The country of your dreams and how to get your regular fix

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As a child, I had a thing for Rhett Butler. I had come across him at 5 while keeping company to my grandmother who was a die-hard fan, before both these words even existed. Rhett was the first kind of man I met beside family members and I thought that his macho manners and his half-concealed big heart were ideal qualities to look for once I grew up.

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Decades later, another world war, an economic boom and the surge of feminist writers slowly changed the perception of ideal qualities in a man and my chosen one became Colin Firth. Honest, sensitive, bright, decent. More suitable for these times. 1404478504_741767_1404478749_noticia_normal

(I chose deliberately a picture where he isn’t outrageously handsome).

Last week I realised we all have a dream man/woman AND a dream country. In the exact same way we idolise actors and characters from a novel or famous people we read of on newspapers we cherish in our hearts the image of a perfect country where we would be so happy and where nothing bad could happen to us.

I am always a little taken aback when I realise that country is Italy for an insane amount of people. Apparently, Italy for them has stayed in the 50s. A poor country rich of history and art and populated by gentle, warm-hearted and slightly chaotic people who love to dance and sing and eat. Something between Roman Holidays and The Talented Mr. Ripley.

GREGORY PECK & AUDREY HEPBURN in Roman Holiday *Editorial Use Only* www.capitalpictures.com sales@capitalpictures.com Supplied by Capital Pictures

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Where many float on their little Italian cloud whenever visiting the Belpaese and indulge in cappuccinos outside a café while abandoning themselves to fantasies of a lazy day in a white shirt under a pergola, sipping real, actual espresso(not the Swiss sort) made in a Bialetti moka machine by a beautiful brunette with an accent, I found myself in the midst of my own dream last week.

Funnily enough I have never lived in England. While most of my uni friends migrated there to pursue Gordon Gekko fantasies and work in the European capital of finance, I thought Brussels was a more sensible option. I used to be a EU fan, after all.

England stayed somewhere between my brain and my heart as a magical place where I would never live but could visit often, inhabited by lovely people who liked birds, flowers and tea. They would have conversations about the weather and never, ever, lose their temper. They were brave and resilient but also incommensurably funny. England has always been, basically, the one that got away. The love story that I never lived and that was so perfect because of that.

So the joy was overwhelming last week when an English friend invited us to the most English event you can think of: Glyndebourne opera festival. I had been preparing for weeks. Listening to Carmen and daydreaming about the place.

It turned out it was even better than anticipated. Blessed with a fantastic weather and the most adorable little cottage found on the Internet, we spent the ultimate English weekend, hiking on the high cliffs from where you could vaguely get a glimpse of France and savouring perfect pub meals. I found myself ecstatically staring at a box of apricots at Waitrose. The label said: “Home ripening apricots”. What a smart way to say they have travelled half across the world and were picked long before they were ripe. So British.

Our English friend thought I was a total freak. He can’t see my own perfect England of course. He sees everything that is wrong with it, instead.

After my crumpets filled weekend, being home again was quite a shock. I needed a decompression chamber. I found my fix in the new Marks&Spencer shop which just opened in Brussels. I literally ran there yesterday and in the basement, surrounded by romantically named British foods, I felt at peace again.

Do you have a dream country? How do you feel when you visit?

Hit 40 and run!

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There is a new wave of runners in my generation. It’s been a few years now that every week there is a new Triathlon or Marathon or whatever running competition coming on and a long lost friend asks for funding with a long and detailed e-mail on all the fantastic uses of those contributions to his performance. Children’s hospitals, earthquake survivals, orphanages in Bolivia. You name it, there is someone running for them.

Very noble actions, of course, I am all in awe of that. What I can’t help but noticing, though, is that no runner is under 35. Call it middle-age crisis (something I know about), an irresistible need to get fit or a Siddharta-like search for the deep meaning of the Universe. It is a fact that today, apparently, once you are about to hit 40 you should shed away laziness, sedentary hobbies (knitting? Come on, it is not by chance that knitting is so popular among pretty girls in their 20s) and embrace the run.

I haven’t been able to satisfy my nerdiness by sourcing down the exact origin of this trend so I am still wondering who came first: the runners or the charities looking at them as potential ambassadors? While I keep searching for an exact answer to my doubts I can’t forget what a friend told me a few years ago. We were at a 30th birthday party and the dance floor was empty, early in the night. People were drinking, chatting, flirting, going to the ladies’ to chat more, reapply makeup and hide from prettier love rivals. But none would hit the dance floor. Suddenly, a bunch of over 60s men and women appeared in the middle of it and started dancing as if there was no tomorrow. They were the father of the birthday girl and his friends. “It’s always the parents dancing first, because they know time their time for having fun is not infinite”, my friend observed with what I then registered as a certain cynicism.

