Month: February 2014

Changing Altitude or What I Learnt on an Ordinary Expat Night

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I have an innate allergy to immobility. Being stuck in a place, in a time, in an occupation that don’t seem to bring me anywhere warmer, colder, brighter, darker, funnier…different. Expatriation has been the antidote to all of my fears for some time. When I felt like I’d had enough of something, I started planning a way out. I didn’t know, though (and none told me but of course none tells you what’s really worth knowing) that the number of obligations and the mobility rate are inversely proportional to age.

So as most of you know I have been stuck in Belgium for the past 11 years, in the surrealistic limbo that makes me a foreigner but technically not an expat anymore. I understand the country better than the average medium-term expat but I will always be a foreigner to locals and a local to pure blood expats. I haven’t found a way to get out of this mud other than plotting a relocation whose terms and dates are today still vague. Luckily, out there there’s someone smarter than I am and I met her last Thursday.

A British woman called B., cornered in the expat limbo as I am, decided to do something about it and founded the Full Circle, a private club dedicated but not reserved to expats where world renowned thinkers come to discuss, expose their ideas and stimulate reflexion and exchange. A Belgian friend, after having patiently listened to my usual lamentations, told me there was a newly created place I would love and she was right. British philosopher A.C. Grayling gave a lecture on European Culture and I suddenly felt very light and deeply fascinated while listening to his witty, fast paced and impossibly elegant remarks. It felt like living somewhere global and open again, instead of cloudy, cozy, comfortably boring Brussels.

At the end of the lecture, while I was queuing for coffee, a bold, smiling New Yorker came up with a joke on the huge volume I had in my hands, Grayling’s modern bible and most famous work, The Good Book. We started chatting, in that informal and relaxed way that is so American and so unusual to find in Europeans. The nice gentleman introduced himself modestly as a teacher at the local business school and explained he had only lived in Brussels for the past 3 years and loved the quiet unpretentiousness of the city, and the ability to walk everywhere. Quite a change from New York. The point – I told him – is how much tranquility is too much tranquility. And on I went with my usual list of things I just had enough of in Brussels and with my dreams of expatriating again, somewhere very different.

The New Yorker then took a serious look and asked me if I knew who Bertrand Piccard was. “Sort of – I said – Isn’t he the swiss guy that toured the world in a balloon?”. “Precisely. He said that life isn’t different from ballooning. Sometimes you are stuck somewhere because of the winds. You can’t do much about it but changing your altitude in order to move forward”.

I wasn’t sure I had grabbed the concept but the metaphor certainly is enthralling. Once home, I realized that the nice, inspiring guy I met on a coffee line actually is a world-renowned academic and I was able to find an excerpt of Piccard’s thoughts online:

Life itself is a bit like that – a great balloon flight, during which we are often imprisoned by winds of life taking us in directions that are not necessarily those of our choosing. We can certainly grumble and try to resist, but all that does is to cause more suffering. Responsibility and free will for us in life consists essentially, as for balloon pilots, in “changing altitude”, that is lifting ourselves up educationally, vocationally, psychologically, philosophically, and why not spiritually, so as to open ourselves to new influences, ways of understanding and outlooks on life that can take us to other destinations”.

Have you already felt stuck? How did you change your altitude?

Brussels Bits – You are what you eat and the Organic Obsession

I have a thing for lunches. I rarely go out for dinner, despite the amazing quality of food you can easily find in Brussels but I love taking the time for lunch. It’s my personal moment of the day, when I can keep up with good friends and have an actual conversation, away from the everyday routine and obligations. It happens sometimes that I am really craving a restaurant meal yet none is available to join me. In that case, I’d rather go alone than stay home.

The advantage of being alone in a restaurant is that you can listen to everybody else’s conversations. And sometimes they’re really good. The other day I was sitting next to a woman in her 40s, having lunch with a lady well into her 70s (who wasn’t her mother). The first one was telling all about her new boyfriend. She said he was nice and kind and a lot of fun. But – she added – “you won’t believe what he eats”. “What?”, asked curious the older lady. “Roasted meat – any kind – with loads of potatoes. Greasy, buttery, oven-cooked potatoes”, the younger woman explained with honest concern. “And you know – she continued – he eats dessert all the time. Chocolate mousse, Flans, cakes…he can’t get enough”. “Does he drink, too?” “All the time! He loves red wine, he can have a whole bottle for dinner!”. “Oh, dear. Does he exercise?“. “Not really – the lady-in-love sighed – but last week he came along for a walk in the woods. He’s always in a good mood, he was exhausted but didn’t show it”.

