Profile: Katherine Galea and Sarah Micallef on their Maltese heritage.
Walking into JR's Hair Design is at first like any other visit to a salon. Meticulously-displayed hair products of every kind line the shelves and the walls reverberate with chatter and laughter. A local named Penny visits every morning with her dog, just to say hello, and is always greeted by staff and clientele alike with the same enthusiasm. It's a happy place. At the centre of the madness is a small figure with her own exemplary hair: proprietor Katherine Galea.
Katherine Galea and her employee Sarah Micallef are just two of many Maltese Australians living and working in the Hawkesbury district. In the last reliable census figures we had on the Maltese community (2011), we saw that 490 Hawkesbury residents speak Maltese at home. In total, there are 2593 people of Maltese descent living here. These figures tell us that while older persons continue to speak Maltese, their children and grandchildren will become bilingual as they make the necessary adjustments to learning at school and naturally integrating into the community. While the language spoken at home may now be English, Maltese culture is still very much alive, as language is of course only one component of this multifaceted and fascinating culture.
Katherine's father migrated to Australia at around 18 years old, seeking "a better life". Katherine says there was not a lot of opportunity in Malta at that time. He began work in the Hawkesbury and lived in Londonderry for a short time before visiting Malta and marrying Katherine's mother, who was 21 at the time. Together they returned, buying land on the Driftway and beginning a family. They have two sons and one daughter, Katherine. It wasn't long before all four brothers moved from Malta to begin life in Australia. Two sisters remained behind in Malta.
Referring back to how all three of your uncles followed your father to Australia; is that something that's been done a lot with Maltese immigrants?
"Not really. The four brothers came and the two sisters stayed, but I think in one sense, once one family member is here, it makes it easier for the others."
How did they all make a start?
"I'll be honest, I don't really know about the others, but in my own family, a lot of hard work came into it. Eventually my dad had the acreage and became a market gardener. And for us kids, obviously that wasn't the best fun in the world, spending our weekends picking vegies for the markets and the buyers and whatever else! It was hard work. We couldn't really have holidays because we always had crops to feed. In the mornings we had to water. We had to do all those things in the morning before we could consider doing any family activities."
Do you think you were "raised Maltese" or "raised Australian", or a little bit of both?
A bit of both. We all went to Malta when I was about 4, and we came back speaking a little bit of Maltese. I think it's the reason why I've always been able to understand it. Mum's still got quite a strong accent.
Do you think older Maltese try to hold onto culture a lot or do you think they feel pressure to blend in?
Mum and Dad speak Maltese to each other at home, but if they were to come into the salon - Mum helps out a lot - they would speak English, because there are people around who speak English. I think at home they feel they can just be.... European. But when they're out they speak English. It's mostly just so they can be understood.
As a part Chinese kid in school I always got along really well with my Maltese friends because I identified with their work ethics and families. I felt we had that in common...
You'll find that most of the Maltese here have an acreage and they've raised their kids on farms. They grow up knowing what hard work is. They're not afraid of hard work... do you know what I mean? We were never handed anything on a silver platter. We got everything we needed; we never ever went without. But we didn't just get things like the kids do these days. It makes you appreciate things, when you see how hard you've worked. It's satisfying to see something good come out of it because you know how damn hard you've worked for it.
There's a large Maltese presence here in the Hawkesbury and you've been around for a long time. However, would you call yourselves a "community"?
I wouldn't necessarily say that we're glued to each other. I guess there are people who stick together and are old traditionals, and the rest of us have Maltese friends but we also have white friends and Asian friends or whatever as well. I guess I would say that the Macedonian community are more tight-knit than we are.
How did you get your start, then?
I originally did my apprenticeship here at JR's. I'd been working here since I was 15. I completed my apprenticeship and then I bought the business. I've now been here for 15 years.
That's pretty good, considering how many hair salon chains have popped up in recent years...
I do have some pretty amazing regular customers. We've been very lucky. I have a lot of memories of still cutting hair at 7pm on a Saturday night, when all my friends are heading out on the town... and there I was still at work... but there you go... I was a 19 year old business owner. But that's just it, you know? Many of my clients have been here all along, and watched me grow. The Hawkesbury has seen me grow up, get engaged, get married, have two kids... they've seen it all!
