Our grannies - the Alexandrian women

Aleksandrinka The massive female emigration from the Goriška region to Egypt in the second half of the 19th century started due to the fact that during the construction of the Suez Canal, and still more so after its opening in the year 1869, the number of European entrepreneurs in Egypt, who settled above all in the cities of Alexandria and Cairo, increased. The country and middle-class girls from our area started to work for these rich European families as cooks, maids, nannies, wet nurses or governesses, dressmakers, etc..

Single women performed these jobs as their life profession. Most of the time they came home merely on visit and only once they retired they came back home for good. But in a much more difficult position were the married women and mothers who left their not more than a few months old baby at home and went to Egypt as well-paid wet nurses. Also the special expression »Aleksandrinke«, i.e. the Alexandrian Women*, in use in the Goriška area for these women, proves this massive phenomenon. They were named after the city of Alexandria, the city where the majority of the Slovenian women and girls got their job.

The reasons for this, mostly temporary, labour migration were predominantly of an economic nature. The earnings which the women sent home either by post or at times through relatives and friends, who went home on a visit or for good, was earmarked for the family to be able to survive, later it was intended for the children's education, the construction of a house or of a farm building. Usually the women got back home only once the necessary money was earned.

The last women from the Goriška region still serving in Egypt, returned home with »blisters on their soul" by the end of the 60ies and at the beginning of the 70ies of the 20th century, however, the phenomenon started to decrease already soon after the Second World War.

* The expression »Aleksandrinke« is a specific term which was invented by the local people of the Goriška region for the girls and women who worked in Egypt at the time of the most intense expansion of the phenomenon and doesn't mean the inhabitants of Alexandria.

At home »lešandrinke«, in Egypt »les Goriciens, les Slaves, les Slovenes«

The Alexandrian women in the park Across the Mediterranean Sea the Slovenian girls and women went off to find a job in order to save their heavily indebted farms or to earn their dowry. The first among these girls were without any doubt in the service of a family in Gorizia or Trieste, and were invited to join the family and to move to the then already flourishing Egypt. Thus the doors opened to the mass emigration of girls and women from villages of the Goriška region.

The severe economic position of the Slovenian farmers in the second half of the 19th century, caused by the industrialisation, the old-fashioned farming and the high taxes, was the reason for such a mass emigration. The poverty and misery in the Slovene Littoral by the end of World War I increased even more due to the consequences of the war and the rise of fascism to power. The men couldn't find work, the women, however, had no difficulty at all finding a job in Egypt. They worked as nannies, wet nurses, chaperones, cooks, chamber maids or maidservants and were very much sought after in Egypt as they were known to be very hard-working. In Egypt they were called »Les Goriciens, les Slaves, les Slovenes«. Those who were already working there found a job for their sisters, cousins, friends, female neighbours and co-villagers. The jobs were very well paid – at least four times better than in Trieste or Gorizia. But after every departure the family ties and relations became more and more lax and the final return home more and more difficult. Some of the women went to Egypt only once, the majority of them however, returned back there again and again. And there were even not so few of them who worked and lived all their lives far away from their homeland. After the change of power in the 50ies of the 20th century the families, where our women were employed, started to move out of Egypt and took the »Aleksandrinke« with them.

The circumstances of the wet nurses were the most difficult ones because due to the nature of their work they had to leave their own new born baby at home in order to breast-feed another's child. The destiny of these women and their children were the saddest of all. Nevertheless, there were also some happy stories. Some of the girls found their love in Egypt and married well. Now their children are scattered all over the world – in Canada, the USA, in France and Switzerland, and even in Australia.

Encounters in the park and on Sunday afternoons

The Yugoslav Association in Alexandria Already by the end of the 19th century the Slav Association »Sloga«, meaning harmony in English, was founded. Later this association renamed itself into the Slovene Association »Slovene Palm by the Nile River / Nilska palma ob Nilu«. Within the Association the Asylum for unemployed girls named after the then Austro-Hungarian Emperor »Azil Franja Josipa« was active and in 1908 the School Sisters of St. Francis of Christ the King started to take care of the Slovenian girls – at first only in Alexandria and later also in Cairo. The School Sisters directed also a Slovenian school, a kindergarten and a library. A similar association existed also in Cairo – in 1908 the Society of Saint Cyril and Method was founded.

Those girls and women who worked as nannies had the opportunity to meet more often as they took their protégés every day for a walk in the park. In addition to this they met on Sunday afternoons when they had a day off. On those occasions they sang traditional Slovenian songs, they read books, they attended Sunday mass in the Slovenian language and they participated in a Slovene amateur theatre, they also exchanged news from home and comforted each other. If possible they also helped each other. It felt like home seeing so many familiar faces and hearing one's mother tongue.