Month: August 2013

Tale of a Tempest in a Teapot

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Yesterday morning I was sitting in my doctor’s waiting room when I started receiving an unusual number of blog comment notifications. I barely had the time to read a few lines when a reader tells me that she found this blog through the Corriere della Sera, the main Italian newspaper. I am intrigued as I have no idea of what she might be referring to.

It turns out a journalist has bumped into a post I wrote 6 weeks ago, has poorly translated it into Italian and put it on the newspaper’s website with a catchy title. So my “Myths about Italy: 1. Italians love children” becomes “Italian mothers: eternal teenagers who raise their children as puppies” and I suddenly become a “U.S. blogger”. Chaos ensued.

The free impressions and personal opinions of an expat mum who goes back home over summer are then dissected as a sociology manual, igniting a fierce debate on the real nature of Italian mammas and rapidly (and sadly) degenerating into personal attacks, various insults and toxic remarks.

What about a pinch of salt, guys? (or a sense of humor?)

It’s clear that my cahier des doléances can’t cover the 100% of Italian individuals and I am candidly surprised that talking of neurotic parenting and disputable ethical standards struck such a chord.

I guess it rubbed salt in an open wound. Now I’d really like to go back to my expat stories, though.

When does Middle Age start? Thoughts on turning 35

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Last Monday I turned 35. And I never really processed the fact that at some point I would actually enter my scary age.

My husband is almost 8 years my senior and I still remember when his friends (and especially girlfriends) turned 35. They had plenty of kids (well, like 98% of them but remember this is Belgium and baby making is one of the preferred activities of the locals), a mortgage, crow’s feet around their eyes and started talking mammography and other cancer screenings. No need to say I considered them the oldest persons on Earth.

According to WHO datas the average life expectancy for a European woman is a little over 80 years (85 in Italy, 83 in Belgium. I guess olive oil and sun exposure give one that little final advantage) so mathematical middle age would be still 5-7 years ahead. Given though my ignorance of my personal life expectancy plus the fact that I am surrounded by a growing number of mentally aging individuals, I guess I can declare my middle age season open. And make a list, something I always do when turning a chapter.

Things I know now that I am 35:

1. Nothing in life is perpetual. Bad times, good times, they just keep alternating. Even the most tiresome phase will at some point end.

2. Troubled people don’t look charming anymore. They look like sociopaths and instead of pitying them, you start avoiding them.

3. Red hair, trilby hats, derby shoes and skinny jeans don’t look good on me. So I can finally stop wasting time and money on passing trends that don’t suit my figure.

4.Your body will start to rebel against prolonged sloppiness. Sunscreen, make-up remover, dental floss and sleep are not accessories anymore. They are your assets. And I can’t go out and drink alcohol for longer than 4 nights in a row. After that, it’s detox or collapse. 

5.You can’t please everybody. No matter how hard you try, someone is going to dislike what you say, do or write. 

6.You enter a phase where unpleasant stuff happens and that “stuff” is your adult life. I lived a relatively peaceful existence till a couple of years ago when disaster sort of strucked my house. Every week seemed to bring its own charge of bad news, failed plans and unforeseen difficulties. I spent hours with a friend who was encountering the same problems, wondering if bad luck did actually exist and in that case, if and where we caught it. I now realize those set backs and obstacles are just what adult life is made of and they suddenly come to light because for the first time you are fully responsible of what’s going on.

7.When you reach middle age, some people start to act like it. Young people are all young in the same way. On the contrary, middle-aged people live their time in dozens of different ways. Some decide to become directly old, and you see the string of pearls and the pastel little twin-set suddenly making its appearance on an ex-biker girl or a sudden interest for ancient art fairs and real estate. Some others desperately seek the lost youth and sport around new tattoos, impossible miniskirts and hooded sweatshirts at night. Some stay somewhere in the middle, trying not to look too young while they wait to become old.

8. You start wishing you could go back for a day to your 20s with that body and this, 30-something mindset. Oh, you would have so much more fun!

9.Time is not on your side, so you appreciate every moment. As you grow up and your life fills up with schedules and obligations you feel you are not master of your personal time anymore. You can’t keep in contact with all of your friends, you can’t run with your dog as much as you’d like to, you won’t be able to share precious moments with everyone. So, every time you do you are really happy.

10. Everything does not end at 35. One of the reasons I’ve always dreaded the mid-30s is that I was brought up with the idea that you have to peak before middle age, otherwise you’re done. Luckily that’s not true anymore and there’s plenty of things you can achieve later on.

What did you learn so far about getting old?

The unexpected truthfulness of stereotypes: summer stories

When I first landed in Brussels, ten years ago, I had an accurate list of stereotypes in my mind and I was determined to prove them wrong. My working day usually started in the European Commission’s press room, which offered the unique opportunity to observe journalists coming from almost any country in the world. Friendships, hostilities, affairs, marriages, arguments and intellectual (and less so) debates originated in that room.

