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Cover story: Ces dela Cruz’s la dolce vita in Europe

Cover story: Ces dela Cruz’s la dolce vita in Europe

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How Filipina chef Ces dela Cruz didn´t let her being undocumented prevent her from living her best life in Europe.

For most of her life in Europe, Maria Cecilia “Ces” dela Cruz had been lucky. In 2012 she migrated from the Philippines straight to a luxurious life in the Netherlands, in the arms of a well-off boyfriend. When the relationship soured, she decided to stay in Amsterdam. But even without a regular permit to stay, it did not stop her from pursuing her passion for cooking, donning the hats of sous chef, private chef, caterer, and later on food blogger/vlogger, representing the Filipino cuisine in the Dutch food blogging scene. Until matters of the heart ushered her to another direction, to Italy. Here, her luck ran out. 

Homeless in Rome

A misunderstanding with her employer left her homeless and penniless in Rome. But to make matters worse, her passport had expired and she was still waiting for her permesso di soggiorno (residence permit). Thus made the legal procedure complicated when she sought help from lawyers and the police to claim the salary her former employers refused to pay. This happened in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, when Italian authorities were strictly checking everyone’s documents, a nightmare for undocumented immigrants.

“As an undocumented in Italy you’d think you have no rights but you do. Italian law is different. Even as an undocumented, if something happens to you, in the labour law, you have a right to file a denuncia (official complaint).” 

This was not Cecilia’s first brush with the injustice that often comes with having no permit to stay. During her first employment in Rome as a house caretaker and cook in August 2020, she worked from 5am to 11pm, was given a small room in the basement with a CCTV camera to monitor her, and her employer used a bell to call her up whenever she was needed – all for a meager fee of €600. 

“I moved from Taiwan, Philippines, and then the Netherlands. I wasn’t building connections with people anymore because I was moving from one place to another.”

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In Rome, Cecilia dela Cruz did not allow her visa woes to stop her from enjoying the Italian life. Photo: Adelia Agzamova

“We need to talk about this because this is very important. When people find out that you are undocumented, they take advantage of you. I love Italy, I love the Italian people but they tend to be discriminatory when it comes to Filipinos. They think that the only thing Filipinos can do is to clean houses,” Cecilia tells me during an online interview while on a holiday in Ravenna.

Fortunately, under the new regularization law passed in 2020  to address the pandemic-led labor abuse in Italy, she was able to apply for her permesso di soggiorno.

Destined for an expat life

After finishing her Master’s degree in Public Administration at the Saint Louis University in Baguio, Cecilia went straight abroad for her first job, a factory worker in the semiconductor industry in Taiwan. She was able to speak the language, Mandarin Chinese, quickly so she was promoted to Team Leader. Despite living her life to the fullest in Taiwan, work boredom caught up on her. She went back to the Philippines in 2008. 

In the same year she landed a job as an Executive Secretary to the President of Werdenberg Group of Companies, the umbrella company of popular restaurants like Säntis Delicatessen, I Am Angus Steakhouse, and Chesa Bianca Swiss Restaurant. 

It was around this time that Cecilia developed her love for food. While dating a French guy who complimented her cooking, she decided to take up Culinary and Kitchen Management at the International School for Culinary Arts and Hotel Management in Quezon City. After getting her diploma, she became a store manager at one of Säntis branches. She also bought her first ever pan, a Le Creuset cast iron pan that would eventually accompany her in her adventures in Europe. Unfortunately, her love life ended in a messy break-up, leading to her resignation from Werdenberg. 

“I wanted the Filipino food to be more appreciated outside our (Filipino) community. Dutch and other Europeans only know Thai and Vietnamese food. For them, Filipino food is still quite strange.

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In Amsterdam, Cecilia dela Cruz flourished as a chef and food influencer.

Afterwards she worked as an human resource manager for the company of *Erwin, a Dutch guy running an e-commerce business in Manila. They fell in love and he asked her to come with him to the Netherlands, making her pack her bags for the second time.

