Shhh, don’t tell the Brexiters (they are obsessed with Eastern Europeans)but there are now over half a million Italians living in London. It’s quite a shock for me, to suddenly hear my native language on buses, tube, restaurants, shops, hospitals, in the gym, even at the Actors Centre…
Yes, “hoards” of Italians even at the Actors Centre, where – for almost two decades – every time I attended a workshop I was the only foreigner in the room.
Most young Italians who’ve moved here in the past couple of years probably can’t conceive of a London where you were only surrounded by English (or sometimes Punjabi or Hindi or Chinese or occasionally French); where the only Italian restaurants were either horrid tourist traps like Bella Italia or celebrity places like Locanda Locatelli. Where if you went to a party and by some strange reason another Italian was there the host would immediately point at you as if you were exotic animals and then assume you’d become best friends, “there, you can talk your language!” as if shared nationality was enough to make people like each other, never mind if they had zero else in common.
Now London sports zillions of pizza places, mozzarella bars, piadina joints, cioccolato venues, espresso cafes and Venetian polenta delis. Websites and associations have sprung up to help Italians find work and accomodation, learn about taxes and Oyster cards, socialise and have parties. There are Italian doctors, dentists and solicitors. My postman is from Naples, my chemist from Pisa and I have Italian neighbours living both opposite and above me.
I can’t escape my countrymen.
And they want me to be one of them.
An Italian in London.
But I can’t.
And my isn’t some sort of snobbery.
I can’t share the recent Italian immigrants’ moans about how harsh and difficult London is. How much better Italian food is. How much nicer Italian flats are. And of course, the never-dying cliché: how cold the British are… Not only I’m not interested, I feel a certain fastidiousness as I don’t think they really know London, the real London, the place that embraced me when I first arrived.
The truth is…
…I’m not one of them anymore. I’m a Londoner. Not English, not British. Just a citizen of this very special, specific, maddening, controversial, tough but beautiful place where I’ve been living for almost 20 years. And I feel I have more in common with fellow Londoners – whatever their nationality – who like me “know” this place and have seen it change over two decades for the better and the worse, than with people who hold my same passport.
Of course I’ll always be ALSO Italian, but not just. People want me to identify with Italy but after twenty years abroad I don’t. After all this time I’ve joined that very specific group of individuals who always feel slightly “other” and don’t belong anywhere. However I do belong to the community of those who have embraced this city. And who are defined by our experience here.
The peculiar thing is that most people who, like me, arrived in the UK in the mid 90s, LOVE London. We came here not because our home towns didn’t offer jobs or opportunities but because we were looking for something “else”, because somehow we didn’t fit in. We CHOSE to come, were not forced to by circumstances. We embraced London and London – a city at the time in full blossom, pre-Ukip, in love with multiculturalism – embraced us back, opening up all sorts of opportunities. We migrants from the 90s are enthusiastic about London, and would never live anywhere else. Because we came for an adventure and found a home, we arrived with no expectations, no prejudices, just to see what it was like… And we got everything.
In 1996 London looked more “English” than it does now. No al fresco dining, no cafes with exposed bricks and ten different types if espresso, no food markets. Dalston was a cesspit, Hackney was a dangerous no go area and Peckham ridden with gangs. Crouch End and Muswell Hill were almost considered countryside.
Yes England was greyer, poorer, and harsher. But the postman came twice a day, the milkman left you a glass bottle outside your door every morning, and people kept asking “where’s your accent from?” because they were far less well travelled, more provincial. The country was open and enthusiastic. The Tory years were about to end, and everyone was in love with Tony Blair, yes that devil we all hate now. Unpolluted by right wing ideologies depicting foreigners like a threat to “our way of life” and Europe as a vampire sucking resources in return for hoards of Poles, London was a place singing “Things could only get better”. People believed it and I believed it too. How exciting to be part of it!
