Lost in translation: my experience of loneliness as an Italian in London

Eleonora Girotto at Earl’s Court Underground station. Pic: Oreste Girotto

When I arrived in London, the language barrier felt like an insurmountable wall separating me from everyone else. Nothing could have prepared me for the loneliness.

On September 16 2015, I wheeled my big blue suitcase through the departures lounge of the cosy Treviso airport, northern Italy. I only looked back for a second to see my parents waving at me through the separating glass. My heart was filled with excitement for the new adventure I was about to embark on: in only 10 days I was going to start a BA. Studying in London had been a dream of mine since I was 15, my first visit to the UK capital. 

Nothing could have prepared me for the loneliness I felt when I arrived in London.

All that excitement disappeared instantly when I opened the door to the hostel dormitory. My bed was one of the eight bunks. The room was crammed with strangers’ suitcases, belongings bursting. The following three days was a desperate hunt for a reasonably priced room to rent: nine viewings every day, visiting mouldy and malodorant places.

Through this hectic search for a room, I was constantly alone. I couldn’t really count the several people that would show me round house after house as company. My third night in London was spent on the phone with my parents, crying tears of frustrations about my housing situation.

Eleonora Girotto with her family at graduation. Pic: Oreste Girotto

Things started looking up when I signed the contract for a single room in Lee Green, south London. It was in a three-storey Victorian house, with a big kitchen and a spacious living room. It was owned by a policeman who supposedly lived there too, but I never saw him. To this day, almost five years later, I still remember the deafening sound of silence that filled every room. This silence was something so strange to me, so different from my childhood home – filled with people and constant chatter to an almost exasperating level.  

In the mornings, I would go and walk around the university campus, conversing with other freshers, already dreading the moment I had to go back to the empty house. I spent my evenings in the company of social media and Netflix. I tried to meet as many students as I could, but every time I was having a conversation with someone, I had to silence the little voice in my head reminding me that my spoken English was never going to be as good as everyone else’s. I died of embarrassment several times when, in the heat of long conversations, Italian words slipped out of my mouth for no reason. The language barrier felt like a wall separating me from everyone else.

Too scared to speak up and ask, I wrote down every word I didn’t understand, and later looked it up. I would keep out of some conversations to avoid my course-mates realising I had no clue what they were talking about. I struggled to make friends with those whose accent was too difficult for me to understand – I felt stupid asking them to repeat what they said 10 times over. 

Eleonora Girotto with her university friends. Pic: Tia Marie Phillips

Eventually, I learned how to embrace my faults and make peace with the fact I will never know every English word in existence. I grew closer to a group of course-mates that slowly became my family in the UK. We relied on each other for revision sessions and for personal advice. Together we celebrated birthdays and had Christmas dinners. After graduation, all five of us took a road trip around the US. The following summer we travelled across Italy. 

I moved into a place in south east London I can call home and I have not felt lonely since.

This is day three of four in Eastlondonlines’ #IsLondonLonely? series. Read the rest of the series here.

One Response

  1. Helen Simpson April 22, 2020

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