I guess it’s the same for this obsession with marathons. When you hit 40 (and a little before that) you start realising that it’s now or never, you won’t sculpt your body or get rid of the fat in the next decade. So why not teaming it with a good cause to feel more motivated to get out of the bed every morning to jog around the neighbourhood and then fill weekends with trainings and local competitions? (and the good cause makes all the hiding from your family on weekends so much more excusable:-) I even heard that running gives you a sort of high, so I imagine one can qualify it as middle-aged people’s marijuana.

As for myself, I am not immune to the big call of the 40s. I hate sweating and have never been able to run properly so I resumed my childhood passion and I started swimming. Like everyday, just to be sure I go to my rendez-vous with my 40s in a decent shape. I asked for a water-resistant ipod for my birthday. The times they are A-changin’, after all.

You know you have to come back when…

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Suddenly, you start receiving one, then two then dozens of spam comments on your blog. That’s the sign. It means that you haven’t been writing for what feels like decades and that you have to come back or your collection of sparse thoughts will implode and be swallowed whole by the Internet. So I am. Back.

Not writing is easier than writing. Not doing is always much easier than doing. Anything. But I like this little place too much to let it go and even if right now I feel like I don’t have much to say, I will make the effort of keep coming.

Over an extremely long summer (it’s still surprisingly hot in northern Europe) with my newborn baby nicknamed Otto two things happened: I stopped feeling an expat in Belgium and I realised that no matter how far you go, national feelings are innate and not the byproduct of a single-countried upbringing.

How I started to feel a little Belgian. Since I last blogged there has been the World Cup to keep young and less young people busy during warm summer nights. It happened then: the Belgian Red Devils were all over the place. Supermarkets had special aisles dedicated to the football team and sold all sorts of gadgets. The husband spent a whole Saturday afternoon at the Carrefour with the children and they came back with packs of red, yellow and black Marseille soaps (by the way, the black one actually soiled your hands instead of cleaning them!), themed sunglasses, special Red Devils editions of crisps, cereals, mustard, beer…We had themed ads on tv every single day and dedicated shows where the Red Devils would open and reply to letters received by their youngest fan. Frankly, it was amazing. I come from a 4 times World Champion country but not once I have witnessed such nation wide joy and hope and warmth and support for the football team. Supermarkets in Italy never sold tri-colored Marseille soap bars. (I am sure the green one would soil hands too).

Watching matches was more than witnessing a football game happening far away on a medium sized screen. It was cathartic. Biblical. A myth. The small, discreet, boring little country in the middle of Europe bravely defying the giants of football. A bunch of young, funny, ambitious guys taking a leap of faith. It was cool. And then one night at a party, after Belgium had already been eliminated by Argentina, I found this picture on the inside door of the club’s loo:

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and I felt a little Belgian. Which of course according to Murphy’s law must mean that I am about to move somewhere else. It’s like the last box: I don’t know if this ever happened to you but throughout the several movings of my 20s I used to keep an unopened box, somewhere in the basement. The box you are going to open one day, when you’ll have the time. If you ever come to open that box and thus completely settle in your new place, usually something is going to happen and you will be moving again shortly.

With the help of an extraordinary weather since the beginning of the year I am at peace with this strange place I have been living in since 2003. Do me whatever you want, Belgium, I have finally come to love you.

How my half-blooded kids feel very much pureblooded. I have always thought that a sense of belonging to a certain country, culture and set of values comes from growing up in a place. I couldn’t help but notice when I was in school that children that had transferred from abroad very often were a little different from us, single-countried Italians. They spoke with a metallic accent, they ate different foods, they were less interested in football than us and dressed differently. Nationality went hand in hand with a constant exposure to sunlight, pasta and roman architecture. Well, apparently I was wrong.

I feel very much Italian despite the uneasiness that plagues me every time I stay too long in Italy. I AM very Italian indeed but I never preached it. I have friends actively promoting the Italian-ness of their kids, by teaching songs, traditions and foods and patiently correcting each and every grammatical slip up. I am too lazy to correct grammar every time (and, sincerely, most of their genuine mistakes are so funny that corrections seem unfair) and not orthodox enough to teach things I have forgotten myself. But despite my (non) efforts in this sense, it turns out my children think of themselves as Italians (and a little bit French, not Belgian. That’s another story). It’s not about the sun, then. There must be something more.

