Month: September 2013

Guess who’s coming to dinner or the national themed invitation

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From time to time a generous and well meaning friend will text to invite me to an “Italian dinner”, an “Italian drink” or  – even worse – an Italian blind (play)date. It’s happened dozens of time and the subtitle always is “I met an/some Italians at the gym/work/ salon/playground/school/hospital/cooking class/ and I thought you really ought to know each other”.

Sharing one’s mother tongue and having watched the same TV during the formative years produces good material for conversation but I have seen too many times embarrassed same-nationality guests asking each other with their expat metallic accent where city they come from, half bored, half stressed out.

The smiling host(ess) tiptoes around, careful not to interrupt the pleasant melody coming from his/her new friends and proud to assist to a home replica of the sex scenes in A Fish Called Wanda. (for those who’ve watched the film, it’s good to know that the Italian dubbing replaced the Italian words with Russian ones. Kevin Kline basically shouts “Vodka, Matrioska” and the likes while in bed with Jamie Lee Curtis).

I have met some nice people through these set-ups but the longer I live as an expat, the less excited I become at the prospect of spending yet another evening in an arranged ghetto.

Before cutting the cord it was comforting. The first people I met as a young expat went great lengths to make me feel at home, introducing me to the local Italian community where I could always turn to if I was feeling lonely, sick or depressed. Time has passed, though and I don’t associate anymore comfort with talking to strangers in my mother tongue.

And there’s something else. Long time expats become a little territorial regarding their status. Deep down, they like to think they are the sole representatives of their home country abroad, the unique product of an exotic culture. Once they are forced together in the same room with another dozen of fellow nationals, they (think they) lose all their charms.

A romantic poet wrote once that he loved foreign women because the language filter added an invaluable veil of mystery to the conversation and one could never completely understand all the nuances of the other’s personality.

Listening to someone who speaks your mother tongue means that there are no more filters. A few phrases, the intonation of some words, the pronunciation of vowels and you have an x-Ray scan: you can tell with a certain accuracy where that person grew up, what kind of school he/she went to and whether you share cultural references. In a few words, you can put someone in a box. The advantage is that you can understand fairly quickly if you like him/her or not.

Have you ever been invited to a national themed dinner? Have you ever organized something to introduce same nationality friends? Do you have a group of fellow nationals you meet on a regular basis just because you come from the same place?

 

 

The Fake Italian

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As a typical Italian, I need a fix of my childhood food on a regular basis. Even better if it comes with a proper setting, proper accents and proper faces.  That’s why every Wednesday  I meet with a fellow Italian-expat-who-married-out-of-the-tribe and we treat our pale, half-blooded children to a real pizzeria for lunch.

Everything looks right there: the staff speak with a southern Italian accent, they run around with more plates than any human being could keep on two arms and affectionately scold the kids when they become too loud. The pizza is the right balance of crisp and fluffy, the tomato sauce yummy and they happen to have very-close-to-the-real-thing cannoli, filled with sweet ricotta and topped with a tear of chocolate fudge.

I look forward to going there every week with the same enthusiasm and it’s become for the kids too a special moment of Italianness. “You know, papa – they tell their father – we go to this restaurant with mummy where everybody speaks Italian. You can’t come, though. It’s only for Italians like us”. 

Last Wednesday, unfortunately, they didn’t have a table for us, a merry little crowd needing buggy space close to the table. We waited a little bit, hoping for someone to ask the check and go but no one was moving. So we decided to take the offspring to the pizzeria next door, where we had never been before.

We had just closed the door behind us when something looked, sounded and smelled clearly wrong. We were welcomed by a woman with a Snow White-meets-Sophia-Loren look (chalk white skin, ultra-black hair and red lipstick) who at the sight of the three boys and the baby girl in the pushchair shrilled: “OOOOOOOH, ‘a famiiiiya” with an accent and intonation that reminded me more of a background actor in a third-class American movie than of an authentic southern mamma.

A look at the tables confirmed my worst doubts: little roses as centerpieces, fake-chic setting, even faker pictures of famous Italian places all around and not a single Italian among the patrons.

I looked at my friend hoping for her to read my mind, which was shouting: “RUN! I am not having fake pizzas!”. Luckily they didn’t have a highchair for the baby and we had the perfect excuse to get away. The counterfeited Sophia Loren proposed us even take away pizzas but no, no, we forgot something and have to go.

And then I thought of all the times I have been naively eating at a fake Japanese restaurant, run by smart Chinese who understood quickly that Europeans weren’t so keen anymore on greasy Peking duck.

