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Una lettera dal Canada- L'Anticonformista

L'anticonformista - My cross-cultural journey from Canada to the UK and Italy

By Amanda Quach

August 2020

Two years ago, I moved from Toronto to London. At the end of this period I visited Ravenna, and now plan to live there for the next two years.

In Canada I had graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Applied Science from the University of Toronto, in electrical engineering, and started working for a government utility company. It was a structured and rigid environment, masculine even, but, in contrast to my colleagues, I would often write poetry on my way to work and spend my evenings and weekends taking dance classes or painting. I always felt a longing for an artistic career despite doing well in my job and advancing several times, and despite parental discouragement from changing paths. So after working up the courage for a few years, amidst worry and bewilderment from colleagues, I traded in my secure future for a life of freedom and poverty, in pursuit of acting.

Ravenna is a city that I came to visit unexpectedly, and yet it has had a special place in my memories since I went there on my first trip to Italy. My journey to Ravenna is a series of random events, on which I will cast light in the following paragraphs.

I was living in the English countryside in Suffolk, at a former organic farm that had been converted into a meditation camp. People from all over Europe and the UK came to the camp to meditate in silence for weeks at a time. I was managing a facility that housed a hundred students, taking care of all their maintenance and accommodation needs. I had escaped for a few months of respite from the maddening pace of the city, where the daily chaos of an actor’s life in London was taking its toll on me. I was out of money, out of work, and stressed, craving monastic organisation and silence.

Ironically, at the silent meditation camp I met a very chatty, very lovely French girl who invited me to go to Italy with her to look at paintings from the Italian Renaissance, masterpieces by artists such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Botticelli. She was studying art at the Sorbonne, in Paris. She had even bought me a ticket to Bologna, but at the last minute she cancelled because of work obligations. I was planning to go alone but I ended up reconnecting with a friend in Ravenna whom I’d met briefly in London the year before. He picked me up from the Bologna city centre and we drove speedily across the landscape, the visuals changing rapidly from traffic lights and tramways to narrow unpaved roads on hillsides, overgrown trees smacking the car windows seductively.

We came to a beautiful villa amidst the mountains of Bologna. I remember my first night like a dream. I was in a grand room, simple, large and elegant, with beige walls, white sheets and yellow lamps. I walked towards the window and slid the translucent curtains aside to reveal the evening mountain view. I opened the window and the night air came in and I felt then that there was something intoxicating about being in Italy, a certain freedom mixed with a sense of beauty. The impression gently penetrated my mind and left an imprint.

The next day we went to Venice and in the following weeks we drove a Fiat around the country. My Italian friend was extremely welcoming and I was introduced to the intimate family culture of Italy, its blessings and challenges. We laughed and enjoyed ourselves over homemade cappelletti and €4 pizzas. We napped after lunches and drank espresso in the afternoons while he smoked. A bunch of University of Bologna students came over, and I remember the cigarette smoke climbing the walls and the sounds of giggling echoing through the halls.

I only planned to stay in Italy for five days but ended up staying for twenty. My friend became my boyfriend. There were days of endless sunshine, and the place where I stayed overlooked a vast field by the river, which seemed to catch the sunlight, casting pastel pink and blue clouds overtop the land like stretched-out cotton candy. Because of my boyfriend’s hospitality, I never felt like a tourist, although I did sometimes feel like an outsider. For example, when we went to a bar together, somebody asked him if I was a prostitute, even though I was wearing a long-sleeved turtleneck. My freewheeling lifestyle seemed to perplex the locals - “What was I doing there? Not working and not at university?” It was a good question, for which I had no definite answer.

Walking around Ravenna often at that time, it was easy to get lost in the winding layout of the compact city centre. I loved its architecture and design, the pale yellow colour of the buildings and the strung-up lines of lights that danced diagonally across the narrow streets. I loved to walk on the ancient stones around dusk, get a gelato and look at the pricey lingerie and shoes in the shop windows. I loved the library, where I spent hours accompanying my boyfriend on study trips.

The city pulsates with the energy of the women who dominated ancient history. The empresses Theodora and Galla Placidia have their stories eternalized in mosaic. I also love Dante’s sepulchre where The Divine Comedy’s famous author lies buried. I imagined myself, like Dante, writing a 32,000 word masterpiece over twelve years and then dying the following year as he did. It struck me as an interesting way to live. These historical figures left a desire in me somehow to live up to their legacy. I felt Ravenna was full of people to aspire to imitate, and I was left inspired by the poetic quality of living in the same location.

On one trip to San Marino we drove past Dante’s mountain range, where he had wandered in between writing portions of The Divine Comedy. It was majestic. When we got to the top of the mountain in San Marino we paused to look at the entire country at sunset. As I looked at the tiny cars rushing from one place to another, I was reminded how big a problem seems when you're in the driver's seat, and how small it seems at a distance. All of Italy seemed like a child’s toy train set and all my problems seemed miniscule. The buildup of months of personal struggle crumbled in sudden a wave of relief, and I was left refreshed by this new perspective.

I returned to Ravenna several more times until COVID-19 measures stopped my travel plans. After I left, I remembered a dream that had stirred in me long ago, while I was still in Canada working as an electrical engineer, that dream was to live one day in Italy.

I was influenced by the movie ‘Il Conformista’, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, which moved me, and which I saw as the epitome of Italian filmmaking. I remember how I felt watching it for the first time, the effortlessly elegant blue-gray images captured by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro imprisoning the protagonist behind bars made of the interplay between light and shadow, which created pure emotion in me. It stirred in me the desire to be part of Italy’s artistic scene. The dream began of one day living in such a country where there were films made that were so politically brave.

I revisited this dream to live in Italy and considered Ravenna. Though it does have a cultural scene, Ravenna is small and quiet in comparison to London, and I love this about it. Artists, free to dictate how they want to express themselves, might not be as disturbed by the pressure of mass cultural and social movements as they would in a city like London. They can indulge in their most intimate thought processes uninterrupted. And then Ravenna is a four-hour drive from Rome, which appears to me sparkling like a grandmother’s jewel box, where I want to try on every piece.

London was an educational experience. I had gone there two years ago in hopes of starting an acting career. I trained at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and joined the womens’ theatre company, Clean Break, in addition to having small parts in international movies. Training, acting, and watching plays in London, I found my artistic raison d’être: to create and tell stories that were brutally honest in their descriptions of life, usually told by repressed and marginalized persons. The experience of meeting many struggling immigrants from Europe, Africa and the Middle East during this time also had a profound effect on me. All of these experiences led me to become more interested in the human experience as a whole, and I wanted to learn more about cultures, rights and languages.

I am someone seeking life experiences through artistic expression and social contribution. I was born in Canada. My parents immigrated to Canada from Vietnam during the civil war there, and I’m a product of that. Right now I am enamoured with the Italian language, and I hope to learn it to read untranslated Dante and other Italian writers, and watch Italian cinema in its native form.

In this next chapter of my life, I am returning to Ravenna to do a Master’s degree in International Co-operation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna. Despite the economic and COVID crisis, I continue to remain an optimist about living in Europe. I feel Europe is a place where you can have an artistic career of merit, where celebrity is secondary to craft, and I, like all humans, aim to flourish in my field of choice, the world of storytelling. I hope to use my time and my studies to gain a broader perspective of what’s happening in the world and do my part to help. I would like to echo the voices of the underrepresented, bring their stories, their images to the light.