Silvia Schmidt was my public health and epidemiology classmate and multiple-project partner, and the person who's deeply encouraged my work on Project Neighbours in the early stages. Here we talk about multilingual dinner conversations and disappointment with European elites.
My parents met at university in Italy. My father wanted to study medicine, but he didn’t get a place in Germany, so he decided to learn another language and study in another country.
In the beginning, my parents didn’t really understand each other, which, I think, is why they’re still together. I imagine they just gazed into each other’s eyes, thinking how magical it was that the other was speaking a foreign language. It must have been part of the attraction.
Over time, they learnt each other’s languages very well and, as we moved around, we all learnt the languages of the countries where we lived. Nowadays, as a family, we use a whole mix.
My father speaks German to all of us, and I speak German to him. My mum and my brother speak Italian to all of us, and I speak Italian to my mum and my brother, but, if something is better expressed in French or English, we switch.
I was born in Germany, but I think of Rome as my hometown and of Italian as my mother tongue.
Italy are my team
Mind you, I don’t care about football or sport, but when Italy plays, I can get so angry and it’s not something that happens to me day-to-day.
When Germany plays, I don’t care too much, but with Italy, I go all out. I stand for the anthem; I wear a t-shirt; I’m wrapped in the flag. Italy are my team.
Stronger family ties
I have always felt more Italian than anything else, but, growing up, whenever I’d say that, people would say, no, you’re German, you’re Belgian, you’re French.
It’s almost like I wasn’t Italian enough.
I don’t look Italian. I speak foreign languages without an Italian accent. When I speak Italian, people often say, oh my God, your Italian is perfect. I say, yes, I’m Italian, and they say, oh really, I wouldn’t have thought.
For a while, I felt that I wasn’t necessarily accepted as Italian. I’m still not completely, but now I’m okay with it. As a kid, I hadn’t figured it out, but now I know that I am not a typical Italian, but I am an Italian, in my own way, and that’s enough.
It’s odd, Italy is family and home, but it’s also a place where I might not live again.
I love to go back; I love the food, the music, the weather, but I don’t necessarily see it as a place where I have to be. When I’m away, I don’t long to move there. Having said that, coming back from Italy is getting harder and harder every time I go.
Reforms must come first
In Italy, opportunities need to come first. As soon as the environment allows people to go back, they will and then they'll affect bigger change.
But without reforms, people won’t feel like they will be needed or welcomed back.
I'd like to do something to help, but I don’t know what. As for working on the ground, I don’t feel like it’s my duty to try to make a difference in Italy at the expense of the life I have in Brussels, which I adore.
Full of half-half people
Brussels has a very international vibe and people like me– people who are half-half, who have lived a little bit everywhere – we’re not considered weird.
Belgians are used to international company because the European institutions have been here for a very long time and because they themselves are a country with three official languages.
Because of my work for an EU association, I don’t meet many Belgians, but the ones I do get to know, they make me feel welcome.
I work for a European Union association because, cheesy as it may sound, I believe we’re stronger together and I hope the reluctance toward the EU is temporary.
There are issues where countries need to maintain their own policies, but there are as many issues where it only makes sense to have region-wide thinking.
For example, the license for the herbicide glyphosate is due to be renewed; it’s a pesticide that’s widely used in agriculture and food production to which there is currently no alternative.
If we stop using it, there is a risk that there will not be enough food. The controversy, though, is that, according to certain studies, glyphosate may cause cancer.
Member states are now refusing to vote and, once the deadline passes, the EU will have to make a decision. Whatever the decision, it'll be “wrong”; national governments will wash their hands and point at Brussels for imposing policy, which will be quickly picked up by national press.
This combination of lack of participation on one hand, and scapegoating on another, is what got us where we're at now.
The EU is quite bad at communicating how it benefits member states.
One huge achievement unique to the EU is protection of consumer rights. Thanks to this work, large corporations can no longer trick us with print too small to read, or opt-out boxes too small to tick; yet, little is said about it.
At the same time, the EU is quite elitist.
Decision-makers in Brussels have taken a huge step away from the reality of their home countries and their citizens who live there and who don’t want to relocate.
Now, representatives need to get out of their beautiful golden cage and get in touch with the people on whose behalf they make decisions.
I think Brexit showed us what’s at stake and that the representatives now have an urgency to act. I don’t want to think of alternatives. I want to see people in favour of the EU again.
Driven by a passion for public health, food policies and sustainability, Silvia Schmidt currently works for an EU association where she promotes healthy and sustainable food systems. She is inherently European and speaks 4.5 languages.