What do you feel after your years abroad? And what do your children think they are, if you have any?

Pride, vanity and a certain touchiness: when Italy plays the football card

I like to compare birth countries to birth parents. No matter how good (or bad) they are, you grow up thinking they’re the best in the world. Then you start going to your friends’ house for the first sleepover and you observe another reality. Some things you will find nicer, some others disappointing but in the end, it’s very likely that you will go home happy and relieved to see your parents again and to rest within known walls. It takes years or sometimes forever to develop your own personality and to start looking at your birth parents  – and your birth country – with the necessary distance to judge the good and the bad, things you will keep and others you have to toss.

I was born with the expat virus but I have been told for years that I was somehow touchy when people tended to criticise Italy. I used to react in the same way a teenager does when someone makes unpleasant comments on his parents. Time passes. And time cures everything. I have lost some susceptibility and replaced it with a sense of humour. The good part is that with time, and age, you also develop a certain leniency towards your old folks (people or countries).

Till you open the TV one night and you feel that no, you don’t forgive or understand everything. There’re still things you simply can’t get. Or sympathise with.

The other night I was home alone and as is always the case, I decided to use the rare “me-time” (who did invent this term? It’s awful) I still have to binge on Italian TV. I can’t really impose it on my husband who can’t stand the endless news about natural disasters and the rising poverty in the big cities so it’s become my solitary pleasure. (I, on the other hand, truly enjoy those minutes of tragic humanity on video). I open the TV, on one of the three RAI channels (I can’t remember which one), a bowl of strawberries in my lap and start listening. There’s a program – hosted by some guy I never heard of  – about World Cup matches between Italy and Germany throughout history.

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The thing is, Italy generally won. Italy vs Germany is some historical football match for us Italians. There’s always a lot of drama, unexpected action and unpredictable results. It’s one of those situations where Italians act like their stereotype pictures them: they get all emotional and proud and give the impossible to show their composed, efficient, over technical adversaries that they can make it. Nothing to object so far: with the World Cup this year, it’s more than a classic for Italian TV to get old images from their archives and tell for the 1000th time about the football team’s historical exploits.

What struck me was the TV host introducing the video footage by saying more or less that: “Germany has been criticizing us a lot in this past couple of years. They want to teach us lessons, to tell us how to run our country. But when it comes to football, they have to learn that they don’t know it all”. I couldn’t believe my ears. It sounded like a primary school’s courtyard argument. You think you know it all and you are first in class but come out on the football field and I’ll show a couple of tricks, hideous nerd.

The guy didn’t say it once. He kept repeating it, between different videos.

Pride, vanity and touchiness are among the most evident weak points of Italians. They’re not alone about the vanity (and some pride): it is actually a trait of most big countries. French and British – to give an example – do know something about national pride. What’s different about Italians is that they are incredibly vocal about it. They think they are the best but they can’t live without recognition of their presumed superiority. If ignored or diminished in anyway, they’ll go crazy and start acting out as some aged actor who didn’t get the Oscar.

When I was working as a journalist in Italy, my editors made me spend so much time in doing press reviews of foreign newspapers. Who said what about what was happening in Italy: what did the Economist title? And Le Monde? And the NY Times? What were they thinking of our politics and politicians? I had to get out of the country to realise that no one else does it. Can you imagine Americans caring about what Italians think of their President? Or, on a smaller scale, the London Times wasting pages on how an Italian paper sees David Cameron? Of course not. Big countries have their pride. Italy has it too, but craves for the headmaster’s approval.

The funny thing is that if they get the approval they need they start bragging about it but if they don’t, they just take it to another field. If, for instance, the Germans keep telling us how to run our finances (instead of declaring their endless love and admiration for our amazing nation), we will just remind them how better we are at running after a football. Come on: there’re dozens of matches to prove it.

In a similar way, a favorite argument of Italians when confronted about the poor politics and government situation in the past century is that “you know, Romans used to rule the world”. A thousand years ago. Luckily, there will always be football.

