‘My Story’ shares the experiences of an Indian living in Switzerland. Meet Ajantha Stella Gnan: Born to Indian-Italian parents, Ajantha calls her dad “Papa” like an Italian and her mom “Amma” like an Indian. She loves her main course as Pasta and enjoys finishing her meal with Thayir Saadam (Curd Rice) on a Banana leaf! Here she is, sharing her experiences growing up in India and Italy and now her life as an expat in Switzerland.
Q: Tell us about yourself?
I am a stay-at-home mommy to two handsome boys named Karish(6) and Aarav(10 months). They keep me super busy all the time! I am a Software Engineer by profession. I used to work on small projects for college students supporting them with Java and SQL programming. I am now on a break and hope to resume it soon. I was born in India to Indian-Italian parents.
Q: How did your parents meet?
My dad visited India (Tamil Nadu) during the 70s. Something in India attracted him so much that he decided to visit India every year. He started by learning Tamil from a government school teacher every evening. After knowing the country and culture he decided that he wanted to marry an Indian. His friends in India, then started by looking for a suitable match for him. Many refused before he met my mom. It was a year of struggle before my mom’s parents said yes and they finally married.
Q: What was it like living in Italy and then moving to India as a child?
Until I was 7, we were in Italy living in a small sea-shore village, Carole near Venice. Later, we moved from an Italian to an Indian seashore, the Southern tip of India, Kanyakumari. While in Italy, I went to a local school. I remember the teachers were nuns and my grandfather used to ride me seating me on the front of his bicycle. Summers were total beach fun. I often thought my grandma was my mom as I spent more time with her as a child. I still remember the last day when we were leaving for India. My grandma, she locked herself holding me in a room. My dad kept knocking but she wouldn’t open but at last, she gave in. She wanted me to stay with her. She is 90 now, we’ll be visiting her for Christmas.
Moving to Kanyakumari didn’t feel great initially. I was often seen as the odd one out. But later I got used to my life there.
Q: What is it like growing up in an (international) bilingual house?
I grew up speaking 3 languages at home- Mom-Tamil, Dad-Italian/English. I have to admit, my mom speaks better Italian than me. She was new to everything when she first arrived in Italy- the language, pasta, risotto and minestrone! But my grandpa, who retired as an army officer used to teach her and she learnt in six months! My dad who can now speak and read Tamil always insisted that we talk in Tamil because he wanted us to understand the values of Tamil language and culture.
Q: Where do you live and what brought you here to Switzerland?
I live in Zurich. I joined my husband, Ram, in Paris after our wedding. Ram, who is also a Software engineer was then working in Paris. We were based there for a few years before moving to Switzerland in October 2014. After growing up in small-town Kanyakumari, I was definitely excited to be back in Europe. It felt great introducing my husband to my Dad’s side of the family and showing him around the places I grew up as a child.
Q: Being a mother and back in Europe, what has life been like? How are the kids with language?
I strongly believe that everything in life goes by God’s will. Despite being Italian, I never even dreamt of living in Europe as my Dad had decided to live permanently in India. I enjoyed my kindergarten days in Italy and it’s great to see my older son have a similar experience at the local school here. He is in the first grade now and fluent in the German language. Knowing Italian I assumed learning German would be easy. But now my son is helping both of us learn the language.
Q: Do you like it here, what do you love and what would you change?
Switzerland is one place I admired as a child watching Bollywood and Tamil movies. The scenic mountain views, the greenery, the farms, cheese and chocolates make me love this place all the more. It’s hard to mingle with the locals unless you know the language.
My son’s school has a program for expats. They help us integrate with the locals by discussing current news and happenings. This has been very helpful for us as parents. Overall learning German is a must for integration. The Swiss are welcoming and friendly and helpful when we try to speak the local language.
Q: What is your take as a parent about schooling in Switzerland?
I still don’t understand the Swiss school system fully. It’s a lot different than India or Italy or even Paris. But my son likes his school and his teachers. So far the teachers we have met have been great. They help us understand the school system and the language in every meeting. The parents of other kids are also very welcoming and friendly.