Emilia first contacted me a couple of months ago to tell me about her and husband Aidan's online business, My Family Nation, and to see whether we could collaborate in any way. After learning that they sell beautiful, unique and ethically-sourced products for babies, children and their parents, I didn't hesitate: their ethos perfectly reflects our own values, and proves that being a parent in our materialist society does not necessarily mean being wasteful or giving up on your ecological and social values.
We decided on an interview because I wanted to learn more about the people behind the brand, and so I hope you'll enjoy reading about Emilia and Aidan's incredibly interesting journey and gorgeous family as much as I did!
A: Aidan and I met in Kabul Afghanistan in 2002 when we were both working for the United Nations, him as advisor to the Minister of Finance (Ashraf Ghani, currently the President of Afghanistan) and I was working to support the development of the justice system. It’s a place few would think romantic in the traditional sense of the term, but for Aidan and me it has been a life changing experience in more ways than one and we are very attached to Afghanistan and its people.
Aidan is part English part Irish and I am Italian, from Florence (although my mum claims she has gypsy origin due to her very mysterious last name!).
Q: Though you’ve settled in Florence, you’ve been all over the world. Could you tell us about your previous journeys and what brought you to Italy eventually?
A: I got the expat bug when I lived in the US as a child. My father went as a visiting professor several times and I spent 4 months in Seattle when I was 7 and then a full year in Cleveland, Ohio when I was 13. I enjoyed the challenge of a new language and new perspective and I have since taken career choices that involved travel and changes! I have studied international human rights law in the US and the UK and worked in several countries in Europe and Asia. After a 2 years assignment in Afghanistan, I found the regional job with the UN in Bangkok a wonderful opportunity to work with over 20 very diverse countries and enjoyed the challenge of dealing with different cultures and expectations. Aidan also studied in France as well as the UK and then spent one year volunteering in Cote d’Ivoire with an NGO when he was 18 (having raised money to support himself). He then worked in development in most continents and, while his heart is in Asia, he has also had the opportunity to spend more time in Africa and Latin America. He enjoyed his regional job in Bangkok but he had to deal with many humanitarian emergencies starting with the Tsunami and finishing with the earthquake in Haiti that took him away for several weeks at the time and eventually this had taken a toll on all of us. Aidan and I, both on regional jobs, were traveling twice a month to different countries while trying to raise 2 small kids. It was stimulating but difficult. So we thought we could stop for a while in a country where one of us had family and roots and do something different. I was pushing for the UK and Aidan for Florence. We ended up here in Florence and I think we did the right thing for the moment, but I get itchy feet every so often and think of a possible next destination be it with Family Nations or the United Nations!
Q: How do your two kids, Flavia and Tancredi (beautiful names!) fit into the picture? Were they born abroad or do you find yourselves with a pair of little Italians? How have they taken to their expat lives?
A: Flavia and Tancredi were born in Bangkok. While they do not hold a Thai passport (Thai law requires that at least a parent be Thai by birth for a child to be a Thai national), they love the fact that they are born in Thailand and firmly assert that they are part Italian, part British and part Thai! Flavia in particular (who was 4 when we left Thailand) is very attached to the idea of having a diverse background and considers Bangkok her home as much as Florence. Tancredi was only 2 when we came to Florence so he is growing up more Italian in heritage. They are both interested in other languages and we get often visitors from our previous jobs dropping by in Florence that come from all over the world and this stimulates their curiosity and interest in other languages and parts of the world. While we have not been back to Bangkok since we left in 2011, we do make a point to speak regularly on skype with friends there. We also visit Aidan’s family in the UK (England and Scotland) at least once a year and have an English-speaking au pair living with us plus we speak English at home to make sure they keep bilingual.
A: At risk of sounding stereotypical, my favourite things about living in Florence are: the weather, great fresh food, produce and ingredients, nature that we can enjoy with walks and picnics, the general natural and artistic beauty that surrounds us (we’ve just come back from a trip in Val D’Orcia and it is hard to beat) and a general mellowness that is pleasant and relaxing. Also being close to family and giving our kids a chance to grow some ‘roots’. The hardest bits I find are (the usual): bureaucracy, lack of consistency in applying rules and generally an expectation that the rules, forms and even signs in museums should be written to show off how clever or ‘learned’ the person who wrote is, rather than to genuinely be helpful. It’s due to top down style of education and it bothers me a bit that our kids are also exposed to some of this at school. But we work to counter it by setting a different example. I also personally am very upset by how women have very little standing in society still and men do not share equally in household responsibilities. It makes me scream and I find it unbelievable that this country does not understand that they are not making full use of 50% of their best resources!
A: Aidan and I had been working in development for 15 years and were ready for a new challenge. Having had babies ourselves in a very mixed, international environment like Bangkok, we came across so many different traditions as well as baby products from different countries. We enjoyed the exchange with other new parents. Becoming parents is such a unique, special moment in the life of a person that it can create a true feeling of bonding across nations and cultures. We did some research and thought there was a niche in the market at least in Italy and we decided to take the plunge, leave Asia and move to Florence!
Q: Starting a business in a foreign country probably isn’t for the faint-hearted. Can you share your top three tips for people wanting to set up a business in Italy?
A: This is a good question. Aidan and I have actually thought about writing up our experience in setting up an online business in Italy. Our three tips would be: persevere and if you think the idea is good don’t get brought down by those who tell you that there is no way this can work in Italy; get a good accountant with whom you can communicate and is able to explain concepts clearly and simply if possible or at least someone you can trust; don’t let your standards of quality or service be brought down if others do not offer the same level, but impress by having unprecedented standards of quality and service as customers appreciate it no matter where they are from!
Q: Tell us a little about Family Nation’s philosophy - what sets you apart from other retailers of baby, children & maternity products?
A: I think what sets us apart from other retailers of baby and maternity products is the passion with which we run every aspect of the business and the fact that we truly believe in each and every product we sell. We love choosing our brands carefully and we can detail all the benefits of each product. Most of them we have either used ourselves or we have followed a recommendation of another parent we trust. We also love talking to our customers, helping them to choose the best item for them and we take pride in providing an outstanding shopping experience with a real ‘human touch’. Finally we bring the values to Family Nation: we work with small and independent brands that are trying to do the right thing by being responsible and we are proud to be their partners.
A: I love this question! I love giving recommendations for new baby gifts. My personal favourite are either black and white baby art cards from Wee Gallery (they can be seen by newborn babies due the contrast), bath toys from Danish brand Hevea (completely natural with no PVC or phthalates and handcrafted in Spain) or a handmade fair-trade rattle by Pebble as they are fun and I love the idea that it was made by a mother in Bangladesh who was fairly paid and fairly treated. For something that can be become a family heirloom, I would recommend an organic brushed cotton blanket from Swedish brand Fabulous Goose they are so soft and look magical; or a mei tei baby carrier from Thai Brand One Love: each one of them is handmade and one of a kind decorated with Thai or Japanese gorgeous fabric. Or if you are looking for something that will be used and useful, I would recommend a set of beauty products from Italian Linea Mamma Baby all made out of natural ingredients or the ‘magical’ silverettes: pure silver nursing cups that heal sore and cracked nipples that are so common in the first stages of breastfeeding (I wish I knew them at the time!).
I received compensation in return for publishing this post but the questions I put to Emilia are my own and, as I mentioned, I am genuinely pleased to support this great company.