Londoners were proud of their multi cultural city where yes, there were class ghettos but not racial ghettos. Where mix raced couples were as normal as gay presenters on tv.
In 1997 London I met Indians, Americans, French, Slovaks, Spaniards, Belgians, Swedes, Australians, you name it. They were all Londoners, no matter where they came from. The very few times I bumped into an Italian there was a strange feeling of recognition, that above mentioned assumption we had to become friends… Most times we didn’t, and, I was quite happy that way.
When I arrived in the UK, I got to know London profoundly because I befriended the British, yes that strange mysterious breed that according to Ukip is succumbing to the hoards of invading foreigners; that secluded tribe that in the perception of recent migrants is cold, reserved and impossible to get to know. And guess what, I actually liked them. Because they are people, like everyone else. They might be reserved at time, but I loved the politeness, the respect for my privacy. I never thought it was coldness. I knew it wasn’t, because the British people I met showed me over and over again their warmth, kindness and friendship.
There was my old Scottish landlord, Tucker, who basically adopted me and helped me open a bank account after only one month of knowing me giving his name as a reference. There was my acting teacher Susan, who gave me extra RP lessons at home and turned into my confident and advisor. There were the fabulous Billy, Sam and Laura, met at a singing class, who immediately involved me into their lives of late nights and gay clubs. There was Tanya, who would become the best friend I’ve ever had, who invited me to her birthday after knowing me less than 24 hours and with whom I shared years of wanderings around Central London, standing in queues outside theatres for returns, browsing in charity shops, pic-nicking in the rain… I got to know every single corner and back street in the West End, every bus route, and every single little fringe theatre. I went for auditions and met directors who gave me a chance. I also had my heart broken, I saw my bank account go red, I met horrible flatmates and dodgy landlords but I never once blamed negative experiences on London. There are bad people everywhere. Cities are cities. They’re just places we either feel home in or not.
Now please, before starting accusing me of inverted snobism, let me say this: I was very privileged when I moved here. I wasn’t aware of it back then, I was the classic neurotic, unsatisfied twenty-something feeling misunderstood and looking for something different. But I was privileged because leaving Italy was my choice. I didn’t HAVE to do it. I wanted to. I could have stayed in Milan and continue with my voice over career. I could have bought a flat there and taken two holidays a year to the Maldives. But I wanted more. I wanted to be an actress in the country that produced all the actors I admired. I wanted to be in musicals… I wanted to experience a different life, in a different culture, with different people. Therefore I was happy to turn my back to a regular source of money and a very comfortable Italian life to share flats in Archway, live on pita bread and humous, buy second hand clothes, and hang out with actors, as cliched as it sounds. Call me Boheme.
Yes the Italians living in London in the 90s were migrants by choice and proud. They felt suffocated by a country that was certainly beautiful but too conservative. We didn’t complain about the lack of decent pizza because we were freaking fed up with pizza and pasta, and more than happy to eat Pot Noodles and humous for the rest of our lives. We wanted to feel free from expectations, strict social rules and that quintessentially Italian obsession with fashion and looking, dressing and behaving like everyone else. We wanted to be in a place where artists could express themselves in little shitty venues above a pub and get people to actually come see it. A place where we could go out dressed in our pyjamas with a bird on the head and green hair and nobody would bat an eye.
London gave me exactly that freedom. And so much more. I still feel exhilarated when I walk across Charing Cross bridge on a (rare) sunny day, looking at the National Theatre on one side, The Big Ben on the other and the Shard at the back. I just adore it. I’ll always be grateful to this city, I’ll always deeply love it, despite all its downsides, despite the weather that after 20 years still drives me BONKERS. I embraced London, I embraced the Brits, the English language., I read British newspapers, watched British TV, listened to LBC radio…
And I progressively let Italy go.
