Month: January 2014

What I do miss about Italy

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The other day I was chatting with an Italian friend on Whatsapp while doing other things and apparently my answers weren’t long enough or articulate enough to satisfy his curiosity. (Not that we were having a meaningful conversation but he was kindly asking how I was and I didn’t have the time to say much more than “well and you?”). At some point he said, exasperated: “At least in Italy we are warm people, you don’t even take the time to make an effort and be nice”. I get that told a lot. As if I weren’t Italian too.

I wouldn’t say that Italians are warmer than other people but they certainly are generally more determined to express their feelings – good and bad – during human interaction. My friend’s remark nevertheless stayed with me for some time that afternoon and made me think that despite the fact that I have never been a very outgoing person, I might have changed according to my expat environment.

I don’t care much about nationalities but there’re a few things I really miss from home, when I start thinking about it.

The generosity, first. Italians are generous people. Extremely generous. Excessively generous compared to some more measured northern Europeans. They will go a long way to make you feel at home – should you be their guest – and will carelessly spend a whole afternoon cooking and selecting the freshest ingredients for the upcoming dinner. They won’t expect you to clean up afterwards or to see you working in the kitchen. They truly want their guests to have a good time and would feel ashamed of not celebrating enough your visit. Of course, this means sometimes that you will feel overwhelmed by the food and attention and desperately seeking a way out but everybody should experience once in their life a big, welcoming, Italian dinner. I think of that every single time I find myself in a home where a sick-looking roast is thrown on the table accompanied by some overgrilled frozen potatoes and a plastic-tasting salad, because it is soooo chic not to waste time on the bare necessities. After all – most Belgians think – the point is spending time together, right? Not obsessing on something as low as food. And-you-know-we-are-all-busy, you won’t imagine the lady of the house sparing her precious time to prepare dinner, won’t you?

The widespread knowledge of classics. Beside Italians, I have only noticed something like that in Greeks. It has maybe to do with the past glories of our countries and the subsequent lack of contemporary successes but common people, in Rome and Athens, will throw some ancient literay quote in their everyday conversations. Taxi drivers in Greece talk of Socrates with nonchalance as an Italian factory worker can surprise you quoting Horace. That happens because public schools (till my generation, at least) used to put great emphasis on an accurate knowledge of ancient poets and philosophers, despite the future career orientation of the students. It might not be strictly useful in life but I miss it. I miss people valuing culture for the sake of it, independently from their daily occupation.

Clean food. Some traditional italian recipes are good for making you die of a heart attack at 32 but you can actually order grilled chicken breast at a restaurant and have it served on your plate as it is: no suspicious sauces, butter or mushy vegetables. It.is.a.chicken.breast. After a while you become sick of playing the crazy lady who specifies three times that she only wants a grilled chicken breast, but grilled with olive oil and not butter and please, no sauces and also no butter vegetables on the side. Do you have any grilled vegetables?

The flexibility. It is irritating as it is sometimes useful but, as you might have noticed if you have ever spent at least a day in Italy, everything can be discussed there. There are rules but no public officer or employee is scared of studying your specific situation before deciding how and when to apply them. Italians like to decide on a case by case basis.

The free compliments as you walk down the street. This doesn’t only happen in Italy but is a staple of the Latin world. Any woman of average looks – young, old or middle-aged – will receive a free compliment, at least once a day. In South America they call it piropo and it indicates a flirtatious yet innocent remark paid to a woman. Eleven years in Belgium and I could as well be transparent. I now have to rely on my girlfriends to get that little tiny compliment that will make my morning. If I were feeling blue in an Italian city, I would just put my sunglasses on and take a stroll. Someone would call me pretty for sure.

The cappuccino. I am dairy intolerant yet I have gulped down Venti Lattes for years. I am used to the taste of lait russe (Russian Milk, the Belgian version of the classic Italian cappuccino) and lait renversé (swiss version) as well as to the German Milchkaffe. Truth is, no matter how much you can invest in the latest coffee machines and milk foamers: it will never taste as good as in Milan. It has to do with the water, they say.

The yellow light. Take an average sunny day in central Italy: the light is yellow. It’s a warm and flattering light completely different from the off white one you notice in the North. I sometimes miss that particular shade of the sun.

And you, fellow expats,what do you miss of home when you think about it? 

About a(nother) boy

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I have been a pretty poor blogger these past couple of months. I would witness the same scenario repeating itself every morning: waking up with an idea and then finding a thousand perfectly valid reasons not to sit down. I have never indulged so much into manual jobs. I have been watching the washing machine doing its thing (yes, as in a sort of comic Poltergeist. I do sit on the floor and watch my washing machine sometimes), cleaned the oven a couple of times and went to the supermarket so often that I now have 6 bottles of dish soap on my kitchen shelf.