 

Spring cleaning and a couple of expat pills

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It’s been weeks since I last posted. And I am not proud of it. I’d like to have extravagant and adventurous reasons to tell you about but the truth is that I got caught in a little bit of traveling, a huge deal of spring cleaning, a new job assignment and a crashed computer. Reality has been taking its toll and as I haven’t been able to read anything longer than 2,000 words in this past month, I also haven’t been in condition to write anything meaningful. It’s a vicious circle: the more you write, the more you can keep doing it and viceversa. If you don’t take it out of your thoughts and put it on a keyboard straight away, it will just fade. While I keep emptying my cupboards and dreaming of a life not burdened by objects and clothes and stuff, I’ll simply try and put my thoughts into pills. Short posts. Till I have emptied a third of the house, wallpapered a room, weeded the garden and finished my new content provider job assignment (this one is a  real challenge. And another story. Deadline is in a month).

 

1. Airports and designer coffee.

 

My leave of absence started with a little trip to visit a close friend I might not be able to see again in the coming year. I was away for a mere 36 hours but getting up early, going to the airport and wandering the endless duty free shops felt exciting as the first time. I rarely travel alone since I had kids and as I might have mentioned somewhere in this blog, for most of my (previous) life airports were my favorite place in the world. Being in one, alone, still makes me happy. Airports are the no man’s land of life and time. Suspended between a before and after, a departure and an arrival, an origin and a destination, I always felt they sum up much of the human condition. Everything feels possible in an airport and even if one might never do it, buying a ticket for a random destination and starting over again seems real for a moment. Coming back to duty free shops and endless hallways, I became a victim of my usual weakness. Designer coffee. 

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I tried to find a rational reason to justify my spending 5 bucks for a very average latte in a paper cup with my name scribbled on it but I couldn’t find one. Nevertheless when I spot a Starbucks (and there are a few in Brussels only since a couple of years) I can’t resist. Good marketing, I guess. I suddenly need to get that fat, velvety, brown armchair and disappear in it with an unfair amount of dairy in my hands. I succumbed, as usual. Not without a pinch of uneasiness. I. am. a. victim. of. big. brands.

2. Uprooting, Selfishness and other expats’ misdemeanours.

 

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So I visited a very close friend. A former expat who is now very much rooted and settled in her reality. We had lunch with some of her own friends, all single-countried. I see single-countried people all the time in Brussels but I always attribute the sides of them I can’t really relate to to some sort of cultural crash. It’s when I deal with my own people that I realise many misunderstandings are actually related to the expat vs. single-countried reality. I am questioned. On matters I rarely think about. How often I go home and see my family. Why don’t I always spend Christmas with them. Who will take care of them if at some point they can’t look after themselves anymore? Don’t I ever feel guilty about living abroad? Do I envision the possibility of going back home to live there at some point? Shock ensued when I candidly said that Belgium isn’t my final destination and that I have been plotting to migrate in some other continent in the coming years. How could I be so selfish, never thinking of my ageing parents when planning my whereabouts? The truth is, I rarely do. I tend to live in the present (and sometimes in the past) but, no, I never plan about an uncertain future. So, yes, as a die-hard expat I might be the most selfish person alive. Aren’t we all?

According to well settled people, we expat are:

1. Uprooted. And we tend to impose the same destiny to our innocent children, who will never feel like they belong to something. (A country, a culture, a people). True, they won’t belong. But to a family. Doesn’t that count more than a pre-set package of single-countriedness?

2. Selfish. We keep hopping the world with little regard for those we left behind. Also true. But when we go back home, we’re really there. We could argue what makes more in terms of human proximity between a 5 minutes encounter every day or a 7-days, 24h/24 stay once a year.

3. Anti-social or anti-community. Normal, single-countried people grow attachments to a certain community and they involve themselves in its development. We tend to hang out with similarly uprooted individuals, privilege cynicism and a life made of ever changing alliances and passions. That’s because we can’t vote. Really.

4. Ungrateful towards our birth country which provided healthcare and education for us and just got harsh criticism in exchange. There is a lot of truth in this and some Freudian aspects. Pure expats (not simple tourists, abroad for a very limited time and homesick for the whole length of their stay) can be merciless when analysing their birth country failures. I am one of them. But making a life abroad is not different from leaving your home as a teenager: it takes time to deprogram yourself of all the notions and values your parents inculcated you with as a child. It’s a long and painful process, to judge with your own eyes and heart, letting go of cultural prejudices. As adults, we are tough critics of our own parents before “forgiving” them for not being perfect and loving them for what they are. In the same way, expats are profoundly irritated by everything their birth country is not, before letting all go and liking it again with all of its shortcomings.

