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The Alexandrians: Caruana and Curmi Family History

The Alexandrians

Caruana and Curmi Family History


Justin Cahill


Shakespir Edition
Copyright 2016 Justin Cahill


Shakespir Edition, License Notes
All rights reserved. The author asserts the moral right to be identified as

the author of this work. This ebook may not be reproduced by any means in

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All inquiries to Justin Cahill at
PO Box 108, Lindfield, 2070
New South Wales, Australia
or email to mailto:[email protected]



For Jeanne, Norbert and Roger



My first answer…to the question ‘What is history ?’ is that it is…an unending

dialogue between the present and the past.”

- Edward Carr, What is History ?, Penguin Books Ltd, Harmondsworth, 1964, p.30.



Cover: Jeanne Curmi (formerly Caruana), the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid at Giza, taken about 1951.





My father-in-law Norbert, or to give his full name, Norbert Spiro Jacomo Anthony Caruana, is from Alexandria. Jeanne Adèle Curmi, his elder sister, and he were born there during the late 1920s and early 1930s.


Before the Nationalist Revolution in 1952 Alexandria was a thriving, cosmopolitan metropolis. Communities of Greeks, Italians, French, Maltese, Armenians, Jews, Russians and others lived among the local Egyptians. Most people spoke several languages. It was a colourful, intoxicating mix of faiths and cultures, all under the nominal rule of the ill-fated King Farouk. “He was like a little boy” Jeanne recalled. “He loved trains.” “No-one liked Farouk – even the locals” Norbert declared “But you couldn’t say anything against him, or the Security Police would pounce on you !


The city and the nation were distinct. Its people describe themselves as Alexandarians, not Egyptians. They had their own ethos. “It was taboo to talk about religion or nationality” Jeanne explained. “That’s how things were. But we helped each other out. If you could help, you helped.”


The way of life, Alexandria’s habitude, was languid and vaguely corrupt. Many of the locals were poor or badly paid, so giving ‘baksheesh’ to get things done was part of how things were. “It was never done overly of course” Norbert recalled “that would give offence. If you wanted someone to do something, you would put some money in a packet of cigarettes and say ‘Look, have a cigarette.’ They’d go to take one and you’d say ‘No look, take the packet – I have another one somewhere.’ ”


There was a conspicuous gap between the colonists and local Egyptians. Manoly Lascaris, who was living in Alexandria when he and the novelist Patrick White became lovers, recalled: “ ‘The parties were incredible. Those who really were rich had immense houses…[with] vast entertaining rooms. Parties of up to a thousand: mountains of caviar and champagne…The women wore the most fabulous clothes. The women were all dressed in Paris…Jewellery. Incredible jewelley…’ Servants were cheap. Foreigners paid no income tax ‘…one felt sorry for the Egyptians…one was conscious of being a parasite…The country after all belonged to them.’


The City inspired many writers. EM Forster wrote a short history and travel guide, published in 1922. But it was Lawrence Durrell who provided the most well-known account of this lost world in his Alexandria Quartet. Once I was told that Jeanne and Norbert loved Durrell’s novels as they evoked the Alexandria they knew. I asked Norbert about this. “No!” he declared firmly “It was really a fantasy, a product of his imagination. He depicted some characters he picked up while living there. He got some things right, like the Carnival before Ash Wednesday and the big parties in town. But that was it.”




Norbert loves to cook. His range of dishes reflects his Alexandrian origins. Much of his day-to-day cuisine is Italian. Every Thursday night at the Caruana house is ‘pasta night’, which is occasionally extended to every Sunday too. Other Italian-influenced meals include veal parmigiana, chicken cacciatore, ravioli, gnocchi, cannelloni, pizza and saltimbocca. Occasionally he prepares more elaborate dishes, such as bragoli, veal with porcini mushrooms or osso bucco.


Special banquets for when the extended family visit start with Jeanne’s cheese pie or her spinach pie, which are Greek. Sometimes there is antipasto of prosciutto, mortadella, olives, dolmades, salami, artichokes and dried figs. Occasionally, there is also pastizzi, a Maltese pastry.


For entrée, there is melokhia soup, an Egyptian dish. Main meals might consist of French dishes, such as coq au vin, cassoulet, beef stew with wine, whole white fish baked on a bed of potatoes and onions or beef with béarnaise sauce. Sometimes, Norbert also makes baked macaroni, a Maltese dish, or moussaka, which is Greek. Other Middle Eastern dishes include Kofta and falafel, which Norbert insists must be made in the Egyptian way from beans (‘ful’) and not with chickpeas, which the Lebanese use. Jeanne makes kibbi, another Middle Eastern dish (and one of her husband, Roger’s, favourites). They also have a type of potato salad made with beetroot and eggs, called a Russian salad. Desserts is usually crêpe suzette or a large plate of Lebanese cakes brought by Jeanne and Roger.


When we eat, we remember. After a good meal and a few glass of wine, Norbert often sits back and reminisces about the old days in Alexandria. An eloquent raconteur with a keen eye for humorous, often scandalous, incidents Norbert has a large fund of stories. When I was on leave, we often had lunch together. Gradually I realized his stories were of a lost world – an exotic place that existed in more tolerant times, but now survives only in the memories of those who lived there. I started to write his anecdotes down on odd scraps of paper or in my notebooks. In 2008, I typed up these stories and gave copies to Norbert and Jeanne. After lunch or dinner, I sat down with Norbert to correct what I had written. Then I checked with Jeanne, also a great raconteur who, like Norbert, recounts whole conversations from decades ago as if they happened yesterday.




Naturally, people always have different views about what happened. So it was with Jeanne and Norbert. Jeanne is five years older than Norbert, although Norbert says he can remember things from the age of two. Also Norbert left Alexandria in 1951, while Jeanne stayed there until 1956. So Jeanne obviously has different memories from Norbert. Sometimes, they did not agree on what happened or who did what. As these things are not for me to judge, where they give different versions of events I have included them both. Then there is Roger, Jeanne’s husband. Now 90, he is the eldest of the three Alexandrians. He has his own stories, which I now include here too. After all, he once warned me “we’re a dying breed.”


Where I have been able to check their recollections against published works, I have done so. But this remains mostly an oral history, as were the first surviving histories by Herodotus and Thucydides. While memories are fallible, they are often a more evocative source than documents. A scent, for example, can trigger a stream of memories that evoke a sense of place. “There were men who made bread at the corner of the street we lived on, Sidi Gaber Avenue” Jeanne recalled. “I would come home from work hungry, smell the freshly made bread and get some.”


Also, people will have their own views regardless what they read in other books. Jeanne recalls bringing home her new school books to show her mother, Helen, who was part-Austrian. They included Le Petite Poucet (‘the Little Thumb’) a French fairytale, the Bible and a history of France. Helen looked through the history and saw that it claimed the French had won a certain battle. “No – Austria won that battle!” Helen exclaimed.


The people mentioned in this book came from diverse national and linguistic backgrounds. They range from France, Malta and Lebanon to Slovenia. Their languages included French, Slovenian, a northern Italian dialect and Arabic. As I only speak English, I have given their names in English, followed by any variations in other languages in parentheses. Jeanne and Roger’s eldest son, Paul, kindly read my drafts and provided his own memories. So did Norbert’s daughter, Katherine Caruana, my wife and Bob Abela, a relative of Norbert and Jeanne’s via Spiro and Adèle Caruana.




The first Caruana to arrive in Alexandria was Fidelis. Norbert says he was also known as Jacomo or Joseph, but Jeanne says he was only known as Fidelis. He was from Valletta in Malta. He was in the British Army. Jeanne recalls he may have been a corporal or sergeant and was awarded a medal, which was passed down to his grand-daughter, Jeanne (Norbert and Jeanne’s aunt). Or he may have been in the Navy. He may have owned a wine and spirit business. But nothing else is known of his past.


Fidelis married Gaitana Cordina, who was also from Valletta. They had five children. The first, Rosaria (or Rosario) and Spiridon (better known as ‘Spiro’), were born at La Valetta.


Fidelis came to Alexandria with the Army. He and Gaitana arrived in around 1860 with Spiro, who was about three months old. They had three more children there, Katherina (or Catherine), Josephine (known as ‘Peppina’) and Paul.


Fidelis was, to use Norbert’s phrase, involved in some ‘hanky panky’ and disappeared, leaving behind his wife and children. The rumor was that he ran off to France with another woman and died there or that he went to England. But no-one knows. Bob Abela recalls that his mother, Rosalie, knew what happened to Fidelis but she died before telling the whole story.


These were difficult times in Egypt. It was part of the Ottoman Empire, an unwieldy realm slowly crumbling under the strain of nationalism and pressure from her imperial rivals. Egypt was ruled, nominally at least, on behalf of the Sultan by the Khedive.


The ‘Khedivite’ began with Muhammad Ali, an Ottoman military commander who governed Egypt. In 1805 he declared independence from the Sultan and appointed himself ‘Khedive’ (viceroy) of Egypt and Sudan. The Ottomans were too weak to reconquer Egypt, so they left him in place. Muhammad’s grandson, Ismail the Magnificent, let the French and English into Egypt to build the Suez Canal. As the Canal allowed shipping to pass between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea without the need to sail around Africa, it assumed great strategic and commercial importance when it opened in 1869. It was from this time that many Europeans came to live and work in Alexandria.


Ultimately, Ismail the Magnificent sent the country bankrupt and allowed the British to purchase Egypt’s share of the Canal in 1875. Four years later, Ahmed Arabi (also known as Arabi Pasha), a nationalist general, led a revolt against the Khedive. Britain and France sent warships to protect their citizens, their commercial interests and their access through the Canal. Part of the British Mediterranean Fleet steamed to Alexandria and anchored in the Harbour.


Arabi’s soldiers reinforced the Harbour’s forts and trained their guns on the British ships. Gladstone’s Ministry sent Arabi an ultimatum to stop work on the forts, but his men pressed on. On 12 July 1882, the British ships bombarded Alexandria. A landing party of British sailors and marines came ashore to protect the Khedive’s palace. They were later relieved by regular British forces from Malta. This was the beginning of British intervention in Egypt – which continued until 1956.


Spiro was sent to the De La Salle school in Alexandria. After finishing school, he was apprenticed to a photographer. During his apprenticeship, Spiro learned how to mix the chemicals required for developing photographs. He became one of the first professional photographers in Alexandria. Jeanne says he was one of the first to take casual photographs of people walking around in the streets, instead of the usual formal portraits photographed in a studio.


Spiro’s studio was located on the Via Moschea, behind the Mixed Tribunal, the law court for the foreigners, which was separate from those used by the local Egyptians. Jeanne says Spiro may have also been a jeweler and made rings. He was a keen butterfly and stamp collector.


Spiro was well-known around Alexandria. Jeanne and Norbert were often asked “Are you related to the photographer ?” This continued even after the family left Alexandria and emigrated to Sydney in 1958. People would come up to Paul, Jeanne and Norbert’s father, and say “Ah – you’re the son of the photographer!


Norbert says there was one other photographer working in Alexandria at the same time, Monsieur Lassave, a Frenchman. Jeanne says Lassave was actually one of Spiro’s two apprentices. They had to prepare all the chemicals and develop the photos. Lassave took over Spiro’s studio when he died.


Spiro married Adèle Mazas. Adèle’s father, Jean, was from Lyon, France. Margarette, her mother, was from Dijon. Where Adèle was born is uncertain. Jeanne says she was born in Dijon. But Norbert thinks she was born in Alexandria. Adèle had a sister, Marianne, and a brother, Felix. Felix managed the Ottoman Bank, a Turkish bank at either Alexandria (according to Norbert) or Cairo (according to Jeanne).


Spiro and Adèle’s marriage was not looked on favourably by the Maltese community, to which the Caruanas belonged. Adèle was French and the Maltese, who were quite cliquey, did not like foreigners. Nor did the local Maltese particularly like each other: the long-established Alexandrian Maltese looked down on those who’d just arrived as peasants.


But this did not deter Spiro and Adèle. They were married at Alexandria on 17 February 1890.


Spiro and Adèle had four children. They were Margaret (who did not marry and died in England), Joseph (who became a Christian Brother of De La Salle), Paul (Jeanne and Norbert’s father) and Jeanne.


Jeanne became a Sister of the Daughters of Charity, the famous ‘Flying Nuns’ who created the Miraculous Medal. She was about 16 when she told her father that she wanted to be with the poor and to go to the convent. Spiro refused his consent, telling her she had to wait until she was 21. By the time she was 21, Spiro was ill and his business wasn’t doing well. But they managed to put together a trousseau for Jeanne to take to the convent at Rue du Bae in Paris. Jeanne was there for a year and then sent to a convent at Rue Clemenceau in Beirut, Lebanon.


As for Spiro’s sisters, they married into the Abela family. Josephine married John Abela. John had been married before, to Rosalina (‘Rose’) Farrugia. He and Rosalina had two sons, Joseph and Carmelo. He married Josephine after Rosalina died.


Catherine, Josephine and Spiro’s sister, married Carmelo (John and Rosalina’s son). They had three children, Alexander (‘Alex’), Rosalie and Benedict (‘Ben’). Rosalie was Bob Abela’s mother.


Spiro was commissioned to photograph ancient Egyptian sites and antiquities. Who commissioned him is unknown. He traveled through Upper Egypt on the Nile, photographing sites such as Luxor, including the sites where tourists didn’t go. He collected artifacts during the trip, mostly small objects such as scarabs and statuettes of cats.


Spiro died on 12 September 1927 aged 67. According to Norbert, some of his photographic equipment was sold to another photographer, who had a shop near his. Jeanne says this photographer was in fact Lassave, his apprentice. “When I went to have my photograph taken” Jeanne explained “he’d tell me that the equipment was my grandfather’s – and that I was beautiful !


Unfortunately, Spiro died before anything was done with his photographs of Egyptian antiquities. Paul had no interest in them. “My father” Norbert recalled “would have nothing to do with photography.” He wanted nothing to do with the prints, the artifacts or the stamps. Spiro’s prints, their large glass negatives and his stamp collection were packed up in boxes and stored in the loft above the bathroom, which the family used as a junk room.


