Month: December 2013

The scarce optimism of the luckiest generation – Musings on the coming Year

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This morning my husband asked me what I will remember of 2013. (Of course he already had a long list of what he was going to remember in his head, ready to dish it out). Easy: a long year, filled with the 1001 small frustrations of a dissonant Saturn and a few moments of lightness. It marked the end of my mid-30s crisis started the year before (punctuated by questions as “Am I old?” “When does one become old in this evergreen world?” “Is it too late for me?” “Is this it? What life is all about? Why didn’t anyone tell me?”) and the first time I started looking at the bottom line of my little world and choosing what (and who) to let go of, what to keep. It’s not of my little accomplishments I’d like to talk, though.

I’d rather spend a few words on something that has been on my mind this whole past year (and will stay there for some time to come): where is the optimism gone and why are we so forgetful (when not plainly ungrateful)? Why my generation, which probably is one of the luckiest in history in terms of opportunities, access, education, healthcare, civil and human rights can’t but complain of its time?

A few day before Christmas, during a family lunch, I listened for the hundredth time to the same old story: Facebook is ruining youngsters, people don’t communicate anymore, children are glued to screens and violence will rule the world. Another apocalyptic resumé of our times. When it is a person of a certain age to say so, I won’t object. It’s the prerogative of older generations to criticize the younger ones. A way to show their dismay before a changing world.

What leaves me puzzled and saddened is when someone my age starts his/her personal cahier des doléances. Here’s the hit parade of what is wrong with the planet:

– changing climate and pollution

– pharmaceutic multinationals trying to keep us all sick to continue making money selling us fatal drugs

– governments plotting to oblige children to vaccinate so they can keep being funded by the above mentioned conglomerates

– cancer being a punishment for our manipulated foods, wi-fi, medication abuse and cell phones antennas

– going to university is not good enough anymore: we won’t have any jobs and will have to resign ourselves to living frugally for the rest of our lives (thus betraying the previous generation’s yuppie dream)

– lack of civil and human rights in a far too wide part of the world

– lack of gender equality in payrolls and in higher executive positions

– violence, racism and war in still several parts of the world

I might be forgetting some other points but these are those always coming up at the dinner table, on Facebook groups and over holidays. While some of these complaints are entirely questionable, some others are well founded. The point is that focusing on this is extremely ungrateful and shows that my generation has probably been a little too lucky.

Vaccines and antibiotics have changed the face of the planet, freeing those lucky enough to live where healthcare is a right from all the diseases that plagued, crippled and killed entire generations. Go tell to a mother sitting by the bed of her child hit by polio that vaccinating is bad. Explain to those struggling for their life over a simple lung infection the potential dangers of antibiotics.

We live longer than any other generation before us and that means, of course, that we have more cancer. But it also means that many of these cancers are today curable while not longer than 30 years ago breast cancer was an irrevocable death sentence .

Thinking, and saying that governments and private companies are plotting to kill humanity is not only nonsensical but it also shows a huge lack of confidence in fellow human beings. Bad people have always existed and will always operate and scheme and plot in every part of the world but I am convinced of the profound goodness of humanity.

We have been polluting our planet for centuries. And yet we are now working to clean it up. When I was a child streets in Rome were filled with waste. People would throw an empty packet of cigarettes at their feet and keep walking.

In primary school, we had a map of Europe on the wall parted in two. On the right side, a color for every country and detailed borders and cities. Even villages. On the left side, everything was orange. No details. It was the Soviet bloc. People on our side – the teacher explained – chose freedom and modernity. Those on the left were oppressed, persecuted and queued for hours in order to get groceries. I don’t think I am the only western European of my generation to still have a lingering feeling  of uneasiness whenever I think of those eastern countries. We didn’t share the same history nor we grew up with the same cultural references. We are still learning about each other.

The continent that’s produced the highest number of wars since the beginning of times has managed to get together in its still very imperfect way and to talk, dream and build common ideals on that shared history. If to my grandparents a German or an Englishman were as foreign as is today a Bhutanese to me, European millennials travel easily and marry each other. They don’t feel distant anymore.

