Ilaria in 2018
“I want to go and find out if there is one universal truth or if everything is relative.” I said to my brother on one summer night, while we were taking a walk on a moonlit path through the golf course near our home.
He was quite intrigued by this “mission” of mine and supportive of my choice, despite my parents having quite a different opinion about it.
“I am tired of hearing your mother secretly crying at night!” my father shouted one morning upon storming into my bedroom while I was still asleep. “Get the thought of going to university in the UK out of your mind! Understood?”
Yes, I wanted to study abroad, which for an Italian eighteen-year-old girl was quite an unusual choice in 2000. It would have made most parents scared, in Italy at least. But I did feel that was the right choice to make and I was determined to follow it through, no matter what. And then, one day, doors opened and, after months of thick tensions within our family, which had caused many a heartache, and sometimes not just the heart to ache, I was finally able to have an earnest conversation with my parents which got my father to conclude, “If this is what you want, I can’t but support your choice”.
Anthropology and Development Studies: I’d picked those two subjects for my undergraduate degree. I thought they would lead me to the answers I was after. I was late with the application process and it was August when I set off for England with no place on any university course yet. I was determined to knock on enough doors to get one, though. And that’s just what I did. Brighton University was the first door I knocked on. I literally went knocking on the admission office door, asking for a place on one of their courses. “No! Your English is not good enough!” was the answer. Or better, that would have been the answer had the lady been Italian but because she was British she said something like: “I am sorry, do you have a IELTS certificate?” To which I replied, “Err…No.” “Come back when you have one.”
Maybe showing up at admission offices was not the best idea… Why not writing an email instead? You can’t really detect a person’s proficiency in the English language if you don’t hear her speak, right? So I bought a newspaper that contained a list of all vacant university places around the country, and there I found what seemed to be just perfect for me. I then emailed Swansea University and shortly after was admitted onto their Anthropology and Development Studies course.
First day at university, first Introduction to Development Studies lecture with Helen Hintjens. OMG! Maybe the admission office lady in Brighton had been right after all. I felt doomed, for I could understand so little of that lecture. So I turned to my right and to my left to seek help. I had no friends on the course yet. I was all alone with my lack of proficiency in English as my only, unhelpful companion. But I felt a friendly presence to my right, so I asked, “What books did she say we should take out from the library?” And Ben replied, “Don’t worry, we’ll go there together after class and I’ll show you.” It did seem little short of a miracle how kind this English guy was. So, the British weren’t so cold after all, were they? (This is a common Italian prejudice about the British.)
Well, Ben wasn’t cold at all. In fact, he was so friendly that he would often carry a box of cookies around with him for people to have, which he used as an ice-breaking method to strike up a conversation.
Ben invited me to some Monday night meetings at this old couple’s tiny place. I gladly accepted, as I was curious to meet the locals. There, I felt welcomed, and besides there was something in the air that made me go back each time.
“Did you see the picture on their wall?” enquired my flatmate, who’d also come along to a couple of those meetings. The picture on the wall was of Abdu’l-Bahá and, no, I had not seen it yet. “They are trying to convert you to their religion!” she warned me. Well, I didn’t really care about that, they were nice people, the atmosphere at the meetings made me feel warm inside and they did have interesting ideas about the world. I had some wonderful conversations there, plus you didn’t need to worry about dinner on Mondays as they served tons of food!
Then one afternoon the doorbell rang. It was Ben popping by on his bike, with a pile of books and leaflets, mostly in English, but he’d managed to find something in Italian too.
“Here you are. These are for you.” Ben said. “ Thank you Ben… are you sure?”
Of course he was sure, and I was sure to like those Bahá’í books too! I devoured them and even neglected my academic work to read them. They were much more interesting than my university books and manuals and I felt they contained the answers to the questions that had brought me all the way to the UK, and to Swansea, in the first place.
My declaration of my belief in Bahá’u’lláh and His teachings occurred roughly a year and a half, a trip to a Bahá’í-inspired orphanage in Honduras and some months of solitude later. It was a warm afternoon in May 2002. I declared in the beautiful park adjacent to the university campus. The trees were in bloom and the flowers and sunshine seemed to be feasting for me. Now, in 2018, I can say I have tried to be a Baha’i for 16 years… wow… life is so swift…
Without Ben (one of the two Bahá’í students at Swansea University when I first got there) and all the other Bahá’ís I met in Swansea, I would not have a purpose in life, I would not try to be of service to the entire human race, I would not know the key to true happiness.
Can gratefulness to God and the people He chooses to carry His Messenger’s message ever be enough to give back what I have received?
Varese, Italy – September 2018
Ilaria (centre) with friends during her time at the University of Wales Swansea
Ilaria today, with husband Mauro and their two daughters