Expat life in Holland

Before moving to Amsterdam, the couple initially lived in Laren, one of the richest villages in the Netherlands. Although she was enjoying a comfortable life, which involved eating out everyday worrying about money, Cecilia was not satisfied. “I did not have a job so I was very dependent on him. He gave me an allowance but I was used to having my own money,” she quips.

“As an undocumented in Italy you’d think you have no rights but you do. Italian law is different. Even as an undocumented, if something happens to you, in the labour law, you have a right to file a denuncia (official complaint).” 

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Cecilia living the dolce vita in Rome. Photo: Adelia Agzamova

Wanting to be independent and earn her keep, she worked as a sous chef in the LA Club, a theater restaurant  in Hilversum. When the restaurant closed down, she focused on helping Rex manage his business. But the weather and the creeping loneliness started eating her up. 

“I moved from Taiwan, Philippines, and then the Netherlands. I wasn’t building connections with people anymore because I was moving from one place to another.”

She continued going back and forth to the Philippines to manage the e-commerce business until she decided to stay in the Netherlands with Rex for good. However the relationship also did not survive. She was left with an expired visa, with no home nor a boyfriend. 

“I didn’t know what to do but I also didn’t want to go back to the Philippines because I didn’t want to start over again.”

Through sheer determination and “lakas ng loob”, Cecilia was able to find people who provided her a roof above her head. She combined different jobs at the same time, working as an online personal assistant and cleaning houses and bed and breakfast in Amsterdam, to be able to earn enough money  to survive. She felt like a failure.

“I was crying. I am a well-educated person, why am I cleaning? I felt very insecure, felt very depressed because I didn’t know where to go.” Yet she decided to stay in Europe.

Her resourcefulness landed her another job with a stable income, her second gig as a personal assistant to the CEO of So Digital, a branding company located in Herengracht in Amsterdam. She also cleaned her employer’s house and rented his place to AirBnB tourists coming to the city. Eventually she started her own listing of rented houses and rooms she cleaned and managed. Through smart networking, she was also able to book bartending and cooking gigs in pop up dinners, in addition to all the jobs she was doing. 

To further hone her cooking skills, she also took an intensive course in Bread and Patisserie at Le Cordon Bleu.

“I did not feel like I was undocumented because I still got to do the things I liked. I was worried but I was not doing anything bad in the Netherlands so I thought, “maybe I wouldn’t get deported”. But I was not scared. Maybe it is my personality. I am very persistent and a risk-taker. I put a thought in my head that I can never be poor, because I have a lifestyle that I need to work hard for. I think it is very good to have  that attitude – work hard to provide a good life for yourself. ”

A string of failed romances

Cecilia’s life in Europe had been intricately intertwined with her complicated love affairs, but it also influenced the choices she would make in the years to come. 

When she met a British expat *Tim, she thought she was ready to settle. They got engaged, and it was serious enough that she allowed herself to carry his child. But she had a miscarriage, which started a depression she didn’t know she had until few years later. 

“Depression is tough, you need to take care of your mental health. Be part of a community, go to where the sun is, have a support group, and surround yourself with good friends.”

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To deal with the emotional trauma, she escaped to Bologna, Italy, to do Eat, Pray and Love, following the footsteps of Elizabeth Gilbert, taking the risk of getting her papers checked en route. 

Cecilia’s love for Bologna was inspired by the Netflix series Chef’s Table featuring Italian Michelin-star chef Massimo Bottura. She spent half a year in Bologna, and fell in love with Italy, spending most of her savings traveling around the country, particularly Emilia Romagna. 

But her fiancé fell out of love and decided to break up with her. 

When Cecilia returned to her jobs in the Netherlands, single yet again, she spiraled deeper into depression. She ended up at a friend’s living room in Haarlem, sleeping on an inflatable bed for months. Aggravated by the uncertainties of her situation, she turned to illegal drugs.