Not my “people”, my family, my friends, no, of course not them. But Italy. For a while I really tried to be both, to live in both places, to keep up with both popular cultures, feeling trapped in a limbo where I there was nothing I could completely identify myself with. Then I began to realise that the idea of nation is really odd. Being “proud” for being born somewhere… As if it was something we could choose. Proud of a “culture”… as if I was somehow related to Leonardo Da Vinci, or Dante Alighieri or Manzoni. It’s ridiculous. So eventually I made my choice. I chose London. Not necessarily Britain, but certainly London, And I chose English. As the language in which to write and read and think and dream. Because nobody can live in two places at the same time. It’s impossible. You’ll never be happy in a place if instead of looking at it you keep looking somewhere else. Pretending to be living “back home” when you’ve left that home for good.
After almost 20 years I have come to the conclusion that the unhappiness of many migrants comes from their inability to choose the present. To let go. They keep reading their papers, watching their Tv programs and hanging out with people speaking their language and in doing so they choose to stay foreign. To always belong somewhere else.
Mine was a deliberate choice. Disputable, controversial, somebody might have seen it as a “betrayal” but it worked for me, for who I am. I didn’t come to London to surround myself with Italians and Italian things, or I would have stayed in Italy where the selection is actually much wider.
But things have changed. Young Italian people are now forced to leave. because there’s simply no work there. They don’t come here for an adventure, they come looking for work, for hope, like our great grand-fathers migrating to the US a hundred years ago. They arrive after years spent desperately searching for a job. They arrive because some of their friends are here, and their friend’s friends are here and have heard London is hard but there’s work…. Unlike me they arrive here after spending months on italiansoflondon, or italiansalreadyinlondon, or italiansabouttogotolondon, or some other similar website dedicated to Italians who want to move here. They are full of tips, from how to find a room to how to get a NI number, to how to contact an Italian doctor, an Italian lawyer, an Italian dentist…
They arrive, full of information, social networks “friends”, flats booked online in neighborhood explored via google earth… They arrive sure they know what they’ll find because thanks to Ryanair they have already spent countless weekends in London. They arrive convinced a great job is waiting for them because their friends found one, because they studied English at school twice a week and everyone knows it’s a language with no grammar so everyone can speak it. They arrive full of expectations and certainties and find… A city that isn’t waiting for them, because no city is. Nowhere in the world there’s a sign saying “we’re desperately looking for young Italians please move here”. Cities are cities. You adapt to them they don’t adapt to you. So young Italians find themselves in a humongous place far more complicated than they’d ever expected, that moves fast and doesn’t wait for anyone. They find a language they don’t speak well enough, and that they often struggle to understand (“I think it’s because I’m used to American”, being the main excuse. But it’s not true. They truth is we have a school that doesn’t teach English properly). And on top of all that, they find a country where all of a sudden there are politicians who have decided to blame it all on immigrants. A country where people don’t ask anymore where your accent is from, they just eye you thinking “another foreigner”.
Result, these young Italians, feeling overwhelmed, disappointed, scared, join other young Italians, end up working in Italian cafes, going to the Italian Institute (those culturally inclined) or to Bar Italia (the football lovers). They hang out together because there’s a sense of safety in numbers and after six weeks their idea of the English as a population of cold drunks impossible to be friends with is so radicated it’s hard to convince them otherwise. Since they don’t know any native Londoner, they end up in all the wrong places and eat terribly for months before realising there’s a life beyond Camden Town.
The truth is, if you create a ghetto for yourself, no matter how pleasant, educated, fun, it might be, people around you will perceive you as different and as somebody who doesn’t want to join in. And they will be shunning you because you shun them. “I don’t understand the English”, I hear people say. And I always asked “Have you really tried? You have come here to England. They haven’t come to you. You must make the first step because they don’t owe you anything.”
I have no solutions for my young compatriots. Only one piece of advice. Don’t judge a place on the basis of your own, short, personal experience. Try to look beyond. Don’t listen to stereotypes and cliches. This can still be an amazing city. It is an amazing city.