The antiquities he’d collected were gradually lost or disposed of. “We had quite a few” Jeanne recalled “But we got rid of them after he died.” Norbert recalls playing with some of them outside and losing a few in the dust.


There was an amusing sequel to the cleaning out Spiro’s studio. As he was a photographer Spiro was allowed to keep opium, which was otherwise illegal. When he died, Adèle found some seeds in one of his cupboards. Thinking nothing of it, she threw them in the garden. Adèle soon had a fine crop of opium poppies ! The Police heard about it. They came to the house to destroy the poppies and searched it to see if there were anymore seeds left behind.


When Spiro died, Jeanne recalled, the family did not have a plot at the cemetery. So Paul leased one for 20 years. “After the 20 years, they were going to open it up. Dad was all agitated as he though he’d see his father’s bones. But there was only dust left. When he came back he said ‘I thought I’d see my father’s skeleton. But there was nothing left.’ ”




Paul, Jeanne and Norbert’s father, was born at Alexandria on 26 May 1895. He stood about five feet ten inches tall and had dark brown eyes. Paul went to St Catherine’s School, which was run by the De La Salle Brothers. He went out to work when he was 15. He worked in the cotton trading department of Crédit Lyonnais, a major French bank which had a branch at Alexandria. He started as a clerk and eventually became the head of his department.


Paul learned something of his future, Jeanne recalls, in unusual circumstances. “Dad was on the City tram to go to the hospital to see a friend. All the compartments were taken, so he sat in one with some others. Opposite him was an old Arab man. He said ‘Have you got a cigarette ?’ Dad said ‘Yes’ and took out his cigarette tin – you don’t refuse these things. Then he said ‘Have you got a light ?’ Dad said ‘Yes’ and gave him a light. Then he grabbed my father’s hand. ‘What does he want now’ Dad thought. ‘You’re a young man’ the old Arab said. ‘But you have a long time to go. You’re not going to get married now. You’ll be older when you get married. Her name will be Elena. The girl you will marry is Elena.’”


In about 1928, he met Helen (Elena) Zorn at the home of one of her aunts, Josephine, at Cleopatra Hammamatt. Helen was shorter than Paul, standing five and a half feet high. According to the formal description in her passport, she had grey eyes. But Jeanne disagrees “they were not really grey. They were ‘changing eyes’. They were eyes that would look blue when she wore a blue dress or green when she wore a green dress.”


It would be a union of contrasting personalities. Paul was placid, extremely patient. He was older than usual when he married, as he had his mother and sister to look after. Helen was tough and stubborn, a survivor.


Helen brought a new cultural dimension to the family. She was born at Prevacina (Prvačina) a village not far from Nova Gorica in Solvenia, near northern Italy, on 19 February 1908. Her father was Jacomo Zorn and her mother was Aloisa Sulic.


Jacomo (Jakob) Zorn (1872-1947) may have been German or Austrian, but no one is sure. He was the youngest of a large family. At the time he was born, Slovenia was part of the Austo-Hungarian Empire, ruled over by the Hapsburgs. The Zorns spoke a northern dialect of Italian. But Jeanne says that if anyone ever asked Helen her nationality, she would say Austrian: “They ate potatoes, not pasta.” Many of the things Helen cooked or baked, such as spinach strudel, apple strudel and coffee cake, were from that region. Jacomo had a sister who moved to Alexandria.


Jacomo married Aloisa (Alojzisa) Sulic (1876-1943). Nothing is known about Aloisa’s parents, except that her mother’s family name was Vodopivec. Aloisa had four sisters and one brother: Antonio (the eldest), Josephine (known as ‘Peppina’), Marietta, Carolina and Fanny.


All four of Aloisa’s sisters came out to Alexandria and married Italians. Josephine married Joseph Morello, who was from Calabria. Marietta married Joseph’s brother. Caroline married Joseph’s nephew. Fanny married a man of Italian and Lebanese background. Aloisa herself went to Alexandria, but only stayed a year before going back to Prevacina to marry Jacomo.


Jacomo and Aloisa lived at Pečjakavi. Apart from Helen, they had eight or nine other children. They included Stanislav (Stanko), Joseph (Giuseppe), Merko, Andrew (Andre), Helen, Mary (Maria), Franz, Stephanie and Kristina.


The Zorns grew their own grapes, which were used to make wine, and had an orchard. There is a story that one day Helen fell asleep in the orchard and a snake came down and sat on her head. One of her brothers knocked the snake off and killed it.


But the family soon had more than a few snakes to worry about. The Zorn’s home lay in disputed territory. Italy and Austria-Hungary both wanted Slovenia. Nova Gorica and Prevacina, being near the border, were sandwiched between these hostile powers. After World I broke out in 1914, the Zorns had a front row seat to the fighting. Italy invaded Austria-Hungary and Prevacina was not far from the front. The Italian offensives and reverses are graphically described by Ernest Hemingway in his famous novel, A Farewell to Arms. Helen used to tell stories of running away from soldiers.


During the War, Jacomo was called up and made a corporal in the Austro-Hungarian Army. His sons Stanislas (Stanko) and Andrew (Andre) were also called up. Stanko enlisted at the age of 19 and served on the Russian front. The Austro-Hungarian and Russian positions were close. He told how during the cease fires, the soldiers would meet in no man’s land and swap cigarettes. At Christmas time he could hear the Russians singing and both sides sang ‘Silent Night’. Whenever he reminisced about these things, he would cry and say “I might have shot the man I was smoking with yesterday !


Stanko got malaria and was sent to a hospital in Sevastopol. Then the Russian Revolution broke out and the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed after its defeat by the Italians during the battle of Vittorio Veneto. Stanko was forgotten about and reported missing. He decided to walk home to Prevacina. He got as far as Trieste, but was arrested as a vagabond as he had no papers.


Meanwhile, back in Prevacina waited for him to come home. A month passed. Everyone thought he’d died and they had a funeral mass for him. Then the Italian Police came to Jacomo with the news that his son had been found at Trieste. At first, Jacomo couldn’t believe it. “But we’ve said mass for him – he’s dead.”


The Police asked Jacomo to come to Trieste to identify him. Jacomo went to Trieste and found it was Stanko – very thin, but alive ! He finally arrived home in 1920. While he had been away, his mother had Stephanie. The first thing he said to his mother when he got back was: “Show me that baby sister they said I have, the one I haven’t seen !” Stanko suffered bouts of malaria for the rest of his life. But although weak in health, he was strong of mind. He fought with the Partisans during World War II and after the War served as regional president. He lived to be 80.


As for Helen’s other brothers and sisters, Joseph went to Argentina after World War I. By that time, Slovenia was dominated by Italians and Joseph didn’t want to stay there. Merko died before World War I. He was putting out traps for birds, but there were notices up forbidding this. A teacher found him setting the traps, grabbed him by the ears and lifted him up. It did something to his brain and he died that night. Andrew served in the Italian Army until World War II and later joined the Police. Stephanie came to Alexandria just before World War II.




In Slovenia, there were few ways for people to make a living, so many had to leave to find work. Some of the men from Prevacina, including Helen’s elder brother, Joseph, went to Argentina to earn money, but they came home broke. Joseph was the subject of another premature funeral. “They lost contact with him during the War” Norbert recalls. “They thought he was dead, so Helen and her sisters dressed in black and had masses said for him. But he was still alive.”


Many of the local women left for Alexandria to work as servants, nannies or wet nurses to support their families. Wet nurses were very well paid, better than servants. If they had a child of their own, they left it with relatives in Slovenia so they could go to Alexandria and earn money. Today these women, the Aleksandrinke, are remembered at the memorial chapel at Gradišče near Prevacina. They are also commemortaed by exhibition maintained by the Society for the Preservation of the Cultural History of the Alexandrian Women at the House in the Square in Prevacina and by a memorial plaque in the Asylum for Girls established by the school sisters of the Order of St Francis and Christ the King, a Slovenian order of nuns, in Cairo.


When Helen turned 16, Jacomo and Aloisa sat down to discuss her future. Now, to use Jeanne’s phrase, Jacomo and Aloisa, were “a little bit fanatical” about some things. When Helen was born, Slovenia had been part of Austo-Hungary. But after World War I, it became part of Italy. Jacomo was unhappy with that – he wanted to stay as far away from the Italians as possible. It goes without saying that Jacomo did not want his daughter to marry an Italian. “She was a pretty girl” Jeanne recalls “and he was scared an Italian would want to come and ask to marry her !” The local priest at Prevacina approved. “He took my mother and her father aside” Jeanne says “and said ‘I’m happy your daughter’s not married to an Italian !’”


Helen’s mother wanted her to be a hat-maker and told her daughter “You weren’t meant to be a farmer’s wife. So you will go to Egypt and learn millinery.”


As I mentioned before, Aloisa’s sisters Josephine, Marietta, Caroline, Fanny and Stephanie had already came out to Alexandria, where they had all, ironically, married Italians. Helen was sent out to join them to learn her trade and so, as Jeanne says, “she wouldn’t fall in love with any Italians !


In Alexandria, Caroline or Josephine had assumed the role of head of the family and was known as ‘the Dean’ (‘the doyenne’). Josephine was also influential, so there were two matriarchs. When Helen arrived, she stayed with Caroline or Josephine. But she was always sick, so she never got to learn millinery.


Paul Caruana was friends with Josephine’s children, including Suzie (who’d gone to school with Paul) and Jemma (who worked at the same bank as Paul). Jeanne says Jemma invited Paul to meet Helen the day she arrived from Slovenia. “Jemma told my father “Come, I have a cousin who’s just arrived from Slovenia.” So he went. Then my mother went to her aunty and said “Is that man like us, or is he an Arab ?” You see he was a bit dark and already had a bit of grey hair, as he used to stay in the sun to exercise and fish.”


As Caroline (or Josephine) was ‘the Dean’, when Paul wanted to marry Helen, he had to ask Caroline (or Josephine) and her husband for their permission. A gold signet ring of Paul’s engraved with “Elena 29 June 1928” records they got engaged then. They were married at St Catherine’s, Alexandria on 19 January 1929. Jeanne still has their wedding rings, which were plain gold bands.


Before the wedding, Helen painstakingly embroidered a large white cotton tablecloth and a set of napkins with their monogram, an intertwined ‘H’ and ‘P’. We still use them on special occasions today.




Paul and Helen had two children. The first was born in 1929 and named after her father’s much-loved sister, Jeanne. The second was born in 1934. There was some confusion when Helen and Paul named him. “But” Adèle, Paul’s mother, exclaimed “there’s no Norbert in the family!” “There could be – in Helen’s family” replied Helen’s cousins.


Jeanne recalls that when Norbert was born, he was very placid. “When Norbert was in the Scouts” Jeanne observed “he was known as the placid bear, as it took a lot to annoy him. But when you did, it was explosive.”


When he was born, Jeanne recalled, Norbert had no hair. When she would pat or rub his head, their mother would say “Don’t touch his head, his hair has to grow!” Later, he grew yellow-coloured hair. Jeanne recalls Norbert, holding up a can of shoe polish, asked their mother “can you put some of this in it to make it darker ?”


Both Jeanne and Norbert were born at home. When Paul and Helen married, they moved into a flat owned by the husband of a Muslim lady, who lived on the first floor. The lady was the principal of a Muslim girl’s school and known as Maa Lema – ‘the headmistress’. She was quite wealthy, owning a block of flats under construction nearby and had a Rolls Royce. Jeanne says she was born in this flat and that Maa Lema gave Helen a hand for Jeanne to wear to ward off the Evil Eye.


Unfortunately, the roads around the block of flats were unsealed – they were just dirt. When the winter rains fell, they became a quagmire. Men from the council would come with a horse-drawn cart carrying a pump and to drain the roads. In the meantime, Maa Lema’s new building, which was in the same district, was finished. Helen and Paul decided to move to a flat there. Maa Lema didn’t want Helen to move away and offered to reduce the rent. But Helen insisted they couldn’t stay as the road wasn’t tarred.


The Caruana’s new flat was on the third floor of an apartment building at Sidi Gaber Avenue, now known as El Horaya Avenue, after Nasser, in the suburb of Cleopatra-les-Bains (‘Cleopatra’s Baths’, named after the beach nearby). The building had seven floors, each with four apartments. Paul and Helen’s apartment was rented to them under a life-long lease. Norbert was born there. Maa Lema was very excited as it was a boy and sent Helen an eye for Norbert to wear and so ward off the Evil Eye.


The Caruana’s apartment was walking distance from the beach, about 300 metres away. They spent most of the summer there and rented a bathing cabin to get changed in. The beach is no longer there as the Egyptian Government extended the Corniche, the walkway that stretches along Alexandria’s Eastern Harbour.




From their new apartment, the Caruanas could watch the changing seasons. In August, the Nile’s flood waters turned the sea brown. “But the water was warm”, Norbert recalled, “so we swam in the brown sea anyway.” By September, the storms had passed and the ocean was flat, like a mirror. It often rained in late September, when there was a Jewish feast, Jeanne recalled. It also rained in November, the month of her birthday, and All Saints Day. The family would go to the cemetery on All Saints Day to visit the family graves, tidy them up and “pray at all the graves that you knew.”


Although the sea remained warm, by December the weather began to cool. “It was cold in Egypt during the winter” Jeanne recalled. “you had to wear an overcoat.” By Christmas, Roger declared, “it was as cold as a nun’s tit.”


Apart from the family, there were several other members of the household. The Caruanas usually had at least one servant, a local Egyptian usually referred to as ‘the boy’ or ‘the girl.’ A washerwoman, Fatima, came once each week to wash the clothes and sheets. The washing was done in a room on the roof of the building, where the clotheslines were. There was also a room up there where ‘the boy’ slept. The family also had a man to do the ironing. He or his son would do the rounds of the apartments and knock on the door to ask “have you got any ironing ?” He was anxious for work as he had three wives to support, including a Jewish lady.


Fatima worked with the ironing man to get Paul’s shirts done. Fatima would wash the shorts every Monday and give it to the ironer. “They did a good job” Jeanne recalls. “Once I had a skirt full of pleats, but they did it perfectly.”


