A year after finishing my studies I realised I did not really want to be a Geologist. My passion for theatre and acting seemed to scream at me, louder than ever. I loved science but my love for performing arts was stronger. I felt the need to leave my home town and explore the world. In a big cosmopolitan city, I could perhaps allow myself to dream about an acting career…without feeling ashamed of even thinking of it!
New York would have been my first choice but London seemed easier. Although my English was pretty basic and had almost no money, I felt compelled to go. I felt that I could not afford to “waste more time” - a recurrent feeling throughout my life that became particularly strong after graduating. I guess the pressure of knowing “what I wanted to do with my life” became so heavy that (paradoxically) blocked me. Rather than seeing opportunities I saw confusion. And yes, it’s true “life is short” but it does not really help to feel that “time is running out”. It is a very unhelpful feeling.
After graduation the lack of structure felt liberating for a while – but just a short while – because this oppressing thought of “wasting time”, “being late” and “running out of time” was making me feel really anxious. I could not think straight. I needed space. My space. I needed to be alone, in a place where nobody knew me. A place where I could be free to be anything without expectations from anybody... first of all from myself.
I had no connections in London, except a friend of a friend...of a friend who found me a job as a waitress in a coffeeshop. After 10 days I had to quit. It was probably one of the worse experiences of my life to that point. I was exploited and treated quite badly by pretty much everybody: owner, colleagues and customers alike. I had never experienced grumpy and tense city-types marching towards their office at 7.00am in the morning. What a shock that was! I grew up in a small provincial town in Northern Italy where the pace is very different and the way people interact with one another is also very different. To me those city-types seemed like a different species. I could not understand how people could walk and talk so fast…especially so early in the morning.
I was scared, lonely and lost. I literally had one rucksack and a MSc in Geology that nobody seemed to care about including myself. My dream was to pursue acting. Although I was not even so convinced about that. I knew I wanted to try to be an actress, which is very different from wanting to be an actress. I was not so assertive. I was very insecure. Even admitting that I wanted to pursue acting felt too arrogant to me.
Everything was new and seemed rather cold and hostile. The image that kept coming back to describe my experience of London at that time was the edge of a broken glass: sharp, messy and (potentially) painful. I ended up being exploited in various workplaces including cafes, restaurants and clothing shops. My shopping assistant skills were as bad as my waitress skills: I did not last long.
I was scared. I lost weight. I had anxiety and panic attacks. Sometimes I cried. I lied to my parents telling them that everything was ok. Job, money, health: all perfect! Once I called my best friend in tears telling her how scary, smelly and grim the London underground was. It was probably on my way back home after being bullied at work. At some point, about a month after my arrival, I even had to leave, to get out of London. I visited my sister and spent a week in Norway to recover from the London shock. She looked after me as the caring older sister she is!
But, as terrible as it might sound, I felt ok. I knew it was only a phase. I could not give up in the middle of this ‘shitty phase’. I could not go back home without a nice story to tell. I felt that my fear, anxiety and struggles could not be the only thing that London had to offer. I had a vision of a future far easier than what I was experiencing at that moment. I knew the time would bring me good experiences. This was only a transitional phase. I knew there was a nice reward on the other side of the tunnel - aka the ‘London-probatory period’.
I trusted that inner voice.
Indeed, things started to get better. I met wonderful people who helped me to find temporary accommodation and became good friends. In a few months, I learnt English…properly. I passed my English exam, and found a beautiful shared house and a job. I built amazing friendships and met inspiring people both at home and at work.
I worked for over a year in an independent bookshop in central London. It attracted an extraordinary array of people, customers and employees, alike. Writers, actors, artists. Unfortunately, like many independent bookshops, it closed down many years ago. It was located just outside Leicester Square Station in Charring Cross Road. What a dream location for a provincial girl from Italy. I was in the middle of it all. Soho offered plenty of opportunities to hang out and I was often invited to publishers’ parties around Bloomsbury and Islington. And by that point I was cycling everywhere; no need to deal with London’s grim and smelly underground anymore. Even if the job was very basic, I loved the place. It was fun and forced me to perfect my English; especially when frustrated customers were shouting at me on the phone for my inability to spell books’ titles or authors’ names. I had to learn English spelling to avoid the embarrassment. Although I still struggle today!
This ‘probatory period’ could be compared to the pain threshold in sport. After you get through the pain, the nausea and the tears, there is a point when the suffering fades away and you start flying. Indeed, after the first three months, the real struggle ceased, and things started to become extremely exciting. I do remember my first date; it was at the Southbank on a warm early-summer evening. It felt like heaven…not to mention my first walk in Hampstead Heath, my favourite place in London. At that point, beyond the ‘pain threshold’ I could finally relax. I wasn’t on the ‘fight-or-flight’ response anymore. I felt safe: I had a home, good caring friends, a new loving boyfriend and a cool job. A low-income job but also super easy. It wasn’t at all demanding. It meant that I could devote my time and energy in developing my craft as a performer. My boss, a writer himself, was super flexible and allowed me to go to all the acting workshops and courses I wanted in the UK and abroad.
The two years that followed were a period of excitement, growth and expansion. One of the most exciting periods of my life. I travelled to attend workshops, meet artists across all Europe and establish beautiful collaborations. I built true deep friendships with people worldwide. I started seeing life, and the world around me, in a completely different light because my world was expanding. I discovered how much I love multicultural and multi-ethnic environments, and work with people from all over the world.
