The Italian side

You know you have to come back when…

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Suddenly, you start receiving one, then two then dozens of spam comments on your blog. That’s the sign. It means that you haven’t been writing for what feels like decades and that you have to come back or your collection of sparse thoughts will implode and be swallowed whole by the Internet. So I am. Back.

Not writing is easier than writing. Not doing is always much easier than doing. Anything. But I like this little place too much to let it go and even if right now I feel like I don’t have much to say, I will make the effort of keep coming.

Over an extremely long summer (it’s still surprisingly hot in northern Europe) with my newborn baby nicknamed Otto two things happened: I stopped feeling an expat in Belgium and I realised that no matter how far you go, national feelings are innate and not the byproduct of a single-countried upbringing.

How I started to feel a little Belgian. Since I last blogged there has been the World Cup to keep young and less young people busy during warm summer nights. It happened then: the Belgian Red Devils were all over the place. Supermarkets had special aisles dedicated to the football team and sold all sorts of gadgets. The husband spent a whole Saturday afternoon at the Carrefour with the children and they came back with packs of red, yellow and black Marseille soaps (by the way, the black one actually soiled your hands instead of cleaning them!), themed sunglasses, special Red Devils editions of crisps, cereals, mustard, beer…We had themed ads on tv every single day and dedicated shows where the Red Devils would open and reply to letters received by their youngest fan. Frankly, it was amazing. I come from a 4 times World Champion country but not once I have witnessed such nation wide joy and hope and warmth and support for the football team. Supermarkets in Italy never sold tri-colored Marseille soap bars. (I am sure the green one would soil hands too).

Watching matches was more than witnessing a football game happening far away on a medium sized screen. It was cathartic. Biblical. A myth. The small, discreet, boring little country in the middle of Europe bravely defying the giants of football. A bunch of young, funny, ambitious guys taking a leap of faith. It was cool. And then one night at a party, after Belgium had already been eliminated by Argentina, I found this picture on the inside door of the club’s loo:

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and I felt a little Belgian. Which of course according to Murphy’s law must mean that I am about to move somewhere else. It’s like the last box: I don’t know if this ever happened to you but throughout the several movings of my 20s I used to keep an unopened box, somewhere in the basement. The box you are going to open one day, when you’ll have the time. If you ever come to open that box and thus completely settle in your new place, usually something is going to happen and you will be moving again shortly.

With the help of an extraordinary weather since the beginning of the year I am at peace with this strange place I have been living in since 2003. Do me whatever you want, Belgium, I have finally come to love you.

How my half-blooded kids feel very much pureblooded. I have always thought that a sense of belonging to a certain country, culture and set of values comes from growing up in a place. I couldn’t help but notice when I was in school that children that had transferred from abroad very often were a little different from us, single-countried Italians. They spoke with a metallic accent, they ate different foods, they were less interested in football than us and dressed differently. Nationality went hand in hand with a constant exposure to sunlight, pasta and roman architecture. Well, apparently I was wrong.

I feel very much Italian despite the uneasiness that plagues me every time I stay too long in Italy. I AM very Italian indeed but I never preached it. I have friends actively promoting the Italian-ness of their kids, by teaching songs, traditions and foods and patiently correcting each and every grammatical slip up. I am too lazy to correct grammar every time (and, sincerely, most of their genuine mistakes are so funny that corrections seem unfair) and not orthodox enough to teach things I have forgotten myself. But despite my (non) efforts in this sense, it turns out my children think of themselves as Italians (and a little bit French, not Belgian. That’s another story). It’s not about the sun, then. There must be something more.

What do you feel after your years abroad? And what do your children think they are, if you have any?

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.

 

The Great Beauty of living the diaspora

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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.

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.

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).

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!

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:)

When your dreams take your life: another story of expatriation

Yesterday a boat charged with around 500 people took fire a few miles off the coast of Lampedusa, a beautiful Sicilian island sitting only 70 miles north of the African coast. The Italian forces recovered so far over 100 bodies and they think 200 more are still at sea.

It was the middle of the night when someone ignited the corner of a blanket on the boat, hoping to be seen and rescued by passing fishermen. It was a matter of minutes before the whole ship started to burn and capsized. Hundreds of people jumped in the water, most of them unable to swim.

A few days ago a dozen illegal immigrants died on a Sicilian beach,  thrown in the water off the coast by the same reckless middlemen who extorted them thousands of euros with the promise of delivering the chance to a better future.