Have you ever been criticised in your expatitude?

 

 

Why do you do what you do: thoughts on what makes your heart race

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I have been a full-time professional journalist for a decade and a free-lance, half-time writer for the past 3 years. Those who knew me then, when under eye dark circles were the byproduct of nicotine abuse and frantic nights in smelly press rooms keep asking: don’t you miss the thrill? The traveling, running around, caffeine addiction, anonymous hotels and incongruous schedules? I usually giggle and say I still have all of those: raising kids is a hell of a ride, too and to cope you need concealer and caffeine in equal amounts.

I had wanted to be a journalist since I could speak: I simply never conceived any other daily occupation. When that became a reality I had just turned 21 and felt as if I had won the lottery. I got paid to do what I always wanted to . It didn’t even feel as a job. I was blessed enough to have an amazing woman editor, who was an endless source of inspiration and funny, smart colleagues to hang out with till early morning. That precious set of circumstances changed after the first couple of years and  – as most humans do – I started living the reality of having a job: the occasional narrow minded boss, the sneaky co-worker, the internal politics and the back stabbing. If to that we add that being a journalist in Italy can be especially frustrating in terms of exposing the truth and correctly informing your readers, it’s easy to understand that I wasn’t sorry to leave. At the end of my working day, I didn’t feel uplifted at all. Rather depleted. 

Still, when Brussels started going crazy with anticipation of the US President visit in these past few days, the first gushes of nostalgia in many years resurfaced. 

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I stayed home for the whole day as advised on TV: the whole city was fibrillating, traffic was closed or blocked all around, Obama’s security detail was impressive. And yet I didn’t see with my own eyes any of that. I didn’t wake up at dawn to go to some hotel where the leader of the free world was staying, hoping to catch a glimpse of him or to have the opportunity of asking him a question. I didn’t observe the huge bodyguards nervously talking on their radios and I didn’t have a cigarette with shaky hands in the chill of yet another morning on the street, waiting for something to happen. I just had to switch on the TV to have an HD sight of many things I could not have seen with my eyes. Yet, it was not enough.

So I spent some time surfing the net, in search of the most accurate image or video footage of Mr. Obama’s EU tour and thought: why did I enjoy that much being a journalist during those years? What was that made my heart race and the fatigue go away? It wasn’t the news. I was bad at finding scoops and not shrewd enough to sail through sources and compromises. I was good at writing down what happened and lucky enough to keep some clarity of thought even at 5 am (but, well, I now realize that is what being in your 20s means). What made me feel alive was of a more anthropological nature. I loved observing power. People in power. Dissecting their gestures, their tone of voice, read their insecurities and their flaws. Their humanity.

Those I can’t see in HD professional video coverage of the news.

 

Have you ever thought of what makes your own heart race? 

 

The Great Beauty of living the diaspora

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I’ve been to Rome for the mid-term holidays: a few days packed with old friends, too many cappuccinos and endless car rides, stuck in traffic. I barely slept and regret – as usual – not having stayed longer to catch that extra glimpse of sunlight and eat that last pastry.

Most of all, though, a deep sense of uneasiness has stayed with me since I came back. I rarely go to Rome and the one time a year I do so, it’s never harmless. Last year I felt troubled as if I had run into the guy that broke my heart. This time I felt as a guest. Worse, as an official member of the diaspora.

When I landed in Brussels I was invited to one super boring national themed dinner. There were old time Italian expats and a few mixed couples. I was sitting in front of an Italian lady (let’s say, mid-30s, an age that then I considered irrevocably old) married to a Finnish guy. She started a long lament on everything that was wrong with Italy, on all things she was happy of not having to deal with anymore, on the incomprehensible attitude of her fellow nationals still living in the country. We were sitting in a rather bad basque restaurant and I can still see her ranting on public health, schools and garbage management. I couldn’t really see what she was talking about, being a very fresh expat. Hospitals seemed perfectly fine to me, public education excellent and garbage management was still acceptable. I went home and chatted to a friend that I had spent the night listening to a fool who lost completely touch with her native country and talked of it as some place I had never been to.

A decade later, I sometimes feel that I am becoming the Finnish wife. Luckily, I am not alone and neither is she. We are probably part of the diaspora.

