Month: May 2013

Little Expats I (or the thousand and one correct ways of raising your offspring)

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One of the few things I still like about Brussels is the open show of expat parallel realities. Bringing the kids to the playground is per se an anthropological relevant moment: there I see mothers and their offspring from all over the world, forming separate little groups, each one living according to its own dogmas, credos and well-meant theories on child rearing. You’d be mistaken to think that it happens in similar ways in all big, international cities because in London, or Paris, or New York there is a common denominator. One that you won’t find in Brussels: national identity.

Expats and immigrants (see here for my personal take on semantics) find in Paris, or London, or New York (but even in Rome, frankly) an entity they have to constantly confront with. None would dream of living in one of these countries without speaking a single word of the language or without understanding the basic cultural foundations of the place one’s living in. Like it or not, in Paris you will be confronted with the French way of living, to their food and habits, to the unhygienic baguette worn under your arm on a Sunday morning to the exhausting love for bureaucracy and hierarchy. Being an expat in a country with history and national pride means being challenged in one’s personal upbringing and sometimes adopting a new one.

Well, in Brussels you won’t find any of that. Thousands of immigrants live at the heart of Europe without speaking or understanding French (which still is the language spoken by the vast majority of Brussels residents), without knowing anything of the local culture and without having any interest to discover it. It’s not their fault. It’s that Belgians are difficult, if not impossible, to meet and they tend to deny the existence of a local tradition. They like to stick together, reducing the opportunity to meet foreigners to cocktail hours and making sure they will go to dinner without any new addition to their primary school circle of friends.

That said, let’s go back to the playground. Children are the same all over the world but for some mysterious reason pediatricians and mothers think there are as many ways to take care of them as there are nations on Earth. Italians share with Russians a love for medical equipment and clear answers. A colicky baby will get a special massage in America, some Infacol drops in the UK, an homeopathic arsenal in Germany, a bumpy promenade on Brussels’ ill paved sidewalks as suggested by local doctors but in Rome and Moscow (and in other parts of Eastern Europe, according to my sources) the infallible answer to infant belly pain is the insertion of a tiny feeding tube into the baby’s rectum, in order to let the air come out. Did I just write that babies are all the same?

It doesn’t get better later on: Italians wean with complicated mixtures of lyophilized broth (it’s safer, being industrially produced, they have been told) and lovely smelling starch, rice flour or semolina while Brits choose sometimes unusual associations of fruits and veggies (have a look at the colourful and chic http://www.ellaskitchen.co.uk), Germans go traditional and organic (www.hipp.de) and Americans seem obsessed with snacking at any time of the day.

You will spot the Latin kids (i.e. Italians, Spanish, Portuguese and South-Americans with the exception of the French) because they wear winter coats till the temperature reaches 20°C, they are often overdressed for a couple of hours around a muddy toboggan and their mothers yell. A lot. Italians are known for being loud in any circumstances (how many of you have already had the appalling experience of dining next to an Italians’ table in a small restaurant?) but with kids they let go what’s left of the little self-control they usually have. They yell to prevent them from injury, to scold them, to call them to have a snack, to declare their love, to put a coat on and, finally, they yell even louder when it’s time to go home.

German and Scandinavian kids play with wooden toys. They are allowed very little TV and snack on organic fruit. They are quiet, well behaved and very self-controlled. Their moms go everywhere by bike, have short, neat hair and natural-fibre clothes. They look sooooo modern!

Then come my favorites: Brits kids. You can’t miss them, wearing a short sleeved t-shirt in the middle of winter, often barefoot in the mud and out and about no matter the weather. Super independent and sometimes a little wild, they are kings of the playground. I often tell my husband that the secret of the celebrated British resilience is natural selection: centuries of exposing youngsters to any kind of environmental challenge let only the best equipped survive (ever guessed where Charles Darwin first got the idea of evolution?). Another distinctive trait of the Brits? They’re always accompanied by fathers on Saturday and Sundays.I guess mothers get a well deserved break on weekends. How civilized, indeed!

After years of watching I took ideas and advice from everyone. Colics have been cured with night promenades when necessary, flavors and foods have been alternated to get a taste of everything and I have tried to be as eco-friendly as possible. I still yell a lot, though.