Everything seemed standardised where I came from. When I was growing up, I felt the world around me was a bit too provincial but I could not articulate my feelings in these terms back then. I did not have anything else to compare it with. How can you know if something is too tight or provincial if you have never experienced anything different? It was just a feeling…a perception of limitedness. It wasn’t an extreme sensation of discomfort like claustrophobia but it was still unpleasant, a bit like a stuffy room that needs some fresh air.
Just recently I’ve realised that since a young age I’ve been fascinated by the nerdy-types, the eccentric-types, and the misfits. Now I understand why. They express themselves outside the limited ‘boxes’ or ‘moulds’ available in our society. Maybe I was (and still are) too shy to be fully myself, confidently and unapologetically myself. But I am attracted by those who seem brave enough to be themselves despite the efforts of our society to push us to conform to preconceived ideas of who we should be. This does not mean that London is a place where conformity does not exist. On the contrary. It offers plenty of boxes to imprison people – both physically and metaphorically – like anywhere else. However, in a place where nobody knows you, or cares about you, it feels easier to take risks and build your microcosm. I felt a greater degree of freedom than ever before.
Breaking with the past and starting from scratch in a place where nobody knew me, might seem an extreme choice, but it was needed. At that time, in my mid 20s, I wouldn't have had the strength to carve my existence at home. A place with lots of ties. A place where people seem to have fixed ideas about who I was, different from my idea of who I wanted to be-come. To live in London allowed me to prove to myself that I’m strong and independent. I'm determined. I have a strong will. I had to make a big jump to convince myself that I could break free from the ‘mould’, be myself and express my individuality.
The analogy of the pain threshold is very important here. This affirmation of independence and individuality did not come easily. I had to work hard and it was painful at times both physically and mentally. This concept is very interesting not only in life but also in the arts. The development of an artistic project often requires the ability to get through the pain threshold; the fear of setbacks, criticisms, and uncomfortable conversations…ultimately the fear of failure.
So, what did I learn from this experience?
First, do not accept the mould. Those uncomfortable boxes are traps. It’s not you that have to change, but the mould you are given by your school, family, society, advertisement, peers…whatever. That mould is generic and you are not generic. You are unique. We are not mass products even if often we might be treated like that. Explore, discover, be brave to find the experiences and people that fit with your needs and desires. It might not be pleasant at times. In fact, it’s the opposite. It is scary and often disorienting. You jump into the unknown. But if your instinct is strong, it means that you also know, deep inside, that that discomfort, that fear, and that pain will pass. It’s just a phase.
Second, have a vision. The present is not an indication of what the future will be. Unpleasant feelings and doubts are just momentary. They will go. But you have to hold on to your vision of the future. In my case I was holding on to the vision of an exciting experience in a big cosmopolitan city, an opportunity for growth and expansion.
Third, trust the process. Have faith that you will find the right help: people, opportunities, circumstances. There is a support system. You're not alone.
I’ve also learned that patience is very important. Accept the struggle and make an effort to see beyond it. Be patient. And be curious. Curiosity is key. The desire to discover new things, expand and learn will get you beyond the fear...beyond the pain threshold. Openness is the ability to be fascinated by the unknown. The unknown excited me: new people, habits, places, and experiences. Everything was fascinating. Challenging at times but exciting. This openness is required for learning and growth in both life and art. Originality comes from the courage to reject the ‘mould’ as well as the openness, and humbleness, to listen to others and the environment.
We're constantly ‘in creation’. We are a work-in-progress but of a special kind. We are simultaneously the maker and the artefact. We cannot accept the mould, the roles and the rules. We cannot accept ‘the rules of the game’ either. There is not a manual of how to live and there isn’t a specific process through which we are all supposed to grow and learn. There are infinite processes or at least as many as there are people on the planet. You choose what the learning process is for you. The world is open to everybody. Certainly, it’s open to me because I am fortunate enough to live in a place where I don’t have to suffer war, famine, persecution or violation of my human rights and freedom of expression.
I believe that pre-paved paths offered to us by our society might not always be what we need to flourish. I believe we have to build our own path. It is hard at times, or at least it was and it still is for me. In fact, getting older brings more challenges due to the preconceptions I have got about what I should have done and achieved by now. But I also know that life isn’t a race or a multinational corporation. I’m not supposed to hit targets and maximise my performances or profit. I’m supposed to discover how I can contribute to make this world a better place with my skills, knowledge and experience; and to become a better human being and artist.
Building a path is harder and slower than walking on a pre-paved/premade paved one. That's why it requires constant work, but that's great too. It’s not only hard work, it's also fun. It’s a creative process: we create something new. We’re in-creation therefore we are all creative beings. This is inspiring. Sometimes there’ll be easy slopes downhill. Sometimes there’ll be steep mountains to ascend. This is tough but tremendously satisfying. I can say: “I made this. And I'm not what you (outside world) thought I was.” Nobody really know who I am, in fact, I don't know it either. Probably I’ll never be 100% sure of who I am. I'm constantly finding it out because I’m ‘in creation’. Life is a creative process as art is. My artistic exploration is rooted/founded in the same principles that seem to support my life experience: vision, trust, faith, patience, curiosity and openness.
One thing is certain, I’ve discovered I'm far more determined and resilient than what I thought I was before leaving my hometown 20 years ago.