as told by her daughter Lillian Pancino Libralato
Giulia Pancino (née Babuin) was born at home in Vallenoncello, Pordenone on January 10th, 1920 and died in Toronto on January 22nd, 2013.
Giulia was already very familiar with Canada before deciding to immigrate. Decades prior to her own departure from Italy, in the early 1920’s, her father had travelled to Timmins, Ontario in search of work in the mines. Her brother Giulio, one of many who left Italy immediately after World War II, was of great help to Giulia and her family when the time came for her immigration. Sponsorship and home security, often arranged by family or friends, were both essential on arrival.
The Babuin/Pancino family was dirt poor; leaving for a new life meant doing so in the most cost-effective way possible, starting with a bumpy train ride to the port of Le Havre, France. On July 25th, 1949, alongside her husband Enrico, with their two young children in tow (Liliana, age eight, and Mario, age six) – 3rd class tickets and two suitcases for a family of four – they set sail from the port of Le Havre, France on the Cunard White Star Limited Scythia.
Even in midsummer, the North Atlantic bared its teeth. After a challenging voyage of some 10 days, their vessel landed in Quebec City. The odyssey continued by train to Union Station, Toronto. Liliana remembers a long train ride with wooden seats and strange-shaped bread.
At the station they were greeted by famiglia and filled with gratitude for the familiar faces and sponsorship. That day also brought a new and wondrous food experience: bananas. Liliana and Mario saw and ate this foreign fruit for the first time. To this day, Liliana continues the daily ritual of eating a banana.
English was a new language to learn and understand. The family was initially and naturally confused by the profusion of “Sale” signs in Toronto. Why was “sale” (“salt” in Italian) so ubiquitous, and why was it so important to announce its presence everywhere?
Giulia and her family found a flat consisting of a few rooms and a shared bathroom, settled in, and called it home. Sharing a bathroom – and sometimes bathwater – was a common experience.
Giulia found work almost immediately at Tip Top Tailors. As a trained couture seamstress in Italy, Giulia derived satisfaction from working there, sewing uniforms with many other immigrants for whom, in many cases, English became the common language. The Tip Top factory became Giulia’s language classroom. It was there that she learned to string together a few sentences in English.
Adaptation was everything in the early years of Italian immigration. Thus Liliana became Lillian. Eight years old and tall for her age, Liliana should have been in Grade Two. Instead, she was placed in the Grade One class at Dovercourt Public School. Shock, awe and a forced sense of belonging carried over for Liliana with the anglicization of her name and the symbolic removal of her earrings.
The curiosity of Liliana’s peer group about what dangled at the bottom of her ears went beyond mere inquisitiveness, They took it upon themselves to judge and correct: “English girls don’t pierce their ears.” Clearly a strong desire to belong and make friends rules the day for an eight-year old girl in 1949. Lillian never wore earrings again until her daughter’s wedding, and they were clip ons.
Like many other immigrant children, Lillian and Mario became interpreters for their parents. Nor were their parents too old to acquire new habits. Giulia learned to smoke because it was fashionable for women to do so at the time. The large front veranda of the home that she and Enrico had purchased on Delaware Avenue about a year after arriving in Toronto was to become an oasis of evening relaxation and indulgence in Giulia’s newfound pastime.
As the family gradually settled and became accustomed to their new environment, they took it upon themselves to assist other Italian immigrants. Their home became a hub for boarders (“i bordanti”, an Italian/Veneto slang derivative) and dinners. If you had just arrived from Italy and needed a place to sleep or food to eat, the Pancino home on Delaware was a prime destination. Communal dinners of eight to ten on any given day were not uncommon.
Giulia would become a cherished nonna to nine grandchildren and a bis nonna (great) to five great-grandchildren, but the value and comfort of famiglia she and her husband Enrico displayed in welcoming paesani into their home was an equally enduring legacy.