As an Italian Londoner, I’m always interested in hearing about other expats’ journey, especially if they’re from my country. So when I heard that Cecilia Gragnani, a fellow Italian Londoner, was about to star in a one-woman-show about being an expat, I knew I had to speak to her.
Diary of an Expat
When she arrived in the UK from Italy nine years ago, with a suitcase full of hopes, dreams and bags of pasta, Cecilia’s mission began – trying to become British whilst remaining deeply Italian. Ten years later, Diary of an Expat is a one-woman show about Cecilia’s experience of moving to London. Directed by Katharina Reinthaller (Labels, Fringe First Winner 2015), the show will be presented in August at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Based on real testimonies as well as personal experiences of writer Cecilia Gragnani, Diary of an Expat looks at the lives of Europeans abroad and their urgency to understand and explore what being an expat means for a younger generation. Confronting the legal technicalities of becoming a citizen of another country, Cecilia questions what role this will play on her identity and how we decide where we belong.
Tell me a bit about your hometown, your experience in Italy and why you moved.
I was born and raised in Milan, in the North of Italy. I love Milan because it’s always been a very active city culturally speaking. One of the most important theatres in Italy and Europe is in Milan (Piccolo Teatro founded by Giorgio Strehler). There’s always been many exhibitions, a lot of art-house cinema, publishing houses – [Milan is] similar to London in that sense.
I’ve always loved my country for its beauty, its cultural heritage, its literature, its food and language… most of the things tourists love. I grew up in a family where reading and watching plays was customary and from an early age I was introduced to music and storytelling. [Yet,] I’ve always been very curious about the world and other cultures. I studied Comparative Literature at University, I learnt English and French when I was still a child and I have to thank my parents for this because it has allowed me to travel and be able to communicate in many countries without limitations.
I moved to London because I believe that for anyone who is interested in theatre and the arts London must be a destination sometime in life. Moreover, unfortunately in Italy working in the arts is often seen as a hobby, not as a real profession. I wanted it to be a profession, I wanted to be taken seriously and try and live off it.
Do you feel settled in London and why?
I do. In September it’s going to be 10 years since I’ve moved. I never planned to stay for this long, I was going to train, try and work and then maybe go back home but the more time I spent in London the more I realised it was the place for me, despite its contradictions and the struggle one faces when living here.
With time I’ve also created a community for myself, I have friends, a partner, working relationships, new habits that have become my everyday life here. It feels like home. A lot of people ask where home is and for me London is home as well as Italy. I’m ok with having two homes, I don’t want to pick one because Italy is my roots and will always have a huge role in my identity and London is the place where I’m building my present and my future.
Would you have still moved to London if you had to do so after Brexit and why?
It’s a tough question. Instinctively I would probably say no because nobody wants to go to a country where you already know you’re not going to be welcomed. London has always been a melting pot and a place where anyone could go and become part of the city without giving up on who they were.
Now the UK feels more hostile, London isn’t but it’s undeniable that from a bureaucratic point of view it won’t be as straightforward to come and live here. Also, as a European who moved abroad for the first time thanks to the Erasmus program (I studied in Paris for one year), I embraced the freedom of movement, I took it as an opportunity to enrich my life. Now things are too blurry and uncertain to make a big step and move.
I think that often, because we’re economic migrants, people underestimate what it means to decide to leave your country and go somewhere else. However connected the countries are, however prepared you are to move, however many means you have, you are still taking a leap of faith, a part of you is scared and dubious because you don’t know what life will be like on the other side of the channel, you don’t know if you’ll be ok, there’s a lot of wild cards you can’t necessarily control.
How do you become a Londoner while still keeping your Italian identity?
I’m not sure I’ve got the answer because the whole show revolves around this question and doubt! Jokes aside, because London is so multicultural you do have the ability to still live within your culture if you want. There’s lots of Italians, lots of Italian events, great places where to eat Italian food, paradoxically you could almost live like you would do in Italy.
For me personally, sharing my culture with my boyfriend, accompanying him in the learning of my language and making him discover Italy through my eyes and experience has a big role. Even making this show plays a big part in sharing “Italianness” with other people. And anyway, I speak Italian almost every day, I read in Italian… I don’t necessarily get recognised as an Italian but the more time passes the more I feel that my Italian identity is present and prosperous.
Name three of the weirdest/most relevant adventures you’ve had since moving.
I think number one would probably be being chased for miles by a giant pig in the English countryside and not getting eaten. Then I would say having the ceiling of my room fall on me and the landlord deciding not to repair it because the rainy season was still underway… Finally, going to the ceremony to be a naturalised British citizen would be my third one. I had to swear allegiance to the Queen and her heirs, sing the anthem… it was all very pompous and quite strange to be honest.
How did you get into acting?
I studied ballet for many years when I was still in Italy, [but in] the last few years it wasn’t as enjoyable as the first ones. It had become more of a painful and stressful activity rather than a fun, healthy one. So my mum found a theatre school for young people where you would focus a lot on movement and clowning. I went for an introductory class, fell in love with the teachers and the method and never looked back. It was a fantastic school called “Quelli di Grock” in Milan. It never imposed a style on us, it offered possibilities, techniques, it nurtured storytelling and each one’s individual talent. It was a very happy time.
What advice would you give to wannabe Italian Londoners?
To come to London for a reason. Nowadays there’s an exodus from Italy, the number of migrants haven’t been this high since after the second world war. A lot of people come to London only because they’ve heard that other people have made it here, that there’s a working economy, that in London you can make it. I think this can be dangerous because London can be heaven and hell at the same time. It gives you opportunities and rewards if you work hard and if you have a reason for coming here. It doesn’t make your dreams come true, it doesn’t give you happiness and success just because you’re there. It’s very demanding and you need to be focused and determined, otherwise it’s just an escape and not necessarily a pleasant one.
Diary of an Expat
- Underbelly Cowgate (Belly Laugh), 66 Cowgate, Edinburgh, EH1 1JX
- Thursday 2 nd – Sunday 26 th August 2018 (not 13 th ), 13:00.