…who we are? I read with interest in the August edition of GRAPEVINE magazine (www.luccagrapevine.com), that expats in the Bagni di Lucca area near Lucca can now purchase their gourmet reminders of the old country through the enterprising Paolo and his Catene Café. Thinking about this caused me to reflect on a simple, yet highly complex question: What makes us who we are?
The population of this ancient island of Britannia is a distillation of many national origins – who can say they are “English” with any clear understanding of what “English” is, any more than someone in Italy can easily define themselves as “Italian”? Despite this, we all feel something inside us that makes us feel we belong somewhere. On my many trips to La Bella Italia I have always felt very much at home; even on my first trip, when my then embryonic Italian language skills were put to the test, I felt comfortable in a land of strangers. Perhaps this is because of being uno straniero myself in someone else’s backyard?
So, what triggers a feeling of “home”? Expat Australians can be moved to tears by the smell of eucalyptus leaves; South Africans munch their biltong and Brits long for a good cup of tea or even the taste of Marmite. Why do I go to an Italian family-run restaurant in the Weald of Kent, and feel so relaxed surrounded by the taste and sounds of Italy? I am not Italian. Why do I feel so proud conducting my forty-strong concert band playing God Save the Queen? Is it because I am British? On the other hand, why am I so moved by hearing Inno di Mamelli? I am not Italian, but would be quite happy to become an expat in Italy.
What is it, therefore, that takes someone out of the land of their birth, but seems unable to take the land of their birth out of them?
In Britannia, things often seem to be less than ideal. Perhaps it might be the weather – what other country makes an art out of turning the sun-starved failed tomato crop into green tomato chutney? Or perhaps it might be the perceived dithering indecision of those at the helm. One of the larger political parties is currently in search of a new leader, but the candidates’ vision for the future of the nation seems to be as uniform as the typical weather – shades of indifferent grey.
For me, the only true voice of Britannia is the great music of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Parry: music that stirs the soul and reminds us of a glorious past that was definitely better than the present – or was it? Could it be an invention of the collective imagination that this was ever the case? What drove the expats to become just that; what makes us look for greener grass on the other side of the path? What makes us seek for a remembered “better” time?
We are currently remembering the carnage of the First World War and the anniversary of the Battle of Britain in the Second War. Recently, Italians have commemorated the appalling massacre of more than 500 civilians in the Tuscan village of Sant’Anna di Stazzema in August, 1944. These were hardly better times than the present. Perhaps the important thing is to hang on to the memories and try to make the best of the here and now.
Even the potholes that littered Britannia’s over-taxed roads after the recent bad winter weather are slowly being filled in, so that now suddenly seems a little better than then.
Therein might lie the secret – sit back and enjoy your cup of expat PG Tips whilst you savour a Hobnob or sink your teeth into a slice of Marmite-smothered toast. It’s the simple things in life that really count, even in the embrace of your adopted land.
Speaking of simple things, it’s amazing how excited you can make someone just by giving them a book!
Mind you, it does make a difference when that person is the model for one of the minor characters in that book. Meet Roberta, an extremely competent operative in the tourist information office in Lucca. I met her on my first visit to the city and, with the passage of time, her persona became the inspiration for one of the characters in my “An Eccentric in Lucca” series of novels. Very recently, she was given a signed copy of the second novel in the series and burst into tears…that’s so Italian!
Tanti saluti da l’antica isola!