Month: May 2014

Pride, vanity and a certain touchiness: when Italy plays the football card

I like to compare birth countries to birth parents. No matter how good (or bad) they are, you grow up thinking they’re the best in the world. Then you start going to your friends’ house for the first sleepover and you observe another reality. Some things you will find nicer, some others disappointing but in the end, it’s very likely that you will go home happy and relieved to see your parents again and to rest within known walls. It takes years or sometimes forever to develop your own personality and to start looking at your birth parents  – and your birth country – with the necessary distance to judge the good and the bad, things you will keep and others you have to toss.

I was born with the expat virus but I have been told for years that I was somehow touchy when people tended to criticise Italy. I used to react in the same way a teenager does when someone makes unpleasant comments on his parents. Time passes. And time cures everything. I have lost some susceptibility and replaced it with a sense of humour. The good part is that with time, and age, you also develop a certain leniency towards your old folks (people or countries).

Till you open the TV one night and you feel that no, you don’t forgive or understand everything. There’re still things you simply can’t get. Or sympathise with.

The other night I was home alone and as is always the case, I decided to use the rare “me-time” (who did invent this term? It’s awful) I still have to binge on Italian TV. I can’t really impose it on my husband who can’t stand the endless news about natural disasters and the rising poverty in the big cities so it’s become my solitary pleasure. (I, on the other hand, truly enjoy those minutes of tragic humanity on video). I open the TV, on one of the three RAI channels (I can’t remember which one), a bowl of strawberries in my lap and start listening. There’s a program – hosted by some guy I never heard of  – about World Cup matches between Italy and Germany throughout history.

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The thing is, Italy generally won. Italy vs Germany is some historical football match for us Italians. There’s always a lot of drama, unexpected action and unpredictable results. It’s one of those situations where Italians act like their stereotype pictures them: they get all emotional and proud and give the impossible to show their composed, efficient, over technical adversaries that they can make it. Nothing to object so far: with the World Cup this year, it’s more than a classic for Italian TV to get old images from their archives and tell for the 1000th time about the football team’s historical exploits.

What struck me was the TV host introducing the video footage by saying more or less that: “Germany has been criticizing us a lot in this past couple of years. They want to teach us lessons, to tell us how to run our country. But when it comes to football, they have to learn that they don’t know it all”. I couldn’t believe my ears. It sounded like a primary school’s courtyard argument. You think you know it all and you are first in class but come out on the football field and I’ll show a couple of tricks, hideous nerd.

The guy didn’t say it once. He kept repeating it, between different videos.

Pride, vanity and touchiness are among the most evident weak points of Italians. They’re not alone about the vanity (and some pride): it is actually a trait of most big countries. French and British – to give an example – do know something about national pride. What’s different about Italians is that they are incredibly vocal about it. They think they are the best but they can’t live without recognition of their presumed superiority. If ignored or diminished in anyway, they’ll go crazy and start acting out as some aged actor who didn’t get the Oscar.

When I was working as a journalist in Italy, my editors made me spend so much time in doing press reviews of foreign newspapers. Who said what about what was happening in Italy: what did the Economist title? And Le Monde? And the NY Times? What were they thinking of our politics and politicians? I had to get out of the country to realise that no one else does it. Can you imagine Americans caring about what Italians think of their President? Or, on a smaller scale, the London Times wasting pages on how an Italian paper sees David Cameron? Of course not. Big countries have their pride. Italy has it too, but craves for the headmaster’s approval.

The funny thing is that if they get the approval they need they start bragging about it but if they don’t, they just take it to another field. If, for instance, the Germans keep telling us how to run our finances (instead of declaring their endless love and admiration for our amazing nation), we will just remind them how better we are at running after a football. Come on: there’re dozens of matches to prove it.

In a similar way, a favorite argument of Italians when confronted about the poor politics and government situation in the past century is that “you know, Romans used to rule the world”. A thousand years ago. Luckily, there will always be football.