When expatriation gets to your face: how I became a foreigner to my people

ImageI am a walking Italian stereotype. I tried everything to look different: bleached my hair during teenage (ending up more orange than blonde), tried an endless number of hair coloring later on, avoided sunlight for months in a row (which, I can assure you, it is not an easy task in central Italy). I went through a romantic flowery clothes phase to look more English (impossible to get the English rose skin, though. I should have asked Michael Jackson his tips), through a minimalist trying to look someway Scandinavian and even through a rock, leathery phase to court the Germanic look. I didn’t have a single hope to succeed. Then I tried the American look: big hair, high heels, flawless makeup and perfect nails. Too bad I resembled a cheap version of Sophia Loren, not exactly what I aimed for.

At some point, in my early 20s, I made peace with the fact that I would never be blonde, pale or with small hips and I started sunbathing again. Belgium was a breakthrough in the complicated relationship with my self-image. The Low Land is populated by women with small hips and big backs, thin, ash-blonde hair and greyish skin (a particular color induced by the lifelong sun deprivation and that has nothing to do unfortunately with the above-mentioned English rose complexion). I became Monica Bellucci. Belgian women are of the resistant sort: they drink a lot of beer, eat greasy food with nonchalance and are genetically adverse to developing cellulitis. They live basically on an Atkins diet and do so much sport – busy as they are with bicycles, tennis, stairs, child-bearing and child-rearing – that they can show off their toned legs till the age of 80.

In this nordic set of feminine values, I stood out as the non-sporty, lazy, anti-cellulitis cream heavy consumer, constantly dieting Italian. Had I known that before, I would have moved to Sweden instead. I can’t imagine how lucky I could have been there.

The confusing part of this rambling is that a decade of living in the Low Land might have had an influence on my face and body. Sun deprivation has made my skin pale and my hair darker, the 35 floors I climb on average everyday (according to the infallible Fitbit The Husband gave me for Christmas) may have toned my lazy Italic legs and I got used to not wearing makeup and jewels when going out at night. Sometimes I even get out of the house in those running outfits Americans stars are always photographed in on tabloids. My mother says I have adopted a sciatto (sloppy) northern look.

This and my very pale children are the main reason why people address me in English when we are in Italy. I don’t belong anymore, apparently.

Then in Belgium I go to the playground and covetous mothers, in constant search of help, approach me cautiously to ask how long I have been taking care of those kids. To them, I am the exotic looking nanny.

Confused and Lost in Translation, that’s my destiny.

“Ma vatte’ a fa’ ‘na passeggiata, va’…”: Go have a walk, or the Italian answer to the famous Belgian humour

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Many says that Rome’s only flaw are the Romans. I think that the Romans are actually Rome’s greatest asset. Without its cynical, proud, indifferent, wise inhabitants Rome would be just an open museum. Purebred Romans are an endangered species but if you happen to find one be prepared to sharp sentences, the distant look of someone who’s seen it all and doesn’t care anymore and vitriolic remarks.

The husband had his own Roman close encounter last Saturday, when we grabbed a taxi to go visit the Forum and the driver happened to be a 70 something Trasteverino, an authentic, purebred Roman. After a long series of curses addressed to the unaware pedestrians (curses that all involved the pedestrian’s dead relatives), we had a revealing moment:

(taxi driver): Look, Rome is so beautiful!

(me): Yes, and too crowded as well!

(td): But it’s normal, when something is beautiful everybody wants to see it! Rome is the most beautiful city in the world!

(The Husband): (taking his Belgian sheepish look) I come from Belgium, and that is the most beautiful country in the world! We even have an Italian prime minister!

(td): (turning his head slowly, looking down to my husband, without an inch of amusement) MA VATTE A’ FA’ ‘NA PASSEGGIATA, VA’; VATTE’ A VEDE’ DU’ COSE, POI ME DISSCI which sounds more or less like “Go have a walk, see a couple o’ things, then you’ll tell me”.

The Husband learnt that contrary to widespread opinion Italians do have a sense of humour. They just reserve it to other subjects. Never, ever try to tease a Roman about Rome. It ain’t funny.

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Then we had coffee. And it was a perfect one. A black, vigorous, short expresso, accompanied by its regular glass of tap water. No milk foams, cocoa sprinkling, syrup pouring or odd doses (double, triple or whatever people take to get cardiac arrhythmia).

PS The greatest interpreter of the Roman soul was actor Alberto Sordi. His movies are a must to understand the city.

Dinner with an old flame: 5 days in Rome

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Have you ever bumped into an old love? Someone you spent nights talking to and dreaming with but that at some point you had to leave, because he wasn’t right for you? Do you remember the heartbreaking moment when you knew you had to move on and still it felt so good staying still? You picked up all the courage and braveness and strength you had, hidden somewhere between idealized early memories and everyday dullness and left. At first you were relieved, felt safe as you can only feel when you know you did the right thing. You actually moved on, saw people, went places. Then one day, years – centuries! – later you take the trash out and ta-daaaa he’s there. Staring at you. And you can’t remember anymore why he was wrong but just feel the sudden impulse to indulge a little bit longer in that wrongness. 

