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Paolaexpat reflects upon her roots.

Roots. Two ideas immediately spring to mind.

The most obvious is the roots on plants: some plants have strong roots, like oak trees, or wide-reaching, shallow roots, like jacarandas, or roots that simply dangle in the air, like the beautiful orchids in my garden.

Then, I think of Black Americans coming to the coast of West Africa, visiting the dungeons at castles like Cape Coast or Elmina. Their forefathers were the ‘lucky’ ones who endured and survived the long trek to the coast, and the horrific boat journey across the ocean. Those Black Americans can never know where they came from. They can never really hope to find their roots.

This second interpretation, human roots, is what I have been asked to write about: my roots. The very thought of it terrifies me. Where are my roots?

rootsIs it a question of blood? My blood is 100% Italian, with my four grandparents coming from Rome, Genoa, and Chiavenna near the Swiss border.

I have an Italian passport and would never think of getting anything else. Why would I? My passport gets me from A to B, and I like the idea that it gives me free movement in Europe. But do I feel Italian? Not really. I am happy to support whatever football or rugby team takes my fancy on the day. I feel emotion listening to the South African national anthem (and I have absolutely no connection with South Africa), but would never stand, hand in heart, tears running down my face when ‘Fratelli d’Italia’ is played. I am no expert on pizzoccheri or pesto or puttanesca, and would enjoy palak paneer, joloff rice, or waterzooie as much as melanzane alla parmigiana. Although I confess to a feeling of nostalgia when I remember the ‘colazione’ of eggs whipped white and firm with sugar and a drop of coffee that my grandmother used to make for us when we visited (every three years) on holiday.

Is it to do with birth? I was born in Tanzania, and my parents lived there for 34 years. In fact, I was married there. My husband’s entire family travelled from Ireland to the home of the bride. But do I feel Tanzanian? Absolutely not. We were always expats in Tanzania, unlike some other Europeans who were born there and ‘settled’. We moved house within the country about twelve times. And from the age of seven to the age of eighteen, I was at boarding school in Kenya (and living within the perimeter of Loreto Convent for eleven years did not make me feel Kenyan!)

Does one’s preferred language offer roots? People always think I am English, because of the way I speak, but I have never lived in England (apart from for six months when I was three and a year when I was studying for a postgrad diploma). So no, in my case, language is irrelevant.

rootsIs it where you own property? Our ‘home’ (through fate rather than intention) is in Brussels. I have lived in Brussels longer than anywhere else in my life. But do I feel Belgian? Absolutely not. Although I must say that I feel comfortable in Belgium, because so many people there are expats, and understand my state.

Roots. It sometimes worries me that I have no firm roots. And that whatever feeble roots I have are even further weakened in my children.

Perhaps fate brought me here, but perhaps it was intention. Any idea of nationalism is abhorrent to me. Maybe it’s because my parents did not expect us to feel Italian (although they encouraged us to learn the language). They were not particularly proud of their heritage, especially after the war. Maybe they felt it was easier for us to simply blend in, wherever we were.

Roots. Do we really need them? The dreaded ‘Where are you from?’ question fills me with a sensation of pressure. People expect you to fit into a box, to belong.

I would rather like to see myself as an orchid, moved by the Hand of Fate from one tree to another, my roots dangling freely in the air, surviving and with a bit of luck blossoming wherever I go.

Accra, Ghana
October 2015

Since I wrote this article several years ago, I have had a DNA test which makes things much more complicated…it seems I am less than 60% Italian, and I also have Iberic – I suspect Sephardic Jewish – Greek, and Balkan roots, with a touch of ‘Northern and Western European’!

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