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


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?




  1. A few months ago I got an e-mail from a friend: I met this great Italian woman. You would like her. Here is her e-Mail. Really? Cold writing to somebody based on just nationality? Needless to say I did not heed the suggestion. Never cared to meet fellow nationals, if not by happenstance. You are right: you go through the motions of finding out which city they are from, how long ago they left their country and then conversation dries up if there is no real spark.

    1. So it happened to you too? That makes me feel better:-) When I just got married so many people in my in-law family started telling me of the random Italian they met on holiday, the other one at the supermarket…suddenly everybody seemed to have an Italian acquaintance I absolutely needed to meet.

  2. I had a unexpected, uninvited Italian guest at my wedding party.
    The partner of a neighbour of the parents of my husband -back in my husband’s homecountry.
    “Come come, he is Italian, you can talk to him”.

    I spent the evening talking with my sister-in-law and did not talk to the guy at all.
    I am glad I didn’t because at a certain point there he went… “Ah Italy sucks, Berlusconi, Mafia, Pizza, Taxes, Politicians are thieves, BLAH BLAH BLAH”
    Like I need to hear those discussions again and again, not even in Italy, not even in the country I live, but in a third country where I was -basically- on vacation.

    1. I know the feeling. Last year, at a New Year’s Eve party, someone came to me and said: There’s another Italian there, in the corner. Go talk to him. Which to me sounded like: there’s another of your kind there, go make friends instead of hanging around here with people you don’t belong to. 😀
      But that normally comes from non-expats and it will deserve further analysis…

  3. Interesting. I was just speaking to a fellow American expat (here in Italy) about this.

    Perhaps it’s because I live in Rome where there are a LOT of Americans, but I’ve met so many expats who only hang out with other expats.

    I constantly receive emails from new expats who want to meet up. I don’t want to be rude but the longer I live here the less I want to do the whole “OMG you’re American. I’m American. Aren’t these Italians nuts? Let’s be besties” thing with expats I have nothing in common with other than language.

    There are many American themed meets up, holiday dinners, expat clubs. etc. I’m trying to find a balance. I don’t want the be that expat who refuses to speak English with an fellow American (ha) but I didn’t move to other country only to be in an expat bubble.

  4. Things have worked out here that I don’t actually know any English people in Rome. Have made friends with quite a few Italians and Americans – fortunately, the Italians I know speak VERY GOOD English!

  5. Yes, that happens to me frequently. I’ve also been handed the phone number or email of a complete stranger and been told, “Call him, he’s American too!” (often followed up with “did you call him yet?” every other week or so for a while.) I can’t think of anyone I’ve met through these forced meetups that I actually made a lasting friendship with. The friends tend to be the other expats I met at the same workplace, orr the same hobby group or event.

  6. A colleague married to an Indonesian wanted me (a former Malaysian) to meet his wife. Travelling out to Dendermonde on a weekend when train services are infrequent, I felt quite out of place.

    Other than a few friendly words in our common language, I struggled to keep a conversation going with someone whom I had nothing in common with. Meanwhile the Belgian husbands looked on feeling quite pleased about this opportunity for me to meet people from my own background.

    1. I know that feeling! They probably listened to your brief exchange without understanding it and thinking it was a fantastic idea to make you feel less exotic and alone:)

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