Both Jeanne and Norbert were sent to Catholic schools. There, they were immersed in French culture and the pageantry of the Catholic Mass, a service delivered in Latin by priests cloaked in rich vestments amidst clouds of incense and ringing bells.


Jeanne was sent to Pensionnat de la Misericorde, a school run by the Sisters of Charity, which was the order of sisters her aunt Jeanne belonged to. During her time there, Jeanne learned to speak French. She then went to Sacred Heart, a girls’ school run by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, an order of Irish nuns. Jeanne learnt to speak English there.


Norbert was sent to St Gabriel’s primary school that was run by the Christian Brothers. It was close to home, so Norbert walked to school. Jeanne got the bus, although Norbert says her school was about 100 yards from St Gabriel’s.


Norbert was ambivalent about school. The beginning of the school year was marked by getting a new uniform, a black pinafore. At the start of the year, it would be nice and shiny. But there were the usual incidents. The children were allowed to go home for lunch. Norbert often had lentil soup, and would accidentally dribble some onto his pinafore. “You could tell who had lentil soup for lunch as it would be on their uniform. ‘Look – you had lentil soup for lunch !’ ” So by the end of the year it was the worse for wear.


I hated school – always did !” Norbert announced once. “Why ? They bombarded us with homework and tests. We had compositions to do on Thursday – our day off !” They even got homework on their holidays, although they were not compulsory. “A lot of them did it. I never did.” Norbert had particular trouble with Arabic and maths. He would sit with his father and try to work it out. “Three times five. What’s three times five ?” Paul would yell. “Hey! (wack) (wack) what’s three times five !?” So, unsurprisingly, returning to school after the holidays filled Norbert with dread – often trigged, as we will see, in odd ways.


St Gabriel’s required its pupils to attend Mass four times a week: on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and again on Sunday. For a while, Norbert was not required go to all the masses at St Gabriel’s. When he was about ten, he was asked to serve as an altar boy at his local church. Norbert served at one of the 7 am masses on a weekday and at the 9 am mass on Sunday. To get to the 7 am mass on time, Norbert had to leave home at about 6 am. One of the vestrymen there had a big pocket full of sweets for the altar boys. He used to give five lollies to each boy after Mass. But Norbert recalls he and the others “would hang off his arm saying ‘give us some lollies !’ So he’d give us some before mass.”


The altar boys included one of the school bullies. “He was big” Norbert recalls “he looked like a gorilla. We served Mass together. Normally I’d have nothing to do with him. He’d look after me. No-one could touch me at school. But I was not afraid of anyone. I could fight anyone, even the bullies.” He knew everything that went on at the school and told Norbert about it. This included all the gossip about who was in trouble and what the Brothers got up to.


The Mass at 9 am on Sundays was attended by the girls who attended Sacred Heart (where Jeanne went). It was celebrated by an English priest and supervised by the nuns. One of the nuns had a clicker, which was used to tell the girls when to stand, sit or genuflect. One click meant ‘stand’. Two clicks meant ‘genuflect’. Three clicks meant ‘sit’. The girls, trained like Pavlov’s dog, responded without question.


Things were not always as solemn as intended. “One day, a boy in our school brought a clicker to church” Norbert recalled. “He had the girls standing up and sitting down – they never caught him.”


But Norbert’s time as an altar boy was brief. After about a year, the priest decided he wanted English-speaking altar servers and dispensed with the St Gabriel’s boys.


After St Gabriel’s, Norbert went to St Marks. He was required to go to Mass on Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday. “On Sunday, there was a roll call and if you didn’t turn up, you got detention.”


As school started at 7:30 am, it was no surprise the children looked forward to their summer holidays. They had three months off and spent most of it at the beach. Norbert recalls his mother was busy in the kitchen, so she often wasn’t able to take them to the beach. But they usually had cousins from Cairo come and stay with them and take them there. There were also family trips. When Norbert was about seventeen, they took the bus from Alexandria to Cairo and went on from there to visit the Pyramids and Sphinx at Giza. Even though it was not far from Alexandria, they’d never been there before. Jeanne was very impressed. “When the pyramids suddenly came into view, I was breathless” , she recalled. Norbert climbed up the Great Pyramid and found an Arab at the top making coffee.


Like all children, Jeanne and Norbert were not always perfectly behaved. One day, when they came home from school, their mother asked them to set the table. “You set it !” Jeanne said to Norbert. “No – you set it” he retorted. They went back and forth like this for a while. Then their mother came over holding a slipper. “If the table isn’t set,” she warned “you’re going to get the slipper !” Jeanne and Norbert started running around the room. Helen threw the slipper at them, but missed and hit a large window, which shattered. “Wait till your Father gets home!” Helen complained.




The family followed the cycles of masses and feast days that marked the life of Christ and the saints. “You had to learn some Latin to get through the Mass” Norbert recalled “Prayers at school were in Latin – such as the Angelus – which was said every day at 11:45 am. They would ring the bell and we’d say the Angelus then. There were prayers every time we walked into the classroom, for example, after recess.”


Certain days, such as the feast day of someone’s patron saint, were often celebrated. “You always celebrated your saint’s day. St Norbert’s day was always celebrated. You had a cake or a special meal – something that you liked.” Special deserts or cakes were made on religious occasions. On Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, there would be pancakes (sometimes they had them rolled with jam). During Lent, Helen would make donuts with sultanas in them and sprinkle them with sugar and syrup.


At Easter and Christmas, the family made a bread called ‘goobanza’ by the Slovenians, a loaf-shaped treat made from rolled pastry filled with chopped nuts and raisins. We still make it today, although now at Easter – so we call it Easter Bread.


Norbert recalls that when his mother made the Easter bread, all the doors and windows were closed and everyone was ordered not to move while the dough was sitting. Once the loaves were ready, they were sent off to the bakery (there was no oven in the flat, so they took their baking and roasting to the local baker). Sometimes, they came back a bit black. Helen would go down to the bakery and make a big scene. “You’ve ruined my bread ! You’ve ruined my bread !” They also dyed hard-boiled eggs red, blue, green and yellow and hit them against each other in the traditional way (if your egg does not crack, you can make a wish, but if it cracks you can’t).


During Easter, the family went to church for all the important masses, such as prayers at the Stations of the Cross (which Norbert still sings occasionally). At mass on Easter Thursday, the parish priest commemorated the time Christ’s washing the feet of the Disciples by washing the feet of twelve people. One year, Norbert was chosen to have his feet washed. Beforehand, his mother made sure they were spotless. But there was little need for this. Norbert had a strong aversion to walking around with bare feet, as the streets were dirty So he has very smooth, pink feet soft as they rarely saw the light of day !


On Good Friday, the family would catch the tram into town and visit seven churches. It was a social occasion – you would see all the people you hadn’t seen since you went to the seven churches the year before.


At Christmas, the Caruanas put up a small Christmas tree. Some people used Mediterranean pines, but the Caruanas preferred a fake tree. Its branches had candle holders on them, which they used instead of electric lights, although they were a fire risk. In any case, the main Christmas decoration was a Nativity scene decorated with coloured lights featuring Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, the Three Wise Men, the shepherds and their sheep (they would add a small mirror to make a pond for the sheep to drink from). Much larger versions were also put up in the parish church, the Church of the Sacred Heart, and the school chapel at St Marks.


Helen would also make a sweet bread called ‘potitza’, which is like Easter bread without the filling, and chocolate and coconut biscuits. On Christmas Eve, the Caruanas went to Midnight Mass. Afterwards, they had a big dinner and went to bed at about 3-4 am. The next day they had a big lunch with turkey, courtesy of the King of the Thieves – of who more later. When he was older, about 14, Norbert went to parties on Christmas morning.


Boxing Day was the birthday of a family friend, Sylvia Coucoulas. Her parents, Leonardo and Marcella, were of Greek descent and also had a son, Richard. They lived on the ground floor of the apartment block the Caruanas lived in. Sylvia’s birthday was a standing event on Boxing Day each year. Leonardo was a printer. “They would have games” Norbert recalled “and the prizes would be things from his work, like pencils and notebooks – expensive ones. Us kids were very excited about getting the prizes as they were things we had to buy.”


The extended family got together on New Years Eve at Josephine’s house for a big party and play housie or bingo. Jeanne recalls “they had a huge house with a marble stair case. They had dances there. They had plate set and cutlery set for 24 people.”


It may have been at these parties that Norbert learned to belly-dance. Once, we were all at Morris’ Egyptian Restaurant at Dulwich Hill. When the belly-dancer arrived, Norbert joined in and seemed to know all the moves.


The festive season ended on 6 January, the feast of the Epiphany – the date the Three Wise Men visited Jesus. That day, the Christmas tree and nativity scene were put away.




In these times, many felt they had a vocation and took orders – as had Paul’s sister Jeanne and his brother Joseph. The brothers and nuns were always on the look-out for girls and boys to recruit. Norbert had joined the Scouts and the patron Saint of his troop was St John the Baptist de la Salle. But the Scout’s library didn’t have a book about their patron Saint. So Norbert was sent to ask one of the Brothers at his school. The Brother, thinking this was clearly a devout child, said “I’ll see what I can do.” “Later” Norbert recalled “he found a book and gave it to me. Then, thinking how devout I was, they tried to recruit me. I said I wasn’t interested.”


Instead, Norbert had a flair for problem solving. When he joined the Scouts, they were all taught Morse code. But Norbert, to everyone’s astonishment, could decipherer the message immediately as he already knew it.


Norbert had learned Morse code from ‘Mr Motza’, the husband of one of his mother’s cousins, Nada. ‘Mr Motza’ was the nickname of Mr Stankovich. He was from Belgrade. Originally, Mr Motza was destined for holy orders – his parents sent him to a monastery to become a priest. But, Jeanne explained, “he was very handsome, tall and nice-looking. He said to me he couldn’t have done it.”


He was a pilot during World War II, serving with the Royal Yuogoslav Air Force. Nada’s sister, Marie (Maria), also married a pilot – although he had served in the Luftwaffe.


When the Nazis invaded Yugoslavia in April 1941, Mr Motza was one of the pilots involved in the mission to rescue Petar II, the King of Yugoslavia, members of the government and the country’s gold reserves and bring them to Greece. Mr Motza then joined the RAF and later the Yugoslavian Liberation Army. He was with the Allied forces that invaded Italy. Ultimately, Yugoslavia fell to Tito’s regime. As a royalist, Mr Motza could not go home after the War. He went to Egypt and lived at Cairo, where he met Nada.


Mr and Mrs Motza used to spend a month or so at the Caruana’s place during the summer. “He saw me playing with Morse code one day and started training me” Norbert recalls. “I became very proficient and could decipher a message straight away.”


At Scouts, the Morse code message was given through a whistle, using short and long blasts. “Everyone would take down the message with dots and dashes” Norbert explains “I could decipher it straight away. I didn’t have to write it out. Because I knew the code, I could do it immediately.”


But while he is not particularly devout, some of these traditions remained with Norbert. He often makes pancakes on Shrove Thursday. And when people unexpectedly turn up for lunch or dinner, he says “Don’t worry – it will be like the loaves and the fishes !” He also takes great delight in reminding us that New Years Day is the feast of Christ’s circumcision. Much to his disappointment, the feast day of St Norbert (6 June) is occasionally forgotten.


But back then, matters of faith assumed greater prominence. Paul, Jeanne recalled, was a “very straight man”. While she was at school, the curriculum changed. “There was a list of the books we had to get. It included the Bible. I took the list home and gave it to Dad and said ‘here is the list – these are the books I have to have’. Dad said he’d get them all, except the Bible. He said ‘sorry, I’m not getting the Bible, the Pope said we couldn’t read the Bible’. He had to go and see my teacher, the nun in charge of the nunnery. She had to talk to Dad and calm him down and tell him that he could buy the Bible now and read it.”


His father’s reputation seems to have saved Norbert from trouble at least once. There was a boy at school he used to tease. “He was about three times as tall as me” Norbert recalls. The boy’s mother came to the school and complained to the teacher in the playground. The teacher summoned Norbert and said “You’ve been teasing this boy – hold out your hand ! And he strapped me in front of everyone and hit me in the stomach.”


All the boys at the school had a ‘good book’. They got a stamp in it if they had behaved well. “The teacher asked me ‘are you Paul Caruana’s son ?’ I said ‘yes’. The teacher said ‘get your book’. We had a good book that the teachers put stamps in. The teacher took my book and put a few stamps in it.” Norbert was so embarrassed he decided to mend his ways.


The intricacies of Catholic doctrine also provided much room for amusement. Norbert recalled that one day, in religion class, the parish priest told them it was a mortal sin to go to the pictures of Good Friday. “Even to see the Life of Christ ?” someone asked. “Yes – even to see the Life of Christ !” he replied.




Norbert didn’t know his grandfather Spiro Caruana, as he died about seven years before he was born. But he knew his grandmother, Adèle. In her later years, Adèle lived with the family at their unit in Cleopatra-les-Bains. Jeanne recalls she got sick, so Helen said “Bring her here – we’ll give her Jeanne’s room.”


Before that, Adèle lived in a townhouse owned by the Christian Brothers in a suburb called Bacos. Paul, Norbert’s father, had lived there before he was married. There, Adèle lived in a house that had a yard which several other houses backing onto it. There was no electricity, so Adele had kerosene lamps for lighting. She would trim the wicks every day after lunch to make sure they burnt evenly. She cooked on a kerosene-fueled primus, so she had to keep its wicks trimmed too.


One of Adèle’s neighbours was a Englishman, who was often drunk. Once, during an argument, he told her she was ‘Napoleonic’ – which may give an insight into Adèle’s personality. She was very offended and Paul had to intervene and ask the man to apologise.


Paul used to take Norbert to visit Adèle on Thursdays, his day off school. Norbert loved these visits. He could play outside in the yard, something he couldn’t do at home as he lived in a flat. He kept some toys there, including a toy car that he drove around in. Also, there was a boy about Norbert’s age who lived in one of the other houses, so they used to play together. In the backyard, there was a small pond which attracted lots of frogs. Norbert wanted to play with them, but he was told “No ! They’ll wee on your hand and you’ll get warts.”