The diaspora watched the Oscar-winning film, La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty), mesmerized and somehow moved. By the enchanting photography, the oh-so-italian aesthetics, the ever present cynicism and cruel portrait of the reality of the most decadent city in the Western world. (You thought that was Vegas? Go to Rome, they do decadent as none could). From the hairdresser to the the diplomat, the diaspora members were unanimous in acknowledging the good work done by the filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino and somehow proud of the Foreign FIlm Award received by a fellow national.

In the same way, the diaspora looks with hope and a cautious optimism to the coup that brought at the head of the government a bright and ambitious 39-year-old politician. We read foreign newspapers (since the Italian ones are basically written rather to gossip within the political caste than to inform average citizens of the facts) that report of the logical and right and modern speeches this young prime minister gives and we think that maybe  – maybe – the country will enter a new era.

At the same time that we discuss the faraway homeland sitting in a fake Italian restaurant, our friends and family home tweet and flood Facebook talking of a different reality. The Oscar wasn’t well deserved – they say. The film is mediocre, it just quotes Fellini from the beginning till the end and it depicts an inexistent Rome. Even when it’s accurate, it doesn’t explain nor analyze why Rome is like that. (Really? Is it a BBC documentary or a piece of art?). One day after the Oscar was awarded, instead of celebrating a victory, most newspapers indulged in misplaced articles on how the Oscars are awarded and the dubious online voting system. Basically, they insinuated that someone paid for that award since the film per se could never get there by itself. Seen with the eyes of a long time expat, this is slightly disturbing.

The Italian film didn’t deserve the Oscar and – I evince from social networks – the new prime minister is no better than his predecessors and bound to fail. There is no place for hope or room for a positive attitude. The country is sinking and sometimes I have the impression that its residents would like it to keep sinking in order to say “I told you so”.

In that fake Italian restaurant, too many times the diaspora close a conversation with the same phrase: “You know what, sometimes I think Italians are crazy”.

What about you? Do you feel the same uneasiness when going back to your home country? Do you have the impression that people there and the diaspora inhabit different planets?

PS The Great Beauty is a superb film.

Changing Altitude or What I Learnt on an Ordinary Expat Night

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I have an innate allergy to immobility. Being stuck in a place, in a time, in an occupation that don’t seem to bring me anywhere warmer, colder, brighter, darker, funnier…different. Expatriation has been the antidote to all of my fears for some time. When I felt like I’d had enough of something, I started planning a way out. I didn’t know, though (and none told me but of course none tells you what’s really worth knowing) that the number of obligations and the mobility rate are inversely proportional to age.

So as most of you know I have been stuck in Belgium for the past 11 years, in the surrealistic limbo that makes me a foreigner but technically not an expat anymore. I understand the country better than the average medium-term expat but I will always be a foreigner to locals and a local to pure blood expats. I haven’t found a way to get out of this mud other than plotting a relocation whose terms and dates are today still vague. Luckily, out there there’s someone smarter than I am and I met her last Thursday.

A British woman called B., cornered in the expat limbo as I am, decided to do something about it and founded the Full Circle, a private club dedicated but not reserved to expats where world renowned thinkers come to discuss, expose their ideas and stimulate reflexion and exchange. A Belgian friend, after having patiently listened to my usual lamentations, told me there was a newly created place I would love and she was right. British philosopher A.C. Grayling gave a lecture on European Culture and I suddenly felt very light and deeply fascinated while listening to his witty, fast paced and impossibly elegant remarks. It felt like living somewhere global and open again, instead of cloudy, cozy, comfortably boring Brussels.

At the end of the lecture, while I was queuing for coffee, a bold, smiling New Yorker came up with a joke on the huge volume I had in my hands, Grayling’s modern bible and most famous work, The Good Book. We started chatting, in that informal and relaxed way that is so American and so unusual to find in Europeans. The nice gentleman introduced himself modestly as a teacher at the local business school and explained he had only lived in Brussels for the past 3 years and loved the quiet unpretentiousness of the city, and the ability to walk everywhere. Quite a change from New York. The point – I told him – is how much tranquility is too much tranquility. And on I went with my usual list of things I just had enough of in Brussels and with my dreams of expatriating again, somewhere very different.

The New Yorker then took a serious look and asked me if I knew who Bertrand Piccard was. “Sort of – I said – Isn’t he the swiss guy that toured the world in a balloon?”. “Precisely. He said that life isn’t different from ballooning. Sometimes you are stuck somewhere because of the winds. You can’t do much about it but changing your altitude in order to move forward”.

