Sailing through 30s

Hit 40 and run!

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There is a new wave of runners in my generation. It’s been a few years now that every week there is a new Triathlon or Marathon or whatever running competition coming on and a long lost friend asks for funding with a long and detailed e-mail on all the fantastic uses of those contributions to his performance. Children’s hospitals, earthquake survivals, orphanages in Bolivia. You name it, there is someone running for them.

Very noble actions, of course, I am all in awe of that. What I can’t help but noticing, though, is that no runner is under 35. Call it middle-age crisis (something I know about), an irresistible need to get fit or a Siddharta-like search for the deep meaning of the Universe. It is a fact that today, apparently, once you are about to hit 40 you should shed away laziness, sedentary hobbies (knitting? Come on, it is not by chance that knitting is so popular among pretty girls in their 20s) and embrace the run.

I haven’t been able to satisfy my nerdiness by sourcing down the exact origin of this trend so I am still wondering who came first: the runners or the charities looking at them as potential ambassadors? While I keep searching for an exact answer to my doubts I can’t forget what a friend told me a few years ago. We were at a 30th birthday party and the dance floor was empty, early in the night. People were drinking, chatting, flirting, going to the ladies’ to chat more, reapply makeup and hide from prettier love rivals. But none would hit the dance floor. Suddenly, a bunch of over 60s men and women appeared in the middle of it and started dancing as if there was no tomorrow. They were the father of the birthday girl and his friends. “It’s always the parents dancing first, because they know time their time for having fun is not infinite”, my friend observed with what I then registered as a certain cynicism.

I guess it’s the same for this obsession with marathons. When you hit 40 (and a little before that) you start realising that it’s now or never, you won’t sculpt your body or get rid of the fat in the next decade. So why not teaming it with a good cause to feel more motivated to get out of the bed every morning to jog around the neighbourhood and then fill weekends with trainings and local competitions? (and the good cause makes all the hiding from your family on weekends so much more excusable:-) I even heard that running gives you a sort of high, so I imagine one can qualify it as middle-aged people’s marijuana.

As for myself, I am not immune to the big call of the 40s. I hate sweating and have never been able to run properly so I resumed my childhood passion and I started swimming. Like everyday, just to be sure I go to my rendez-vous with my 40s in a decent shape. I asked for a water-resistant ipod for my birthday. The times they are A-changin’, after all.

Why do you do what you do: thoughts on what makes your heart race

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I have been a full-time professional journalist for a decade and a free-lance, half-time writer for the past 3 years. Those who knew me then, when under eye dark circles were the byproduct of nicotine abuse and frantic nights in smelly press rooms keep asking: don’t you miss the thrill? The traveling, running around, caffeine addiction, anonymous hotels and incongruous schedules? I usually giggle and say I still have all of those: raising kids is a hell of a ride, too and to cope you need concealer and caffeine in equal amounts.

I had wanted to be a journalist since I could speak: I simply never conceived any other daily occupation. When that became a reality I had just turned 21 and felt as if I had won the lottery. I got paid to do what I always wanted to . It didn’t even feel as a job. I was blessed enough to have an amazing woman editor, who was an endless source of inspiration and funny, smart colleagues to hang out with till early morning. That precious set of circumstances changed after the first couple of years and  – as most humans do – I started living the reality of having a job: the occasional narrow minded boss, the sneaky co-worker, the internal politics and the back stabbing. If to that we add that being a journalist in Italy can be especially frustrating in terms of exposing the truth and correctly informing your readers, it’s easy to understand that I wasn’t sorry to leave. At the end of my working day, I didn’t feel uplifted at all. Rather depleted. 

Still, when Brussels started going crazy with anticipation of the US President visit in these past few days, the first gushes of nostalgia in many years resurfaced. 

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I stayed home for the whole day as advised on TV: the whole city was fibrillating, traffic was closed or blocked all around, Obama’s security detail was impressive. And yet I didn’t see with my own eyes any of that. I didn’t wake up at dawn to go to some hotel where the leader of the free world was staying, hoping to catch a glimpse of him or to have the opportunity of asking him a question. I didn’t observe the huge bodyguards nervously talking on their radios and I didn’t have a cigarette with shaky hands in the chill of yet another morning on the street, waiting for something to happen. I just had to switch on the TV to have an HD sight of many things I could not have seen with my eyes. Yet, it was not enough.

So I spent some time surfing the net, in search of the most accurate image or video footage of Mr. Obama’s EU tour and thought: why did I enjoy that much being a journalist during those years? What was that made my heart race and the fatigue go away? It wasn’t the news. I was bad at finding scoops and not shrewd enough to sail through sources and compromises. I was good at writing down what happened and lucky enough to keep some clarity of thought even at 5 am (but, well, I now realize that is what being in your 20s means). What made me feel alive was of a more anthropological nature. I loved observing power. People in power. Dissecting their gestures, their tone of voice, read their insecurities and their flaws. Their humanity.

Those I can’t see in HD professional video coverage of the news.

 

Have you ever thought of what makes your own heart race? 

 

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?

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.

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 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)

1 year of blogging – The search for kindred spirits and how I got here

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A whole year has gone by since I first wrote on this blog. I remember the night when I started, home alone and bored and sick as hell. I had no idea what I was going to write about but I was spending too much time mumbling in my car or starting conversations at the dinner table that struggled to take off. And even when they did, they rarely took the direction I hoped for.