The Internet and the social networks have facilitated communication and awareness of what is going on in the world. I can’t but think of the role Twitter played during the Arab spring and of how the timid attempts of national governments to obscure the press are bound to fail in the long run. Like it or not, we are all connected today and despite the occasional dangers, it is a great gift.

I found a Belgian newspaper of 1910 where a large article was dedicated to the the suffragettes marching in London to ask for their voting rights. The journalist, appalled, commented that “If we are to grant the right to vote to women, then what? Negroes will come asking for the same thing”. It was only 100 years ago. Liberal, rich, modern Switzerland conceded the right to vote to women just in 1971. Gender equality is not here yet but the progress humanity has made in the past century is astonishing. We have to keep working, and fighting and standing up for it to go forward but let’s not commit the mistake of forgetting how much we’ve done.

A few weeks ago the whole world watched South Africa mourning a black man who spent most of his life in prison as a terrorist and yet went on to shape the new identity of his natal country. Of course, racism still exist. But humanity is moving forward.

Being gay was a crime in most countries at the beginning of the past century. It still is in some part of the worlds but it is a fact that homosexuality stopped being a taboo in the West.

Violence is more present on tv and screens but it is more condemned too. Do you remember the tales or cartoons of our childhood, fellow Millennials? They were scary. Even the Disney movies displayed such violence that today feels simply inappropriate for a younger audience. (The circus men in Dumbo? Mistreating animals? The evil stepmother ordering the huntsman to kill her young stepdaughter and to bring her heart back as a proof?). Violence is not tolerated as it used to be and so much effort and energies are directed toward children education and respect of the difference and of disabilities. I can’t say it was like this when I was growing up.

I could continue for hours but the point is: on this last day of 2013 I feel grateful and blessed to be living in this time. I might not have a stable job or a pension awaiting or the perspective of a future as comfortable as the one my parents had. But I live in a much freer world then they did and if that means more uncertainty over material comfort it also means more flexibility and less egoism.

I wish you a 2014 filled with optimism and bright thoughts. And, well, for the Leos out there: Saturn is almost gone, pop the champagne:)

Have yourself a merry expat Christmas…

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So it’s that time of the year again. I am sitting in my kitchen looking after some frozen lobster tails boiling away before ending in my Christmas Eve pasta-with-lobster-and-cherry-tomatoes recipe I’ve found this morning on the Internet. (It was on an Italian website but this one looks pretty similar, in case you are desperately looking for some last minute fix).

Christmas was probably my favorite childhood moment but for some obvious reasons since I’ve become in charge of organizing it part of the magic is gone. For the second year in a row this will be a 100% expat eve: no extended family, just us and a lot of Skype calls to hear about the gigantic meals the Italian relatives are about to indulge in. Not that I mind it. The last Xmas home was a frantic week running around as an headless chicken to be sure to have that very last coffee or tea or drink with long lost friends and family I never have the opportunity to see during the rest of the year. Everything seasoned with too much calories and a disastrous trip back, stranded in Rome airport for a whole day waiting for some mysterious technical issue to be fixed.

So, staying home and having a Xmas with no clear tradition (there’s the pasta, right. And I dutifully bought a Panettone for tomorrow’s breakfast but beside this, not much else) is fine. But when a friend sent me a few days ago this link to yet another interesting Guardian’s piece, I stared at it wondering if homesickness really is something we can’t dispose of.

I always thought in my expat years that homesickness was something you couldn’t avoid in some specific situations:

– when you first move away from home and you feel a little lost

– when you live in a place so different in terms of culture from the one you were brought up in that you can’t fit in.

– when something bad happens and, instinctively, you feel like you need “home”

What happens after a while, though, is that you don’t know anymore what “home” is. For instance, if a tsunami hit my family leaving me the only survivor (tragic example, but I have recently watched the film), I am not sure where I would go back to.