So, what of the future?
At this point, I'll still do what I'm doing!
Do you still love it?
Oh yeah. It's such a people job, and I LOVE people. You can't really do this job if you don't love people. It's been pretty hard doing both parenting and running the salon part time, but that's what I'm doing for now, and I'd love to have one more child. *little smile*
Looking forward, how do you feel about the way you pass on culture to your own children?
I definitely want them to still learn the language. Luke’s mum is a Maltese language teacher so between her and Mum’s accent it’s pretty strong influence. Mason already sings some songs in Maltese, and we also eat Maltese food.
What *IS* Maltese food?
Honestly it’s a lot like Italian! We have a lot of pasta, and we love our red sauces.
Red? Does that mean tomato?
Yes and we use a lot of olive oil. Actually, a really popular Maltese dish is rabbit.
Is that cooked slowly? Normally it’s stewed. Oh everyone loves it, but I can’t eat it.
Is that because it was once a cute fluffy little wabbit? Yes, I had pet rabbits as a kid.
Mum does it with bay leaves and nutmeg, but my MIL does it with a real salsa-like tomato base. Hey Sarah, do you like rabbit?
Sarah: I LOVE rabbit!
KG: How does your mum do it?
Sarah: She makes it into a stew, so it's got salsa, and potatoes and vegies. It's like a beef stew but with rabbit, with red sauce, and peas, and carrots, and there's spaghetti too. The meat is very tender and falls off the bone when it's cooked properly. The longer it cooks, the better. Mum will have it on the stove for about two hours.
RC: I have to eat this, now.
KG: Whenever we make something, there's always bread to dip into it. We have to have the right kind of European bread with the firm crust on it.
SM: My grandfather had to have a fresh loaf of good bread every day, because back in Malta, that's just how it's done. They have a bread van that drives around and delivers fresh bread to your house. It's so fresh when you get it that it's still hot in the middle when you cut it open. But they go through that really fast so they have to go back.
KG: It's still steaming inside! It's the BEST! I remember seeing a blue van, and you'd hear his specific horn and everyone would get their coins out and run to get some bread.
RC: This sounds like the most beautiful existence I've ever heard of.
SM: Oh my god, and always, when you come back from Malta, you're ten times bigger.
KG: We always have that, and we have Kinnie. It's a Maltese drink. You can go to Con's (Richmond Fruit Market) and you can find it in their fridge there. You can also find Maltese traditional biscuits there, in the deli section.
RC: You mentioned earlier that you're from two different places...
SM: So in Malta you have different villages on each island, and each village has a nickname. You can ask anyone if they know a family and they could tell you where to find them because of the way the nicknames work. The houses are made of limestone and they're in a row in the same building. In fact, there's a cafe in Schofields called Limestone cafe, and they serve the rabbit and other Maltese dishes if you wanted to try any of it.
KG: So to explain Maltese people.... we're pretty family orientated. We are all about family and we have a short fuse.
RC: But is that a stereotype?
KG: I think we have a low tolerance for B.S. because we all work so damn hard and we're tired! (laughs) But yes, we are majorly family orientated.
RC: And when you think about it, if your dad wasn't all about creating that "better life" for his future family, would he have even ventured across the seas to Australia at all?
KG: Well yeah and Mum was one of 11, so for her to just up and go at such a young age from Malta was a pretty big deal. Five of the siblings moved here and there are six over there still. I think because of that she's even moreso the way she is with us... so massive on keeping us all together. We grew up here without grandparents and that was just the way it is; if we wanted to see them we had to go all the way back to Malta and otherwise we'd just get on the phone to them.
RC: So I've gathered from our conversation that two values that Maltese people seem to have in common are hard work and determination.
KG: I think if you ask the majority of the Maltese community in the Hawkesbury, you'll find that most of them have their own house by the time they're 21. I didn't buy a house... I bought a business and did it all upside down.
RC: But that decision set you up so that you could buy a house anyway...
KG: That's exactly right!
RC: So, well done, you!
Well done, indeed.
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