Getting to know and spend time with kindred spirits gets more and more difficult with age. When in school, we choose our friends according to mutual interests, compatible characters and shared time. At college it becomes even easier: it’s obvious that most of those enrolled in a literature class will love reading and writing and will constitute great friend material. Once in the adult world things get more complicated. We have less time and more limits: we hang out more with those sharing our own routine and lifestyle (the gym friends, the dog friends, the school mothers, the husband’s friends, the grocery store friends…) because, simply, it’s easier than venturing into the unknown to meet that stranger that will share our obsession for Russian literature.

My longing for kindred spirits started early on: showing the schizophrenic behavior that somehow is my trademark, I went to a business school. Me, the Tolstoy-by-heart-and-only-interested-in-reading-and-writing-person. Studying finance and math and statistics. I wanted to show my high school teachers that I could do anything, despite their written suggestion to pursue studies in the arts. Of course, they were right and I was wrong. I suffered through 4 years of diagrams, equations, formulas and theorems I rarely found inspiring. But that gave me a vague idea of the practical world I struggle so much with, and so I learnt something. There were no kindred spirits there. Apart from a couple of fellow students that made a U-turn and are now photographers, 90% of the people I hanged out with in my early 20s became bankers, lawyers or corporate executives. I look at their Facebook pictures and I feel like a child. They have business cards with fancy titles and maybe they look at them before sleeping and feel better about themselves.

Imagine my surprise when I finally found myself in a press office, sitting among people who all seemed to enjoy books and films and tv and to stay up at night to build a different world. As a 22 years old journalist, I thought I hit the jackpot. I was being paid to do what I loved most and be happy. The honeymoon lasted for a few years. Then my first, enlightened, amazing boss took another position and welcome to reality. Journalism is to most people just a job. As in almost every job, it’s difficult to sail through it without hitting internal politics, compromises, disappointments, unfairness and deception. I had my fair share of these and realized what I really enjoyed about the job wasn’t witnessing the news, uncovering the truth or telling a story (in this era, anyway, images get way further than the most seductive literary voice) but observing the actors. The people behind the facts. Those who had power and those who had none. Those who struggled and those who made the calls. The facts, the news, then became a mere byproduct of the interaction among the characters involved.

I retreated into fiction writing and here I am. In search of kindred spirits again since it is pretty rare to bump into an Alain de Botton’s avid reader at the playground or at the school fair. There might be some, of course. But they’re probably all in disguise as I am, concealing their passions behind everyday’s duties and a dose of comfortable laziness.

For exactly these reasons I didn’t tell about my blog to real life friends for months. I didn’t want to ramble to people I already know in real life and I didn’t want to have followers that felt somehow obliged to sign up to the blog, out of politeness, kindness or affection. I wanted to see if there was someone out there at sea who didn’t know a thing about me and still shared some of my interests. I found a lot. Thank you to all of you, cyber friends and readers, for finding my message in the bottle. 

The dangers of selflessness

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Years ago, in the middle of an expat crisis (having gone in a short time from classic expat to embedded-foreign wife), I hired a coach. I had never been a fan of the coaching concept but, after all, I didn’t have enough time, will or money for therapy nor did I have enough friends determined to listen to my monologues for an entire hour a week AND give me valuable advices at the same time. So I hired. A coach.

We would talk on Skype in the early afternoon, while she was having breakfast in her Washington flat and I was already at my 5th coffee in my Brussels bureau. It lasted a few months before I realized I had started to regularly postpone sessions, making up excuses not to talk to her and cutting short our weekly 60 minutes. I don’t remember the details but at some point I figured out she kept dishing out nice-sounding phrases like those I receive on my Facebook newsfeed from Arianna Huffington. Stuff like “Live, Love, Laugh” or “Resentment is your first enemy in life”. First I stopped taking notes and then I stopped talking to her altogether.

There’s one thing I still remember, though. She talked me about famous people who had to disappoint their circle of friends and family in order to become who they were and to leave their mark. She cited Gandhi and, while reading his biography, I felt confused to learn that he practically obliged his wife and children to live in extreme poverty in order to conform to his own ideals. 

What about selflessness?, I thought.  Didn’t everybody tell me all the time that one should put others first, doing everything to procure happiness at every cost, even one’s own sorrow?

I have practiced selflessness as a mantra since I can remember. I was born with broad shoulders and a sense of humour, plus the intimate belief that anything in the world will look brighter after a brisk walk and a favourite drink. I am lucky for this. So lucky I always thought it was my mission to alleviate other people’s burdens. Boyfriend break-up? I am there. Monstrous boss? Come to see me tonight. Baby blues? There in 10 minutes with ice-cream. A row with your husband? You can stay the night, I’ll make you breakfast tomorrow.

In my twisted logic, other people’s issues and circumstances are definitely, always, more important than my everyday routine. At the age of 35, I start to ask myself when I will be able to put limits to this.

I was looking at my agenda the other day and I was scared. Beside my mother-and-wife usual duties my days are punctuated by meetings with people I don’t even like that much (let’s say, I like 50% of them), to talk and go over issues that don’t even have the slightest impact on my own life. 

I can’t resist the opportunity to give out a hand, some of my time and a listening ear to people in distress. Unfortunately  – and quite predictably – it seems to work only one way. 

How one becomes selfish? Is there a way to learn to do that? Or to say NO? A clear, loud and unmistakable NO?

I am taking lessons here. Teach me how to get rid of selflessness and regain control of my time without the guilt. Please.