I often wondered what it means to belong to a country. My first memories date back to when I was about four years old. Paris, the Eiffel Tower seen from the car window, a two-floor house surrounded by a small garden, the smell of humidity, my mother’s deeply reassuring eyes, my father’s paintings and brushes on the kitchen table. And the languages spoken, those too I remember clearly. Italian meant mum to me, while English was dad. French was the sound of a boy I used to play with and whose parents, I was told later in life, immigrated to Paris from Morocco. I think his name was Alan. But perhaps it is just my mind inventing it.
Where do you come from? My answer to that question changed at least twice in the course of my life. My aunt tells me that when my mother and I came back to Sicily when I was five, I kept refusing to speak any other language than French and I would tell people I came from France. I was French, even though I had no idea of what that sentence truly meant. It’s interesting that a person can say to have been of a nationality which they no longer are today. As a young student in Sicily, born in Paris from an Italian mother and an Irish father, I gradually came to realize how where you come from, where you belong to, is dictated by a combination of family and national laws. I was puzzled. That’s when I asked myself for the first time “Where do you come from”? I think I still haven’t found a good answer. Because I feel Italian as much as Irish, and in a way I still feel I belong to France.
Mine is by no means a drama. I am lucky because no government ever refused me any claim to identity as their citizen. Whether France, Italy or Ireland. Moving from France to Italy perhaps was slightly traumatic at the beginning, but I had a place to belong to wherever I went.
I like to think this is one of the reasons I decided to study migration. It was during the first five years of my life that I understood how what made me most afraid was the feeling of not being in control of where I belonged. Because I was a child, and no child is truly in control of anything.