Month: April 2013

The perks of being an expat (or how I got socially promoted)

Being an expat is a privilege. None actually knows you. None remembers you with a fanny pack and a walkman back in 1989, none can talk behind your back of all the times you got dumped by boyfriends because you were clingy and insecure. None knows how ridiculous your parents looked when they came to get you at parties that hadn’t properly started yet and none can make an accurate list of your past mistakes. Being an expat allows you a fresh start. Or many fresh starts, depending on how much you are ready to move in your life. And that’s why at some point I decided that the freedom of walking down the street in total anonymity was my Linus blanket, something I just couldn’t dispose of.

Unfortunately being an expat means other things too: none has tender, compassionates feelings for you when you look bad because none remembers your frustrating upbringing, with all the being dumped and the insecurities and the anxious, anti-social parents. If you look bad, people won’t come cheer you up with your favorite drink. They’ll just say you’re always in a bad mood, or haughty, or impossibly snob, or – simply – you don’t belong. When you are an expat people lack perspective on your life and judgements tend to be harsher. That’s something you should know before moving anywhere: people won’t be any more tender than they are when examining Beyonce’s cellulitis in tabloids minus the fact that you are not a celebrity.

I am a rather discreet person, who tends to shine and show only between known walls. Fifteen years an expat, and I pass as snob, generally  cold and impossibly haughty. I have been seated next to fellow foreigners at any social event I have attended for the past decade. You know, foreigners always have more in common, they think. Even if they come from different continents or planets. They are both outcasts, and that create an instant bond. They think.

Then, suddenly, I got a promotion. While I was already looking for my usual table neighbor, a funny English guy who shares my fate of social outcast, I saw that forthe first time I was sitting next to a purebred Belgian. Is that an automatic raise , as in public administration? Will I get a small social acknoledgment every ten years of honest survival in the Low Land?

My purebred Belgian neighbor said over dinner that he had a secret to share. He always wanted to be a priest but he ended up getting married and having children. “Oh, so you changed your mind?” “Not really – he said – I still enjoy the idea of taking care of other people and alleviating their burdens”. And I am not kidding here.

Journals are better than Prozac

“I’d sell both kidneys just to be 20 again”. This is what i said last night to my nephew who’s 20, gorgeous, youthful, handsome-and-doesn’t-know-it and totally lost. A year is a century for him, today is forever, old people become so at 29 and he wants to change the world. Frankly, I’d do anything to feel like that again.
And then, since I am staying at my parents place in my old room and it harbours the most complete collections of my opera omnia, here I am, sleepless, avidly reading my journals of a decade ago.
Someone said that what keeps humans going is the progressive loss of memories regarding difficult times. When I think now of my 20s I remember them as a garden of Eden, where everything was easy and smooth, I was independent and skinny and cute and funny and daring and YOUNG. Well, according to my written memoirs I was actually a wreck.

Here’s what I wrote on March, 23rd 2002:

“It is so complicated to be 23 and try to act as a grownup. I am too old to act without considering consequences, too young to have a sense of perspective and set priorities. It is so confusing”.

I filled entire journals with this sort of considerations. With all the loving tenderness the old me inspires now, I have a good reason to smile: it got better, eventually. And it will get even better later.

Keeping a journal is better than Prozac.

The California Diaries – In love with Los Angeles

L.A. swept me off my feet. Literally. I didn’t really know what to expect. Some said it was just a dizzying megalopolis. Some others pointed out that there’s no city center, just neighborhoods sitting close to each other, with an actual highway running in the middle of the city. Someone simply said: “L.A., it’s love or hate. You’ll see for yourself”. I did.

It’s the largest city I’ve ever visited, true. It’s noisy and dizzying and somehow confusing and there is a highway in the middle, also true. But I never felt as alive and curious and charmed and with both my feet on the ground as I did these past few days. I could move tomorrow, without hesitation. It’s as vibrant as New York (my first love) but crazier, larger, warmer and way more relaxed.


Venice Beach, the boho realm


yummy breakfast at Cora’s Coffee Shoppe in Santa Monica


And I finally found in LA what I was looking for since the beginning: raw snacks everywhere, green juices, detox stuff…it’s the paradise of the compulsive dieter!

Yesterday I had the ultimate cultural experience going to a basketball game at the Staples Center. L.A. Clippers vs. Phoenix Suns. I am not a fan of basket and I guess the last time I was forced to watch a game on tv Michael Jordan was playing. Some 20 years ago? I was in high school and had a boyfriend who was basically a Jordan groupie. I don’t know the rules, I even ignored how long a game is supposed to last. But we had tickets and it sounded fun. We sat down and Husband started bothering all of our neighbors asking questions about the team, the players, the rules, the NBA and so on. One guy turned him down, giving evasive answers first and then turning on the other side. The guy sitting behind us took the burden to explain that all. Poor chap.


