It is maybe the southern blood running through my veins but everytime I visit Naples and its surroundings I am moved by the richness of smells, flavours and sounds. The simple, unspoiled beauty of lemons and bougainvilleas. The freedom of the boundless sea, the dozens of boats ready to sail for the islands, the 50s charm made of handmade sandals and white lace blouses. It feels as if Jackie Kennedy could walk in at any moment, black sunglasses, white jeans and minimal sandals.
There is only one solution to homeland overdosing. It’s more homeland, seen through the innocent, surprised, excited eyes of a foreigner, discovering a treasure for the first time.
So I left behind the neurotic families and escaped with The Husband for the weekend. Destination: Naples and the Amalfi coast. I get to see things through him, under a different light. The southern chaos becomes charming, the decadent buildings are monuments to romanticism, the warm breeze tells of African winds. I sort of feel like Goethe. See Naples and die.
What brought me abruptly to reality was the hotel concierge, who merrily told me that my Italian was “really, really good”.
Some stereotypes are so strong and well established internationally that they will be the first thing you hear when meeting a foreigner. I have a beautiful, über smart Brazilian friend who owns more PhDs than all the people I know but keeps being asked on first meetings about her mastering of samba. I have been asked a thousand times about Berlusconi, who apparently has become a synonymous of Italy as Mafia and Pizza. Since I had kids, though, all the foreigners I cross paths with are eager to tell me about Italian mothers. It varies between “Ah, an Italian mamma, always around her children” and “Ahhhh, children in Italy are treated like kings! All Italians love children!” and then, when they are a certain age, they take a dreaming look and start recollecting stories from traveling on the Italian coast in the 70s, when kids would play football on the streets and someone was always around giving them candies and distributing kisses and hugs.
The Wall Street Journal even dedicated last year an article to the apology of Italian-American mothers, described as “warm, affectionate, passionated and generous”.
I feel compelled to reestablish the truth: Italians DO NOT love children. The loving, brave, patient and constantly kissing Italian mother is a thing of the past.
Wandering around with children, surrounded by Italian families, is an anthropological epiphany. Neurotic is the nicest thing I can say of Italian parents. Or, to be honest, grandparents, for parents are rarely around to be seen.
Children are never talked to as small individuals but the sort of attention they get resembles more the type you’d give to your favorite pet. As pets, they are kept on a leash and constantly reminded of the imaginary dangers they could run into if they, simply, live. The bush they are climbing could break, and let them fall down, injure their spine and end up in a wheeling chair for the rest of their life. They can’t swim in the lake because it harbors a monstrous dragon, ready to eat them alive. They can’t run too fast because they could have a heart attack. I have personally heard all of these things.
Motherhood is less a choice than a chore. The main Italian newspaper, Corriere della Sera, has produced a web mini-series, aired a few weeks ago, which was widely praised: “Una mamma imperfetta” (An imperfect mum). It tells the story of a 40-something mother and her best friends, juggling work, home and kids and basically trying to hide from their life in every single episode. They giggle when the perfect mother (which means decently dressed, actively involved) has a hole in her tights and they line up every friday morning in evening black dresses to stalk the handsome dad of the school. Grandparents and fathers always save the day while mothers are constantly too exhausted to interact or even educate their brats.
I have already written about the outlandish arrangements of the average Italian family, where parents outsource child-rearing to grandparents while they are apparently too busy living their forever-teenager life.
Nowhere else I have witnessed so clearly an innate lack of accountability. A child is constantly lied to (as in the horrific lake monster story), officially for safety reasons, and whenever he breaks the rules he’s justified by his brainless child status, which usually continues to provide an alibi till teenage.
From time to time, the neurotic Italian parent will yell at his child for some trivial reason. Preferably in a crowded place, so that everybody can listen to his show of paternal authority. The humiliated child will listen quietly, then turn his back and start doing whatever he was doing wrong all over again.
No one is ever taught the simple relations of cause and effect or the meaning of being responsible. Would you teach your dog about responsibility, when you can keep it out of troubles by walking him on a tight leash?
Then people wonder why the vice president of Italian Senate can call a black minister “orangutan” and then refuse to resign, as a naughty child refuses to apologize for his pranks.
For those living abroad, summer comes with high expectations and mixed feelings. Holidaying home is a trip down Memory Lane, a well deserved resting bubble and the perfect time to catch up with old friends. Sometimes, though, that comes with the unpleasant realisation that friendship, as love, can’t always stay afloat despite time, distance and life itself. Shared memories can take a relationship only so far. At some point, they start to fade and you need to infuse new life, new moments spent together, future commitments to see each other to take the whole thing to the next stage.