In the morning, Adèle would take Norbert to the huge markets at Bacos. They always stopped at the Egyptian cake shop, where they sold things like baklava. But Norbert’s mother would not let them buy any of the cakes as “You don’t know if it’s clean!” So Adèle only bought the hard licorice lollies sold there. They came in various shapes, including butterflies, birds or jelly babies. Adèle would melt some in a cup of hot water and give it to Norbert as a drink. Adèle would cook Norbert a delicious lunch. It included lentil soup and boiled rice mixed with coriander seeds and cumin seeds, melted butter and parmesan cheese.


But Norbert had some indirect contact with his grandfather. When he was about ten, Norbert started smoking with Claude, a friend who lived on the fourth floor. They used to hide in the room above the bathroom. There, Norbert came across Spiro’s photographic plates, glass negatives, the ancient Egyptian artifacts and the stamp collection. Jeanne recalls that Norbert and his friend used to go up there to look at the plates and to smoke. “Sometime you could see the smoke coming out. If you asked what they were doing, they’d say ‘nothing!’


Norbert remembered being impressed by the clear, sharp images held on the glass plates showing ancient Egyptian sites and artifacts. Also of interest were some artistic nude studies of women. He looked through the stamp albums, finding many beautiful stamps from India and Ceylon.


Felix, Adèle’s brother, used to visit the Caruanas every Thursday and Saturday. Felix had retired in the early 1920s and went to live in France. He was said to have married Yvette (Yvonne), a French lady. Felix brought Yvette to Alexandria after the War, in about 1945-46, Norbert recalled. “She had a special pass to come there, as the Mediterranean had been mined during the War and they were till cleaning them up. Yvette said they had a few emergencies on the way over, where the passengers had to get out on deck with their life jackets on. She was introduced to me as ‘Tante Yvette’.”


They had no children. Felix come back to Egypt before World War II broke out as his pension wasn’t being paid. Later, they found he and Yvette were not married. “When he died and we contacted her” Norbert recalls “she said they had never been married and wanted nothing to do with his will.”


Helen’s aunt, Caroline, also used to visit. Jeanne remembers the visits, as she always used to bring them large blocks of chocolate. Jeanne’s favourites were chocolate with ginger or chestnuts. Another regular visitor was Denise, Nada and Marie Motza’s sister. Denise was a lady-in-waiting to Queen Farida, the consort of King Farouk. The Queen came to Alexandria for the summer, but then went overseas, leaving Denise at a loose end. So she would come to stay with the Caruanas for about three months. Marie, her sister, sometimes came too. “It was a full house” Norbert recalls. “We didn’t mind. They wanted to go to the beach. So did we. They wanted to go at 9am. But Mum went to the markets at 9am. We were too young to go to the beach by ourselves, so we went with them.”




The cosmopolitan nature of Alexandria ensured there were many other public holidays – apart from the Christian ones. There was, for example, the Birth of the Prophet, Yom Kippur, the end of Ramadan (Eid). Everyone got to have these days off – you didn’t have to be Muslim or Jewish.


The Caruanas had lots of Jewish neighbours. One family lived upstairs, two families on the same floor as the Caruanas and another family in the basement. It was a tight-knit community. One of the Jewish boys from this family married a girl from one of the other Jewish families in the building. They would invite the Caruanas to their parties. Norbert recalled they made cakes cooked in oil for Yom Kippur, although they were not to his taste as he preferred cakes made with butter. They treated the Caruanas as part of their extended family. After dinner, they would sit back and say “So, now we are around Jews, we can talk ! Let’s have some Jewish stories !


When one of their children turned 21, Norbert recalled, they got a small calf and fattened it up in one of the apartments on the ground floor level (this was the apartment later used as an air raid shelter during the War). The Rabbi came to kill it. Norbert watched as he cut the calf’s throat and used a straw to drain its blood. All the women came to dip their fingers in the blood and smear it one their faces. Then the Rabbi blew into the pipe, inflating the calf’s skin, which was cut off. The calf was then served at a big feast.


Later, the family moved out and the apartment was used as a brothel. There were a couple of ladies operating there at night. “They were not particularly good looking” Norbert recalled. No-one realized they were working there for quite a while. But when they did, as far as Norbert can recall, the whole building was in an uproar and they were eventually thrown out (this happened after Norbert had left).




Helen kept in contact with her family in Prevacina after she moved to Alexandria. The Caruanas visited the Zorns every year until the War broke out in 1939, preventing travel.


Jeanne recalls they had a dance (a fete) at the village every Sunday. Her grandfather’s sister loved to waltz – as did Paul. But Helen did not. Norbert recalled the Zorns had a little black dog called Pazi, who hunted hedgehogs. “Dad whispered in Pazi’s ear ‘Get me a hedgehog’ and Pazi got one. My grandmother cooked it up and it was superb.”


Jacomo Zorn grew grapes, which he pressed to make made his own red wine. He poured it into large bottles called demijans. These bottles were shaped like Chianti bottles and covered in wickerwork. They held about 20 gallons (about 100 litres). Before the War, the Zorns sent some of this wine to the Caruanas at Alexandria. When the wine was drunk, the Caruanas sent the empty demijans back to Prevacina.




This stopped when the War broke out. Once again, Helen and her family found themselves in a war zone. In Slovenia, nationalist partisans courageously fought against the Nazis. When Paul Curmi visited Slovenia, one of his mother’s cousins, Stanchi, showed him the hill where the Nazis rounded up the partisans and “shot them like rabbits.”


As Egypt was a British protectorate, it was bombed by both the Italians and Germans. The large glass double-doors were removed from the front of their building and put into storage. One of the units on the ground floor was turned into an air raid shelter. It was re-enforced with large wooden beams, all the windows were bricked up and sandbags placed out the front.


Helen recalled they were happy when the Italians bombed Alexandria as they’d just drop the bombs in the sea, probably as there were so many Italians in Alexandria. But they were scared when the German bombers came, as they’d actually bomb the city as they ‘meant business.’


The famous novelist, Ibrahim Abdel Meguid, mentions this in his No-one Sleeps in Alexandria: “…the Italian planes did not stay over the city for a long time – they dumped their bombs haphazardly and returned to base – whereas German pilots seemed to know their targets and went straight for them.”


Whenever we went down there [into the shelter]” Norbert recalled “it smelt of vomit. People were afraid. Some people vomited out of fear. Luckily, the Italians were given the task of bombing Alexandria. They being so incompetent, they didn’t do any harm. So much so that, after a while, we didn’t go down to the shelter as we knew nothing would happen. We stayed in our flat on the third floor and watched the raids out the side window. You could see the Italian planes caught in the search lights and throwing off flares. I was petrified.


We had to use the air raid shelter almost every night. Everyone had a place allocated – we had a corner allocated to us, with a couple of benches my father had made for us to sit on. We used to go down to the shelter with our rucksacks, a change of clothes, some tins of food and gas masks issued to all British subjects by the Embassy.


At first, we used to go down whenever there was an air raid. But after a while we didn’t go down. At the beginning of the War, the Italians were the ones coming in. The Desert War was raging at that time. Really, nothing was happening. Some buildings were bombed and some people killed, but not very many. We stayed in our unit on the third floor and watched it from the window. We could see search lights catching the planes and the planes dropping flares, like fireworks. I was six of seven and very scared. I used to say ‘Let’s go down! Let’s go down!” Anyhow, then we’d go down to the shelter.


The British soldiers camp was only about 300 yards away from where we were, so they were looking for them. Once, they dropped incendiary bombs about 100 meters away from our building. But the warden put them out almost immediately.


A plane came down and machine gunned all the way along as the Army camp was nearby. Some bullets hit our balcony. So it had a couple of machine gun holes in it. I was glad we were not at the window watching that day!


They hit the wall of a house nearby. It was two houses down, a villa, two stories with a garden. It got machine-gunned all along the wall.


It was luck the Italians were in charge of air raids, as they were absolutely useless. Luckily, it wasn’t the Germans. A few planes were shot down. They landed right in the city. The plane and crew were taken away and put in an enclosure. The next day, everyone would come to see them, like they were animals in the zoo. I remember looking at the Italian plane and the crew. They were cooking their dinner and waiting to see what the British would do with them.”


Jeanne recalls Australian soldiers marching past her school. “Don’t look at them” her father warned, possibly as they were on their way to the red light district nearby.


A lot of Helen’s relatives had married Italians. The men were interned by the British during the War. They included Emilio, one of Marietta’s sons, and two of Stephie’s sons (Stephania, also known as ‘Fanny’), including Albert. “They let them out once in a blue moon” Norbert recalled. “At six o’clock the military police and the police came to pick them up and take them back to the camp. Once, Emilio visited. He was one of Marietta’s sons. He went to the toilet just before six o’clock and accidentally locked himself in. Everyone was freaking out as he’d miss the curfew. But he got out in time.”


The fathers of many of Norbert’s Italian school friends were interred, leaving them with no father during the War. “I’m not sure how their wives survived. I think there were hand-outs from the Italian government. But there was no Italian embassy in Egypt, so maybe it was handed out at other embassies – so they’d go there to collect this handout.”


The possibility of being interned worried the local Maltese. Most Maltese living in Alexandria had dropped their native language for Italian. But when the War broke out, they went back to Maltese to avoid being interned.


Fruit and vegetables were in short supply. Roger recalls there were no apples, pears or potatoes available during the War, as they were all imported and most of the crops went to the Army. His father used to find several apples or pears at Christmas time. Potatoes, which were imported from Holland, were also in short supply. One day, when Roger’s parents were away, his eldest brother, Raymond, announced he was making chips. They all peeled mounds of potatoes, and had to eat them all before their parents got home.


Many families cooked on primus stoves that used kerosene, which was also rationed. You had to have ration coupons to get it.


Norbert recalls that, during the War, he needed new soccer boots. But when his father took him to the shop, all they had for sale were boots with leather studs, not metal ones. “All the others said ‘your boots haven’t got any studs!’” Norbert recalled. In any event, Norbert was knocked over by a bigger boy during a game and didn’t want to play again.


After the Battle of El Alamein in November 1942, lots of surplus army gear came was for sale in Alexandria – including goggles, which Norbert and his friends bought.




War or no war, food was a major part of family life. Buying, keeping and preparing it were different then. Every suburb had its own market, where fruit, vegetables and meat were bought fresh every day.


As the Caruanas did not have an oven in their flat, things were taken to the bakers. Most people relied on kerosene primus stove for cooking. They did not cook with olive oil, but with ghee (clarified butter) which came in 44 gallon drums. A delivery man came around to sell it. Gas gradually came in after the War. It was delivered in cylinders – there was no town supply.


For refrigeration they used ice boxes, known as ‘serpentines’. You put the ice on top of a lead pipe and water ran down a spiral-shaped pipe (the ‘serpent’) to a little tap. There were lots of ice sellers near the apartment, including one across the road. Helen or Paul simply had go to the balcony and yell out “Please – bring over some ice” and it would be delivered. “We needed a small piece in winter and a big piece in summer” Jeanne recalls. Then, the apartment janitor (or care-taker) started selling ice, so they got it from him. “We didn’t have to buy it from him” Norbert explained “But it would have been awkward if we didn’t, because he thought you had to be loyal and support him.”


Helen “was crazy about” seafood (a taste not shared by Paul or Jeanne). But as they did not have good refrigeration facilities in Alexandria, she was very careful about buying it at the markets, especially prawns and other crustaceans, and only got it from sellers she trusted. “If you wanted a crab” Norbert recalls “you watched until a fisherman pulled one out of the water and bought it from him.” Helen bought flounder each week. She knew the fish-mongers and only bought from them. Also, they’d buy direct from the fishermen. If Helen saw one pulling up a snapper or a crab, she’d rush over to them to bargain for it.


Jeanne recalled they had a Jewish butcher. Paul used to pretend to be Jewish as a joke. “He used to say to my father ‘I’ve got some nice pork’. Dad would say ‘no thanks, we’re Jewish.’ ” But he didn’t realise the butcher was too. “So we always got excellent meat from him.”


The baker would come past at about five to deliver the bread – hot, crisp loaves shaped like French baguettes. Norbert used it to make sandwiches with feta or provolone. Norbert recalls: “After World War II, it was terrible brown bread – like they used concrete in the flour – it tasted like concrete.” This was the cause of Norbert’s dislike for brown bread. The left-overs from lunch would be put out for dinner and everyone would stay out on the balcony until about nine at night.


Helen’s cousin Michael (‘Mikeale’), the son of Josephine, (‘Peppina’) owed a general store. Norbert recalls visit when the coffee was being ground and savouring the pungent aroma of freshly ground beans. The coffee was originally ground by hand, but Michael later had a motor installed. (Michael was in the same class as Roger at high school).


The coffee they made was like Turkish coffee (as opposed to espresso or café au lait), with teaspoons of sugar in it. Milk was not pasturised. So it had to be boiled three times before you could drink it. The cream would be used the following day. Sometimes the cream on top was so thick that Helen made butter out of it.


There was a local wine, made in Egypt, called janaclisse. There was a local soft drink, saad moustpha. The bottles were sealed using marbles. Children would break the bottles to get them out and use them to play marbles at school. Norbert and a mate of his also used to buy bottles of Kokineli, a cheap Greek red wine, and drink it in secret. Many other supplies were imported. Wine came from Palestine, cheese, butter, Golden Circle pineapple and Aeroplane jelly came from Australia and corned beef from England.


There were local patisseries. Norbert’s favorite was Delice. As every item had a number, it sped up ordering and so there was no queue. People would just went up to the counter and say ‘I’ll have number 5 thanks’. So you didn’t have to wait for people to make up their minds. Junk food did not feature much. Norbert recalls when coming home of Friday nights, he’d go to the Greek milk bar and get a hamburger for dinner. But this was the time before Kentucky Fried Chicken and Burger King.


Other things were available seasonally. Some vegetables, such as radicchio and melokhia were only available at certain times of the year. “Aunty Stephie” Norbert recalls “was crazy about radicchio, as they’d grown it in their front yard in Slovenia. She loved sausages – but only from Salvo, the Maltese butcher. He was bad-tempered. When you argued with him, he’d wave the cleaver at you. But they called him Salvino, as he was very short – his wife was three times his size !