How do you spot a fake Italian restaurant?

1. There are no Italians inside

2. If it looks too authentic to be true it probably is. (beware especially of too many Godfather’s references in the decor or on the walls)

3. If the owner greets you speaking Italian, he probably isn’t. (He would do so only to a known patron)

4. If the menu contains too many variations to the “spaghetti with meatballs” theme, run away.

5. If the decor looks more French than Italian (brocade tablecloths, stiff chairs, elaborated centerpieces) it’s never a good sign.

What are your tips to spot “fake” restaurants all over the world?

Meeting Jessie Hickman, Downton Abbey’s era badass and multiple living expert

Brussels life is rich of hidden gems. It feels as if nothing’s happening but truth is, a lot of cool stuff happens. You just have to find what and where. Last Tuesday I was invited by a friend to a fancy hotel downtown where Australian author Courtney Collins was introducing her debut novel, The Burial (published in the U.S. as “The Untold” and in France as “Sous la Terre” ).

The Burial tells the captivating story of Jessie Hickman, Australia’s last bushranger. Born at the beginning of last century, Jessie had already lived as circus rider, cattle rustler and convict by the age of 26. Her unusual, adventurous, fearless and sometime desperate life – told in the book through the voice of her prematurely born  (fictional) baby daughter -is unique for her time and made her a legend down under.

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I was lucky enough to join Courtney Collins and her agent with my friends for dinner later that night. We walked through the beautiful Galérie de la Reine and had dinner in an impersonal little bistrot, paying little attention to the food and getting carried away by conversation. Courtney is a beautiful woman, calm and composed. I was impressed by her courage in taking risks: she worked on her debut novel for seven years while keeping her day job in social entrepreneurship. It was only around the end of that writing period that she quit her job to dedicate herself full time to the novel.  Her instinct was right, since the book found its way to a publisher in a short time and it is now translated in several languages.

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Courtney Collins with her novel

She lives in the countryside not far from Victoria, surrounded by artists and friends (when she described the place I thought “Paradise!”) and goes back to the city occasionally, whenever she needs back some urban vibe.

To know more about the book and the author, go here.

East and West in the classroom: when the pursue of comfort meets the strive for excellence

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Last Thursday there was the first and only teachers-parents meeting of the year. We arrived 30 minutes a little early and were soon joined by fellow parents, as anxious as we were to know all and everything about our little bundles of joy. Parents in a classroom resemble tragically enough children in a classroom. They start to look around, talk and eagerly lift their hands as they did 30-something years before.

The ex first-of-class doesn’t wear thick lenses anymore but shows the same impatience in getting the undivided attention of the teacher. The ex cheerleader is still gorgeous, and shares her worries about the amount of sugars and fats her children are gulping down at the canteen. (“I want to manage the number of treats I am giving to my children and monitor the amount of fat and sugar they are assuming”, dixit). The shy guy in the last row sits against the wall and takes notes, avoiding other parents’ look. The class socialite still flies around making friends and small talk. And then there’s me, looking at other people and mumbling in my head, losing track of what is being said and secretly fearing that the teacher will ask again, decades later : “What’s going on in your head, Miss?”.

The social architecture of the average classroom is intact. But that shouldn’t make anyone feel safer. In these times of global travel, it’s not anymore a question of extraverted vs. introverted, first-of-class vs. shy guy, socialite vs. cheerleader. It may become more complicated.

More than ten nationalities are represented in class: mainly Europeans with some Asians and a few Africans. Europeans were worried about safety (“I am not leaving my child if not in class”), food quality (“Why is the school’s caterer providing so many dairy-based desserts?”), psychological balance (“Are you sure your teaching method doesn’t foster unhealthy competitiveness? My child needs to play!”), and physical comfort (“Who’s taking the younger children to the loo?”, “What if they are tired after lunch?”). They asked tons of questions on the daily details of their kids’ day, their activities and the importance of teachers being available, to them and to their offspring.

The English teacher went through a detailed explanation of how the children are going to learn to read. “First, they learn three-letters words – she said – Some of them, though, can already read six-letters words and even write short sentences. It’s the case of Vikram”. And she goes on showing to the class a perfect notebook with a whole page filled with phrases. A very proud mother in a cotton sari stands against the blackboard, listening to the accomplishments of her son.