I went swimming every other day and kept gaining weight despite the effort. I now suddenly realize it had nothing to do with the blog. Or, not entirely. I had trouble writing because I wouldn’t write about what really was on my mind at that time.

The thing is that last November I found out that I am pregnant. And I now know it’s another boy. The third. If someone had told me a few years ago I would raise children of only one sex, I would have been sure it was girls. I am not that much into the frills and pink (though I would have indulged in some liberty blouses for sure) but I always thought I had something to tell to the next generation girls. I like women. I like little girls. I even like (most of the time) teenager girls. I like the fact that women talk all the time, and share life.

I also believe in fate, though. So, for some obscure reason which will unfold itself later or never, I have to raise (gentle)men. Before having my boys, I didn’t know a thing about men. I had a male dog, of course and had figured out they rarely hold a grudge and are pretty simple and straightforward. (don’t laugh, any dog-lover would get what I mean).

Now I know they are more fragile and emotionally dependent than girls but also simpler and living-in-the-present. I appreciate their fresh, indomitable physical energy and I try to teach them to be gentler as we will never have enough of men with a developed feminine side. I liked to think gender was imposed upon children by society but in my case, so far, it has proved innate. My boys could tell different cars before they could speak properly and would stare at a digger fascinated for 20 minutes in the same way I sat down in awe of some YSL vintage ball gowns I have seen at an exhibition a few months ago.

When I told them there was something new about our family, they asked if I had bought another iPad so they didn’t have to share anymore. As simple as that. How can one not adore those testosterone-filled brains?

That said, my pregnancy brain is slowly recovering from the first three months crash and I am now able of forming correct sentences again instead of wandering around without remembering what I was looking for.

I am determined to make the most of my writing time till mid-summer when I’ll probably have a few rough weeks in terms of daily functioning so I am planning to redesign the blog.

The thing is: when I started writing I was obsessed with my inability to be the half-dozen persons an average woman has to be on a daily basis. Then, of course, my thoughts have evolved and I have realized that my expat identity had become a shaping part of myself. One year and a few months later, it turns out my readers are most interested into the expat posts and into those related to my age group (with the one on turning 35 being a big hit, I guess us Millennials are all going through the same crisis). I will then focus on the life of a millennial expat and keep the mothering posts only when they can be inscribed into the two previous categories. The Brussels Bits will stay but with a less philosophical take and I will report more on Brussels lifestyle.

Wish me luck with the technical part of this change and stay tuned, I am back!

The expat contradiction: how long will you be a foreigner?

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There are many sorts of expats: those who left willing to go back home at some point, those who realized they won’t eventually go back anywhere, those who left following a foreign spouse, those who left without a plan. What they have in common is that in most cases they won’t be able to contribute to the political life of the place they live their everyday life, pay taxes and raise children in. The idea that you have to lean in and take another nationality to be able to vote had some sense in a different world: one where people didn’t move that much, didn’t speak foreign languages or know different cultures easily. I guess the point was that before contributing to public life you had to show a proper will to become something else and embrace fully your country of adoption.

If that is the underlying logic, then why should we expats – even after decades away from home – still have a say in our natal country public life? With the upcoming elections in Italy I am a little lost. I have always voted, passing through many different états d’âme: I have been a temporarily expatriated Italian, still deeply concerned by what was happening back home, then I became a long-time expat who still fantasized about going back to the Belpaese. Last step is where I am now: I doubt I will ever go back to live in Italy, I have more and more troubles understanding the complicated dynamics of political life there (don’t think about reading papers to get it, they make it even more unintelligible) and, most of all, every time I interact with true Italians (those born and bred in Italy and that never left) I realize I am unable to look at the country’s reality as they do. I see it now through the often unforgiving eyes of a foreigner.

So, why on earth should I still vote in Italy when I am not allowed to decide anything about life in Belgium, the country I have been living 11 years in?

In my optimistic vision of the world, one should participate to the political life of the country he/she makes his daily life in. Which means that if you move, then your right of vote moves with you and you can have a voice in the next place’s organization. It would probably translate into a massive workload for the national administration (keeping track of moving residents) but it would be so much fairer.

Becoming Italian has become relatively easy a few years ago, when having an Italian ancestor has often proved  enough to legally claim a right to nationality. I have a South American friend who can’t speak a word of Italian and has never visited the country but can nonetheless participate to elections in virtue of an half-Italian grandfather.I can’t see the point of this.

Have you ever felt the same frustration I do in being glued as a political actor to the country you were born in while being forever labeled as a foreigner in the place you willfully chose to live in? Should all expats in the world unite and lobby for their voting rights?