There were blood oranges in October, “just as we were going back to school”, Norbert recalls mournfully. This, incidentally, also explains why Norbert hates guavas. The school year used to start on 4 October, which was guava season. As they’d have guava for desert at this time, Norbert associates them with going back to school.


One of the Caruana’s neighbour, Henry Corsi from the fourth floor, loved shooting and fishing. “He had a room full of guns and fishing rods” Norbert recalls. He went to school with Mr Corsi’s son (who later moved to Athens). Every year, Mr Corsi would bring back a haul of ducks and give them out to everyone in the building. (Mr Corsi, incidentally, also used to bind his own books so that they all looked the same. This impressed Norbert so much that Mr Corsi gave him a book-binding frame, but he never used it).


The Caruanas would end up with “a mountain of ducks” heaped up on the marble-topped kitchen table. Everyone in the building, family and neighbours, was pressed into plucking them. Water was boiled and the ducks dunked in it so they could be plucked. Once they were plucked, it was Paul’s job to gut them. After they were gutted, the house stank of fish, as the duck’s stomachs were full of seafood. “We’d have duck for weeks, cooked in lots of different ways” Norbert recalled. They included roast duck and a duck and bean dish similar to cassoulet.


Then there were the things that could be gathered for free. Some date palms grew on land owned by the Jesuits and leased out to Mr Zotos, the local ouzo-maker. When he was in the Scouts, Norbert and his friends would throw things up into the trees to knock down the fresh dates.


Norbert and Roger would go fishing together. They got the train from Sidi Gaber to the Eastern Harbour. They rarely caught anything. As they waited, Norbert would eat some of the little prawns they used as bait raw, making Roger blanch. Sometimes they would see river dolphins.


There were also quails. Each year, these tiny birds would migrate across the Mediterranean. Some passed via Alexandria, where they landed on the beach, exhausted. The Alexandrians would rush over to the beach, catch the quail and roast them. They came twice a year, so there were two quail seasons. They were fat when they arrived, but there was not much meat on them when they left. They came in huge numbers. The Bedouins, who lived in the Desert, caught them in gossamer nets they set up in the desert and brought them to Alexandria. One year, when Norbert was about eight, he ate so many quails that he made himself sick on them and couldn’t face them again for ages.


Then there was duck season, just before Easter. People, such as Mr Corsi, rented barrels on stilts in the lake – you stood on them to shoot at the ducks. People could rent them for a year and Bedouins would row you out to them. I asked Norbert if he had a dog that retrieved the ducks that’d been shot. “No” he answered. “The Bedouin did that.” The duck were cooked with vinegar, onions and bay leaves. Norbert recalled they he and Jeanne plucked the ducks. Jeanne disagrees. “No, we never plucked them. Dad did. It made Dad sick. “I don’t want to see them again’ he’d say.”


They also occasionally got wild geese and the beccafico, tiny migratory birds. ‘Beccafico’ is not the name of a particular bird, but of several kinds generally known as ‘figpeckers.’ Roger used to go out shooting birds. Once, he got about 500 beccafico. After his mother gutted them they were marinated, feathers and all, in expensive red wine and capers and cooked. “You eat the lot” Roger observed. He also caught ‘berdoni’, a green bird, and the yellow oriole. There were also wild turkeys out in the desert.


Norbert used to dive for sea urchins. Helen was crazy about them. The Alexandrian ones were very small and eaten with lemon juice. After collecting them, Norbert would be red-eyed from all the diving.


Helen did all the cooking. “I never went in the kitchen” Jeanne remarked. Helen spent most of the day preparing meals. In the morning, she went to the markets. Then she would clean and cut the vegetables. Then she had a coffee and cigarette with her neighbor, Madam Dahout. Sometimes, she’d lose patience with the more idle members of the family – “come here and chop the vegetables !


As Helen was Austrian, there were some Egyptian dishes she was not familiar with and the family mostly had polenta and spinach strudel. But Helen soon adapted to Alexandrine cuisine. “As she wasn’t from Egypt” Jeanne recalls “she hadn’t had melokhia. But she got used to it and started cooking it.” They grew melokhia so they could make the soup. Many Alexandrians also had karkadey, a red-coloured tea made from hibiscus. While Jeanne and Norbert’s family didn’t have it, as they were European, Roger’s family did.


Lunch was the main meal of the day. Certain dishes were made on the same day each week, giving life a gastronomic rhythm. Every Thursday, the Caruanas had pasta with butter for lunch. “Helen made the best cannelloni”, Bob Abela recalls. For lunch on Sunday, they had pasta with sauce, such as bolognese sauce, as an entrée, followed by a roast.


Other dishes included Mediterranean sole, brains, crumbed capsicum, spinach strudel, stuffed vegetables (such marrows, capsicums, tomatoes, zucchini or artichokes stuffed with rice, beef mince and cooked tomatoes) and soup, such as melokhia when it was in season. Helen also made pizzas with whatever was left over (and put green peas on them). While there were few Indians in Alexandria, Helen knew about curries and used to make them with prawns and meat. She often used sweet potatoes instead of European ones.


Helen used to make a variety of desserts. They included Slovenian apple strudel, Slovenian potica, pomegranate seeds mixed with sugar and red wine. On special occasions, Helen occasionally made profiteroles (‘choux’ pastry). Making them was a full days work. Helen would make all the profiteroles and the whole family would be roped into filling them with custard. She also made sambusak, a crescent-shaped cheese pastry, and crème caramel. While you need a torch to melt the top of this desert, Norbert recalls “There was no torch in my Father’s house. Why ? He had a phobia about these things.”


Paul had other dislikes. Jeanne recalls “Dad didn’t like eggplant, so we never had it.” But he had no phobia about fish eyes and prawns heads, which he relished. Norbert recalled his mother cooked a calf’s head once. “We ate the cheeks, tongue, eyes and brains. I loved brains – we had them often. Dad ate the eyes – he’d eat the fish eyes too.”


There were big meals to mark special occasions. Sometimes, there was too much food, Roger recalls. At one meal, a huge tray of crabs was brought out and everyone tucked in. But that was just the entrée. The main course was brought out – but by then, everyone was full.


To avoid the heat, most people had a siesta until about four in the afternoon. The apartment had a large balcony, where the family would spend the evening. When everyone woke up at about four, they’d have a cup of tea and some cake out on the balcony. In their spare time, Helen and Jeanne worked on embroidery. Examples of their work included a blue table with colourful flowers and a pair of kittens by Jeanne.




Lawrence Durrell’s novels give the impression that Alexandria was a dark, brooding world inhabited by shady characters pre-occupied with conspiracies and intrigue. Norbert led me to believe his father knew such a figure, whose name he could not recall. So, for the sake of convenience (and no other reason) I started to call him the ‘King of the Thieves’. He was supposedly a shadowy figure in the Alexandrian underworld who was involved in the cotton business.


Norbert often visited his father at work. They’d go out at about 10 am to have some pastries, such as Lebanese cakes, for morning tea. While there, Norbert would see the Egyptian workers pulling the cotton around on large trolleys and piling it in heaps in the bank’s storerooms. It was then loaded onto mule carts, which carried six bales. It could be dangerous work. Once, Roger and Norbert recalled, a little boy sat on the top of a pile on cotton on the back of a truck. The truck went under a bridge and he lost his head.


The King” Norbert explained “he operated in the Quarter where Dad worked. It was thought he was involved in shady business – dealing in stolen cotton. In those times, cotton was bundled up into large bales, which were delivered by horse and cart. Boys who worked for the King would run behind the carts, slash the bales, grab some of the cotton and run off with it. The carter would try to beat the boys off with his whip. But here was not much they could do.”


I’ve seen the little boys in action, stealing cotton” Norbert recalled. “Bales of cotton were carried on a cart drawn by mules … a flat cart with seven bales on it. Little boys used to go behind the cart, slash the bales and try to get as much cotton as possible into their gowns. Sometimes the driver would see them and try to hit them with his whip. But they were too far back. Eventually, the bales were dropped in front of the warehouse and each bale was weighed and marked before it went into the warehouse so they knew how much cotton was there.”


Yet the King was a fair man. To make amends, every Christmas, New Year and Easter, he would send out turkeys to the people who worked in the area. Norbert indicated that his father was involved in distributing the turkeys to those who worked in the bank. The King would send the turkeys to his underlings, who’d pass them on to Paul, who naturally protested. But, concerned about offending the King, he accepted them anyway. There were several turkeys. The ‘boy’, the Caruana’s servant, would bring them home on the tram. They’d live in the Caruana family’s bathroom (either overnight or for two or three days) before being loaded onto a horse and cart and given out to the people who were supposed to get them. “I’d go along for the ride” Norbert recalled.


The inevitable mess in the bathroom was cleaned up by the ‘boy’ or the ‘girl.’ Paul would choke one of the turkeys and all the family helped prepare it. The turkey was dunked in a bucket of hot water in the kitchen and plucked. Helen then took it to the bakers to roast.


Jeanne was very upset when she read my first version of this story. According to Jeanne, there were no shady dealings of any kind. “Dad was a very good man – a very straight man” she exclaimed “If they had come from crooks, Dad wouldn’t have had it – he wouldn’t have had any part of it. He would never have accepted turkeys that way.”


There were burglars there” she recalled “but Dad didn’t like any hanky panky.” Instead, Jeanne says the turkeys were presents from the Pasha. He owned the fields where he grew cotton supplied to the Bank. He also raised turkeys there. Naturally, he wanted to be generous towards those would looked after his produce. So at Christmas time, he sent turkeys as presents to all the managers at the Bank and Paul.


They were given out only at Christmas, not Easter, Jeanne says. The Caruanas got to keep two birds: one for Christmas and one for the New Year. If there were any turkeys left over, they were given to Helen’s cousin Michael (who had the shop).


There were also presents from the local Egyptians who worked with Paul. “When it was one of their feast days” Jeanne recalled “they’d come in a taxi – sometimes up to fourteen of them in one taxi – and bring us boxes of biscuits.”




Another character was the dentist. Norbert had problems with one of his molars. He was treated by an Armenian, who was a friend of his father. The Armenian was Alexandria’s top dentist, as he’d studied in the United States. But the Americans had treated him badly as he was a foreigner, so he came to Alexandria, where he lived with his sister.


Norbert went to the surgery every Thursday to have his molar checked. The nurse would come out and call for ‘Mr Caruana’. The dentist had a large collection of exotic, brightly colored birds in a large cage in his rooms. “I was the only one privileged to see them as I was very small” Norbert recalled. Norbert lost his carefully-nursed molar after he arrived in England. Another dentist checked it and told him it had to go, so it was pulled out.


Then there was a barber, Mr Pasquale, who was Neapolitan. He came to Paul and Helen’s place every four or five weeks to cut Paul and Norbert’s hair. Mr Pasquale was not well off and had only one other client apart from them. He had six sons to support, but they all disowned him and joined the circus. When Mr Pasquale arrived, Helen would make him a sandwich, pour him a big glass of wine. When he’d finished, he’d cut Paul and Norbert’ hair in the bathroom. Sometimes, Norbert got fed up with Mr Pasquale cutting his hair and he’d go to another barber. Mr Pasquale would be crestfallen when he saw Norbert the next time. “Who cut your hair ?” he’d wail “Come here – I have to fix it up !


There were also the Masons, who had hoped to recruit Paul. “The Masons were after him” Jeanne recalled, “but Dad didn’t want to be a Mason. He’d find pamphlets from them in his pocket. But he didn’t want to be one of them.”


Lastly, there was Patrice, the village fool. Jeanne recalls “there was a boy who behaved badly. We realized later it wasn’t his fault as the nuns brought him up and he had no-one. Rich people would make fun of him. If he wanted some money, he’d ask them for it. They’d give him some money to keep him around for a day for fun.”




Less amusing, for Jeanne and Norbert at least, were some of the remedies their parents doled out. These included regular doses of castor oil. “Before we went back to school” Jeanne recalled, “we got the oil.” Norbert remembers this too and, like the arrival of the blood oranges, it seems another disappointing reminder that he had to go back to school. But Jeanne disputes this and says their parents had stopped doling out the castor oil by the time Norbert arrived, so he wouldn’t have been given it. Norbert disagrees. Not only did they get castor oil, he recalled, but doses of milk of magnesia too – and enemas. Helen even brought the enema kit with her when they left Alexandria. What with all the things they left behind, Helen brought the enema kit all the way to Sydney.




After she left school, Jeanne went to work for two brothers who sold paint for ships and equipment to remove rust and barnacles from their hulls. But they were both old and their firm was slowly closing down. The elder brother died, then the younger one. So Jeanne found herself out of work – until the friend of a neighbour told her he needed a girl to work for him. “But” Jeanne recalled “I kept getting told ‘your boss is a crook – he robbed us.’ So I had to find an excuse to leave.”


Jeanne’s next job was working for the General Electric representative for North Africa. The representative was Lebanese, but he had an office in Alexandria. After that, Jeanne worked in as a telephone operator in the office of Mr Geahel, a Lebanese man. “He was very nice” Jeanne recalls. While working there, Jeanne learned short-hand (but never used it).




Norbert too had to decide on a career. He recalls he and his friends used to make kites using reeds for frames “But mine never flew” Norbert recalled. “Then I studied aeronautical engineering, but I didn’t pursue it as it was too hard.” After finishing school, Norbert left for Bristol to study engineering in about 1951. He sailed on the SS Oronsay (which, incidentally, featured in the 1962 movie Carry on Cruising.)


They sailed from Port Said to Tilberry, England, via Athens, Naples, Marseilles, then Gibraltar. He shared his cabin with a Dutchman who got off at Marseilles. At Naples, he went in search of pizza, expecting great things. But he was disappointed. “It was disgusting” Norbert recalls, frowning deeply.


Norbert arrived in late October – early November. “It was freezing” he recalled. He trained at the Bristol Aeroplane Company, which was famous for its engines. At this time, air travel was slow. There was intense competition between the manufacturers to develop faster jet engine-powered airliners for the international passenger market. The de Havilland Comet was the first commercial jet airliner, flying twice as fast as its predecessors. Unfortunately, three Comets crashed during the two years after its introduction in 1952.


