Losing my home made me appreciate everything else

Gaia De Simoni and her dog Densi outside their Verbier, Switzerland chalet in 2009.

Four days before Christmas 2010, while everybody was rushing to buy their final gifts, I was in my bedroom deciding which clothes to pack before leaving my house forever.

Until the financial crisis hit Italy in 2010, I lived in a big and beautiful apartment in downtown Milan. On the terrace, one could admire the sight of the Sforzesco Castle and the Duomo, and most important to me: I finally had my own bedroom. I didn’t have share with my older sister.

We could afford anything we wanted: shopping, traveling and a golf club membership. We had housekeepers on staff and a beautiful rented chalet in Switzerland where we had spent our summer and winter vacations since I was a baby. We skied in winter and played golf in summer and autumn. We had two dogs and two cats in our big pack, as well.

My dad was a businessman who spent most of his life working at big companies, and he has always worked hard to give us everything we wanted.

We almost lost everything

In the early 2000s, he decided to become an entrepreneur and to start his own company. As the global financial crisis was spreading, my father’s company lost a €1 million contract, and customers stopped paying the invoices. I was not aware of what was going on until September 2010, when my parents told me they had problems paying the rent. Our landlord forced us out on Dec. 21, 2010.

While I was crying on the landing of our apartment, the landlord’s attorney closed it, changed the lock and left all our furniture and many of our personal belongings inside.

I was 22, still living with my parents while I attended my last year at the Università Cattolica in Milan.

Family wouldn’t help us

We went to our cars, loaded our luggage and dogs and cats, and tried to figure out what to do. Relatives either could not or would not take us in. (I still don’t know why.) Time stood still, especially when my mom called her mother and sister. I kept my breath, trying to hear what they were saying.

Luckily, my boyfriend’s parents offered to host us in one of their apartments. It was a tiny apartment in Cerchiate, a small village outside Milan. We drove there and we found them waiting for us outside the front door of the building. They had a mattress and pillows, and they carried them up three flights of stairs since there was no elevator. They helped us settle down, cleaning up the apartment and carrying up our belongings too.

 Help sometimes comes in the most unexpected ways. They didn’t slam the door in our faces, leaving us on the street. They gave me and my family the best Christmas gift ever: A home.

A different kind of Christmas

The night before Christmas, we bought our dinner with the rewards points we had at the supermarket. I have always loved Christmas and its atmosphere, and I felt grateful for that dinner. Even if it was a hard time, I was lucky to be with my family and with my pets. It didn’t matter where we were. It mattered to be together.

After dinner, my boyfriend and I went to one of his friends’ place for dessert. His friend’s family had a tradition of opening gifts on Christmas Eve. While opening them, they bragged on how much money they spent on them. I had no Christmas presents waiting for me. I had no tree either. I had to cheer even if I was not in the mood, because no one knew what had just happened to my family, but I was disgusted with them.

We kept our problems secret as long as we could because we didn’t want to be judged. It was hard to keep everything inside, but it was also a challenge: I had to be stronger than my peers at university.

I always tried to be cheerful and smiley, and no one ever imaged what was going on in my life. I kept thinking that if we overcame that terrible situation, nothing could have ever stopped me in the future.

Finishing college with almost no money

After two months in the tiny apartment, we moved to two motel rooms. That was the hardest moment. There was no kitchen to cook, no living room to have dinner together and chat. There was just a bed and a bath. I had my exams and had to pass them with a high grade, so I kept focused on them.

I wanted to graduate in December 2011 and so I did, with the help of my boyfriend, who supported and encouraged me. My mom and dad sold all their gold and jewelry to pay our bills, so I decided to help them back. I started teaching French and English to three secondary school students, and I found a job in an HR office. It was not my dream job, though. I still wanted to be a journalist.

My dream was to move to the United States to study journalism, and my father always supported my dream, even in hard times. He taught me to work hard and never give up. I knew one day I would start a master’s program in the United States. And here I am, at Boston University, pursuing my master’s degree in journalism.

My parents are back on track, thanks to their tenacity and the help we had from my uncle, who gave us money and bought shares in my dad’s company. My father works as a partner of a global consulting firm building infrastructure in the Middle East and North Africa. He and my mom live on Lake Maggiore now, close to my sister’s new home, and they have two lovely dogs.

The value of money

 It was hard to not have money when my father lost everything in the 2008 financial crisis, but it made me strong. And it taught me gratitude, the value of money and to never give up on my goals, just as my father has never given up on his goals.

I used to take money for granted. Now I know that money comes from hard work, and I better spend it on what I really need. I compare services, restaurants and offers, spending money when I find the best deals. When I am shopping, I usually ask myself: “Do I really need this? Is it worth spending money on it?”

Before the eviction and that experience, I had so many shoes, clothes and bags that I barely remembered owning. I bet I wore some of those clothes just once. Now I prefer to spend money on presents for those I love than buying something for me. I usually feel a punch in the gut when I spend money on material and superfluous things.

I am more grateful every day for the life I am living now. I am not sure I could have done a master’s program without that experience. I needed to mature to consider studying in the United States as a way to develop my skills and build my portfolio instead of a way to have fun. I started working harder, focusing on my goal of becoming a news producer.

And if anyone is rude to me, I usually think there must be a reason. They might have a difficult day or they might be living a difficult experience like the one I had. What really matters to me is to never give up on my dreams, because bad times don’t last forever.

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