Losing, to Gain Again…

by Nnenda Chinda, ITALY

I remember the day I arrived in Italy. I remember it very clearly. It was a very hot afternoon in Rome. It was the 1st of October 2005. Actually, although my parents had discussed sending me to school initially to live with a family friend until they decide to join me from Nigeria, it was never really a concrete plan. Just talk. Italy was an interesting choice for us – I always heard of people moving to the U.K. or the States, but never other countries in the continent. You never heard of someone moving to Spain or, say, Greece. Perhaps, and surely, there must have been, but I’d just never met anyone with that experience.

Back in the 70s, my stepdad moved to Italy thanks to a job advert in electronics advertised in the papers in his hometown of Peterborough. He took the opportunity and moved to Rome. It is easy to fall in love with Italy (and just as easy to fall out of love with it!) – He fell in love with the dolce vita lifestyle. Rome in the 70s, he used to tell me, was the place to be. It was a lot more carefree, and there was so much one could get away with! He, my stepdad, had became really close to an Italian family-they were Romans and they gave him the best experience of life in Italy, and from the way he always talked to me about them I could tell Italy really was his home. We followed suit, as many Romans do when they buy country houses in neighbouring towns to escape the summer heat and, and bought a house in small village just an hour north of Rome. Since the age 11 we would visit every holiday, and at every opportunity we had. Italy became our second home, but little did I know that a year down the line it would be the place I’d call my home – at least a physical home ‐ for the next 6 years.

Italy for me was like a time warp. Visiting during my summer holidays, everything seemed and felt so different to life in the hustle and bustle that is Lagos. Our village, Vetralla, gave one the impression of being stuck in the Middle Ages. It was, indeed, positively medieval and unlike anything I’d seen throughout my life in Lagos. I think this is why I loved Italy. Living in a small provincial area, it was not long before my family became a subject of spectacle, and bewilderment, for many – it is hardly surprising as the only black family, rather, a black woman (my mother) with a white man (my step-father) and two children of different colour spectrums. Hard not to catch any attention! Nevertheless, the locals took to us and we took to them, at least for the most part.

During the flight to Italy, my stepdad insisted I start learning how to decline basic verbs like ‘I am’, ‘I go’, ‘I stay’, ‘I come’ and so on… It was tough going, very tough, as I had to cram so much vocabulary, bearing in mind that I would have to start school in no less than a week and in a completely different language, and communicate on a daily basis in that language, too. I had never realised how much language would become my window to the world. And the quicker I learnt to speak and understand it, the better equipped I would be in order to survive in my new world. For a very long time, I was mute.

I had mixed feelings during the fight to Fiumicino Airport, in Rome. Of course, I was excited to start on a new venture, but it then suddenly hit me that I would be living in a part of the world I really knew nothing about. You see, visiting a place is one thing; you’re there for 3 weeks? A month? You never do really grasp the day-to-day realities or nuances of being thrust full-time into an unfamiliar surrounding. You suddenly quickly become a threat. Besides, there was a sense in which I would have to grow up really fast, and I felt that from then on I would have to become responsible for myself. I had to learn the language in order to communicate and be in that part of the world. That was my responsibility, and this no one could do for me. When you grow up as a suburban child in an affluent area of Lagos, like I did, it can very easy to take many things, people, food, familiarity, comfort, for granted. I had to lose all this, in order to gain it again. As one might imagine, I very quickly started living on the inside. It was infuriating at best. I HAD BEEN UPROOTED and was at a loss.

11 years down the line, I still think of that skinny little girl who left Nigeria for Italy, having bought into the promise of a better and more exciting life abroad, in Europe… I think of the hours sat down crying, trying to cope with unfamiliarity, prejudice, school work-load etc. I think of the excitement I felt when my parents finally decided it was time to move to the UK to provide my sister and I with even better educational opportunities, and again, I bought into the myth that England would provide me with unrivalled opportunities:  a more multi-cultural environment, posh boarding schools, elite universities, job opportunities and so on.

Nevertheless, I think of the resilience and hard work I put into my studies whilst in Italy, which, undoubtedly, helped me secure a place at Cambridge University. I think of the good food (I took it for granted a lot, until I came to the UK), the lovely weather, and the kind people, who made a truly remarkable experience. I think of the sacrifices my parents made, and continue to make, to give me the best. And I think that despite, and because of, the challenges, I can be who I am today, and really, there is only one place I’d rather be – Italy.