Journalists tend to sit together by nationality, in order both to socialize and to keep control of their competitors’ interests and possible stories.

There was the Italian corner, where young correspondents would dutifully keep empty seats for their seniors, who would show up at the very last minute with a calculated indolence and stylish clothes.

On the opposite side, the British were at least a decade younger and always surprised me for their extreme competitiveness and their sharp questions.

The French, somewhere in the middle of the room, wore trench coats with any weather and did their best to live up to the Parisian intellectual, politically active look anyone expected from them. The Germans were reserved and very diligent when taking notes, the Spanish managed to have a better tan than Italians and seemed constantly busy in some endless argument. The few Americans of the group stayed discreetly in the back and had that Robert-Redford-in-“All the President’s men” style, plus tortoise shell glasses.

I spent some of my happiest times in that room but I had to give up on my original purpose since I learnt that stereotypes exist for a reason and they are way more accurate than we’d like to admit. (I guess one of the main reason I wanted them to be false was that I hated the Italian-mama-cooking-lasagna label I was destined to). Of course, I have a couple of German friends who are constantly late and I happen to know a few Portuguese who are way more organized that any Scandinavian but they are exceptions.

Italians are known to be obsessed with their own food and two moments made my heart smile in the past weeks:

1. End of July on the Sardinian coast. We are in the car, 8.30 pm, with a stack of boiling-hot take away pizzas, on our way home. There’s a police block on the road, an elegant Carabiniere in his typical black and red uniform stops us. He’s about to ask for papers when he sees the pizzas on my lap. “Oh, you have hot pizzas! Please, go, you don’t want to eat them cold”. That was just…priceless.

2. Yesterday, in a supermarket in the Belgian countryside. Literally, the middle of nowhere. I hear someone saying in Italian: “Have you found the pine nuts? We have to make pesto tonight”. I turn my head and see two men in Ferrari red and white outfits (the same that pilots wear), shopping around for pasta, pizzas and – apparently – pine nuts. We are only around 15 miles from the Francorchamps circuit, where this Sunday’s Grand Prix will take place. I talked to them and they went like: “Are you really Italian?” (Yes, I am, of course. Please don’t tell me again I speak it very well) and “Do you live here like all the time?” (Yes, I do. Well, not exactly here but a couple of hours away).

The Ferrari guys checking out of the supermarket, only picture I ended up taking

The Ferrari guys checking out of the supermarket, only picture I ended up taking

I was so excited to meet some real Ferrari technicians that I tried to convince my kids to take a picture with them but they didn’t show any interest and I still had enough common sense to avoid asking for a picture myself. So we watched them go, with their pile of frozen pizzas, tomato sauce bottles, basil boxes, olive oil and the famous pine nuts. Of course, they drove away in a red Fiat Punto. Rented.

The forced web Detox (or how I coped with digital rehab)

I love Detoxes. I have done them all and never got tired of the concept. There is even something mystical about it: the idea of arriving at some point of exhaustion, gathering the courage to suffer a little bit and eventually finding peace in a period of self-inflicted deprivation. Sugar, coffee, dairy, tea, carbs, mere food. I have done them all. At some point I read of a make-up fast and a mirror fast and was sincerely intrigued without passing to action, though. I am frankly scared of running around without knowing what I look like. Everyone has his weak point, I guess.

One thing is deciding to go on a fast. I love that. Another one is to wake up one morning and – tada!!!! – someone tells you it’s over. You ARE on a fast.  It’s what happened to me since the last time I posted. After my 50s splurge on the Amalfi coast we picked up the kids, boarded a Ryanair flight and landed in Sardinia. 

We were welcomed by our landlady, a stunningly beautiful woman in her early 50s, who candidly announced that there was no wi-fi in the house. “You know, i never use the Internet when I am on holidays”, she said, looking at us with her almond-shaped blue eyes. My heart sank. My mobile data subscription had just been cut, since I had spent all of my monthly 500 MB looking for news of the royal baby on Twitter. (I find nativity plays way more entertaining than economic forecasts, what did I just write on weak points?)

So my web Detox started. I tried to catch a signal (phone wasn’t working all the time, either) in order to send one last email but it didn’t go through. There I was, in a summer paradise without any chance to communicate with the outside world.

I am a net geek. I believe the World Wide Web is the greatest invention in modern history and have been using it daily since I first digited the http:// on a university pc, back in the 90s. Cutting me from the web is like sending me on a mirror fast. I simply can’t cope. 

Then the withdrawal symptoms started.

I would wake up in the middle of the night and take nervously my phone, hoping for a miracle. A glimpse of a news website. A mere minute to use WordPress. There were no surprises. I spent a whole vacation on text messages, as I had done 20 years ago. I read news on proper newspapers and went on without any late night whatsapping consolation. 

I hated it.

 

The symptoms eased after the first week but when I got back home I needed a couple of days in the decompression chamber to return to the digital world without risks of overdosing.

I told The Husband to never do that to me again. Holidays without the Internet.

What is your worst detox nightmare?