When I go to Rome I have my moments of sudden weakness and I am mesmerized by the yellow, warm sunlight and some smells and some foods and, yes, the thrill of talking to someone and knowing that person will understand exactly what I mean, in all the nuances and hints and implications. I enjoy not being lost in translation when I am home. But that’s it.

So Skype works well for me: I get to see those I love without being cornered by insidious questions about my expat life and an infinite dinner.

What about you? What’s your expat Xmas like? Which traditions did you take with you and which others were you happy to let go of?

Have a fantastic Xmas and may it be light, fun, warm and crazy:)

Julie Delpy, the voice of a generation (of expats)

I don’t know how many of you were teenagers in 1994. I was. I was 16, wore long, checkered, sleeveless dresses over white t-shirts. I had long, straight hair parted in the middle and no make-up. It was the glorious grunge era. (I can’t believe, though, that hipsters took out the checkered flannels again).

In the spring of that year a film came out. It was called Before Sunrise and had all the ingredients that could make an expat-to-be dream: a young, handsome, sensitive American boy meets an intellectual, beautiful, complicated French girl on a train. They are both doing the Inter-rail, which was all the rage back then. (Traveling Europe by train, with a single ticket, was the myth of pre-Ryanair students). They talk and talk and realize they won’t have more time together unless they both stop in Vienna and spend there a whole day, only to part before sunrise to go back home. Watching it now, the film appears dated. Even slow, compared to nowadays super fast dialogues and not a single moment of non-action. But something happens during that film: it is the first modern representation of expats’ interaction. Julie Delpy, a French actress and director who should be by now way more famous than she actually is (in the sense that if you ask people on the street, not many will know her name) was the female lead of Before Sunrise. Ethan Hawk played the young, sensitive American.

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If it is difficult today to label someone as the voice of a generation – because there are, simply, so many different voices able to embody an era – I have no doubts that Julie Delpy is the voice of her expats’ generation.

She went on, after the grunge era, to interpret a first sequel of Before Sunrise (called Before Sunset) and to direct several films. Among the latter, two veritable jewels: 2 Days in Paris and 2 Days in New York. Two different stories on the same theme: interaction and communication and practical issues in everyday life between partners coming from different countries and cultures and traditions and mind frames. If you are an expat and have somehow missed them, don’t lose any more time. You’ll love every minute.

This year Julie Delpy came back with another sequel of the film that made her internationally famous. It’s called Before Midnight (which may have to do with the fact that middle-aged people rarely make it till before sunrise). The two leads, Jesse and Celine, are now in their forties. They had lost each other, then met again after that first encounter in Vienna and they now have twin daughters and live in Paris. Jesse is a well-known novelist, Celine juggles work, children, husband. They are on holidays in Greece, invited by a fellow author when their hosts offer them a romantic night at the hotel, while they babysit the girls. Of course, the night turns out more complicated than expected and we witness a magnificently written dialogue among two deaf persons: Celine had to give up many of her artistic ambitions in order to care for her children; Jesse kept pursuing his and ended up being the one in the spotlight. The sex is fading, their insecurities and middle-age frustrations are eating up what’s left of their chemistry. They resent each other. Eventually, they will find a way to talk again but until that moment any expat will find him/herself deeply touched by their exchange.

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Julie Delpy’s work doesn’t speak much to uni-nationals. Every time I have recommended her films to a non-expat (how shall we call non-expat? How to define them in a non “non” way?) they didn’t like it. Too neurotic. Too cliché. The way she describes – for instance – French society sounds so stereotypical to French people and yet whoever lived in Paris for a while will recognize it immediately as being exact.

I thought for a long time it didn’t have to do with nationality, but simply with different taste. I now realize it has everything to do with nationality. From Before Sunrise till Before Midnight all the tension is given by the cultural differences between the main characters. Each of them has progressively moved toward the other but there’s always something missing in their mutual understanding. That “something” will look indefinable and yet so familiar to anyone who married out of the tribe.

(This is not meant to be a film critic. I couldn’t do it anyway, since I watch movies at least 6 months after they came out)