I lost many of my youth friends on the way. They still sit among my sleeping Facebook contacts, those whose name is solidly present on the list without having properly interacted in the past decade. We see each other’s posts and recent pictures. We sometimes struggle to recognize that boy/girl we had so much fun with between thinning hairlines and new wrinkles. We think we’ll write a message, just to catch up. Then we never do it because there’s another life happening. Now.
I don’t know if it’s a women’s prerogative but we can’t seem to keep our friends for a lifetime. Men tend to hang out forever with their primary school classmates and rarely form deep, profound friendship after a certain age. Women’s friendship is a different world: new friends keep coming into a woman’s life till her last breath and naturally some get lost on the way.
Women give generously to their friends, they discuss everything: from mundane occupations to the most heartbreaking moments in life. They nurture friendship as a form of love. As love, it’s not always time-proof.
Someone told me once that marrying a foreigner is a statement. It means telling the world you weren’t so comfortable, after all, with those people you grew up with. It might be true, in a certain way, for mixed couples tend to have the best time together while they often struggle with same-nationality partners. What’s certain is that the only “old friends” I kept so far are those living abroad, or married to a foreigner. We don’t need many words or long written catch-ups. A message here and there will do it. We know how our lives are.
As someone who grows attached to everybody and can’t imagine to change hairdresser or doctor, I can’t but feel sorry for the others, every time I am reminded of how much time has passed since we drank lemonades together on the beach, dreaming of our future. But I am learning the 30s lesson here: you have to let go of the past. Some friends go, some stay, some will eventually come back, at a different stage of life and some new will come to cheer you up.
You can’t make everyone happy and at some point you might have to cut branches, in order to become who you are. Yet, I still have to deal with the random nostalgia.
Have you been able to nurture old friendships while living abroad? How?I’d love to hear your stories.
Can you stop loving the smells and tastes of your childhood? Can you stop losing yourself in sensorial memories just because a certain flavor suddenly seems outdated? Would we have the Recherche‘s seven volumes, had Marcel Proust been an expat?
It might be a consequence of cutting the cord but I don’t seem to enjoy my mother’s food anymore. It’s been a slow process completed over the past years but this time I can say it loud: I don’t like it. It looks and tastes exactly the same as 20 years ago but it’s not palatable anymore. And it’s not her fault: it’s me.
For years I travelled looking for that certain flavor: a well-known, reassuring taste that would make me feel at home. As a tween language student in England, I would walk miles to find a jar of Nutella (In 1990, I assure you, globalisation didn’t exist yet. You couldn’t find anything anywhere, apart from McDonalds) and eat it slowly, spoon by spoon, every time I felt homesick (and needed to stock up on calories, since I couldn’t stomach the noodles with ketchup we were presented with everyday at the school’s canteen).
I went to Vietnam with a secret stash of whole crackers I didn’t dare to show my travel companions. I ended up eating fried noodles with snake but before getting there, I ate several packets of those Italian crackers in my bed at night.
I literally rushed into a McDonalds restaurant in Casablanca after two weeks of couscous, stuffed pigeons and a cumin overdose. It wasn’t strictly childhood food but it was utterly familiar and took away the dizziness as soon as the burger reached my blood flow.
There’s nothing extraordinary in this, it’s part of the Italian DNA. I read somewhere that Italians are the only people of the world that declare with an astounding majority (something like 80%) to prefer their national food to any other alternative. They might be well-traveled and open minded, they might have walked the desert or climbed the Everest but when it comes to what they put in their mouth they really are all the same: can’t go very long without a dose of prosciutto, bresaola, culatello or their daily fix of expresso.
Unless you close yourself into a fellow nationals bubble, though, you will be exposed to different tastes and smells at some point. For certain countries, with a colonial history or an history of immigration, it’s become natural. New Yorkers are familiar with Pastrami, Pretzels and anything Italian as Londoners consider Chicken Tikka Masala a national recipe. For countries who built their reputation on their cuisine, as Italy and France, it’s less obvious.
I discovered the virtues of cilantro and cardamom as an adult but I couldn’t go long without them now. I learned to put on the same plate meat and vegetables and some carbs after getting married (in Italy you eat meat alone, then veggies alone and carbs always come first) and I took ideas here and there, from friends and magazines and books coming from all over the world. My taste has opened up and my childhood food, simply, seems me dull and colorless now. I tried to introduce my mother to the wonders of toasted seeds in salads, oriental dressing and avocado but it doesn’t work. It can’t. Food is the greatest Italian taboo. We don’t discuss heritage. The kitchen is off-limits to me during holidays and I can feel the tension building up every time I totter around opening jars and giving a piece of my mind on the abuse of tomato sauce.
What’s your favorite childhood food? How expatriation modified your palate? What particular flavor would you look for when struck by homesickness?
