In the days before GPS and Google Maps told you where to go I went on a business trip to regional Victoria and got lost.
I’d always wanted to go on a business trip because adults with proper jobs go on business trips. So when my boss at the Victorian Arts Centre Schools Education Program asked me to visit those twelve primary and secondary schools participating in our pilot program, I went.
And I took my grandmother and mother with me because my grandmother loved an outing and my mother worried I’d be lost without her.
So there we were: three generations of imperfect mothers on a road trip.
My mother did the driving – she was the boss of us. My grandmother did the navigating – she had the sense of direction. I sat in the back like a kid trying to make out what her parents were saying in the front seat.
When she migrated to Australia, my grandmother was the first to get a driver’s license in her community. Mum says it was unheard of for an Italian woman of her generation to be getting around ‘with those long dark curls of hers, sunglasses and smoking a cigarette. Outrageous she was. Shameless.’
I have no sense of direction. Really. None. I get lost going to the bathroom.
This trip involved lots of country driving on the wide open road, plenty of animals that looked like they’d come straight from Central Casting, and insufficient signage. I used to hate the country, it made me feel lonely, so Mum and Nonna’s company seemed like a good idea at the time.
Our program at the Victorian Arts Centre placed professional artists who were at the top of their game – dancers, writers, actors, musicians and designers – into schools, where they’d work with students and teachers across all subject areas. The schools had already attended a theatre performance at the Victorian Arts Centre a few weeks earlier and so this was the second-stage follow-up part where the kids got to unpack the show’s various components with the arts practitioners themselves. Our program was the first of its kind in Victoria in the early-nineties.
Sometimes I’d need to visit three different schools in a day and once there I’d talk with teachers, students and principals about why imbedding arts education into the curriculum was not a luxury extra but essential to the creating of a well-rounded human.
And then there were the motels. We stayed in those anti-charm joints with their thin walls and little sachets of instant coffee and twin biscuits, and had to share a room. Although I occasionally slept in the car because of my grandmother’s snoring.
Every night they would brief me on the following day’s schedule with particular emphasis on directions on how to get to the schools. I went on my own the first day but got lost, so from then they came with me, and while I was working they’d go and explore the town.
At night we talked. Well they did most of the talking. Stories about the old days in working-class migrant suburbs like North Melbourne, Fitzroy and Brunswick during the forties and fifties. Who’d run off with whom. Who’d turned up at which Communist Party meeting and made a fool of themselves. ‘God, I loved those meetings at our place!’, said Mum. ‘I used to eves drop and think it all sounded so important and exciting.’ There were secrets I’d heard before and some I hadn’t. Stories against other people but mostly against themselves. Sometimes we laughed so much our sides hurt and my grandmother would have to rush to the toilet. ‘Don’t talk about me when I’m gone!’
I listened, and ate toast and honey. I was a grown woman, a teacher, an actress and now a professional on a business trip, but on those nights I just felt like a kid gorging on late night snacks.
It was a successful trip. Not that I had others to compare it with. I witnessed firsthand the impact of having artists working on site in country schools where most students had no other chance to ever meet a real, practicing artist in the course of their daily lives.
My grandmother always encouraged me to follow my passion because she thought that anything to do with the arts was romantic. Mum was just glad I finally had a proper job.