At the beginning of April, two months ago, I spent a week in Canterbury. I went to visit old friends and mentors from the time of my PhD and following work at Canterbury Christ Church University in 2013-2018. It was a very important visit for me. I was almost scared to go. In fact, I tend to have unresolved feelings about past and present and where and what is ‘home’.
I booked a room in a B&B on the same street where I had lived for two years. It was just two houses past the Maynard Cottage and as I reached my temporary home, I noticed the curtains had changed, and wondered how my room upstairs might look now.
Photo 1: the Maynard Cottage and the B&B (blue building), Canterbury, 4th April 2022.
During my stay I worked with Milan for my current jobs: I taught Italian to a class of medicine students, did interviews with the Bethlehem municipality to evaluate a project of international cooperation, and replied to emails for an academic conference in September https://esrea2022.formazione.unimib.it. I realized I could have taken a bit more time off. Still, I managed to see people and have some wonderful moments: lunch in beloved pubs, country walks with friends, and even see to some of my friends performing – one academic lecture and one Free Range Festival https://freerangecanterbury.org event of collective poetry improvisation.
Photo 2: Walking from Canterbury to a country pub in Fordwich, 8th April 2022.
Photo 3: Mark Windsor, giving a seminar on aesthetic experience, University of Kent, 6th April 2022.
Photo 4: Kat Peddie, Free Range festival performance, Meanders in a line Walt Witman / Kat Paddie, Canterbury, 7th April 2022.
One evening, while coming back from a country walk with my old flatmates Mark and Katy with her partner and baby, Katy asked if I would like to see St Augustine’s Abbey https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/st-augustines-abbey/history-and-stories/. She as resident had a permit to access for free after 5pm and regularly took her dog and her baby to play there. I wondered why I had not done that during the time I lived there and said yes.
The place at dawn looked mystical. A large lawn with ruins of the Abbey – the abbey was founded in 598, after St Augustine arrived in Kent on a mission to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons to Christianity, see website – and on the peripheries two educational institutions, the private King’s School on the left, and CCCU university on the right. The big new building for the faculty of Medicine was clearly visible.
We had just started to walk around the site when we met Katy’s partner colleague, an Italian woman, with her dog. We were introduced and a conversation started along these lines:
I: Ciao. I am from Milan, and you?
She: Ciao. Oh nice! The rich north. My family was originally from the southern region of Basilicata, a very poor place.
I: My family also migrated from poor places in the north. I am 50% from Friuli region and my Dad at 10 years helped his father build the house where they lived in the suburbs, which they sold a half of to pay the cost of building materials – and his sister never went beyond primary school. I visited Matera last august, I had wished to visit for a long time… the poor people there lived in cages and the rich classes lived in beautiful apartments on another level of town. A doctor and intellectual, Carlo Levi, was exiled there during fascism and wrote about the living conditions of these people in a book, Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (1945) which was known only much later thanks to a film by Francesco Rosi (1979).
She: My Grandma lived in a similar village nearby. I remember the house. It was excavated in the stone. Her bed and the kitchen were in the same space and in another room, she kept the animals. We slept on an elevated bed.
I: It is incredible that we talk about this now. I usually don’t tell the story of my father.
She: My children have their lives here and so do I. I speak very bad Italian now. I never really know where I belong.
We enjoyed the rest of our visit of the Abbey – the Abbey is not only free for residents in specific hours but also organizes small events and festivals - and walked home. We said goodbye at my new friend’s door where a big red cat waited for her. Katy then told she was happy I talked about my family with this woman, and she saw we could tell important stories to each other. And so was I. We reached Katy's home where we all had a lovely meal and watched an old film her partner likes watching for her birthday, which was on that day.
After midnight I walked back to my room as I was teaching online the next morning.
Photo 5: Matera, view from Parco della Murgia, 21st August 2021.
I was tiny overwhelmed. With gratitude, for a sense of possibility to stay in an area of ‘betweenness’. A sense of response-ability and agency. I thought about the academic work of my mentor Linden West, his stories about leaving working class friends behind to go to a grammar school and become a brilliant researcher in Education – Linden retired in April as Emeritus Professor. (He also has a brilliant and generous woman at his side). I thought of my feelings of shame, inadequacy, and fragility in the UK and in Milan, respectively a rich and powerful country and city that easily make you feel ‘less’. I thought about the difficulty to put a mind to read when you feel anxious, and that most friends and colleagues I met in my UK years were better off than me economically and had better cultural capital – their families read the books and travelled (but not all: my colleague Paula Stone at CCCU founded a group called We Need To Talk About Class https://www.canterbury.ac.uk/education/our-work/research-enterprise/research-centre-for-children-families-communities/we-need-to-talk-about-class.aspx).
