The Great Beauty of living the diaspora


I’ve been to Rome for the mid-term holidays: a few days packed with old friends, too many cappuccinos and endless car rides, stuck in traffic. I barely slept and regret – as usual – not having stayed longer to catch that extra glimpse of sunlight and eat that last pastry.

Most of all, though, a deep sense of uneasiness has stayed with me since I came back. I rarely go to Rome and the one time a year I do so, it’s never harmless. Last year I felt troubled as if I had run into the guy that broke my heart. This time I felt as a guest. Worse, as an official member of the diaspora.

When I landed in Brussels I was invited to one super boring national themed dinner. There were old time Italian expats and a few mixed couples. I was sitting in front of an Italian lady (let’s say, mid-30s, an age that then I considered irrevocably old) married to a Finnish guy. She started a long lament on everything that was wrong with Italy, on all things she was happy of not having to deal with anymore, on the incomprehensible attitude of her fellow nationals still living in the country. We were sitting in a rather bad basque restaurant and I can still see her ranting on public health, schools and garbage management. I couldn’t really see what she was talking about, being a very fresh expat. Hospitals seemed perfectly fine to me, public education excellent and garbage management was still acceptable. I went home and chatted to a friend that I had spent the night listening to a fool who lost completely touch with her native country and talked of it as some place I had never been to.

A decade later, I sometimes feel that I am becoming the Finnish wife. Luckily, I am not alone and neither is she. We are probably part of the diaspora.

The diaspora watched the Oscar-winning film, La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty), mesmerized and somehow moved. By the enchanting photography, the oh-so-italian aesthetics, the ever present cynicism and cruel portrait of the reality of the most decadent city in the Western world. (You thought that was Vegas? Go to Rome, they do decadent as none could). From the hairdresser to the the diplomat, the diaspora members were unanimous in acknowledging the good work done by the filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino and somehow proud of the Foreign FIlm Award received by a fellow national.

In the same way, the diaspora looks with hope and a cautious optimism to the coup that brought at the head of the government a bright and ambitious 39-year-old politician. We read foreign newspapers (since the Italian ones are basically written rather to gossip within the political caste than to inform average citizens of the facts) that report of the logical and right and modern speeches this young prime minister gives and we think that maybe  – maybe – the country will enter a new era.

At the same time that we discuss the faraway homeland sitting in a fake Italian restaurant, our friends and family home tweet and flood Facebook talking of a different reality. The Oscar wasn’t well deserved – they say. The film is mediocre, it just quotes Fellini from the beginning till the end and it depicts an inexistent Rome. Even when it’s accurate, it doesn’t explain nor analyze why Rome is like that. (Really? Is it a BBC documentary or a piece of art?). One day after the Oscar was awarded, instead of celebrating a victory, most newspapers indulged in misplaced articles on how the Oscars are awarded and the dubious online voting system. Basically, they insinuated that someone paid for that award since the film per se could never get there by itself. Seen with the eyes of a long time expat, this is slightly disturbing.

The Italian film didn’t deserve the Oscar and – I evince from social networks – the new prime minister is no better than his predecessors and bound to fail. There is no place for hope or room for a positive attitude. The country is sinking and sometimes I have the impression that its residents would like it to keep sinking in order to say “I told you so”.

In that fake Italian restaurant, too many times the diaspora close a conversation with the same phrase: “You know what, sometimes I think Italians are crazy”.

What about you? Do you feel the same uneasiness when going back to your home country? Do you have the impression that people there and the diaspora inhabit different planets?

PS The Great Beauty is a superb film.


  1. Great post Eleonora! I am experiencing the same feelings you are. I was mystified by the reaction to the Oscar win – even if you didn’t like the movie, can’t you be happy anyway? All I can say is that I am glad I do not live in Italy any longer. The cynicism has become chronic but, in their defense, those mired in a particular history are not the best judges of it. They lack detachment. So much has gone so wrong in our country but, behind my rose tinted American glasses, I refuse to believe change cannot be effected.
    PS I loved the movie but have mixed feelings about Paolo Sorrentino: must be the stupid haircut and the silly acceptance speech that did it for me.

  2. I can’t but agree on the silly haircut and the poor acceptance speech but on the other side, Italians aren’t known for their public speaking skills and maybe he’s shy or something. What bothers me is that Benigni’s Oscar, in 1998, was welcomed as a well deserved national success while this time the public opinion was busier pointing out everything that was wrong with the film. As I said, Italians are a mystery to me these days.

  3. Well, things look a little bit different seen from the Italian point of view.
    As for Sorrentino’s movie, I didn’t have the chance to see it: I haven’t been going to the cinema since my son’s birth -and he’s four. My parents and my husband, though, saw it when it was broadcast after the Oscars. My husband, who firmly believes that movies mean entertainment and not committment, told me “That movie sucks. Period.” My parents told me “that’s not an original movie. That’s Fellini from the beginning to the end. Wonderful photography, for sure worth an Oscar by itself, but definitely not a brand new movie.” Other people told me “I watched it and thought ‘So what?’ every single minute.” Therefore, I wouldn’t describe it as a huge audience success.
    As for the new Cabinet, I find difficult to imagine it as the beginning of a new political era. I agree with a statement from the journalist Beppe Severgnini: “Mr. Renzi says he will do in three months the three most important law reforms we were waiting for in the last thirty years. Well, good luck.”
    However, I hope to be wrong. I hope that, six months from now, I will come back here and write, “well, the expat point of view was right. The Renzi Cabinet has really been the beginning of a new era for the whole Country. I’ve stopped looking for foreign articles suggested by the magazine “Internazionale” to understand what’s happening in my country, because Italian newspaper re-started doing their work.” Even if these words, now, sound more like Fairyland than real.

    (As always, I apologize for my bad English. These comments are the only exercise in written English I’m doing these days.)

    1. Thank you for your comment, I really appreciate that you took the time. What you write is precisely what my friends in Italy all say and that is why I was struck looking at twitter and Facebook in these past weeks: residents and diaspora seem from different planets in their perception of reality. More on this subject in the next days I think.

  4. Dear Ms. Eleonora, I’m not commenting on “La grande bellezza” because I didn’t see it.
    As for Mr. Renzi, my advice is, and ever was, stop ranting. I have not the chance of expatriating, perhaps my little ones will (and we are preparing for the task, but it is another story): in the meantime, I repeat to myself almost once a day two somewhat famous quotes.
    ” Don’t ask what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
    ” If every citizens cleans up in front of his door, the entire city will be clean. ”
    Perhaps I’m naive, but one has to carry on… Yours sincerely Spisani (smalltownman).

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