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Jambonneau – a staple of Belgian tradition. (a sort of roasted ham surrounded by sauerkraut)

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Chicken Waterzooi, another Belgian classic: a stew of meat, fish or vegetables boiled in a cream and butter sauce

They went on dissecting the nice fellow’s bad habits and how, nowadays, is imperative to be educated and informed about food and exercise and you can’t simply let yourself go as 50 years ago.

Yes, I know, it sounds Los Angeles. But it’s one of the thousands faces of Brussels. Next to the typical dishes – which are quite heavy as in classic Northern European tradition – there is a very well developed avant-garde of people and restaurants dedicated to raw foods, superfoods and everything the modern individual should feed himself with, according to trendy magazines.

I learnt in Brussels the concept of organic, since a decade ago it was almost unknown in Italy. There was an organic shop I used to go to because I liked the smell and they had a glorious chocolate pudding but it wasn’t a mania and I am not even sure it is now. Up North, organic is a mantra. There’re dedicated markets, dozens of highly competitive small companies providing home delivery of organic fruit and veggies baskets every week and the city pullulates with nutritionists, schools of thoughts and seminars about the correct nutrition for a healthy life.

I haven’t figured out yet if people are so obsessed about what they eat because before this trend they used to eat pretty badly or if they’re simply very sensitive to the subject but I’ve been having a lot of fun in this respect. I jump happily from bingeing to detoxing and here’s detox paradise. Growing up (or ageing, depends on how you see it) I started to look for a more balanced eating style and last year I started taking classes from the Belgian guru of Living Food (which comprehends raw and slow cooked food plus generally a ban on refined carbs and dairy), Pol Grégoire. It’s been an epiphany for sure. A self-taught cook since a very young age, Grégoire had a traditional restaurant for years before an illness prompted him to turn around his life and job and look for an alternative, healthier form of food. He is a fascinating person and a talented chef and although I can’t fully embrace the utter purity of his eating style, I enjoy very much his lessons.

Basically, according to his method, you should have breakfast on a mousse of soaked nuts and dried fruits, a light lunch composed of salads, sprouted grains and veggies and a more consistent dinner made of slow cooked fish, meat or sprouted cereals with steamed greens. One year and a half later, the only “clean” meal I am able to do is breakfast (not 100% of the time, though) and sometimes lunch. I hope with time I will be able to convert myself to this delicious, light and impossibly healthy way of eating but in the meanwhile I still like giving in to the occasional burger or pizza. I guess anyone has his weaknesses.

I will leave you with a raw breakfast recipe we did yesterday during my class. It’s super yummy and takes less than 10 minutes to make:

Avocado and pineapple mousse with diced oranges and dried apples

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(serves 2):

2 ripe avocados

1 cup of dried pineapple slices

1/2 vanilla stick

2 ripe oranges

1 cup of dried apple slices

Grind the dried apple slices till they resemble a crumble. Soak the pineapple slices for a night then blend them with the avocados (add the pineapple’s water if necessary) and the vanilla stick. Serve the mousse in cups and top with peeled, diced oranges and and a handful of the apple crumble.

What about the food culture and obsessions of the country you’re living in?

The world on the table: creating an expatically correct menu

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I never thought there could be a correct way to set a menu. Food is food, it just has to be good, right? Then one day, several years ago, a bunch of Belgians looked down on me when I served them polpette (meatballs) covered in marinara sauce. I had spent a whole afternoon making them out of beef, pork and veal and cooking the freshest tomatoes in order to achieve the healthiest and tastiest possible outcome. It turned out meatballs, in Belgium, are considered a student’s food. The sort of stuff you gulp down without thinking with your flatmates at 22. Definitely not something fit for a grown-ups’ dinner table.

I barred meatballs from my home dinners. The following time I went for a home made green lasagna followed by roasted veal, sauté vegetables and pudding. The Belgians guests ran for the lasagna, had a couple of servings and then looked at me puzzled and terrified when I came out of the kitchen with the rest of my carefully planned Italian dinner. Nay. Apparently no one can master a whole Italian meal. “We thought lasagna was the dinner”, one girl said. Ok, fine, I keep learning.

A standard Belgian dinner is composed of a soup (usually in the form of a velouté, i.e. blended vegetables with sometimes a hint of almond paste to add texture), a meat or fish main course accompanied by vegetables and/or potatoes and a dessert usually consisting in crème caramel, fruit crumble or ice cream. Something simple and fresh, practical and easy to put together. I obliged and am now strictly following this sort of menu anytime I invite locals.

The problem is that it doesn’t work for everybody else. Italians will feel dismissed if presented with some blended vegetables followed by a portion of meat and an unoriginal, everyday-style dessert. They will think I made no effort because I don’t care enough about my guests. For them, I lay out the big weapons. The whole big fat Italian dinner.

