Month: January 2013

Tale of a very conventional adventure (part I)


Ten years ago, this very day, I embarked a Virgin Express flight from Rome to Brussels. I had plenty of dreams and very little knowledge about what was lying ahead. I had a vague idea, to start with, regarding Brussels exact position on a map. I remembered from school that Flemish were merchants and that they had a direct access to the sea, but I also thought that Flanders were all part of modern Netherlands. There was a very popular Haagen Dazs flavour in the 90s called Belgian chocolate and that was it. I was going to a place somewhere in Northern Europe where European institutions were based and where there might be a flash of coast and a lot of world-famous chocolate. I finished school with top marks but, you know, I never took geography as an A level. My parents used to say there was no point in studying it on a book, when you could travel to learn it. I obliged.

I was in my early 20s and overly excited at the perspective of building a new life in a place I couldn’t point on a chart. It wasn’t Paris, or London, or New York, well known cities where everybody my generation wanted to be. It wasn’t a place you would make a film on. It was Boring Belgium. And yet I felt so different and sophisticated and out-of-the-box in wanting to go in such impopular territory.

First thing that struck me was the bitterness of the cold air you could feel on your neck when getting out of the airport. It was a chilly day as it is today: plenty of snow, negative temperatures, iced sidewalks, silent traffic. No skyscrapers, no grandeur. Claustrophobic and  dirty alleys in the city centre, elegant boulevards and parks all around. It looked distinguished and distant and at the same time messy and dirty and emotional. I was fascinated.

Years passed by and – to my greatest surprise – I gradually stopped complaining about the bad weather, the dirty sidewalks and the fact that Belgians are genetically adverse to take fast decisions, work late at night and take any initiative. It felt (and still does!) like living in 1955. A bourgeois wealthy little city, inhabited by quiet, mild and mostly good-natured people who dislike confrontation, discussion and politics. The sort of Peyton Place atmosphere I was longing for at that time.

A husband, a dog and two children later everything’s changed and yet everything stays the same. Brussels did change a bit: it is far more international now than it was a decade ago. Belgians, on the other side, never moved a step: still boy-scoutish and conservative and mild mannered, still busy in petty neighbour fights that threaten to split the country and still blind and deaf to the wind of change that the economic crash is accelerating all around them.

Someone said that Belgium is the lab of Europe: whatever happens there will happen to the rest of the Continent, some years later. Well, ten years ago, people used to say that Brussels was like New York in the 20s: bursting with ideas and opportunities. That is not true anymore. The privileged fiscal system has brought in billionaires from neighbouring France and Germany and other hi-taxed nations and it is true that you feel the crisis here way less than you do in Southern Europe. But apart from the impressive number of luxury cars you spot around the residential areas, the place is not sparkling with ideas anymore. The European dream that my generation was taught to dream on is crashing at the very first difficulties. Europe’s never been less popular and my overall feeling from Brussels, Eu is that we’re dancing on a sinking ship. You know, something like the Titanic’s orchestra director who died while doing his job.

So, happy anniversary to me. Time to jump off boat!

(to be continued)

A little bit of geography (part II)


A new year has started and the soap opera about the future of Italy has never known a moment of dullness. While recent and brand new parties prepare themselves to enter the political arena and score some points at the February elections, the old ones continue to fight according to century-old schemes. Mr. Berlusconi is far from being dead and his resurrection on tv screens and on the political arena is as powerful and comic as a children tale. Young people say it’s over for him but then they are very reluctant to consider a second term for Mr. Monti who casted a gloom over their future by talking taxes, reality and debt. On the left side there is not much to hope for after the (insane) decision to present a 60-something candidate, well acquainted with the old system instead of the bright young mayor of Florence. So small, new parties are taking their chance. The most popular among expats (but still far from being popular among average voters) is called Fermare il Declino and features an extravagant-looking journalist as leader and a number of economists, academics, intellectuals and thinkers as candidates. Many of them live or have lived extensively abroad and are enthusiastic reformers. Their ideas sound perfectly good and I hope they’ll get a chance to sit in Parliament but I ask myself if academics, knowledge of the world and goodwill will be enough to change a country that doesn’t want to change, deep down.

Italians are romantics, can be lazy and, most of all, are jealous and proud (what a dangerous combination).

They like to think they live in the best country in the world, they adore to think that Italy really matters on the international scene and are deeply convinced that foreign powers actually listen to the Italian prime minister (whoever he is) before taking world-changing decisions. I am not being cynical, just take a tour in an italian gym changing room and you’ll hear extremely revealing conversations. Such a beautiful country, rich of art and big breasted (and lip-augmented, since the Berlusconi-era) brunettes – they believe – can’t but solicite envy from other less fortunate lands.

Being part of this beautiful and unique setting means following its rules and one of the main ones (as previously discussed) is that age brings wisdom and that before a certain age it is advisable not to shine too much. A smart friend told me that people didn’t vote for the 37 years old mayor of Florence as the left party candidate because they were actually jealous of him. “They probably thought – he said – that he didn’t deserve such an impressing career. If he’s prime minister at 37, then what are they?”. I believe there is some truth in this argument.

But then pride poses some other problems. Times are tough, Italians know that now even if they’d rather not. What they don’t like is being told so by someone who apparently doesn’t share any of their weaknesses. Mr. Monti is an understated, well-to-do and internationally appreciated economist. He looks to the public as boring as his pinstripe suits. He has a wife and not a single known affair. He doesn’t own a boat, spends his (short) holidays on a middle-class beach with his family and likes to travel by train. Italians can’t stand that someone like the Professor gets up one day and tells them to stop living their flamboyant lives (real or even imagined). That is why on Facebook I assist to this exhilarating conversations between Italian expats (all for Monti, when not for Fermare il Declino) and Italian residents.

“We gotta get rid of that guy”, say the last.

“He’s the only chance you have for a decent future”, say the first.

and they keep on arguing.

I’ll just sit down and watch, for now.