The life of an Italian in Cambridge

Virginia Bernardi writes about her experience as an Italian living in Cambridge and how the city is a ‘home away from home’

Virginia Bernardi

Old habits die hardVirginia Bernardi

Going to University is a big change. It involves meeting new people, living on your own and moving away from home. And this can be difficult, especially if the home you are leaving behind is in fact in a different country. And so it would seem logical that being Italian and living in the UK, or in Cambridge specifically, would be challenging. On the contrary, I am going to try and prove to you that Cambridge could almost be deemed a ‘home away from home’ for Italians, a ‘Little Italy’. (Though I’ll spare you my thoughts about punting, which I’ve previously described to some Freshers as: ‘going on mini-gondolas’ and been rewarded with confused looks).

Walking down the street is especially interesting: I think that pretty much every day this term I’ve heard someone speaking in Italian as I walk around Cambridge. In my Faculty, in the Sainsbury’s next to where I live, on Market Square. The range of conversations varies of course: mothers arguing with their children in that oh-so-Italian way which takes me back to numerous arguments with my own mother; school groups milling about, not quite sure where they are meant to be going and shouting: ‘Rega, rega di qua!’ (Guys, guys over here); and as expected, duos of women, gossiping to each other about who did this or that and how shocking it was. Hearing Italian every day is comforting: it reminds you that you are not alone in this country that is not your own, but most importantly, it’s also fun. Most people will not assume you to be an Italian speaker if they pass you and they’re chatting away in Italian and so whenever they do, and my ears prickle with the familiar tones of my mother tongue, I pretend I’m almost a spy, picking up bits of secret information.

Trying to recreate the home comfort of tiramisu in CambridgeVirginia Bernardi

Obviously, England proves tough for Italian people for many reasons and my friends questioned me when I said I was planning on studying in the UK. ‘Are you sure you want to go? All you will eat is potatoes’ ‘Are you sure you want to go? They eat pasta with KETCHUP!?’ and ‘Why are you going to England, it rains all the time there!’ Their shock is the reason I sometimes feel out of place when I go back home, since I am so used to life in England now (almost feeling too English to be Italian). So I am not going to disprove these statements: our cafeteria at Girton serves more potatoes each day than I probably eat in three months at home, and, whilst Cambridge is chockablock with a variety of Italian restaurants, some good, some bad, some okay, authentic flavour has been found to be missing at times. And, sadly, it does pretty much rain every other day (or whenever it doesn’t rain, it’s super windy).

That’s not to say it’s all bad: I enjoy the fact that I have an endless supply of potato wedges when I’m here and as an Italian I’ve learnt either to choose not to eat Italian food, from college or restaurants  (and risk being disappointed) or have it and appreciate it as nice food which is a take on Italian food (not expecting it to live up to what I am used to, as it very probably will not – this is not the case for you, Franco Manca). I am very aware that you can eat out in Italy and still get served not very nice food (trust me it is possible!). And, whilst Italy is known for being sunny and warm, I live in the north so sometimes our days in winter are worse than here!

I think that being Italian in Cambridge can definitely be tough, but can also be an advantage. People will be intrigued about your nationality and ask you lots of questions about back home (the weather, the food - ‘Don’t you miss it?’ ‘I do’), but being Italian can also give you a sense of identity, something you can always rely on and find reassurance in. You might be known as the ‘Italian one’ but there is pride and comfort in belonging to somewhere, more than you would necessarily feel it at home in Italy (and especially if when at home you’re seen as the ‘English one’ - funny, I know, how the two roles seem to swap). And lastly, your friends will probably love it if you bring them back Italian food, such as Panettone or Parmesan!