French will expect cheese to be served after the main course, just before dessert. I don’t like cheese. I had to spend a whole afternoon in a smelling cheese shop with a Parisian friend and note down which sort of cheeses you should always offer and in what quantity. If there’re French around, I go through my little cheese and salad memorandum and I look at my phone to check the time every ten seconds. A tour of cheese after meat and before dessert makes a dinner just a tad too long.

Spanish friends will have endless drinks before finally settling for dinner so you should fill your little cups with plenty of tapas.

Of course, one could just serve whatever is in the fridge and stop caring about respecting individual food sensitiveness. But I am Italian after all and feeding people is in my genes, so I spend time composing the expatically correct menu.

One of my close friends rang me today to ask me to be her caterer for her daughter’s christening. Her first choice – a professional chef – bailed on her and since she can’t fry an egg, she called me to rescue.

A few years ago I was so interested in the food business that I taught Italian traditional cooking for a semester, twice a week. I had more time then and a lot of fun though most of my Belgian students were more interested in having a well deserved glass of wine at the end of a long work day than in learning the basics of a good mamma’s meal.

At the end of that experience I realized I didn’t have the necessary patience to teach but I started toying with the idea of starting a catering business. I never did, fearing that the transforming my hobby in a profession would mean the end of my love affair with food.

These days I cook less and less and I seldom approach Italian traditional dishes. But I can’t resist a call to the kitchen. So I’ll do it. The real challenge will be now to compose the perfect international menu, staying faithful to classic Italian staples everybody likes yet revisiting them to suit a Northern European palate. I’ll keep you posted about my culinary mission.

What did you learn about food while living abroad? Which classic dishes you stopped proposing because your guests misinterpret them? 

PS. In case you were interested in those meatballs I talked about, my fellow blogger and friend camparigirl posted a great recipe.

I am 35 and stuck between Carrie Bradshaw and Hannah Horvath

Everyone has his coming-of-age story. Mine was Sex and The City. I bumped into it on TV in 1998, while visiting a friend in NYC and it was love at first sight. To my 20 years old self – who had only watched and enjoyed Friends before without being able to actually relate to that – those girls seemed to have it all. They incarnated the dreams of my generation: they were pretty, educated, successful, financially independent (most of the time), wonderfully dressed and were able to live and talk about sex as guys. That is what I saw in them, at least.

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Season by season, I watched every single episode over and over again with my girlfriends ending up to buy not one but two complete set of DVDs (one to keep in case the other became overused). In the early 2000s we were young and crazy about clothes and shoes and fashion and having a career and finding true love. We thought that we were going to live like the girls in SATC and that the way ahead of us was paved with interesting men and tons of glamorous nights out. Feminism was then an outdated word, something our mothers would talk about but that we weren’t concerned with anymore. After all, as Charlotte York puts it, feminism is about freedom of choice. Nothing more. I was a decade younger than the main characters in SATC but I grew up in the same atmosphere of economic optimism and conventional man/woman relationship. The openness about sex was already, per se, a revolutionary point in the show.

Time passed. I don’t watch SATC anymore on a boring night at home. Most episodes feel outdated as are the clothes, the values, the talks. I went from feeling like Carrie to being a Miranda to ending up a little bit like Charlotte. But then I was done. I always missed, though, watching a show I could completely relate to.

When last year I read somewhere on the web of Lena Dunham’s accomplishments and of Girls as a modern answer to SATC, I didn’t hesitate one second to order it on the amazon. Before the parcel arrived, I spent a couple of weeks in the States and had this TV in my room with that thing (I can’t remember what’s its name) that allows you to watch past episodes of current TV shows. There was Girls, of course. Season 1. It might have been the jet lag or the fact that it was like 2 PM and too hot to stay inside watching TV but I lasted less than 10 minutes. Why? I found the show ugly. It was so completely, shockingly different to what I was expecting. It was like chewing into raw beef fillet for the first time. There was no glamour, no extraordinary lives, no optimism, no prince charming and no Manhattan’s nights out. I found myself in front of 4 confused young girls, scraped walls, weak men and sick relationships. And bad clothes, of course. The SATC fan within myself switched off the telly, swearing I would never lay eyes on that again.

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Of course, once back in Europe and dealing with jet lag again, I changed my mind. I watched the entire season 1 of Girls in a night and fell in love with it. Once I cleared my mind of what I thought a show about young girls should be about, it was another world. There is no glamour and male characters are painfully deprived of a backbone as the girls seem constantly unworried about their looks and their reputation but it is so powerfully R E A L. My 20s weren’t as naked as theirs but the insecurities, the bad clothes and the messy boys were there. They always are in that decade. I can relate to Girls – after all – much more than to SATC. I lived Girls, with some sugarcoating, but I could only dream of living SATC.