The BAC built the Britannia in answer to the Comet and the French Caravel. It also made engines for the Avro Vulcan and the English Electric Canberra, which were jet-powered bombers used by the Royal Air Force. The BAC had its own college for aeronautical engineers and took in about 500 students each year.


Norbert was relieved to leave Alexandria at the time. The Arabs had started to hate the Europeans and it was getting dangerous. He had a fear of ‘the mob.’ “If a mob of them came across you, you were finished.” Britain was governed by an equally formidable force – Winston Churchill. Yet the eminent war-time leader was not popular among the working class. “The people in the factories I worked in had no time for him.” Norbert recalled. “They though he was a joke.”


Moving from warm, bright Alexandria to Bristol was a massive culture shock for Norbert. The surprises started while he was on the SS Oronsay to England when he was served cornflakes for breakfast. “I didn’t know what they were” Norbert recalled “I had never seen them before. I thought they were chips. I had to ask the waiter. He explained what they were and how you put milk and sugar on them.”


When he arrived, he wasn’t fluent in English. So he carried around a note book and pencil and got people to write down what they were saying to him so he could translate it. He was poor and recalls having to swallow his pride and cadge loans off his friends. Then there were Norbert’s suits, which had been made in Alexandria. He brought four of them to Bristol, including his favourite, which had the perfect fit and look. Sadly Norbert’s favourite suit was stolen, along with his cufflinks.


Norbert also found himself on the receiving end of some doubtful fashion advice from his parents. Before Norbert left, his father said “You’ll need a hat.” So they went to all the shops and eventually found him a grey hat. Norbert took it with him to Bristol. Soon after he arrived he put it on and went looking for one of his friend at the university. As he walked up the stairs to the lecture theatre, Norbert became aware that everyone was looking at him. His friend came out – hatless. “In fact” Norbert recalled “no-one was wearing a hat. Hats were not worn !” Undeterred, Norbert and his father both stuck with their hats. Paul wore his grey felt hat for the rest of his life. Norbert continued wearing one until the early 1960s.


Also, before he left, Norbert’s mother, knowing he was moving to a cold climate, knitted him a white jumper. Norbert put it on before coming out to breakfast while he was on the SS Oronsay. As he came out to the dining area, everyone looked at him – but he wasn’t sure why. Later, when he was in digs at Bristol, he wore it again. The others looked up at him in surprise and someone asked “Are we playing cricket today ?


Norbert shared digs with his friend Roland at St Michael’s Hill and came to grips with living away from home. Norbert recalls “…. the apprentice engineers were paid almost nothing ! You couldn’t say ‘come over for tea and biscuits’ as a packet of biscuits costs about quarter of your wage.” He bought a motorcycle and was invited to become a communist. One of his classmates, Paul Garland, tried to convince him to join the party. They were in drawing class together. The teacher was useless and Paul helped Norbert with his assignments. “He was a very nice guy’” Norbert recalled “but he was treated as a bit of a joke at the college because he was in the Communist Party.”


Norbert was forced to make major culinary adjustments. Post-war Britain was, as Elizabeth David (the famous cookery writer) found, a bleak place for anyone in search of good food. War-time rationing was still in place – meat rationing was not abolished until 1954. Plus, there were not many places that sold the ingredients for foreign dishes. Olive oil, for example, was only available from pharmacies, which sold it for medicinal purposes. Norbert recalled the houses in England stank of brussel sprouts, as they ate them every day.


Luckily, Bristol had an intake of Italian immigrants after World War II. “A few Italian shops sprang up” Norbert recalls “two or three of them. So there were a few Italian things available, such as peppers, eggplants and spaghetti. So we were able to cook pasta, instead of using Heinz spaghetti tins.”


In Alexandria, wine was part of daily life. But it was a scarce and expensive commodity in post-war England. There were two bottle shops in Bristol that sold French wine – and they stocked only two wines. Norbert recalls “… they sold a large bottle of Le Comp [Nacon], which was a claret, for 17/6 and half bottles of beaujolais for 12/6 – so I got Le Comp, as you got twice as much for 17/6.”


The scene was also grim for anyone wanting to go out for dinner. Norbert recalls “…there was one Italian restaurant – Marco’s. It made genuine Italian cuisine. We used to go there once in a blue moon. I knew a girl there – she would give us a big plate of pasta, until Marco found out and threatened to sack her. So we were not allowed to go there anymore.” So they had to find other stand-bys. “We got sausages, eggs and chips for three and six” Norbert recalls. But Norbert’s difficulties soon paled in comparison with events back home in Alexandria.


There were other disappointments. Unlike Alexandria, England had few public holidays. New Years Day, for example, was a normal day at work. Norbert refused to go to work New Years Day – he came in the next day and signed the sick book. “That’s not a very good way to start the year” chided the clerk.




After Norbert left, Jeanne married Roger Curmi. Roger was the son of Selim and Alice Curmi, who were from Lebanon, near Beirut. ‘Curmi’ was not the original family name – it was Carmi (also spelt ‘Karmi’). The Carmis were from a village between Tyre and Sidon, later moving to Egypt. One of Roger’s ancestors joined the forces of Arabi Pasha, the nationalist general who led the failed 1879-1882 revolution against the Khedive.


The British arrested the revolutionaries. Arabi Pasha was exiled to Sri Lanka. Roger’s ancestor was sent to Palestine. “While he was there” Roger explained “he was thinking ‘what have I done to deserve being sent away from my county ?’ So he went to the British Consulate and asked ‘what do I have to do to become a British subject ?’ They said it costs 5000 sovereigns, which was a huge amount. So he paid it to them and became a British subject. He changed the family name from ‘Carmi’ to ‘Curmi’, which is Maltese. He came back to Egypt and sued the Egyptian Government for 5000 sovereigns and won his case. He argued ‘I’m a British subject, so how can you exile me?’” Since that time, part of the family kept the old name, ‘Carmi’, while others changed it to ‘Curmi.’


Selim, Roger’s father, was born at Damanhur, a small town near Alexandria, in 1882, the year Arabi Pasha’s revolt was suppressed. Roger never met his father’s parents. Selim married Alice, his cousin. Born in about 1895, Alice was very beautiful and about 12 years younger than her husband. Alice’s father was a cotton trader in the Sudan. He and Alice’s mother had two other children, Albert and Victoria. When the cotton market crashed, their father shot himself. Albert studied medicine at the American University in Beirut. But he was “a character – he liked gambling” and left his studies.


After Selim and Alice married they moved to Heliopolis, which was in the better part of Cairo. They eventually had five sons: Robert (who died young), Raymond, Roland, Rene and Roger.


In 1919, revolution broke out again in. Nationalists, led by Saad Zaghlul, wanted to end the British occupation and overthrow Sultan Fuad I, a figurehead propped up by the British, to secure Egypt’s independence. One of Roger’s uncles was involved in the revolution. Many of the revolutionaries were arrested and exiled. Ultimately Britain granted Egypt nominal independence in 1922. But it retained control of Egypt’s defenses and continued to station its troops there.


Saad Zaghlul became the first popularly elected Prime Minster of Egypt in 1924. When the British forced him from office later that year, the nationalists rose again. The Curmis were told it would be best for them to leave as they were British subjects. They went to Lebanon, and lived at Ashrafiah, in the better part of Beirut. Roger was born there in 1926. The family returned to Egypt in 1929. Roger’s childhood memories include playing with his toy soldiers. They were made of lead, he recalled. “I used to chew them”.


They lived at 6 Vernoni Ramleh in Alexandria. “The water cart would come every afternoon so the dust wouldn’t rise, as the roads were not sealed” Roger recalled. “A man used to light the street lights each night. It was all gas-lit. He rode a bicycle and had a big pole. When it changed to electricity, there was an inspection plate at the bottom of the lamp posts. Once a dog weed on one of them and was electrocuted. People stole them [for the metal].”


The local water pipes were lead, which was very expensive. Once Roger’s brother, Roland, was having a shower. The water suddenly stopped as someone had stolen the pipe !


Selim worked for the RAF at Aboukir, where Nelson sank the French fleet in 1798. There was a large base there, where maintenance work was done. Selim was employed as a chief clerk and translator and was second in charge of his section. He remained a civilian, and did not join the military.


Roger started school there in 1932 at St Joseph’s de la Salle Brother’s school, the same one Paul Caruana, his future father-in-law, attended. Roger got what he calls an ‘accidental tattoo’ that year, when someone stabbed him with a pen in the palm of his hand. Roger then moved on to St Marks. Roger recalls he was doing experiments with electricity there one day, when his mother brought over a salver with a jug of coffee on it. Roger touched the salver with a wire and got such a shock that the coffee went everywhere.


Roger turned 18 and finished at St Marks during the War. He was conscripted into the RAF. “I was called up on my birthday” Roger recalled “I said I was studying. As I had no qualifications, they put me in as a clerk.” There were some perks to be in the armed forces. For ordinary people, cigarettes were contraband. But as Roger was in the RAF, he was allowed them. So he took home packets of Churchman and Lucky Strike for his friends and relatives.


Roger was posted to Aboukir, where the new recruits were put up in Nissan huts. He started with the 216 Group (Maintenance) and fixed damaged airplanes. He was then posted to 206 Group, which was transport for small aircraft. In 1944-1945, he was posted at El Adem, the RAF airfield near Tobrouk, in the Libyan Desert. There was a prisoner of war camp nearby. At first, it held about 5000 Italian prisoners of war. “When they got on the wine, the place went up like a Chinese rocket.” Later, they all joined the ‘Free Italy’ movement. Its next guests consisted of about 5000 Germans. After the Germans arrived, “everything was clean” Roger recalled “the rocks marking the sides of the street were painted white.”


Roger’s brothers Roland and Rene were also in the Air Force. Roland was stationed at Socatra, in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Raymond deemed to be essential services as he was a draftsman and so was exempt from the armed services. He joined the Alexandria Battalion Civil Defense Force, a part of Britain’s forces.


Roger was then transferred to the base at Tel Elkebir. Nearby was a camp, occupied by Jewish refugees hoping to get to Palestine. Conditions were grim. The occupants were housed in dug-outs covered by tents. “Unless you drank about two thirds of a bottle of beer, you couldn’t get to sleep, as there were bed bugs all over you” Roger recalled. Once, he went to Cairo to get a transfer. He was given a letter and opened it when he got back the camp to find his transfer had not been authorised as he was not English.


Roger was discharged in 1945 and awarded a medal of service. He had hoped to be discharged in England, so he could continue his education. But his discharge was arranged by his aunt, and he was instead discharged in Egypt. After the War, he taught at schools affiliated with St Marks and was then moved to St Marks itself. He taught French to students taking the Arabic Baccalaureate.


In 1954, Roger entered an essay competition run by the education authorities. In his essay, Roger argued that the only way education in Egypt could go forward was to use the American system to ‘mass produce’ education. He won a trip to Paris. But as he was a British subject, the authorities had to find a ‘real’ Egyptian to go too, so they sent a Copt along with Roger. Originally, they were to spend a month there. But as there was trouble in France’s colony, Vietnam, no shipping was allowed out of France, except for military purposes. Roger found himself stuck in France for two months, during which he went all over the country. While he recalls he wanted to come home, eight weeks in France cannot have been too much of a hardship.


Roger and Jeanne met at a gymnasium, an exercise club run by the Church. “Every time we used to finish, we’d go to see who was in the club. Roger was there with his friends,” Jeanne recalled. “He was always there. But we were in different groups.”


Roger’s friends included Roland, an Italian, who was Jeanne’s cousin (Roland was the son of Josephine’s son Michael). Roger and Roland were at St Marks together. Roger still remembers Roland’s mother used to keep snails for cooking. Soon, Jeanne was making Roger figs full of nuts. They were married at Alexandria on 8 September 1956, just before they were expelled. Helen prepared a banquet at the family apartment.




Norbert didn’t return for Jeanne and Roger’s wedding, but sent flowers via Interflora. He did not have much money and his parents were supporting him financially while he studied in Bristol. Plus he had been home to visit in 1955, his first trip back since leaving several years before.


The family was excited at his return – his father took six weeks off work to spend time with Norbert. Friends and relatives arranged lunches and dinners. But Norbert was unenthused. He was unimpressed with Alexandria and felt he couldn’t live there again. He wanted to catch up with his mates, instead of hanging around with his relatives. So he’d go to the lunches and dinners, but only stay an hour or so before leaving.


Ernesto’s son, Henry, put on a big lunch for him. But Norbert arranged to meet a friend at 2 pm. “Look, come and get me at 2 o’clock” he told him. So the friend came and whistled for Norbert. “Look, I’ve got to go” he said. Henry was angry with him, as they’d gone to a lot of trouble to arrange everything. Most of the time, Norbert would go to the beach or go out until late and just sleep the next day. He was relieved to be going. Unbeknown to Norbert, he would not see Alexandria again for over 40 years.




By the time Norbert returned to Bristol, the political situation in Egypt had deteriorated. For well over 2000 years, the native Egyptians had been ruled by a succession of foreigners, including the Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Ottoman Turks, the French and finally the British.


The British Government, anxious to retain control over the Suez Canal, turned Egypt into a protectorate of the British Empire in 1914. But nationalist revolts forced Britain to grant Egypt nominal independent in 1922. The reigning monarch, King Farouk I, was widely despised for being decadent, corrupt and under the thumb of the British Government. After World War II, the Egyptians sought to throw off the remnants of foreign domination and rule themselves. Pan-Arab nationalism gained significant momentum. On 23 June 1952, officers of the Egyptian Army seized power and forced Farouk I to abdicate.


It was a frightening time. “I still have vivid memories …” recalled the Canadian writer Victor Teboul, who grew up in Alexandria. “I still remember the tanks that were lined up in front of our summer cottage in the outskirts of Alexandria, not far from the King’s palace, in that summer morning of the year 1952. I can still remember the noise of the slowly moving tanks and the clicking sound of their wheels that had awakened me and got me out of bed.”