The game ended 126-101 for the Clippers but it turned out it’s just a detail. A game is a real show where three hours went by way faster than watching a 007 movie and where every single minute something happens. Beside the game. It started with the choir of some high school around L.A. singing the national anthem. The whole public standing up. Players composed, straight. Do they sing the national anthem before any national game? Unthinkable in Italy where there was an endless discussion, years ago, because our national team didn’t sing the national anthem at the world cup. Since then, a few player can be seen mumbling on tv. Lips don’t necessarily match words, though.

Kiss cam, noise meter, songs requested on twitter, sms displayed on the big screen, awesome filming and montage, constant music during the game. I’ve never seen anything like that.

Half-time and two teams of 6 years old enter the floor and start having their own game. I was so moved I had to discreetly wipe a few tears off my cheeks. Husband and I were struck by the positive approach. Everyone’s part of the show, everyone gets his chance to a minute of celebrity. Europe and its cold cynicism seems a 1000 light-years away. There’s no tension as there is in (european) soccer. Couldn’t they just build a show around soccer as well? That would maybe reduce the violence around the game.

I’ll go back to the Old Continent tomorrow at dawn. It will be an hard landing. Freezing boring Belgium again and then the return to motherhood. I missed the children a lot but at the same time it felt good having the time to think, to explore, to live without constantly caring for basic needs: food, clothes, sleep. Bye bye L.A., you have a place in my heart now.

The California diaries – Hiding in the woods and the Ketchup castle


Betty Draper’s romantic hideaway

We didn’t die after visiting Carmel, luckily enough. But we continued exploring the region after settling for the weekend in a wood cabin a few miles from Big Sur. It was cozy, eco-efficient and all decorated in a 50s spirit. I basically felt like Betty Draper minus the chronically unfaithful (first) husband and the noisy kids. (Mine can be noisy too but right now they are being noisy to their grandparents, thousands of miles from my cool cabin in the woods). The weather was warm during the day and rainy at nights so we made it through the bad forecasts without much damage.

On the way to L.A. (long, this was loooong) we stopped an undetermined number of times for vista points.


Driving along endless vista points

I didn’t even went out anymore after the first two. It’s beautiful, fine, but once you’ve seen it, you’ve seen it. Husband is affected by the viewpoint syndrome. He needs to stop as many times as the road signs tell him to and take so many photos that a whole bus of japanese retired ladies couldn’t even compete. Once he brought me to Ireland and insisted in doing the whole ring of Kerry on a Saturday morning with brief pauses to take pictures of the scenic views. Pictures I was supposed to smile and look happy in. But I am digressing here so let’s go back to the journey to L.A. Hearst Castle was our main stop on the way and it was definitely worth it. I can’t post any pictures because they have a strict policy on that  but if you don’t know it you can look it up here.

It’s….kitsch of course as can be the result of a rich man neurosis but it’s also beautiful and somehow moving. None could build anything like that nowadays. All the money in the world couldn’t buy whole Spanish abbeys and Canova statues (well, I have to admit that if Spain and Italy keep going this bad they might want to sell something again) and even the grandest man wouldn’t dare to invest all of his fortune and almost three decades in pursuing such an unreasonable dream. The somewhat childish pursuit of the craziest dream moved me. This world might do with a little more craziness and passion.

While I was lost in that outrageous display of wealth two things brought me back on earth:

1. Our extremely dynamic and enthusiastic guide kept saying of any piece of art :”Look at that!! It’s 400 years old!”. But then everything was, according to him, “400 years old”. In Europe we would say something like: “The tapestry on your right dates back to 1425…” and “The Venus statue on your left was sculpted by Canova in the early years of XIX century”. But none seemed to care so it’s maybe just us Europeans being know-it-all. The group attention seemed awakened by trivia though: when the guide said Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin had danced in that ballroom everybody started asking questions.

2. There is this grand dining room in the castle. Siena’s Palio contrades flags hanged from the wall while “400 years old” silver candelabras, caskets and other objects I don’t know the name or the use of were on display all around. Well, the table is set  – for the pleasure of the visitors – as it was when William R. Hearst was living there. So, it’s really interesting to see these precious dutch porcelaine plates and the ancient silver cutlery with….a jar of mayo and a bottle of plebeian Heinz’s ketchup. Yes. On the center of the table there’s mayo and ketchup. I wonder if the curators even realize how weird that is.


Plebeian details in the grand castle