Lena Dunham took feminism on centre stage again and today it doesn’t sound anymore as an obsolete word, reminding us of burned bras and 70s hairstyles. Hannah Horvath sails through her time with more confidence we could expect from young women in the past and learns what is right, and wrong or simply works for her in the oldest way: trial and error. Instead of received ideas.

I don’t think Hannah and her friends risk in any way to become Carrie and co. later on. They will be something completely different, despite – maybe – some designer clothes and better apartments. These Girls are not interested in pleasing men anymore. They prefer to please themselves and to be liked for what they are.

Brussels Bits: fearless Belgian wanders into Italian fortress

When the King of France saw the Royal Palace of Caserta, built by the King of Naples to resemble the magnificent Palace of Versailles, he apparently observed with a certain sarcasm that “the smaller the kingdom, the greater the ambition (of its ruler)”. In the same way, centuries later, the ambitious new king of a tiny country called Belgium bought for himself the second largest country of Africa, after a long series of unsuccessful ventures to acquire smaller lands abroad.

Belgians have never been afraid to dream big. They even think they can win this year’s World Cup. And when it comes to food, they are even more intrepid.

In this context, it shouldn’t surprise me (but it does, it really does!) that a young Belgian guy decides to buy buffalo cows from southern France, install them in green and rainy southern Belgium and start producing mozzarella. Buffalo mozzarella (www.bufflardenne.be). Organic, of course. Because Belgians are second only to Los Angelenos in their organic obsession.

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My penny-wise husband ordered a kg of the precious cheese and we tried it yesterday for dinner, with the usual cherry tomatoes salad. It looks stiff, and doesn’t have the pungent, round smell of the real thing. The little white ball doesn’t make you think of fat,  lazy cows laying down on a sun-burnt Italian meadow. I ate it anyway. Doesn’t taste of much.

“Come on, it’s his first year doing mozzarella. Give the guy some time to perfect it”

“Nay, you don’t take a bunch of cows, put them in a freezing and rainy country and think they will make real bufala”.

“But, you know, it’s cheaper than Galbani. And it tastes better”

“Slightly better. It’s pizza-topping-quality mozzarella. Fine once melted”. 

We have two more balls to eat now.

What fascinates me, though, in this mozzarella story is that supermarkets all over the world are full of any sort of imitation of popular Italian products. Fake parmigiano, fake mozzarella, fake pesto sauce and so on. This Belgian guy wasn’t interested in that niche, he wanted to do it the right way. And organic, on top of that. I salute him for that.

Too bad that making real bufala isn’t a mere sum of  factors. As brewing true espresso isn’t a simple matter of having the fanciest Italian coffee machine. (I am in for a moment of Italian pride, here).

The Embedded Expat or a trip into the limbo

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In Dante’s Inferno there was a special place, called Limbo, where all the good people born before Christ would go as well as the unchristened children.

I guess there must be a similar place, in the twisted logic of expatriation, for embedded expats.Those who went abroad, married a local and ended up staying there. They are a sort of bridge between here and there, they fit with both cultures but belong to neither. Half-blooded souls.

Being an embedded expat myself, I sometimes envy pure expats. They can come and go, criticize, get mad, change, come back. They didn’t have the privilege and the damnation of knowing another country from within. They don’t feel obliged to understand, adapt, connect and learn another culture. They can take what they like and reject the rest.

Once you’re in, the music changes. If you have access to a series of secret addresses and precious contacts only locals have and wouldn’t share with any foreigner, you also lose some of your liberties. You can’t anymore go around and nonchalantly speak your mind. You are supposed to understand what’s really going on and to behave as one of the tribe. If you happen to be fluent in the other language, even worse. People will forget that speaking a language doesn’t mean sharing cultural references and deeply understanding another way of life. They will then expect you to fit in and to adapt much more than you’d like too.

So, what are the advantages of being a spy at the heart of another reality? I guess the same of trying out marriage once in your life. You won’t get another chance of knowing another family as well as your own or to enter another person’s life in the same way. I find myself defending Belgium when my (pureblooded) expat friends criticize it. I have to explain how to handle the locals and act as a cultural interpreter most of the time. Not that I would miss not doing so but it certainly is and will be the only situation where I can say I know another culture as well as my own.

That said, I am not certain that living as an embedded expat is an healthy option in the long run. No matter how hard you try, you will always be overshadowed by your status of foreign spouse when interacting with the local social circle and getting to shine for yourself will become rare and complicated.

My embedded expat friends tend to say that they found peace with themselves and in their relationship once they moved to “the third country”, a sort of heaven for mixed-nationalities couples where both partners can find their own way of existing without counting on personal advantages, family ties and old habits.

What is your experience? Have you lived in both countries, how was that? Have you moved to the third country or plan to do so later on?