I am 35 and stuck between Carrie Bradshaw and Hannah Horvath

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

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 Feminism was then an outdated word, something our mothers would talk about but that we weren’t concerned with anymore.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

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 Most episodes feel outdated as are the clothes, the values, the talks.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

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

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

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

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

Brussels Bits: fearless Belgian wanders into Italian fortress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We have two more balls to eat now.

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

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

The Embedded Expat or a trip into the limbo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

The expat contradiction: how long will you be a foreigner?

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There are many sorts of expats: those who left willing to go back home at some point, those who realized they won’t eventually go back anywhere, those who left following a foreign spouse, those who left without a plan. What they have in common is that in most cases they won’t be able to contribute to the political life of the place they live their everyday life, pay taxes and raise children in. The idea that you have to lean in and take another nationality to be able to vote had some sense in a different world: one where people didn’t move that much, didn’t speak foreign languages or know different cultures easily. I guess the point was that before contributing to public life you had to show a proper will to become something else and embrace fully your country of adoption.

If that is the underlying logic, then why should we expats – even after decades away from home – still have a say in our natal country public life? With the upcoming elections in Italy I am a little lost. I have always voted, passing through many different états d’âme: I have been a temporarily expatriated Italian, still deeply concerned by what was happening back home, then I became a long-time expat who still fantasized about going back to the Belpaese. Last step is where I am now: I doubt I will ever go back to live in Italy, I have more and more troubles understanding the complicated dynamics of political life there (don’t think about reading papers to get it, they make it even more unintelligible) and, most of all, every time I interact with true Italians (those born and bred in Italy and that never left) I realize I am unable to look at the country’s reality as they do. I see it now through the often unforgiving eyes of a foreigner.

So, why on earth should I still vote in Italy when I am not allowed to decide anything about life in Belgium, the country I have been living 11 years in?

In my optimistic vision of the world, one should participate to the political life of the country he/she makes his daily life in. Which means that if you move, then your right of vote moves with you and you can have a voice in the next place’s organization. It would probably translate into a massive workload for the national administration (keeping track of moving residents) but it would be so much fairer.

Becoming Italian has become relatively easy a few years ago, when having an Italian ancestor has often proved  enough to legally claim a right to nationality. I have a South American friend who can’t speak a word of Italian and has never visited the country but can nonetheless participate to elections in virtue of an half-Italian grandfather.I can’t see the point of this.

Have you ever felt the same frustration I do in being glued as a political actor to the country you were born in while being forever labeled as a foreigner in the place you willfully chose to live in? Should all expats in the world unite and lobby for their voting rights?

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.