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.

5 comments

    1. And here is what happened to me, a prototypical looking Italian gal living in LA: my very dark hair got lighther from living in the sun; I hardly wear any makeup because the beach look needs to be understated and I got addicted to working out. The result? I still look exotic. Couldn’t pass for American despite my spotless accent (well, it does sound British most of the time but I can’t pass for an English rose either!). Welcome to dual citizenship!

  1. I remember when I was teaching English as a foreign language in London, and all these slim, deeply tanned girls from Italy and Spain used to turn up, making me and the other English teachers feel that we looked zitty, pasty and knackered, with fluffy hair.
    Then when I moved to Italy I figured the boot would be on the other foot and I would start to look good like them!!!!
    Ah, but no! Now I am still pasty and knackered looking, but with red sunburn on all my upper surfaces and a permanent collection of about 40 large, septic-looking mosquito bites all over my very white legs. Mediterranean mosquitoes target foreigners, apparently. And in the humid sea air, I have the fuzziest hair you have ever seen.
    Hmmmm. 😦

    1. Ahahah! Unless your profile picture is heavily photoshopped, i have reasons to doubt your tragic description 🙂 as for the mosquito bites, i made my mind about these kind of things: we are genetically made to live in a certain climate. Belgian humidity has taken its toll on my poor mediterranean skin. At some point i had developed a sort of rash because of the overheated interiors and the dermatologist told me I should live somewhere dry and warm to regain healthy skin…

      1. I do agree, we are designed and adapted for our own climate!
        That photo was actually taken in England, when I had recovered from the sunburn, hidden the mosquito bites and not quite returned to being whiter than my own pullover! 🙂

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