“(Because of depression) I tend to have meaningless relationships and risky sex. You are alone and you don’t have your family around you. Some people came here with their family, with their kids, but I came here alone. Sometimes it gets lonely. Friends are OK but they don’t show the same affection as much as a family or a husband, or a stable relationship. Because I don’t know where I am going to end up tomorrow, or next year because of my status, you miss the affection. But I chose this life in Europe, and I can’t imagine my life if I go back to the Philippines,” she admits while holding back her tears.

Part of this loneliness was also missing her daughter whom she left behind in the Philippines.

Filipina eating gelato in Italy.
Enjoying gelato in Rome. Photo: Adelia Agzamova

Cooking as her saviour

Her next relationship offered some perspective for the future. When Cecilia met *Robert, a marketing guy from Almere, he convinced her to start a Youtube channel and pursue her love for food and cooking. 

Utilizing her degree in Broadcast Journalism, she started her food and travel blog called CesKitchen.com in 2018, later rebranded to This Delicious Side, combining recipe creations, restaurant features, interviews with owners of Filipino food brands and businesses. Under the same name, she also started weekly pop-up dinners of Filipino food and traditional boodle fight-style eating, and underground dinners exclusive for non-Filipino diners. Before food influencers became a trend, Cecilia was already representing Filipino cuisine in the Amsterdam food blogging scene, even bagging an interview with a local television channel to promote Filipino food. 

“I wanted Filipino food to be more appreciated outside our (Filipino) community. Dutch and other Europeans only know Thai and Vietnamese food. For them, Filipino food is still quite strange. It’s not really a very sophisticated food, according to David Chan, it’s an ugly, delicious food like adobo. You can’t really make it artistic for fine dining. I concentrated on changing that (through pop up dinners).”

Her blog became so successful (currently 31k followers on Instagram) that she was regularly invited to press trips alongside European food journalists. She was also getting paid handsomely for advertisements and endorsements, including Le Creuset, her favorite brand of kitchen products. 

She was finally able to offload some of her back-breaking jobs and focus on cooking and content creation, allowing herself to drown into her own creativity and passion, and have fun.

“We need to talk about this because this is very important. When people find out that you are undocumented, they take advantage of you. I love Italy, I love the Italian people but they tend to be discriminatory when it comes to Filipinos. They think that the only thing Filipinos can do is to clean houses.”

Filipina in Italy glamour shot in Italian market.
As a Filipina in Italy, Ces is determined to prove that Filipinos can do more than just house cleaning. Photo: Adelia Agzamova

Soul searching in Italy

But fun has a downside. The culture of hard work in combination with the normality of drug use in the restaurant industry, particularly among her own circle, slowly took over her life. She got addicted, began neglecting her food blog, and started dwelling on the emptiness brought by her depression. 

It culminated one morning in the summer of 2019, when she woke up and decided to leave her boyfriend and move to Italy, to do another soul searching as she did when she miscarried. She left everything behind – her expensive shoes, the car she bought together with her boyfriend, her collection of pans, and the newly-renovated kitchen in Lodi’s house where she poured much of her savings to professionalize her food blogging career.

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Switzerland Photo Cristina Munteanu via Unsplash

With only €500 in her pocket, she took the train from Amsterdam to Paris, a BlaBlaCar from Lyon France to Turin, Italy, then another train to Milan, a risky journey where her papers could have been checked by immigration police. 

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit a year later, she ended up getting stuck in Italy. 

“Being undocumented is not easy, it will scare the shit out of you. If you are undocumented right now and you haven’t fixed your papers, it will not stop you from doing things you want to do but you have to take a risk. At some point your luck will run out, it’s not going to be unlimited options for you.”