Well, I have been to Rome these past few days and felt exactly like that. For the first time in almost 20 years I missed it. I couldn’t remember anymore why I hated it or why I was so certain it was all wrong for me. I could only see the overwhelming beauty of every single corner, the utterly simple and delicious food, the yellowish light that warmed up everyone and everything in a couple of minutes. All I wanted was to stay there, indulge in the thousand little pleasures I thought I was immune to and lose myself into the Pantheon, looking at the magic hole in the ceiling, every single day. It was like going to dinner with an old love: time and distance sublimate everything, and you fall in love all over again. 

Had I to live there again, I know I would hate it. But it’s always nice to have an old boyfriend you think you could go back to. 

Ghosts from the past (or when an expat gets caught)

A few days after writing on the expat status something strange happened. I was coming back home from the market and saw a woman pushing a pram down my street. She looked familiar but truth is my sight is getting worse these days and I wasn’t sure. So I avoided my Italian gesturing thing and kept quiet. She walked past me, turned back and said hi as if we had coffee together every morning. I looked again and got goosebumps. She looked familiar because she’s my cousin’s cousin and we used to play together when we were, like, 6. It took me 15 minutes of conversation to remember her name and the following 24 hours to get a whole recollection of her family name and a few childhood snapshots. She chose the expat life too, married a Dutch and had a pale, blondish baby. (Just to confirm my theory on actual dominance of Northern European genes).We stand there, talking as if we never parted for quite a long time. It was utterly comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time. Remember when I said that an expat is entitled to a fresh start, new life, new session of self marketing in every new country? Well, I have done all that now and I didn’t like this sudden encounter with a ghost from the past. We politely exchanged telephone numbers, and laughed at the fact that we’ve been living less than a mile apart for the past 8 years and never crossed paths. But I am not sure there will be any more sand playing soon.

To the expats out there: have you ever bumped into your personal ghost? How did it feel?

Modern times, modern husbands

My husband is very busy. Constantly busy, apparently.

He wants me to pass important communications via email. He won’t answer phone questions. He won’t even listen to a real life question. If I ask him if we should go somewhere on a certain date or if I should buy a new dishwasher he will just reply: send me an email.

These are modern husbands, apparently. I have a few girlfriends in the same situation. We have to write emails, send detailed excel sheets with different set of dates for vacations and cope with the “I am in a conf call!!” battle cry which signals the end of any possible interaction.

I love technology and am an actual geek when it comes to modern gadgets, revolutionary apps and that sort of stuff. But stop asking me to send emails about everyday plans. It is frustrating. 

How are husbands out there? Are there still some who would answer a regular voice question over dinner? 

30s: regretting 20s, looking forward to 40s

I write, think and talk a lot about age. Everyday. It became an obsession when I turned 30 and people expected me to be an adult when I couldn’t feel any actual difference from my younger self. According to my father who is well settled in his 80s it stays like that for the rest of your life: you keep feeling 21 and can’t really process the fact that teenagers get up to give you their seat when you use public transports.

What I find really confusing is that there is no “old age” anymore. I am 34 and I can remember my mother when she was my age. She dressed, behaved and spoke as a grown up. She even had a grown up’s haircut (that mid-lenght, parted on the side thing moms had in the 70s). Now everybody dresses the same between 15 and 85 and you spot grandmothers trying on the same Zara jeans as their granddaughters. So when do we get old? Or when do we stop being young?

I have already written of my (apparently inaccurately remembered) 20s: the Golden Age when you started adult life and risked being obsessed with the quest for real love. My 30s are turning out to be what everybody said: a chaotic number of years where you are supposed to be wise and organized and responsible and to take care of everybody and everything but yourself. I am constantly running, and most of the times I am running late. I still remember the  shock when, freshly married, my husband made me a list of things to do. Errands. Dry cleaner, shoe-repair guy, car repair and so on. The kind of stuff I always outsourced to my mother. Well, I am becoming her. And that is scary.

In these past months I am seeing very often women in their 40s. They seem to have an appeasing effect on my anxiousness. They survived through 30s, some divorces, young children and everyday frustrations. They are better dressed, younger looking than 30-years-old who still have to cope with night waking and dark circles around their eyes and in most cases they resumed interesting jobs. They even know who they are. They are to me the light at the end of the tunnel.

What a strange era, the 30s.