It’s a grey, chilly afternoon and I’m listening to Jordi Savall’s CD Orient-Occident. I love it. It makes me quiver all over, it makes me tingle. It makes my blood and every cell in my body want to dance.
“You sing your English Christmas carols as though it’s Middle Eastern music,” my mother would comment when she overheard me intoning “Gabriel’s Message”, or “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”, or any of the other carols I’d memorised through my obsessive listening to a tape of carols from King’s.
“The words and tune may be European,” she’d add, “but your voice modulates like that of a Middle Eastern woman.” Then she’d half-smile to herself. “Perhaps it’s true that blood is thicker than water.”
In response, I’d fall silent, leave the room, or change the subject. I was twenty or so, had just moved to England, and not only felt more at home there than anywhere else up to then, but was devoting myself full-time to my aspiration to pass for a born-and-bred Englishwoman. And not British, but English. After all, my father had been English, or so I thought at the time. So I lived and breathed everything that, to the would-be English zealot that I was, represented my idea of England: the never-ending horizon of the Cambridge Fens, the pastoral music of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Frederick Delius, the silver toned countertenors of King’s College Choir, dinner at 6 p.m., scones with clotted cream, the poems of Rupert Brooke and George Herbert, Elizabethan madrigals, and the tune of “Greensleeves” played on a lute. Oh, and drizzle. I admit there were “English” characteristics that did bother me, some of which made me positively cringe, notably what I now do not hesitate to call stinginess (“Would you like a biscuit?” and “Is that all right, my dear, or is that too much?” when dolloping a tiny mound of food onto your plate). Also, I hated sarcasm. Like a paper cut, slashing deep into your flesh, drawing blood, without your even noticing how it had come about. I still detest sarcasm, although I’ve become pretty skilled at it myself. When in Rome…
Other than that, I worshipped anything “English”. I left Italy in a tailored jacket, elegant pencil skirt and baby-soft merino wool blouse. I returned from England in a grey duffel coat and a thick Aran jumper I pretended wasn’t scratchy. My mother was horrified by my look, and my grandmother spent the evening complaining that my jumper smelt of sheep.
Yes, I felt at home in England. So at home. As at home here as I felt hopelessly alien to my Middle Eastern mother and grandmother, as well as in my native Italy.
I disliked the tactile manner of Italians, who were always hugging you, planting moist kisses on your cheeks and placing their hands on your arm or shoulder when making a point. I found it invasive, as I did the intent look into my eyes. I hated physical contact and felt much safer with English reserve, world-famously wide personal space, and discreet sideways glance. I didn’t like Italian bluntness and admired the English skill of subtle hinting. I found the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean insistence that a guest accept the umpteenth helping of food irritating. Everything around me seemed just too much in my face, too much smelling of Earth – too physical. So I fled to slightly ethereal England: cerebral, elusive, concentrated in the head rather than the body.
Last 20th September marked thirty-one years since I first came to England. Over time, I have discovered more details about the roots from which I’ve sprung, and the identity I so yearned eagerly to shake off.
My father, it turns out, wasn’t as “English” as all that, but more Welsh-Cornish. My grandfather, on my mother’s side, appears to have been more Azerbaijani-Turkmenistani. My maternal grandmother remains, as always, Armenian.
As I’m growing older, my once more Western features are becoming pronouncedly more Middle Eastern. I’m frequently taken aback when, glimpsing myself in the mirror, I see a marked resemblance to my grandmother.
A kind of shift seems to be occurring inside me, as well.
My heart does a little leap of joy when I come across Italians. I feel my body relax and become grounded when I speak Italian, as though the energy crammed inside my skull gently trickles down through my body, warming, like a caress, reaching all the way down to my feet, adding weight to them, making me feel balanced. The Roman songs I used to shrink away from now bring a smile to my face, and the languid semitones of an Armenian tune give me a sense of home, even though it is a land I have never laid eyes on.
Over the past few years, food has acquired new importance for me. I no longer eat merely for sustenance but for the sheer pleasure of it (and my weight bears witness to that). I’ve developed a love for cooking for other people, for good food as a substance for bringing people together, for binding friendships, for sharing humanity that transcends nationality, religion and education. The substance that brings the ever so comforting certainty of all of us belonging to the Earth and not just the Skies.
I find myself believing in the pleasure of eyes that look straight into mine, of the warmth of a friendly human touch, of people who are fully in their bodies. I find myself venting feelings of frustration in Italian. My personality, which for over a quarter of the century had been safely cooped up inside my head, is now venturing into the rest of my body. I’m discovering that taste, smell and touch can convey as many delights as hearing, seeing and sensing.
Most significantly, perhaps, I have gone from a young woman always hiding away from the sun because she found its brightness aggressive, to a middle-aged woman who rushes outdoors to bask in the sun, soaking in its warmth, no sooner does she glimpse its golden rays on the surrounding rooftops.
Increasingly often, I dream of a home in Italy. But then how could I deprive myself of the magnificent East Anglian skies? Perhaps, someday, a home in Norwich and a home in Rome.
One for each half of the year.
One for each half of me.