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Italian diary: Thinking of the country I belong to, South Africa

Emma Louise Powell holds a cum laude Honours degree in Political Science and is currently working towards her Masters Degree in International Relations at the University of Cape Town. Emma works for local government and is a women's legal rights researcher in her spare time. She writes for the Daily Maverick in her personal capacity and reserves the right to change her mind without notice or explanation.

Lurking somewhere, not so deep below the lines that divide us, are the features that unite us as South Africans above all else. The solidarity between South Africans in times like these is so intense, so powerful, so flammable.

I moved to Italy a month ago, on account of probably both my youthful impetuousness and a profound obsession with Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel, Eat, Pray, Love. This is a fact I was too ashamed to admit until, while drowning my sorrows at a “God Save The Food” Apparitivo last Wednesday, I met a Jewish communist from Tel Aviv and an Australian banker in her late 20’s from Coffin bay. Relative strangers, they’d met at a language exchange earlier in the day and had headed over to Via Tortona to indulge both literally and proverbially, as had I, albeit singularly. Over an almost biblical consumption of bread and wine, I discovered that they too had both become so disillusioned with their hum drum existences and, in the latter instance, failure to make a meaningful impact to their nation state in the wake of the Arab Spring, that they had also followed suit with Elizabeth, selected for inclusion their most precious items to the excess of no more than 30kg’s and moved on a whim to Milan. This made me feel a bit better, because basing your life decisions on a sensational novel is never the smartest idea, especially when Hollywood snatches up the production rights and Julia Roberts gets commissioned to play the primary protagonist. Anyway, par for the course in any well thrashed life I suppose, these little bouts of self doubt.

So yes, I’ll admit, this wasn’t the most well thought out plan on my part because I hadn’t really paid much thought to what I’d do once I arrived, with exception to a broad idea involving the English language and a crumpled training certification from Thailand which took me six hours to complete online. That said, I’m 24, university educated and a month ago I was unemployed and feeling incredibly dissatisfied because I have all this vision and nowhere to channel it (because as I said, I’m 24, university education and on inference, no one really takes me seriously). There are thus only so many monstrously reckless decisions not involving sex and drugs that one can make and so, I packed two red suitcases to the brim, as foretold some months prior by a nutty clairvoyant I’d visited for purely entertainment purposes, and moved to Italy, sono da solo (note: recheck all previous assumptions regarding the accuracy of modern day witches predictions).

Despite my relatively privileged background, I could probably be counted among the wide diaspora of expats whom for no other reason than economic desperation are willing to move town and country in search of a better life. It’s a sad fact, but in this floundering international economy, it is us well-intentioned graduates with our utopian perspectives who are paying the price for unchecked global greed. I do not however consider myself an “immigrant” because Immigrants (yes, the proper noun) are the people who live in the northern suburbs of this city, Cascina Antonietta, and the likes with leathery, Moroccan-tinged skin and headscarves. They’re the ones who play harpsichords on metro trains and smell of turmeric. Oh! The disdain! Well, that was my perspective at least until roundabout day six; somewhere in between overcoming the euphoria of Italian cuisine and egg shell blue Vespas. It was also somewhere around this time in the chronology of my journey that I began to miss my homeland, South Africa with profound longing- the kind that can make you do crazy things like utilise the “one free date change option” on your return ticket – booked to return you home in approximately one year from Day Six.

Seven weeks have passed since then. I am proud to say I successfully weathered that initial storm of self-reasoning, where justification can be found at the bottom of a latte (or a glass of rosso vino). As these first few weeks passed, so did the slew of e-mails from interested parties back home – the people whom with reassurance never failed to tell me how brave I was for taking this inter-continental leap, alone. They said to me, “Oh, you’re so brave, so independent! I could never have moved to Italy, alone and without a job at your age and survive and provided for myself the way that you are busy doing! Well done Kiddo!” I’d reply with a gracious nod, thanking them for their faith in me. Inside, all I could think was, “Um, I am not independent at all! In fact, I am the most paranoid and attached human being on the planet. This journey has terrified me more than anything I have ever experienced or borne witness to, but it did it for the simple reason that I didn’t want to end up still this afraid at 60, because then it would be too late and well, I’d have become my own version of pathetic.” So I told myself, “You’re just going to have to find Him, It… a JOB, everything you are searching for along the way – and Italy’s a good place to start!” On this note, the universe has been kind. Managing to find myself a great job, flat, bank account… tax number and two friends in the first week, I would say things haven’t been too bad. That is, until I allow myself the privilege of distraction and for my thoughts to wonder back home. Us expats in foreign lands know full well the danger of dwelling – just ask any number of my friends spread out across the globe in search of prosperity and self actualisation.

Last Tuesday, well, Tuesday was the hardest of the lot. As Parliament voted piously on the “Secrecy Bill”, I sat in a cafe at the European School of Economics (they did a good job!), sponging off their wi-fi, following with cosmic dedication the incendiary tweets and news reports coming out of South Africa. As a Politics major I take this stuff very seriously. Add to that the fact that round about this exact time last year, I could be found picketing down Buitenkant Street in Cape Town, clad with poster and a rounded fist and protesting defiantly in defence of my freedom, and you have one very homesick foot soldier.  At 2pm this afternoon, as I caught the No.2 Tram home up Via Sempione, it was with intense sadness that I received the news that the bill had been passed. As I logged onto a variety of social networking sites from my mobile and followed the commentary, I thought back to my homeland and vowed to myself that although I have already lived to see the end of one struggle, I will live to fight another. Yet I will fight it with pride and with integrity, ensuring that at no time are the merits of our prior victories undermined.

We are a diverse nation, from culture to religion, to ethnicity to race and we all carry different crosses – some of which are greater than others, a fact only the guiltiest among us will deny. Yet lurking somewhere, not so deep below the lines that divide us, are the features that unite us as South Africans above all else. Had I one wish on Tuesday, I’d have used it to get myself onto a plane destined for Sub-Saharan Africa, where although the roads are sometimes long and winding, clad with dust and grime, the solidarity between South Africans in times like these is so intense, so powerful, so flammable – it moves me in a way that is incomparable to anything I have ever seen, read, experienced.  Elizabeth Gilbert can EAT her novel at times like this. Italy, phew, you have nothing on MY country!

On Tuesday I remembered that despite the sometimes edgy nature of our political landscape and the notable concerns of our fledgling democracy, South Africa is a nation like none other. I think my time in Italy is soon drawing to a close because this time I am wasting drinking cappuccino’s is more valuable than gold; because I don’t want my children to be another land’s Immigrants; because I am young enough to still hold within me the privilege of hope. DM


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