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Watching the images of the aligned bodies on the beach I was overwhelmed by sadness.

I spend so much time dissecting all the possible nuances of expatriation. I write of being lost in translation and of the perks of being a foreigner, I have lyrical moments thinking of my birth country and others of mere exasperation. And I do all of this from my comfy home, sitting in front of my cute laptop, sipping russian tea and eating organic dried fruits.

At the same time, thousands of people across the world share some of my dreams of cutting the cord, see the world, get a better chance, build a  future, give children a different education. Only, they are fleeing wars, famine, persecutions, lack of any fundamental human right. They don’t have the time – or the opportunity –  to think about expatriation. They just gather all of the money they can think of and jump on a boat.

I am aware that by doing so, they are breaking the law. At the same time I can’t but feel compassion, and sympathy for them. Had I grown up dealing with daily survival, I would jump on that boat too. Crossing my fingers, hoping for the best and telling myself that anything is better that rotting in a world deprived of freedom and humanity.

My thoughts today are for the other expats. Those we will never cross in airports’ lounges, coffee shops or colonial hotels. The expats that don’t know about visas or working permits or the difficulties they will have to face, should they reach the other side of the border. The expats that just dream of a better tomorrow, and are ready to risk their life to have the chance to see it.

They are not different from those who travelled for hours in the trunk of a car or under a bus seat to escape oppression and dictators after WWII. Who fled war and racial persecution by walking nights and days in the snow, crossing mountains. Who defied armed and ruthless wardens to escape from a concentration camp. Who hid in impossibly small suitcases to conquer freedom.

It’s thanks to those brave, amazingly strong men and women that other oppressed human beings kept faith, and continued to dream. May there be a day when no one will have to die hoping for a rosier future.

The Fake Italian

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As a typical Italian, I need a fix of my childhood food on a regular basis. Even better if it comes with a proper setting, proper accents and proper faces.  That’s why every Wednesday  I meet with a fellow Italian-expat-who-married-out-of-the-tribe and we treat our pale, half-blooded children to a real pizzeria for lunch.

Everything looks right there: the staff speak with a southern Italian accent, they run around with more plates than any human being could keep on two arms and affectionately scold the kids when they become too loud. The pizza is the right balance of crisp and fluffy, the tomato sauce yummy and they happen to have very-close-to-the-real-thing cannoli, filled with sweet ricotta and topped with a tear of chocolate fudge.

I look forward to going there every week with the same enthusiasm and it’s become for the kids too a special moment of Italianness. “You know, papa – they tell their father – we go to this restaurant with mummy where everybody speaks Italian. You can’t come, though. It’s only for Italians like us”. 

Last Wednesday, unfortunately, they didn’t have a table for us, a merry little crowd needing buggy space close to the table. We waited a little bit, hoping for someone to ask the check and go but no one was moving. So we decided to take the offspring to the pizzeria next door, where we had never been before.

We had just closed the door behind us when something looked, sounded and smelled clearly wrong. We were welcomed by a woman with a Snow White-meets-Sophia-Loren look (chalk white skin, ultra-black hair and red lipstick) who at the sight of the three boys and the baby girl in the pushchair shrilled: “OOOOOOOH, ‘a famiiiiya” with an accent and intonation that reminded me more of a background actor in a third-class American movie than of an authentic southern mamma.

A look at the tables confirmed my worst doubts: little roses as centerpieces, fake-chic setting, even faker pictures of famous Italian places all around and not a single Italian among the patrons.

I looked at my friend hoping for her to read my mind, which was shouting: “RUN! I am not having fake pizzas!”. Luckily they didn’t have a highchair for the baby and we had the perfect excuse to get away. The counterfeited Sophia Loren proposed us even take away pizzas but no, no, we forgot something and have to go.

And then I thought of all the times I have been naively eating at a fake Japanese restaurant, run by smart Chinese who understood quickly that Europeans weren’t so keen anymore on greasy Peking duck.

How do you spot a fake Italian restaurant?

1. There are no Italians inside

2. If it looks too authentic to be true it probably is. (beware especially of too many Godfather’s references in the decor or on the walls)

3. If the owner greets you speaking Italian, he probably isn’t. (He would do so only to a known patron)

4. If the menu contains too many variations to the “spaghetti with meatballs” theme, run away.

5. If the decor looks more French than Italian (brocade tablecloths, stiff chairs, elaborated centerpieces) it’s never a good sign.

What are your tips to spot “fake” restaurants all over the world?