In 1956 the Nationalist government sparked an international crisis by seizing control of the Suez Canal, which had been held by the French and British. The crisis escalated quickly. France and Britain encouraged Israel to attack Egypt – giving them a pretext to intervene and regain control of the Canal.


The Nationalists reacted by expelling all foreigners from Egypt. The Caruanas and Curmis were all British subjects, with British passports. Along with many thousands of others of European origin, they were forced to leave Egypt even though they had been born there.


Paul and Helen left for England, as did the Curmis. They were not allowed to take anything of value with them, such as jewelry. Nor were they allowed to take any books or photographs, as the Arabs though that only spies had these things. So Norbert and Jeanne have few photos of themselves from when they were growing up.


But Jeanne was determined to keep some of her things. She managed to smuggle out her wedding albums. She also was able to take some of her silverware and her platinum wedding ring set with diamonds, as she’d soaked them in lemon juice to tarnish them so much that no-one wanted them. Once she arrived in England, Jeanne had her silverware and ring cleaned. But they remained scarred by the lemon juice. The grooves in the handles of the silverware are black from the tarnishing and her engagement ring had black flecks on it.


Sadly, Spiro’s photos and negatives were not saved. Jeanne says that her father was frightened about being found with Spiro’s photographic plates of various places in Egypt, as the Arabs might think they were spies. “Dad was scared” Jeanne recalls “as in those days we were the enemy of those in power. We were not allowed to take them and we didn’t want the natives to get them, so they were smashed.”


The week before they left Egypt, Paul broke them up and threw them away. A few days later, people came looking for the plates. They were aware of Spiros’ work, knew the plates were with Paul and had come to save them. But it was too late.


The Nationalist government also tried to get its hands on Norbert’s old school, St Marks. But about a month before the coup all church property was put under the control of the Vatican, so the government left it (but it took French and English property).


Jeanne and Roger were the first to be expelled. “It was a big schmozzle” Jeanne recalls, “we had to sign a paper saying we were leaving the country of our own will.” Fatima, the washerwoman was distraught. “What will happen to me ? All my clients are going !” she cried. The people at Mr Geahel’s office gave Jeanne and Roger £10 sterling each. This was a great help to them, as Egyptian money was worthless and £20 was a lot of money.


They had to leave by the end of 1956, giving them about three months to go. They sailed from Alexandria on 29 December 1956 on an Italian boat that took them to Venice. From there, they got a train that took them through Switzerland and France to either Calais or Cherbourg. From there, they got a boat to Dover: “I was sea sick”, Jeanne recalls.


When they arrived at Dover, personnel from the Royal Airforce were waiting to take them to a displaced persons camp at Ecceshall, outside Stafford. The camp had been used to be a barracks for police women, then the Royal Women’s Air Force and then for refugees. There were Hungarians there, who had fled after the Soviet Union brutally crushed their uprising against the communist government in 1956.


They separated us” Jeanne recalls “the men on this side, the women on the other. I looked at Roger. He said “We have to do what they say.” The women slept on one side, the men on the other. I went with the women. They said “if you need anything, come and see us.” I can’t remember how many women were there.


After three days traveling, you want a shower. So I went to have a shower and was half finished when someone knocked on the door and said “Do you speak English ?” I said “Yes” and they told me there was a Jewish lady who needed help, as she was sick.


I went to speak to her and she told me she felt like she was dying. I said “say a few prayers”. I went to look for someone, but there was no-one around. All the lights were out. I finally found someone and told them “there’s a lady, she’s very sick.” They said they’d send a nurse. I found the Jewish lady. She said “I said the prayer. Do I have to say the same prayer again ?” An ambulance came and took her away.”


It was at this point Jeanne found out her true status. They had British passports, stamped with a ‘C’. Norbert and Jeanne thought it stood for ‘Caruana’. But it stood for ‘colonial’. They only found out the significance of this when they got to England and were told they were aliens. “I’m not an alien !” Jeanne remonstrated with an official. “Yes you are”, they replied.


Norbert came to see them at the camp. Wartime petrol rationing was still in place, so he tried to hitch-hike, but was unsuccessful. So Norbert got the coach there and stayed with them for the weekend. By the time Norbert arrived, Jeanne and Roger had been given a small room with two single beds. Norbert stayed there with them.


Roger’s parents, Selim and Alice, were also expelled. At first, they went to live in Paris with their son, Raymond. Later, they moved to England.


Jeanne and Roger were at the camp until May 1957. Roger taught English while they were there. In the meantime, Paul and Helen had also been expelled. They came to England in April 1957 along with Paul’s sister, Margaret. Norbert knew they were coming and made representations to the Red Cross for them to be placed near him. They found them a place at Scone, near Bristol.


Norbert had no news of what had happened to his parents, except what he was able to find out from the Red Cross. He recalled “I went to the Red Cross to ask them to put them in a camp near Bristol. They arranged this and put them up at Stroud. Jeanne and Roger were put up at Stafford out in the bush. It took a whole day to visit them. I used to hitch-hike to go and see them. I looked for a place in Bristol where we could all live and found a house.


In the meantime, I stayed at the YMCA in Bristol. There were Hungarians living there. They kept to themselves. They had a hairdresser I went to as the Poms couldn’t cut hair very well. Then we all moved into the house.


Dad asked me if we should change our name to something easier to pronounce and spell, like ‘Cavanagh’. I said no, so we did not.”


Jeanne recalls “Norbert found a house for us in Bristol, in Alfred Parade behind the Infirmary. To get from the main road to Alfred Parade, we had to climb one hundred steps. We lived in a Tudor house – it was really a Tudor house. It was built on the hill…It was damp. When you touched the walls, they were all wet….

When you walked in, there was a corridor, then a lounge on one side, and a dining room and a kitchen on the other. Upstairs there was a bedroom and a lounge on one side and a bedroom, bathroom and toilet on the other. To get to the toilet, you had to climb down the steps on one side of the house and up the steps on the other side.”


The people who owned the house had gone to the United States and were going to stay there for two years. But they only stayed about two weeks before coming back. So they moved in with their parents, who owned the fruit shop down the road.


Norbert would visit them during the week. He’d get the train from Bristol to Scone and had to walk through fields while it was pitch black to get to where they were living. To get back, Norbert had to catch the train to Birmingham and get the sleeper coming from Glasgow that stopped at Bristol. They all managed to fit in. Norbert slept in the lounge. Jeanne and Roger and Helen and Paul slept in the bedroom upstairs. As there was no television, they’d listen to the radio. On Sunday mornings, the station broadcast listener request and comedy sketches and on Sunday nights there were plays. Radio Luxembourg broadcast quiz shows. At 7 o’clock on Wednesday evenings, the BBC broadcast The Goon Show, which they looked forward to.


Compared with Alexandria, the weather was miserable. “We were in England for nine months” Roger recalled “and had half a day of sunshine and the shorts came out !


Roger got a job with British Rail. By this time, Jeanne was pregnant. Having just been expelled from her birthplace, Jeanne was worried about finding him a permanent home. They had planned to come to Australia while they were still in Alexandria and had friends in Melbourne who offered to put them up.


Some of the extended family had already found new homes. Some had gone to Canada. But they found it too cold and were sent out to the wilderness to help with public works. So they came back to England. Domenico Abela (a relative of the Caruanas by his marriage to Rosalie Abela, Paul Caurana’s cousin via his aunt Catherine Abela) went to Australia.


Domenico was born in Alexandria. He wanted to join the Navy, but was too young. So he convinced the parish priest to issue a new baptismal certificate “otherwise I‘ll kill myself” he argued “and my blood will be on your hands.” He joined the Merchant Navy and came to Sydney on one of the troopships that picked up the Anzacs and took them to Egypt. He was also on one of the first ships to bring them to Gallipoli on that fateful morning of 25 April 1915 – it was a converted yacht. He recalled it was still dark when they arrived and he could see the flash of the guns firing along the ridge-line.


Domenico was discharged from the Merchant Navy in 1919 and worked as a lighthouse keeper in the Red Sea. He and Rosalie were married in Alexandria. Domenico then served in the British Army during World War II, being a warder in the prisoner of war camp at Ismailia. Domenico and Rosalie had four children: Ines, John, Charles (‘Charlie’) and Robert (‘Bob’).


After the War, Domenico was discharged and he and Rosalie came to Sydney in 1949. Domenico had actually been to Sydney before – he’d jumped ship at Circular Quay when he was a cabin boy as he didn’t want to go home. He was picked up by the police and put back on his ship. They decided to leave Alexandria as they could see the ‘writing on the wall’. They bought a house at Matraville, where a lot of Maltese from Egypt had already settled. They included Domenico’s brothers Salvatore and Angelo and their sister Josephine, who married Jean Baptiste Micallef.


In contrast to Canada, it was warm and too far away to come back from. One of Helen’s cousins from Slovenia, Mary Kovacic and her husband Stan, had moved to the Sydney suburb of Marrickville, where they had a delicatessen.


Jeanne and Roger applied to migrate to Australia. Jeanne recalls “When the people from Australia House came to see us to see if we wanted to come to Australia, I told them you have to hurry up because I want my baby to be born in Australia. They asked me why ? I said because the Egyptian Government told me to go back to my own country – but I was born in Egypt and I didn’t want that to happen to us again.”


About six months after moving to Bristol, Jeanne and Roger left for Melbourne. They sailed from Tilbury on the Orcades in August 1957. The British government had paid for a first class passage for them. They sailed to Gibraltar and on to Naples. “When we got to Naples” Jeanne recalls “the ship’s Purser said ‘Give us your passports.’ We all gave them to him. But they wouldn’t give them back until we got through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea and arrived in Aden.”


The voyage to Melbourne took 27 days. Jeanne found it difficult. Apart from being pregnant “I was sea sick all the time”. There was also an unfortunate incident when the ship docked at Columbo in Sri Lanka – Jeanne was searched closely, leaving her distressed. Jeanne and Roger stayed with the Barbara family in Melbourne. Roger’s brothers and sisters were worried. “They were wondering how we were able to walk in Australia, as it was on the other side of the world,” Roger recalled. “They thought we walked on our heads !


Jeanne was having check-ups at Coburg. She didn’t feel well – it was lonely with just her and Roger. The nurse noticed Jeanne praying with her rosary beads. She told Jeanne about St Gerald and gave her a relic of him, a cloth patch, which Jeanne pinned on. Paul arrived safely. They had already decided to call him Paul Marie. But Jeanne was in a dilemma. Shouldn’t she name him after St Gerald – who had clearly interceded on her behalf ? Jeanne told the nurse, who asked “Well, what are you going to do ?” They decided to call him Paul Marie Gerald Curmi.


In the meantime, Paul and Helen decided to come to Sydney. The Orcades had sailed back to England to prepare for a return trip to Australia. Paul and Helen sailed with it. While Paul and Helen were still at sea, Paul was born in Melbourne. Roger sent a telegram from Melbourne to the Orcades that said “Mum and I are well, love Paul.”


The telegram arrived when the Orcades was at Gibraltar. But there was some confusion. Helen and Paul were not the only Caruanas on board. There was another man with that name and he was waiting on a telegram. When the mail arrived, one of the crew called out ‘telegram for Mr Caruana !’ Helen said “They’re calling you – there’s a telegram for you.”


No” Paul replied “It’s not for me. It’s for the other Caruana, he’s expecting something.” Helen insisted – “Go and see what it is !” Paul went to check and reported back to Helen. “It says ‘Mum and I are well, love Paul’” he explained. “Who’s Paul – I don’t know who he is.”


It’s your grandson” exclaimed Helen, “Your daughter has had a son !” Helen used to recall the incident years later. “I’ll never forget that” she said “Your father didn’t want to get the telegram. He said ‘who is Paul ?’ I said it’s your grandson !


They arrived in Sydney on 26 December 1958 and stayed with Mary and Stan Kovacic in Marrickville. As her parents were in Sydney, Jeanne wanted to join them there. So Jeanne and Roger left Melbourne for Sydney.


Paul and Helen found a place, a three bedroom house at 2 Calool Street, Lidcombe. The house belonged to the man who owned the Caltex petrol station nearby. His father, Joe, was a sergeant based at Auburn Police Station and prominent in the local community. Jeanne and Roger moved in with them.




As for Norbert, he stayed in Bristol as he had another year of his apprenticeship at BAC to go. At first, he wanted to go to the United States. He went to the Embassy to show them his British passport, which said he was born in Alexandria. The Embassy staff said he was Egyptian. Norbert tried to explain he was a British subject. They replied “No, your Egyptian. We’re not taking any of them.” The only way to get in was by being sponsored. So Norbert applied to work for a band saw manufacturer in Milwaukee.


By the time he’d finished his course, his family had been kicked out of Egypt and were on their way to Australia. He hoped to join his family in Sydney. He also faced the prospect of military service. Even though he was born in Egypt, he was still liable to do National Service in England. “I was supposed to serve in the Army. But I did not want to, so I tried to find work overseas. My parents made friends with an Italian family, but no luck. You could not just leave, there were lots of travel restrictions. I had my name down with travel agents everywhere.


But passages were expensive and hard to find. The British Government provided prospective emigrants with subsidized fares to Australia. These emigrants were called ‘Ten Pound Poms’ as their fares cost only £10. Norbert hoped to emigrate to Australia under this scheme. He went to the British Embassy to apply, but “…they said no, I didn’t qualify because I was not born in England.”


So Norbert had to find his own passage, which was difficult. He put his name down with two travel agents, Cooks and Leek. He went to check with them regularly to see if there were any passages. “But they always said ‘no, all booked.’ ”


Then, just when Norbert finished his exams, he got a telegram from Leek. A German lady working there had found him a berth on one of the ships of the Blue Star Line, a cargo shipping company. It was leaving in one week. “It had a berth available for £144 and asking me to confirm if I wanted it. My family was already in Australia, so I took it.


Norbert sailed from Tilbury Docks on the Empire Star 3, one of the Blue Star Line’s cargo ships. There were 11 passengers on board. “There were originally supposed to be 12” Norbert recalled “but one of them, an Australian lady who got on at Cape Town, she received a telegram that said ‘I can’t do without you darling.’ So she left the ship and stayed in Cape Town.”


