After a thirty year teaching career at an urban comprehensive school in the West Midlands, Anne Amison now lives and works in Venice as a teacher, writer and speaker. She is the author of Byron – Venice: An English Milord in Europe & Italy (San Marco Press, 2014), and has spoken about Byron’s Venetian life on numerous occasions, including the Circolo Italo-Britannico, Venice; the Keats-Shelley House, Rome; and most recently at Ca’Foscari University’s Byron & Venice bicentenary conference. Anne also volunteers as a guide in St Mark’s Basilica, and has co-authored a young people’s guide to the building, St Mark’s in Venice, which will be available in English in 2017.
1. Please tell me where you are from and where you currently live and work.
I spent the first fifty years of my life in the West Midlands, the former industrial heartland known as The Black Country. I currently live and work in Venice.
2. Which European languages can you speak?
English and some Italian.
3. Would you describe yourself as European? If so, is this part of your identity, or just a fact of geography?
I identify strongly as a “cultural” European. I first became aware of this on a trip to New York in 2002 where, despite the common language, I felt incredibly alien. From this experience came a growing realisation that my ways of thinking, values and beliefs are based upon the European Enlightenment.
4. When you think of the European Union, what is the first thing that comes into your mind?
Peace. The EU is a bureaucratic behemoth with many faults but, from as far back as 1951, the objectives of the various treaties have been co-operation and shared ideals. An Italian friend put it succinctly: ‘The EU is the price you have to pay for not having a foreign army marching through your country once every generation’.
5. Do you feel that living and working in Europe (rather than simply your home country) has made a difference to your professional career? How?
In England everyone comes with a label based on their way of speaking or birthplace; people are pigeon-holed as “working-class,” “a teacher,” “Black Country accent.” It is incredibly hard to overcome those stereotypes. In Italy I feel valued for my skills and abilities, and I have welcomed with open arms every new opportunity that has come my way.
6. Do you feel as though the European Union is beneficial to the arts and creative industries?
My gut feeling was “yes, of course,” but in order to find some hard evidence for my answer, while I was on my morning walk I decided to have a look at posters advertising recent cultural events. Straightaway I spotted venetonight, an annual event to encourage young people’s involvement in architecture and research, and European cultural heritage days, when museums offer free guided tours of their collections. This led me to the Italian website of Eurodesk, where young people can find out about apprenticeships, bursaries, competitions for photography, story-telling, creative writing… And then there are Erasmus opportunities. The list could go on and on.
7. Does Europe inspire you professionally or personally? If so, how?
To give just one example, my particular field of research is Lord Byron. Byron was a European. He came of age in 1809 and died in 1824. During that fifteen year time-span, he spent ten years in Europe, visiting Portugal, Spain, Gibraltar, Malta, Greece, Albania, Turkey, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and Italy; for seven of those years he lived in Italy, and of course he died in the struggle for Greek independence. He spoke several European languages. He was interested in cultural and political developments in France, planned to dedicate one of his works to Goethe, and inspired a generation of Europeans to fight for their countries’ freedom. So yes, he inspires me both professionally and personally.
8. Were you interested in the recent Referendum on EU membership in the UK? What do you think of the result?
I was horrified by both the campaign and the result. The Leave campaign pandered to the worst kind of narrow-minded Little Englander, whilst the Remain campaign never seemed able to present the benefits of EU membership and was correctly labelled “project fear.” The result is a huge retrograde step for the UK.
9. Do you think the EU helps maintain peace?
As I said earlier, in my opinion it has done a remarkable job in doing so; I think the desire of the Balkan countries to become part of the EU is a very good illustration of this.
10. Do you feel as though you have a lot in common with people from European countries other than your own? Can you give examples?
The UK Brexit vote has brought home to me very strongly just how European I feel. I live, work, feel at home in Italy. I follow Italian current affairs (out of enlightened self-interest) and Greek political developments (for Byron’s sake). My partner has a long-standing interest in Scandinavian life and culture. He is also passionate about classical music: on a typical day we listen to music from France, Germany, Italy…
11. Do you think it is good for the country where you live to be part of the European Union?
Definitely. Italy has benefitted from a great deal of inward investment from the EU. I Googled this to be sure of the figures, and was amazed at the amount: the European Investment Bank invested almost €11 billion in 2015 alone (however, the same statistics showed a more than €7 billion investment in the UK in the same year, which Brexiters have clearly decided is surplus to requirements!). My area has a lovely state-of-the art and environmentally-sound tram system which takes me between Venice and the mainland (as Venetians dismissively refer to the rest of Italy) in considerable comfort thanks to the EU.
12. How would you feel about ‘ever closer union’ or a ‘United States of Europe’?
As a utopian ideal to work towards, I think it is a wonderful idea. As a practical everyday reality, I imagine it would be almost impossible to achieve, given the wide-ranging socio-political, cultural and economic differences to be found in the EU’s member states.
13. Do you have a favourite place in Europe? If so, where is it and why do you love it?
If I were to make a list of my top five favourite cities, four are in Italy.
Apart from the city I now call home (which has problems with declining population, uncontrolled tourism and mega cruise ships, but which still reveals its breathtaking beauty on a daily basis) I love Rome.
Rome was the first European city I ever visited, and also the first I visited with my partner, back in 1982. I wouldn’t really like to count the number of times we have been back since then, but it always has something new to offer.
The far south of Italy is different again. My partner has a particular fondness for the harsh beauty of Calabria, whilst I love Sicily, which has been a melting-pot of Mediterranean-wide cultural influences for centuries.
14. Which European national stereotypes are true, in your experience?
I only really know Italians, and Italians from the north-east of the country at that, so I’m not really in a position to comment. At times I’m hugely frustrated by the elastic attitude to time which is quite common here, and which can be summed up as “why put off until tomorrow what you can easily leave till the day after,” but this is probably because my own attitude to punctuality and deadlines is completely anally-retentive.
15. Where is the best place in Europe to drink coffee? What would you order?
I am very partial to a well-made espresso. The further south in Italy one travels, the more wonderfully bitter it becomes.
16. What do you think is the biggest challenge facing Europe today?
The refugee crisis. UNHCR statistics show that 142,468 refugees arrived by boat between January and August this year, the vast majority to Sicily and Calabria, two of Italy’s (and Europe’s) poorest regions. When we were in Sicily last year it was clear that there was an ongoing struggle to deal with a huge influx of (mainly) young men into an area which already has to cope with a youth unemployment rate of 37%. Here in Veneto there are young, clearly intelligent people with plenty to offer, and who clearly hoped for a better life in Europe, begging on the street.
I can see no clear solution, but attitudes like that of Theresa May, that refugees should stay in the first European country they reach, are not helpful.
17. Name a place in Europe you have not visited, but would like to. Why?
Greece and Albania, to follow in Byron’s footsteps.
18. What do you think is the most significant moment in European history? Why?
1789. The impact of the French Revolution, which proclaimed that all citizens were equal before the law, reverberated across Europe, and law codes based on the French model are still in use all over Europe thanks to Napoleon. Revolutionary ideals of freedom led in the long term to German and Italian unification, to the Greek struggle for freedom and independence, more or less to the map of Europe we have today.
19. Are you hopeful for the future of Europe?
I think that, when Brexit finally drags itself to its bitter conclusion, Europe can begin to move toward a more hopeful future. In many ways Britain has been a long-term lame duck and drag on progress with its constant refusals to join, whether the Euro or Schengen. Now that Britain is finally ready to pick up its ball and go home because no-one will play the game by its rules, the remaining countries can breathe a sigh of relief!