 

Spring cleaning and a couple of expat pills

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It’s been weeks since I last posted. And I am not proud of it. I’d like to have extravagant and adventurous reasons to tell you about but the truth is that I got caught in a little bit of traveling, a huge deal of spring cleaning, a new job assignment and a crashed computer. Reality has been taking its toll and as I haven’t been able to read anything longer than 2,000 words in this past month, I also haven’t been in condition to write anything meaningful. It’s a vicious circle: the more you write, the more you can keep doing it and viceversa. If you don’t take it out of your thoughts and put it on a keyboard straight away, it will just fade. While I keep emptying my cupboards and dreaming of a life not burdened by objects and clothes and stuff, I’ll simply try and put my thoughts into pills. Short posts. Till I have emptied a third of the house, wallpapered a room, weeded the garden and finished my new content provider job assignment (this one is a  real challenge. And another story. Deadline is in a month).

 

1. Airports and designer coffee.

 

My leave of absence started with a little trip to visit a close friend I might not be able to see again in the coming year. I was away for a mere 36 hours but getting up early, going to the airport and wandering the endless duty free shops felt exciting as the first time. I rarely travel alone since I had kids and as I might have mentioned somewhere in this blog, for most of my (previous) life airports were my favorite place in the world. Being in one, alone, still makes me happy. Airports are the no man’s land of life and time. Suspended between a before and after, a departure and an arrival, an origin and a destination, I always felt they sum up much of the human condition. Everything feels possible in an airport and even if one might never do it, buying a ticket for a random destination and starting over again seems real for a moment. Coming back to duty free shops and endless hallways, I became a victim of my usual weakness. Designer coffee. 

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I tried to find a rational reason to justify my spending 5 bucks for a very average latte in a paper cup with my name scribbled on it but I couldn’t find one. Nevertheless when I spot a Starbucks (and there are a few in Brussels only since a couple of years) I can’t resist. Good marketing, I guess. I suddenly need to get that fat, velvety, brown armchair and disappear in it with an unfair amount of dairy in my hands. I succumbed, as usual. Not without a pinch of uneasiness. I. am. a. victim. of. big. brands.

2. Uprooting, Selfishness and other expats’ misdemeanours.

 

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So I visited a very close friend. A former expat who is now very much rooted and settled in her reality. We had lunch with some of her own friends, all single-countried. I see single-countried people all the time in Brussels but I always attribute the sides of them I can’t really relate to to some sort of cultural crash. It’s when I deal with my own people that I realise many misunderstandings are actually related to the expat vs. single-countried reality. I am questioned. On matters I rarely think about. How often I go home and see my family. Why don’t I always spend Christmas with them. Who will take care of them if at some point they can’t look after themselves anymore? Don’t I ever feel guilty about living abroad? Do I envision the possibility of going back home to live there at some point? Shock ensued when I candidly said that Belgium isn’t my final destination and that I have been plotting to migrate in some other continent in the coming years. How could I be so selfish, never thinking of my ageing parents when planning my whereabouts? The truth is, I rarely do. I tend to live in the present (and sometimes in the past) but, no, I never plan about an uncertain future. So, yes, as a die-hard expat I might be the most selfish person alive. Aren’t we all?

According to well settled people, we expat are:

1. Uprooted. And we tend to impose the same destiny to our innocent children, who will never feel like they belong to something. (A country, a culture, a people). True, they won’t belong. But to a family. Doesn’t that count more than a pre-set package of single-countriedness?

2. Selfish. We keep hopping the world with little regard for those we left behind. Also true. But when we go back home, we’re really there. We could argue what makes more in terms of human proximity between a 5 minutes encounter every day or a 7-days, 24h/24 stay once a year.

3. Anti-social or anti-community. Normal, single-countried people grow attachments to a certain community and they involve themselves in its development. We tend to hang out with similarly uprooted individuals, privilege cynicism and a life made of ever changing alliances and passions. That’s because we can’t vote. Really.

4. Ungrateful towards our birth country which provided healthcare and education for us and just got harsh criticism in exchange. There is a lot of truth in this and some Freudian aspects. Pure expats (not simple tourists, abroad for a very limited time and homesick for the whole length of their stay) can be merciless when analysing their birth country failures. I am one of them. But making a life abroad is not different from leaving your home as a teenager: it takes time to deprogram yourself of all the notions and values your parents inculcated you with as a child. It’s a long and painful process, to judge with your own eyes and heart, letting go of cultural prejudices. As adults, we are tough critics of our own parents before “forgiving” them for not being perfect and loving them for what they are. In the same way, expats are profoundly irritated by everything their birth country is not, before letting all go and liking it again with all of its shortcomings.

Have you ever been criticised in your expatitude?