back from Switzerland. I have a vast collection of old irons. I am a member of the worldwide irons club. We have members not only from Australia but also from America and Europe. One bi-annual club meeting was held here. During two days we swapped, bought and sold old irons and in the evening we went to a restaurant for dinner.
Did you ever go back to visit Switzerland?
Oh yes, we went back a few times. The first time was after 15 years. I was never homesick, but while in Switzerland I missed Australia. We bought an old Beetle and with the kids and lots of luggage in the back drove all over Switzerland and Austria. It was fun. We brought an Alphorn back from Appenzell . On the plane they didn’t know where to store it so the pilot took it into the cockpit. Those were the early days of flying.
I also like New Zealand. We had a Swiss friend there and travelled extensively four or five times on both islands. If I had the time again, I would open a pub in New Zealand and cater to the truckies. I love trucks.
The last time we went to Switzerland was in 1992. We didn't visit our friends and relatives straight away but spent the first week in Vienna and then travelled by train around Switzerland for another two weeks. It was heaven. You see, once you are with family and friends you can't go anywhere. They won’t let you go and by the time you leave you haven’t seen anything.
I regret that we didn't go back after that. Now it’s too late. We can’t travel that far any longer.
Article and images: Gabi Muff.