I also thought about issues of money and houses and property and having to protect family and my own small securities – my cave. And finally, about the slow journey to leave the cave not by a heroic act of emancipation producing self- fragmentation, but by a holistic process of integration of experience and voicing discrimination from the margins of society – not last as a woman.
Photo 6: (I was sitting with Dr Alan Bainbridge and watching) The Street, Whitstable, 7th April 2022.
From this visit to Canterbury, I have started new dialogues and plans to do things together, with performing artists/friends and performing/academics, to explore together where we belong.
It has arrived. Or better, they have arrived. Not the usual Amazon expedition, but four heavy boxes from the farm of Camporbiano (Tuscany) were waiting for me at the janitor’s. He, a young dad from Egypt, looked amused and sympathetic. Another resident asked if I could give him the isolating polystyrene box, so he could use it for sending some medicines protected from the change of temperature. We agreed I would leave the box to the janitor the next day and I brought everything home. First, I opened the polystyrene box: cheese!!!
The other three boxes contained fresh vegetables, potatoes, spelt flakes, barley, lentils, chickpeas, whole pasta, and a lot of jars: tomato sauce, aubergine sauce, zucchini cream, peperoni cream, olives cream, marinated vegetables. I was happy with that treasure, even a bit overwhelmed.
The boxes from Poggio di Camporbiano in my kitchen, February 2022, Milan.
The boxes waited two days in a corner of the kitchen before I managed to make space by taking a box of old empty jars to the cellar downstairs, together with one box of the new jars. So, this year 2022 started with food in the cellar, to me a sign of rootedness. Should I stock wine too, to give more solidity to the roots?
As I was opening the fresh ricotta (which had to be eaten quicly), I thought of a student from the South of Italy that participated in my PhD research in 2014. He had written about going home by train for holidays, and on the journey back to Milan, meeting mothers bringing cheese and salami to their children studying ‘up North’. This ‘North’ extends beyond the country, I thought, as my Italian friend in London told me that she, her husband, and the kids received olive oil from her parents in Palermo, Sicily.
I felt emotional. What was food from home? What is food for home making?
Practical help, but also care, love, and connection to the roots through engagement with the senses. A touchable sign of your existence somewhere else, for someone else. A witness of multiplicity, creativity, courage, and capacity to adapt. A gentle request to nurture memory.
During a lesson of Italian as a second language, my Indian student, a wise, witty young man and mechanical engineer in an Italian company, told me he had experienced nostalgia for the first time after 6 years in Italy. He said he would like to grow his vegetables, like his parents in Tamil Nadu.
Sometimes I think I would like that too. I currently live in the flat where I grew up in the city of Milan, so I am home. However, my home extends to other places where I feel home, often not in big cities, sometimes abroad, that I bringhome also through food.
‘You don’t have to worry about food now! Invite your friends home! We always did that, and grandpa too! I did not go out for three weeks during Covid with the food I had stocked!” said my Mum who had sent me the gift from Camporbiano.
Food from home intertwines with food stock. And new food habits in a new home. Food is often a favourite topic with my foreign students.
Quando ero piccola i miei nonni materni abitavano in un piccolo borgo in Piemonte, a Borghetto Borbera.
La casa nel cuore del paese era grande e antica. C’era un cortile con ciottoli di fiume, un pergolato di uva bianca e dalla mia finestra si vedevano le stelle.
Il nonno aveva un terreno nella campagna in una zona che si chiamava Cravaglia. In Cravaglia c’erano dei meli, mi sembra tre o quattro, altri alberi da frutta e in fondo al campo dei cespugli di ribes. Ogni anno mio nonno curava gli alberi dando il verderame e selezionando le mele e poi in autunno raccoglievamo le mele con tutta la famiglia. Si usava un bastone di legno diviso in tre parti alla fine, o con un anello con denti e un sacchetto, per circondare la mela e poi staccarla dal ramo ruotando il bastone per rompere il picciolo. Portavamo a casa le ceste di mele e le mettevamo in cantina e se erano tante, le regalavamo agli amici. Le mele della Cravaglia duravano tutto l’inverno, ma dovevi controllare le mele marce per non fare andare a male tutta la cassetta. Era una grande soddisfazione mangiare le nostre mele portate in città dalla campagna, così profumate.
Un giorno dopo alcuni anni che la casa era stata venduta, ho ripensato a quei meli. Ci saranno ancora o li avranno tagliati come dice l’amico del nonno, Franco?
Sono tornata a vedere la casa e Franco, non ancora i meli.
Mia nonna Dorotea Pezzo in Cravaglia (autore e data, sconosciute).