It was a long, but pleasant trip. Norbert didn’t have any duties and the company ate well. Norbert recalled “we would have a party every night. We would put in five shillings each and the ship’s cook would put on a big spread with lots to eat and drink.” Many passed the time playing cards. Norbert made friends with a doctor, who was providing medical services in return for his passage and taught him how to play solo and chess. The doctor really enjoyed chess and started whittling chess men out of pieces of wood. When one of the passengers came down with appendicitis, the doctor operated on him. He survived.


Then, Norbert had pains too. Suspecting appendicitis, he saw the doctor. The doctor assured him he was ready for action: “Look, I’ve stopped carving – I don’t want to get any cuts in my fingers in case I have to cut you open.”


As the Empire Star 3 went around the Cape of Good Hope instead of going through the Suez Canal, the trip took three months. There were many stop-offs on the way, including the Canary Islands, then several places in South Africa (including Cape Town and Port Elizabeth) and along the African coast to Mozambique. When they landed at a port, the Empire Star 3’s captain or the shipping company’s local agents would organise excursions ashore. They included going to see films, including Around the World in 80 Days.


The Empire Star 3 had some quirks. Fraser Darrah, who worked for the Blue Star Line, recalls: “She was blessed with the infamous Burmeister & Wain Double Acting Opposed Piston engines. These were seemingly designed, to my untrained and skeptical eye to have as many working parts as possible, all of massive proportions, for the least mechanical advantage. They required engineers who had been specially trained as weight-lifters, while working in the confines of the crankcase. In latter days, her engines became more and more cranky, such that the personnel department threatened engineers with the Empire Star, when they complained of their present berth.”


Norbert recalled they were delayed with engine trouble. The ship’s con rod broke in half. “So” Norbert recalls “they quickly had to fabricate another one. It took about four days. I was amazed they could do it in the middle of the ocean. So we were struck for three or four days. We weren’t drifting around, as the engine could isolate a piston so it could run with the other pistons (there were about five of them).”


High seas greeted the passengers as they sailed into the Great Australian Bight. They sailed to Melbourne and then Sydney, docking at Glebe Island in September 1959 after a voyage of about three months. Norbert’s parents were there to meet him. All the dinner parties on the Empire Star 3 had left him almost broke. He left England with £25, and arrived with £1.


Norbert moved into the house with his parents, Jeanne and Roger at Calool St, Lidcombe. He had his appendix out shortly after arriving. The operation was a success, but Norbert shivering violently. The night nurse piled blankets on him. A doctor diagnosed malaria and gave him some quinine.


They were not the only Alexandrians in exile in western Sydney. When the Caruanas lived in Alexandria, the James family lived across the road. Mrs James was friends with Helen. They were very kind people and took in children whose parents had died (as had those of one of their nephews). When the Caruanas moved to Lidcombe, they found that the James family was living nearby at Berala.




That, for now, is the story of our Alexandrians, the people who belonged to that exotic mix of West and East that once thrived by the sea in Egypt.


Today the old Alexandria is a lost world, surviving only in the memories of her exiles. But it has left a faint afterglow. The apartment building the Caruanas lived in at Cleopatra-les-Bains is still there – in 2004 Norbert revisited it for the first time since he left in the 1950s.


The James family did not come empty-handed. Mrs James had a large fig tree in her yard at Alexandria and took a cutting from it with her when they left. She planted it in their back yard at Berala. Years later, Mrs James gave Norbert a cutting, which he planted in the backyard at Bromborough Road. It is still there, and bears fruit each year.


Thursday night is still pasta night. Norbert, Jeanne and Roger delight in singing French nursery rhymes to the children, complete with hand actions, including ‘La petite marionettes’ and ‘Frappe frappe la petite main’. Roger also sings a song about a farting donkey, ‘À cheval sur mon bidet’. The past is never very far away.






Norbert was named ‘Spiro’ and ‘Jacomo’ after his grandfathers, Spiro Caruana and Jacomo Zorn. He was named ‘Anthony’ as his mother, Helen Caruana, was devoted to St Anthony. Helen went to church every Tuesday, which is St Anthony’s Day. Jeanne was named after her paternal aunt, Jeanne Caruana, who was a Sister of the Poor and Adèle Caruana, her maternal grandmother.


Norbert says there were also lots of Russians in Alexandria. They came after the Revolution. “My math and physics teachers were Russians. They used to shout at us


Norbert and Jeanne spoke French to each other and a northern Italian dialect to their mother, Helen. They could also speak some Arabic.


Forster’s book was Alexandria: A History and a Guide. The quote from Manoly Lascaris is from David Marr’s Patrick White: A Life, Random House Australia Pty Ltd, Milsons Point, 1992, p.218.




Norbert says that, at first, Fidelis was married to Gaitana’s sister. But then he ran off with Gaitana.


Jeanne says Rosario and Spiro were born in La Valetta. Norbert says that Katerina (Catherine) was born there too.


The full address of Spiro Caruana’s studio given on his prints was ‘Via Moschea Attarin (Dietro II Tribunala Misto).’ Norbert says it translates as ‘Moschea Road in the district (‘attarin’) behind the Mixed Tribunal.’


Marianne married an Italian. They had a son, but he died aged about 20, possibly for typhoid. The Mazas family, Jeanne says, were not happy with her for marrying an Italian.


Jeanne recalls the Maltese community in Alexandria did not consider Paul, her father, as one of them as his mother was French and he spoke French and not Maltese.


Joseph, Paul’s brother, is the subject of one of Jeanne’s ‘ghost stories’. Jeanne recalls her father visited the college Joseph taught at. He was walking around and saw a classroom lit up. There was someone inside, who turned and gave Paul a smile. Paul told the other Brothers this, but they said there could be no-one in there. Later, Paul was told it was Joseph’s classroom.


Jeanne recalls that Joseph visited Alexandria during the holidays and died of typhoid when he went back to Cairo.


Jeanne remained at the convent in Lebanon for the rest of her life. She was in charge of the chapel and had to clean it and do the flowers. She later became the Superior there. Jeanne recalls she spoke to herself in Italian when she was angry. She died during the War. Paul wanted to see her when she turned 80, but the superior refused her permission to travel.


St Catherine’s was the de La Salle school in Alexandria until St Marks opened in 1928 (St Marks was being built while Paul was at St Catherine’s).




Jeanne says Paul worked at the ‘Minet lel Bassal’, which translates into ‘the land of cotton’. It’s where the bales of cotton were stored. Paul Curmi says Paul got a medal for his long service to the Bank. Both he and Helen got a pension from France for the rest of their lives (whether it was from the Bank or not is uncertain).


These were good marriages, Jeanne recalls. They didn’t have to struggle, except for Marietta, who had about 15 children. They all died one by one of things such as typhus, until she was left with only one. Josephine had 4 daughters and one son.


Fanny married a womanizer, who gambled. Their house was near the race track. One day Jeanne was chatting with Fanny, when she looked out towards the track and said “You see all that beautiful green – all that belongs to me.” “How ? “ asked Jeanne. “Because” Fanny replied of all the money my husband puts on the horses !


Ernesta Sulic, Helen’s cousin (the daughter of Antonio, Aloisa’s brother), also came from Prevacina to Alexandria. Ernesta married Giuseppina Kerpan. They had 8 children: Aloys, Franz, Anton, Ivan, Maria, Kati, Ernesta and Sofia.


Jeanne recalls that Aloisa’s brother, who married Marietta, was also called up. Marietta was expecting just as he left for the War. “He was so worried that it went to his head. He lost his marbles when he came back from the War, poor man.” Their children included Ernesta.


Norbert and Jeanne disagree on who was ‘the Dean’. Norbert says it was Caroline. Jeanne says it was Josephine. Caroline died before Norbert was born, so he only knew Josephine. Norbert recalls “Josephine was like a grandmother to me”. He says Caroline was the ‘Dean’ and when she died, her sister Josephine became ‘Dean’. They also disagree on who Helen lived with when she arrived. Jeanne says she lived with Josephine.


Norbert recalls “When my father was proposing to my mother, he had to front up to Caroline and her husband to ask for her hand. They imposed some conditions …”.


Helen also made a type of goobanza without the nuts and raisons at Easter and Christmastime. At Easter, she put coloured eggs in it (ie) set coloured eggs into the sweet bread. Helen also made salted caraway biscuits. They were like grissini, but with caraway seeds on them. Sometimes she made them with sesame seeds.


When Josephine died, her son, Michael, the shop-owner, took it over and the extended family continued to gather there at Christmas and New Years Eve.




Jeanne says Nada was a “very tall and beautiful lady” and the daughter of one of Helen’s cousins. But the precise relationship is uncertain. It seems her mother was Jacomo Zorn’s sister. Norbert recalls one of Jacomo Zorn’s sisters was also living in Alexandria.


Norbert recalls Nada had two sisters, Mary and Denise. Mr Motza’s friend, Jack, married Nada’s sister, Mary. Mr Motza and Jack were both in the Air Force and fought with the partisans in Yugoslavia during the War. Mr Motza was shot down a couple of times. Once he spent 24 hours in the Red Sea before being rescued. The Red Sea is full of sharks. The pilots carried pouches of green liquid with them. When the pilots fell into the Sea, this liquid leaked out and was supposed to keep the sharks away. Jeanne recalls he was shot down in the Pacific and broke his nose. Some fishermen rescued him.


Norbert recalls his toys included “…, a rocking horse, an elephant with wheels, a tricycle and the car.”


Norbert says it was Claude, who lived on the fourth floor, “the floor above us.” Jeanne says it was Robert.


Jeanne and Norbert disagree on Adele’s age. Norbert says she lived to about 70, but Jeanne says she was actually 92.


Of all the potential areas of disagreement between Jeanne and Norbert, the details of Felix’s will provoked the most controversy. Felix had a very good pension from the Bank. But it wasn’t reaching him in France, so he came back to Egypt to see what had happened. He was stuck in Egypt for the duration of the World War II.


Yvonne was his wife, although Norbert says they were not married, Jeanne says they were. Felix died at Alexandria in about 1955. Norbert says that his father, Paul, got a lawyer to check out his estate in France. The solicitor reported back that there was about £600 Egyptian pounds. But it was getting difficult for Europeans in Egypt and Egyptian pounds were worth nothing, so they didn’t bother with it.


Norbert says that when Felix died, his father wrote to her. But she wrote back saying they were never married and that she wanted nothing to do with his estate. “There was 690 Egyptian pounds left. She wrote back saying I don’t want to know, I want nothing to do with it, they were not married” Norbert says.


But Jeanne says no, Yvonne got all the money, and that she and Felix were divorced by the time he died as she’d had a child with another man. Norbert insists on his version, as he had to write the letter looking for Felix’s money. “I remember distinctly. We were in Bristol. She wrote back to say they were never married.


Jeanne counters that they were married in the Consulate, that Norbert was not in Alexandria when he died, that she had to pay for Felix’s funeral and nobody else was there. Norbert was adamant that his father called to see Felix at his hotel, a pension opposite the French Consulate and that he died on Christmas Eve, a month before everyone was expelled, and that Paul arranged his funeral and was the only one there (although Norbert offered to come). They got a letter from Yvette, who said they’d never been married and she wanted noting to do with his estate. Norbert recalls this was a shock to his father. “He was livid. They were never married. She’d taken us all for a ride.”




Helen’s sambusak recipe was similar to Claudia Rodin’s in her A New Book of Middle Eastern Food, pp.132-134. Helen used to make ones with fetta cheese and mint filling. Both Helen and Rosalie Abela believed Rodin’s recipes were the most authentic. Bob Abela also recommends Tess Mallos’ The Complete Middle East Cookbook.


On eating figpeckers, see Liz Alderman, ‘Chefs Fight for Songbird (Swallowed Whole): The Ortolan: A Tiny Bird as a Frech Cause Cèlébre,’ The New York Times, 13 Oct 2014.




When I was sick” Norbert recalls “they [his parents] used to give me orange juice with olive oil to mask the taste of the oil.”




Roger was one of five children. Robert, the eldest, had infantile paralysis (polio) and died. Raymond married Yvonne. They had six children. They were expelled from Egypt with everyone else in 1956, leaving about a month before Jeanne and Roger. They went to Paris, where they faced some delays from the Paris Hosing Commission in finding them somewhere to live. When and his whole family camped on the street, the Housing Commission swung into action and found them a flat in Chatillon, outside of Paris. Raymond worked for Mather & Platt in the fire protection industry, where he wrote a computer program for fire sprinklers.


Roland married one of Helen Caruana’s second cousins, Suzie Gargour, a pianist, whose mother was Helen’s cousin. Suzie worked for a bank and became secretary to the general manager. Roland and Suzie were expelled in 1956 and went to Khartom, in the Sudan, where the bank Suzie worked for had a branch. Both Suzie and Roland worked for it there. Then they were then expelled from the Sudan, so moved to Paris, then London. They had one son.


Rene married Yvonne. They migrated to Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, where Rene worked for Air Rhodesia. They had a daughter. After the Smith regime declared independence, they were expelled and settled at Buggerin in Queensland.


Alice, their mother, died aged about 90 in about 1985 in England.




At least one other item was spirited out of Alexandria. During the War, there was no wool for knitting available in Alexandria. One day, someone told Helen that there was a ship in town carrying Australian wool. Helen bought some and used it to knit a dress for Jeanne. When Jeanne outgrew the dress Helen unpicked it, washed the wool and made Jeanne a jumper out of it. When Jeanne tired of the jumper, Helen unpicked it and made Jeanne a shawl. This shawl, made from Australian wool, eventually made its way to Sydney with Jeanne.


Margaret, Paul’s sister, decided to stay in England, as she was happy there. Jeanne recalls she did lots of embroidery and used to send toys to Jeanne’s children. She was in love with someone, but there was a lack of money, so it didn’t work out.




The Alexandrians: Caruana and Curmi Family History

  • Author: Justin Cahill
  • Published: 2016-05-02 02:05:09
  • Words: 23333
The Alexandrians: Caruana and Curmi Family History The Alexandrians: Caruana and Curmi Family History