There was a moment of silence. It’s not just Vikram (the name is not the actual one). All the Asian children in our school are at least a year in advance. They are outstanding. And you know what? Their parents never worry about comfort, the size of the loos or the amount of organic food provided. They think of the results. What they are learning, what opportunities the school will give them, how they will strive for excellence.

Where they look at the road, we seem to be looking at our shoes. I am myself a little too focused on quality food and quality time and it’s not a simple matter of “tiger mothering” vs. “goose mothering”. What are we building on our pursue of comfort? What are they losing in term of quality of life? What will the bottom line be in a few decades?

I can’t but think of an Asian friend telling me many years go that ” you, Europeans, you waste so much time arguing on futile problems instead of sticking together, ready to face the coming challenges. Because, I tell you this, the Chinese and the Indians will pull the rag from under your armchair and won’t leave you the time to think”. It never sounded so real.

Let’s Talk Conversion or When an Expat Leans In

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The Husband’s grandmother was an extremely cultivated and passionate woman. I only met her two years before her death but we made the most of that time and spent hours chatting on her sofa about the world. Her favorite subject was religion. Born at the beginning of last century in a part of the world where religion shapes your identity even more accurately than mere nationality, she was obsessed with conversion. Or, more precisely, the possibility of conversion. Everytime I pointed out to her things that I found pretty cool about religions other than Roman Catholicism she would narrow her eyes and take a suspicious tone: “You aren’t thinking about conversion, are you?”. “No, I am not. Why would I?”. I find difficult enough to cope with one’s own upbringing, let alone going back to school to absorb another religion, another world, another way of conceiving life and its purpose. Once I stated without doubts that mines were simple speculations and that they did not conceal any actual interest to embrace a different spirituality, she would make more tea.

Those moments spent together looking at different beliefs came back to my mind the other day when a friend announced me she applied for Swiss citizenship. She’s been living there for a long time, works there, had children there, built a life there. Getting a passport is just the following, natural, step. Still, I was somehow touched. As an expat-at-heart, embracing a country you were not born in resembles conversion to another belief. It means actual involvement, participation. Leaning In.

I toyed with the idea of applying for Belgian citizenship for some time. When I couldn’t (because I had not lived in the country long enough and I hadn’t been married long enough) it looked very exotic and interesting. Once they told me I could get a Passport, I hesitated. As a EU citizen, my rights are already pretty similar to those of a Belgian citizen. I can’t vote at political elections but since the political architecture of the country is extremely complicated, I don’t regret it. When there are not practical issues at stake (as getting a permit to work or a permanent residence permit), applying for citizenship becomes a mere intellectual question. I realized I am not ready. Living in Belgium has certainly shaped my life in the past decade and influenced my point of view. I have a Belgian husband and Belgian children. I am just not ready to join them in their Belgitude. Partly because I don’t know yet if Belgium will be my last stop in expatriation.

Have you “converted” to another citizenship? What prompted you to do so? How was the day you became something else than your birth nationality? I’d love to hear your stories about this crucial step in an expat’s life.

Back to school: tearing up at the smell of new notebooks

Today was the big Day. I couldn’t sleep well, spent half of the night reading blogs on my mobile phone and finally got up at 7. Mixed feelings: relief at the thought of resuming a predictable schedule and a sort of cerebral life and the usual anxiousness at the thought that the kids would go into a new class, with new classmates and new teachers. All on their own.

Tall one played cool: was dressed and combed in a flat 5 minutes, prepared his bag, bragged about being in the last year of kindergarten and finally being in the same class of his best pal. Short one took forever to get up and even longer to dress and eat breakfast. backtoschoolThe Husband and I entered the new school and started having dejà vu: the whirlwind of schoolbags, children, adults, the confusion of lists, unfamiliar faces coming to shake hands and introducing themselves: “Hello, I am the teacher”. I had kept myself together pretty well till we had to walk them in class. Then I couldn’t resist a few tears and tried really hard to think of something funny in order not to show any emotions. If the children had seen me, they would have started screaming like hell.

The interesting thing is, I wasn’t crying because I was leaving my children. Of course, I am sad not to have them around but I also realize that at some point they just need a teacher and a class and community rules.

I cried because the smell of new notebooks, the noise of hundreds of feet climbing a marble staircase, the mixture of cries and reassurances, the drawings on the wall and the smiling teachers all felt very familiar. Too familiar. As if we were still in 1982, with the exceptions that I was now among the adults in the room.

They both cried. Tall one lost his attitude. Short screamed so loud he got the teacher all for himself.

I left with a lump in my throat and went to have a proper coffee.