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Not all is dolce vita in Italy

She spent the first year running Il Plazzo Botique in Montalcino, a picturesque hilly town in the famous Tuscany region, home to the famed Brunello wine. While working as the hotel manager, she immersed herself in the region’s food and wine culture, and got to enjoy occasional helicopter rides with the hotel owner. 

But the call of the city was too strong for her to resist so she moved back to Rome to work as a private chef. As she started seeing herself settling in Italy, Cecilia also longed for human connection not always quenched by short-lived relationships. Not to wallow in loneliness again, she started a podcast called That Chick in Rome, a community for female expats in the city. The podcast discussed different women-focused topics from dating in the pandemic, sexism and cat-calling, mental health, to dating apps, food and travel recommendations in and around Rome. 

It was within this community where she found friends who provided her shelter, groceries, and financial help when she became homeless, at one point surviving on a €10 allowance a day.

After solving her legal mess in 2021, Cecilia was able to find what seemed to be a more relaxed job as a housekeeper and cook with an Italian/American family,  back in her favorite city of Bologna. Her new employers encourage her to continue her passion for cooking. 

Biggest lessons

While being undocumented did not stop her from going after her dreams, living and working in Europe without the right papers proved to be tough for the already resilient Cecilia. She believes that a permit to stay should not limit anyone’s growth. But she admits that it made her life more difficult. She emphasizes on the importance of having legal papers and absolutely advises others to fix their permits to stay right away.

“Being undocumented is not easy, it will scare the shit out of you. If you are undocumented right now and you haven’t fixed your papers, it will not stop you from doing things you want to do but you have to take a risk. At some point your luck will run out, it’s not going to be unlimited options for you. Next time I need to renew my passport early,” she says laughing.

Looking back at her tumultuous life in Amsterdam, she would have dealt with her depression differently. For people going through the same issues, especially for expats like her, she advises to try running, yoga or travel for those who have the capacity to spend. 

“Depression is tough, you need to take care of your mental health. Be part of a community, go to where the sun is, have a support group, and surround yourself with good friends.”

The storms in her life seem to be abating, so Cecilia is making plans for the future again. A future that involves managing an Italian cafe back in Amsterdam at the end of 2022 and maybe finally meeting a compatible partner she can grow old with. “I am almost 40, I am in the path of my life now where I am searching for stability for myself and my relationships.”

Filipina in Italy chef Cecilia dela Cruz enjoying her dim sun.

Finding home

Where is home for you?

“I read that question and I still don’t know the answer. I was born in the Philippines, that’s my home, my family is there. But in reality, I consider home the place where I would settle with a family, with kids, and a stable relationship, where I would finally be reunited with my daughter. It doesn’t matter where I am, as long as I am with the people I love. That is home for me.”

Filipina posing in Rome.

Cecilia’s best travel tips to Italy

“Italy has a special place in my heart because of the sun, the culture, the food. They are Catholic but they have 100% gezelligheid.”

Where to go?

Go to Tuscany, visit old towns, small towns and old churches. Explore the sea, from Napoli to Liguria, to Cecilia. Visit little towns like Matera, Bari, and other unknown places in Italy. They are nice and cheap.

What to do?

Get a car and drive around. Walk, walk, and walk some more. Depending on the season, go to the beach, blend with the locals and eat in local restaurants. Learn basic Italian, the locals appreciate it. 

What to avoid?
Forget about your diet because there are carbs in every restaurant and Italians eat sweets for breakfast. Don’t drink cappuccino after 11am, consider that Italian transportation is unreliable, and the table bread in Firenze is terrible, don’t eat it. 

What to eat?

Depending on the region, in Rome carbonara, cacio pepe, and porchetta, pizza in Napoli, in Bologna tagliatella ragù, deep fried veal in Milan (also called Milanese), coffee in Turin, balsamic vinegar in Modena, and pici pasta in Tuscany.  

This article was first published in TFEM Summer Issue 2022. *Names have been changed to protect the individuals involved. This article had been slightly edited.
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