Continuing with our ‘Share Your Italian Story’, this month, sisters Catherine and Emily Ewen, originally from Hamilton, New Zealand, talk to Barry Lillie about living in Milan and the desire to find out about their Italian heritage.
Why did you choose Italy?
Catherine: A couple of reasons, firstly, because my grandmother is Italian and I wanted to return to my roots and also because my sister had spent her last year of high school here and had loved it and learnt to speak Italian. I thought I could do it too.
Where have you relocated to and why did you choose this particular part of Italy?
Emily: I had friends from school here, plus it’s very well connected to the rest of Europe.
How long have you lived in Italy and how have you coped with the language?
Catherine: Since April 2012. I can speak quite a bit now, I’m not quite at the level I would like to be but getting there.
Tell me about the property you are living in?
Catherine: I have just moved into my fourth apartment in 18 months. The first was nice but ended up being too far away from work. The second was great for work but my male housemate ended up being one of the most uptight people I have met in my life. The third was when I finally felt as if I had found my home in Milan, a tiny but beautiful monolocale (studio apartment) in a lovely area of the city, with my elderly Italian landlady living next door. I stayed here for a wonderful year. I have just moved into a trilocale (three-bedroomed apartment) with my sister Emily, and we now have enough space for a third sister who has just arrived here in Milan.
This really is a story of a family united in their love for a country. Emily came to Italy on a twelve-month student exchange and after she returned to New Zealand, her sister Catherine came to Milan and in her words said:
The first few weeks were a bit nerve racking as I didn’t have a house or a job or know anyone. I stayed in cheap one star hotels for the first couple of weeks, looking for work and a place to live. When I finally got here it dawned on me that I was really starting from absolutely nothing and I will admit there were a couple of moments where I wondered what I was doing. But I quickly made some friends through an expat website and by joining a touch rugby team, they helped me choose a good area to live in, and after a month I found a temporary job teaching English, which turned into a full time 12 month contract, which I eventually finished and renewed for a 2nd year.
Emily’s experience of moving was less fraught, she told me:
I was very lucky as I had an older sister who had moved a year earlier. I stayed with her and she showed me around the city. I caught up with a lot of friends I hadn't seen since high school and I felt great.
And it became a case of, ‘sisters doing it for themselves’ when another sister, Bridget arrived in March, Catherine told me:
We are a bit preoccupied with getting the third sister set up here in Milan.
How have friends and family reacted?
Catherine: Everyone’s been really supportive.
Emily: My friends back home are glad for me too, but we miss each other a lot; although quite a few have visited in the last 9 months. My boyfriend was also happy for me and it’s motivated him to apply for his passport and should now be arriving here in Milan soon.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of doing the same thing?
Emily: Save as much money as you can and study a bit of Italian before moving, also have an open mind and be ready for adventures.
Advice that Catherine also agrees with:
Save as much money as you possibly can before you arrive. Expenses always add up faster than you think. Learn as much of the language as you can before you arrive: at least get a good understanding of the basics. Register on expat websites or join a community like the one on ITALY Magazine to give yourself the opportunity to meet people doing the same thing as you. It is great to have Italian friends but sometimes it’s nice to also have friends that are living away from home as well.
Catherine then pointed out something many people probably never think about before they move to another country:
It is a very different experience living here as opposed to being on holiday, so you have to keep a very open mind. Things are done in a certain way here and things can take a very long time to happen, but it’s just the way it is. I expected more English to be spoken here, but really the level is much lower than other western European countries.
Apart from friends and family, are there any factors that make you homesick?
Catherine: Just having familiar things around me. Like when you need to get some shoes repaired or go to the dentist and not knowing immediately where to go. Or missing the local places that you used to frequent.
Emily: The local bands I used to see every weekend, the New Zealand summer and our two dogs.
Can you tell me what do you like most about your adopted country?
Catherine: The food is so amazing. The language. Landscape and architecture, from Milan there are so many different wonderful places you can visit which are nearby. Church bells ringing to tell you the time. Colourful people, old people riding bikes.
What’s your experience of the ex-pat community?
Emily: I have been to two expat only aperitivo get-togethers and they've been great, I've met a few nice people.
Catherine: There are a lot of expats living in Milan, and there are a lot of events going on all the time. It is a reason why I like living here. There are also a lot of Italian men who try to get involved in the expat scene to pick up ladies; this can be a good thing, but not always.
Tell me about any goals or desires you have for your new life in Italy.
Catherine: I want to keep improving my Italian, and keep seeing different parts of the country; I haven’t visited Sicily, Sardinia or Puglia yet. Also I’d like to encourage my students to keep learning English and to travel overseas so they can to open their minds to other cultures and opportunities abroad.
Catherine also told me that she was interested in finding out about her Italian heritage, she told me:
In terms of me finding my roots, it wasn't a huge priority at first, because I didn't know of any close relatives who were still here. I was just really focused on setting up my life here, finding a house and a job and friends and learning the language, in order to settle into some kind of normality.
My Nana, Anna Maria Zampese was born in New Zealand, the only child of my great grandparents; Giovanni Zampese and Domenica Bertuzzi.
In the picture Nonna Anna Maria Zampese and Mamma Susanne.
My great grandfather went to New Zealand and after, I believe, three or so years he had earned enough to send for the rest of the family who were originally from a very small village in the province of Vicenza, called Conco; One of my grand-parents was born there and the other in the nearby village of Rubbio.
Once I was established, I started thinking about going back to visit Conco; but as it is a tiny village of only about 2,000 people and difficult to get to up in the mountains where basically no one speaks English, it wasn't something I could make happen quickly. When some of my family, including my parents decided to come to Italy for a visit we finally planned to go. It was a really special experience, especially to be there with my Dad. To see the church where his grandparents were married and his uncle ordained a priest: Dad’s uncle, Don Ilario Zampese was also a pilot during WWII and had previously returned to Conco to be ordained before being killed in a plane crash in Papua New Guinea. There is a plaque on the presbytery just next to the church honouring his memory.
I was proud that when we got there I could speak Italian well enough to talk to the locals in their own language. We didn't find any long lost relatives but we did speak to a man who published a book about the history of the area and knew the story of uncle Ilario very well.
For us, it isn't imperative to find distant relatives, but it was really special just to come and see the area that they came from, and we think even though they moved to New Zealand they would be pretty proud and happy that we've made the journey back to their homeland.