belgian

Little Expats I (or the thousand and one correct ways of raising your offspring)

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One of the few things I still like about Brussels is the open show of expat parallel realities. Bringing the kids to the playground is per se an anthropological relevant moment: there I see mothers and their offspring from all over the world, forming separate little groups, each one living according to its own dogmas, credos and well-meant theories on child rearing. You’d be mistaken to think that it happens in similar ways in all big, international cities because in London, or Paris, or New York there is a common denominator. One that you won’t find in Brussels: national identity.

Expats and immigrants (see here for my personal take on semantics) find in Paris, or London, or New York (but even in Rome, frankly) an entity they have to constantly confront with. None would dream of living in one of these countries without speaking a single word of the language or without understanding the basic cultural foundations of the place one’s living in. Like it or not, in Paris you will be confronted with the French way of living, to their food and habits, to the unhygienic baguette worn under your arm on a Sunday morning to the exhausting love for bureaucracy and hierarchy. Being an expat in a country with history and national pride means being challenged in one’s personal upbringing and sometimes adopting a new one.

Well, in Brussels you won’t find any of that. Thousands of immigrants live at the heart of Europe without speaking or understanding French (which still is the language spoken by the vast majority of Brussels residents), without knowing anything of the local culture and without having any interest to discover it. It’s not their fault. It’s that Belgians are difficult, if not impossible, to meet and they tend to deny the existence of a local tradition. They like to stick together, reducing the opportunity to meet foreigners to cocktail hours and making sure they will go to dinner without any new addition to their primary school circle of friends.

That said, let’s go back to the playground. Children are the same all over the world but for some mysterious reason pediatricians and mothers think there are as many ways to take care of them as there are nations on Earth. Italians share with Russians a love for medical equipment and clear answers. A colicky baby will get a special massage in America, some Infacol drops in the UK, an homeopathic arsenal in Germany, a bumpy promenade on Brussels’ ill paved sidewalks as suggested by local doctors but in Rome and Moscow (and in other parts of Eastern Europe, according to my sources) the infallible answer to infant belly pain is the insertion of a tiny feeding tube into the baby’s rectum, in order to let the air come out. Did I just write that babies are all the same?

It doesn’t get better later on: Italians wean with complicated mixtures of lyophilized broth (it’s safer, being industrially produced, they have been told) and lovely smelling starch, rice flour or semolina while Brits choose sometimes unusual associations of fruits and veggies (have a look at the colourful and chic http://www.ellaskitchen.co.uk), Germans go traditional and organic (www.hipp.de) and Americans seem obsessed with snacking at any time of the day.

You will spot the Latin kids (i.e. Italians, Spanish, Portuguese and South-Americans with the exception of the French) because they wear winter coats till the temperature reaches 20°C, they are often overdressed for a couple of hours around a muddy toboggan and their mothers yell. A lot. Italians are known for being loud in any circumstances (how many of you have already had the appalling experience of dining next to an Italians’ table in a small restaurant?) but with kids they let go what’s left of the little self-control they usually have. They yell to prevent them from injury, to scold them, to call them to have a snack, to declare their love, to put a coat on and, finally, they yell even louder when it’s time to go home.

German and Scandinavian kids play with wooden toys. They are allowed very little TV and snack on organic fruit. They are quiet, well behaved and very self-controlled. Their moms go everywhere by bike, have short, neat hair and natural-fibre clothes. They look sooooo modern!

Then come my favorites: Brits kids. You can’t miss them, wearing a short sleeved t-shirt in the middle of winter, often barefoot in the mud and out and about no matter the weather. Super independent and sometimes a little wild, they are kings of the playground. I often tell my husband that the secret of the celebrated British resilience is natural selection: centuries of exposing youngsters to any kind of environmental challenge let only the best equipped survive (ever guessed where Charles Darwin first got the idea of evolution?). Another distinctive trait of the Brits? They’re always accompanied by fathers on Saturday and Sundays.I guess mothers get a well deserved break on weekends. How civilized, indeed!

After years of watching I took ideas and advice from everyone. Colics have been cured with night promenades when necessary, flavors and foods have been alternated to get a taste of everything and I have tried to be as eco-friendly as possible. I still yell a lot, though.

When expatriation gets to your face: how I became a foreigner to my people

ImageI am a walking Italian stereotype. I tried everything to look different: bleached my hair during teenage (ending up more orange than blonde), tried an endless number of hair coloring later on, avoided sunlight for months in a row (which, I can assure you, it is not an easy task in central Italy). I went through a romantic flowery clothes phase to look more English (impossible to get the English rose skin, though. I should have asked Michael Jackson his tips), through a minimalist trying to look someway Scandinavian and even through a rock, leathery phase to court the Germanic look. I didn’t have a single hope to succeed. Then I tried the American look: big hair, high heels, flawless makeup and perfect nails. Too bad I resembled a cheap version of Sophia Loren, not exactly what I aimed for.

At some point, in my early 20s, I made peace with the fact that I would never be blonde, pale or with small hips and I started sunbathing again. Belgium was a breakthrough in the complicated relationship with my self-image. The Low Land is populated by women with small hips and big backs, thin, ash-blonde hair and greyish skin (a particular color induced by the lifelong sun deprivation and that has nothing to do unfortunately with the above-mentioned English rose complexion). I became Monica Bellucci. Belgian women are of the resistant sort: they drink a lot of beer, eat greasy food with nonchalance and are genetically adverse to developing cellulitis. They live basically on an Atkins diet and do so much sport – busy as they are with bicycles, tennis, stairs, child-bearing and child-rearing – that they can show off their toned legs till the age of 80.

In this nordic set of feminine values, I stood out as the non-sporty, lazy, anti-cellulitis cream heavy consumer, constantly dieting Italian. Had I known that before, I would have moved to Sweden instead. I can’t imagine how lucky I could have been there.

The confusing part of this rambling is that a decade of living in the Low Land might have had an influence on my face and body. Sun deprivation has made my skin pale and my hair darker, the 35 floors I climb on average everyday (according to the infallible Fitbit The Husband gave me for Christmas) may have toned my lazy Italic legs and I got used to not wearing makeup and jewels when going out at night. Sometimes I even get out of the house in those running outfits Americans stars are always photographed in on tabloids. My mother says I have adopted a sciatto (sloppy) northern look.

This and my very pale children are the main reason why people address me in English when we are in Italy. I don’t belong anymore, apparently.

Then in Belgium I go to the playground and covetous mothers, in constant search of help, approach me cautiously to ask how long I have been taking care of those kids. To them, I am the exotic looking nanny.

Confused and Lost in Translation, that’s my destiny.