Everybody needs a holiday once a year. Some need physical rest, some others a change of scenery. Some need time to spend with their loved ones and yet some need space to find their true selves. My expat self (which counts for a shocking percentage of the whole thing) needs its own vacation from time to time. Going to the homeland is not enough, as an expat often goes through a phenotypic transformation that prevents any true relaxation in familiar surroundings. I have to confine myself to my parents’ house, in the middle of a sun-kissed countryside, rich in olive trees and vineyards and cats. And not much else, to be honest. Here I am not an expat, nor a mother and not even an adult. It’s my personal Neverland.
My two decades of expatriation translate to my parents as a series of odd and worrying eating habits (some years I rant about the importance of organic, some others on my new egg-dairy-wheat free regimen, this year I am all into protein and greens powder in my morning smoothie…); a mild weight gain related to growing old, having kids and living in a sun-deprived country and maybe (maybe!) a surge of occasional wisdom. That’s it. They never asked a single question on how life is out of the national borders or who I made friends with or what people say, up there, about us down here. They don’t care. I am just their child and as unnerving as it was in the early expatriation years, when I just wanted to tell them over and over again how cool I was for living abroad my little adventure, I ultimately find it relaxing. The show is over for a few weeks and since none is interested in my personal philosophy I can even take some time off from my usual rantings.
My children are the actual stars of the season and I can’t even compete. Who’d want to spend time with an almost middle-aged and compulsively dieting child when you can hang around with a couple of blondish, angelic-faced little things who will love you more for every candy you hand them? And what child would obey to the same ol’ lady he sees and hears every day when reality suggests she’s not boss anymore?
So that is how I stop being a mother in my little home bubble . My children don’t recognize my authority anymore and deliberately choose to follow the grandparents’ lead. Which is always sugar-coated. Literally.
There was a time when I tried revolution. You know, teenage style. Like telling my parents all the time how child rearing was a different story up north, how they were stuck in pre-liberal era, how we should educate children to become independent individuals and not spoiled pets. How plastic toys were to be banned, as were DVDs and candies. How mine was a sugar free house and how “youknowsugarisreallybad”, how modern people live now and eat healthily and so “no carbs please, what with all that pasta?”. It didn’t work. I didn’t insist.
I now enjoy this magic place where I can retreat to my room as my 16 years old self (minus the oily skin and the perpetual love chagrin) and when I occasionally switch on my hearing to catch my mother telling her grandsons that “there is a big, nasty man going around houses to take away all the naughty children” in the same way her mother used to talk me into eating my lunch I don’t care anymore. I’ll tell them later there is no such thing as the nasty man, in case they’d be actually worried about him. In the meantime I’ll just lie down and savor the free time.
Expats are not all made the same but they often tend to be independent, restless, always-on-the-go individuals. Who like to travel light. I never understood how it could take a day to pack a luggage or what was the point of bringing literally your house on your back as a snail risking major physical injuries when you could just grab the essentials and give yourself the freedom of changing plans, running to catch that last train and hop on the overcrowded bus. Well, now I do. Understand.
Last Friday was “Graduation Day” at school. Theoretically it’s an actual school day, the last of the year but the teachers made very clear since the previous week that, well, “parents can come around 10.30 to have a drink and talk to us” and “maybe you can take your children home at 12.00”. So a very tired group of moms paraded in class, with the half-scared look of someone who’s about to enter jail while the teachers looked for the first time in the whole year rested, made-up, with whiter teeth, rosier cheeks and a happy, bright light in their eyes. They, on the other side, were prisoners about to be released. For a couple of months.
Since then, it’ been a roller coaster ride. My childhood memories are of drawing, coloring and sitting quietly in a corner, not even supervised by an adult. Thirty years ago children weren’t much more of a job than pets. This generation, though, is definitely more demanding: my boys get bored easily, know always what they want to do (eat candies, go to the cinema, make cupcakes, eat pizza, climb trees and break windows while playing football…not always in this order) and won’t take no for an answer.
After being their slave for the past four days, I have finally found a way out: a mosaic class, where they will decorate some frames with a bunch of well behaved, pink clothed and pig-tailed girls. I needed the day off not to go get that pedicure I am dreaming of since a few weeks but to accomplish the terrible task of packing for four.
My light travelling days are gone and I have to stack clothes, medical equipment, favorite stuffed toys and a mountain of sticker books with the performance anxiety linked to Ryanair’s luggage weight standards and the risk that I forget that very little thing that of course they needed the most.
So, I apologize for not being a good chat right now but packing for four has certainly taken the best of me. I will be back soon, hopefully. If Ryanair doesn’t detain me for breaking some of their absurd regulations.