I wasn’t sure I had grabbed the concept but the metaphor certainly is enthralling. Once home, I realized that the nice, inspiring guy I met on a coffee line actually is a world-renowned academic and I was able to find an excerpt of Piccard’s thoughts online:

Life itself is a bit like that – a great balloon flight, during which we are often imprisoned by winds of life taking us in directions that are not necessarily those of our choosing. We can certainly grumble and try to resist, but all that does is to cause more suffering. Responsibility and free will for us in life consists essentially, as for balloon pilots, in “changing altitude”, that is lifting ourselves up educationally, vocationally, psychologically, philosophically, and why not spiritually, so as to open ourselves to new influences, ways of understanding and outlooks on life that can take us to other destinations”.

Have you already felt stuck? How did you change your altitude?

Brussels Bits – You are what you eat and the Organic Obsession

I have a thing for lunches. I rarely go out for dinner, despite the amazing quality of food you can easily find in Brussels but I love taking the time for lunch. It’s my personal moment of the day, when I can keep up with good friends and have an actual conversation, away from the everyday routine and obligations. It happens sometimes that I am really craving a restaurant meal yet none is available to join me. In that case, I’d rather go alone than stay home.

The advantage of being alone in a restaurant is that you can listen to everybody else’s conversations. And sometimes they’re really good. The other day I was sitting next to a woman in her 40s, having lunch with a lady well into her 70s (who wasn’t her mother). The first one was telling all about her new boyfriend. She said he was nice and kind and a lot of fun. But – she added – “you won’t believe what he eats”. “What?”, asked curious the older lady. “Roasted meat – any kind – with loads of potatoes. Greasy, buttery, oven-cooked potatoes”, the younger woman explained with honest concern. “And you know – she continued – he eats dessert all the time. Chocolate mousse, Flans, cakes…he can’t get enough”. “Does he drink, too?” “All the time! He loves red wine, he can have a whole bottle for dinner!”. “Oh, dear. Does he exercise?“. “Not really – the lady-in-love sighed – but last week he came along for a walk in the woods. He’s always in a good mood, he was exhausted but didn’t show it”.

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Jambonneau – a staple of Belgian tradition. (a sort of roasted ham surrounded by sauerkraut)

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Chicken Waterzooi, another Belgian classic: a stew of meat, fish or vegetables boiled in a cream and butter sauce

They went on dissecting the nice fellow’s bad habits and how, nowadays, is imperative to be educated and informed about food and exercise and you can’t simply let yourself go as 50 years ago.

Yes, I know, it sounds Los Angeles. But it’s one of the thousands faces of Brussels. Next to the typical dishes – which are quite heavy as in classic Northern European tradition – there is a very well developed avant-garde of people and restaurants dedicated to raw foods, superfoods and everything the modern individual should feed himself with, according to trendy magazines.

I learnt in Brussels the concept of organic, since a decade ago it was almost unknown in Italy. There was an organic shop I used to go to because I liked the smell and they had a glorious chocolate pudding but it wasn’t a mania and I am not even sure it is now. Up North, organic is a mantra. There’re dedicated markets, dozens of highly competitive small companies providing home delivery of organic fruit and veggies baskets every week and the city pullulates with nutritionists, schools of thoughts and seminars about the correct nutrition for a healthy life.

I haven’t figured out yet if people are so obsessed about what they eat because before this trend they used to eat pretty badly or if they’re simply very sensitive to the subject but I’ve been having a lot of fun in this respect. I jump happily from bingeing to detoxing and here’s detox paradise. Growing up (or ageing, depends on how you see it) I started to look for a more balanced eating style and last year I started taking classes from the Belgian guru of Living Food (which comprehends raw and slow cooked food plus generally a ban on refined carbs and dairy), Pol Grégoire. It’s been an epiphany for sure. A self-taught cook since a very young age, Grégoire had a traditional restaurant for years before an illness prompted him to turn around his life and job and look for an alternative, healthier form of food. He is a fascinating person and a talented chef and although I can’t fully embrace the utter purity of his eating style, I enjoy very much his lessons.

Basically, according to his method, you should have breakfast on a mousse of soaked nuts and dried fruits, a light lunch composed of salads, sprouted grains and veggies and a more consistent dinner made of slow cooked fish, meat or sprouted cereals with steamed greens. One year and a half later, the only “clean” meal I am able to do is breakfast (not 100% of the time, though) and sometimes lunch. I hope with time I will be able to convert myself to this delicious, light and impossibly healthy way of eating but in the meanwhile I still like giving in to the occasional burger or pizza. I guess anyone has his weaknesses.

I will leave you with a raw breakfast recipe we did yesterday during my class. It’s super yummy and takes less than 10 minutes to make:

Avocado and pineapple mousse with diced oranges and dried apples

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(serves 2):

2 ripe avocados

1 cup of dried pineapple slices

1/2 vanilla stick

2 ripe oranges

1 cup of dried apple slices

Grind the dried apple slices till they resemble a crumble. Soak the pineapple slices for a night then blend them with the avocados (add the pineapple’s water if necessary) and the vanilla stick. Serve the mousse in cups and top with peeled, diced oranges and and a handful of the apple crumble.

What about the food culture and obsessions of the country you’re living in?

The world on the table: creating an expatically correct menu

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I never thought there could be a correct way to set a menu. Food is food, it just has to be good, right? Then one day, several years ago, a bunch of Belgians looked down on me when I served them polpette (meatballs) covered in marinara sauce. I had spent a whole afternoon making them out of beef, pork and veal and cooking the freshest tomatoes in order to achieve the healthiest and tastiest possible outcome. It turned out meatballs, in Belgium, are considered a student’s food. The sort of stuff you gulp down without thinking with your flatmates at 22. Definitely not something fit for a grown-ups’ dinner table.

I barred meatballs from my home dinners. The following time I went for a home made green lasagna followed by roasted veal, sauté vegetables and pudding. The Belgians guests ran for the lasagna, had a couple of servings and then looked at me puzzled and terrified when I came out of the kitchen with the rest of my carefully planned Italian dinner. Nay. Apparently no one can master a whole Italian meal. “We thought lasagna was the dinner”, one girl said. Ok, fine, I keep learning.

A standard Belgian dinner is composed of a soup (usually in the form of a velouté, i.e. blended vegetables with sometimes a hint of almond paste to add texture), a meat or fish main course accompanied by vegetables and/or potatoes and a dessert usually consisting in crème caramel, fruit crumble or ice cream. Something simple and fresh, practical and easy to put together. I obliged and am now strictly following this sort of menu anytime I invite locals.

The problem is that it doesn’t work for everybody else. Italians will feel dismissed if presented with some blended vegetables followed by a portion of meat and an unoriginal, everyday-style dessert. They will think I made no effort because I don’t care enough about my guests. For them, I lay out the big weapons. The whole big fat Italian dinner.

French will expect cheese to be served after the main course, just before dessert. I don’t like cheese. I had to spend a whole afternoon in a smelling cheese shop with a Parisian friend and note down which sort of cheeses you should always offer and in what quantity. If there’re French around, I go through my little cheese and salad memorandum and I look at my phone to check the time every ten seconds. A tour of cheese after meat and before dessert makes a dinner just a tad too long.

Spanish friends will have endless drinks before finally settling for dinner so you should fill your little cups with plenty of tapas.

Of course, one could just serve whatever is in the fridge and stop caring about respecting individual food sensitiveness. But I am Italian after all and feeding people is in my genes, so I spend time composing the expatically correct menu.

One of my close friends rang me today to ask me to be her caterer for her daughter’s christening. Her first choice – a professional chef – bailed on her and since she can’t fry an egg, she called me to rescue.

A few years ago I was so interested in the food business that I taught Italian traditional cooking for a semester, twice a week. I had more time then and a lot of fun though most of my Belgian students were more interested in having a well deserved glass of wine at the end of a long work day than in learning the basics of a good mamma’s meal.

At the end of that experience I realized I didn’t have the necessary patience to teach but I started toying with the idea of starting a catering business. I never did, fearing that the transforming my hobby in a profession would mean the end of my love affair with food.

These days I cook less and less and I seldom approach Italian traditional dishes. But I can’t resist a call to the kitchen. So I’ll do it. The real challenge will be now to compose the perfect international menu, staying faithful to classic Italian staples everybody likes yet revisiting them to suit a Northern European palate. I’ll keep you posted about my culinary mission.

What did you learn about food while living abroad? Which classic dishes you stopped proposing because your guests misinterpret them? 

PS. In case you were interested in those meatballs I talked about, my fellow blogger and friend camparigirl posted a great recipe.