expat

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 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? 

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?

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:)

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?

Let’s Talk Conversion or When an Expat Leans In

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The Husband’s grandmother was an extremely cultivated and passionate woman. I only met her two years before her death but we made the most of that time and spent hours chatting on her sofa about the world. Her favorite subject was religion. Born at the beginning of last century in a part of the world where religion shapes your identity even more accurately than mere nationality, she was obsessed with conversion. Or, more precisely, the possibility of conversion. Everytime I pointed out to her things that I found pretty cool about religions other than Roman Catholicism she would narrow her eyes and take a suspicious tone: “You aren’t thinking about conversion, are you?”. “No, I am not. Why would I?”. I find difficult enough to cope with one’s own upbringing, let alone going back to school to absorb another religion, another world, another way of conceiving life and its purpose. Once I stated without doubts that mines were simple speculations and that they did not conceal any actual interest to embrace a different spirituality, she would make more tea.

Those moments spent together looking at different beliefs came back to my mind the other day when a friend announced me she applied for Swiss citizenship. She’s been living there for a long time, works there, had children there, built a life there. Getting a passport is just the following, natural, step. Still, I was somehow touched. As an expat-at-heart, embracing a country you were not born in resembles conversion to another belief. It means actual involvement, participation. Leaning In.

I toyed with the idea of applying for Belgian citizenship for some time. When I couldn’t (because I had not lived in the country long enough and I hadn’t been married long enough) it looked very exotic and interesting. Once they told me I could get a Passport, I hesitated. As a EU citizen, my rights are already pretty similar to those of a Belgian citizen. I can’t vote at political elections but since the political architecture of the country is extremely complicated, I don’t regret it. When there are not practical issues at stake (as getting a permit to work or a permanent residence permit), applying for citizenship becomes a mere intellectual question. I realized I am not ready. Living in Belgium has certainly shaped my life in the past decade and influenced my point of view. I have a Belgian husband and Belgian children. I am just not ready to join them in their Belgitude. Partly because I don’t know yet if Belgium will be my last stop in expatriation.

Have you “converted” to another citizenship? What prompted you to do so? How was the day you became something else than your birth nationality? I’d love to hear your stories about this crucial step in an expat’s life.

See Naples and die

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There is only one solution to homeland overdosing. It’s more homeland, seen through the innocent, surprised, excited eyes of a foreigner, discovering a treasure for the first time.

So I left behind the neurotic families and escaped with The Husband for the weekend. Destination: Naples and the Amalfi coast. I get to see things through him, under a different light. The southern chaos becomes charming, the decadent buildings are monuments to romanticism, the warm breeze tells of African winds. I sort of feel like Goethe. See Naples and die.

What brought me abruptly to reality was the hotel concierge, who merrily told me that my Italian was “really, really good”.

Some go, some stay: summer thoughts on friendship

“We’ll be Friends Forever, won’t we, Pooh?’ asked Piglet.
Even longer,’ Pooh answered.”
― A.A. MilneWinnie-the-Pooh

For those living abroad, summer comes with high expectations and mixed feelings. Holidaying home is a trip down Memory Lane, a well deserved resting bubble and the perfect time to catch up with old friends. Sometimes, though, that comes with the unpleasant realisation that friendship, as love, can’t always stay afloat despite time, distance and life itself. Shared memories can take a relationship only so far. At some point, they start to fade and you need to infuse new life, new moments spent together, future commitments to see each other to take the whole thing to the next stage.

(Photo: public domain)

(Photo: public domain)

I lost many of my youth friends on the way. They still sit among my sleeping Facebook contacts, those whose name is solidly present on the list without having properly interacted in the past decade. We see each other’s posts and recent pictures. We sometimes struggle to recognize that boy/girl we had so much fun with between thinning hairlines and new wrinkles. We think we’ll write a message, just to catch up. Then we never do it because there’s another life happening. Now.

I don’t know if it’s a women’s prerogative but we can’t seem to keep our friends for a lifetime. Men tend to hang out forever with their primary school classmates and rarely form deep, profound friendship after a certain age. Women’s friendship is a different world: new friends keep coming into a woman’s life till her last breath and naturally some get lost on the way.

Women give generously to their friends, they discuss everything: from mundane occupations to the most heartbreaking moments in life. They nurture friendship as a form of love. As love, it’s not always time-proof.

Someone told me once that marrying a foreigner is a statement. It means telling the world you weren’t so comfortable, after all, with those people you grew up with. It might be true, in a certain way, for mixed couples tend to have the best time together while they often struggle with same-nationality partners. What’s certain is that the only “old friends” I kept so far are those living abroad, or married to a foreigner. We don’t need many words or long written catch-ups. A message here and there will do it. We know how our lives are.

As someone who grows attached to everybody and can’t imagine to change hairdresser or doctor, I can’t but feel sorry for the others, every time I am reminded of how much time has passed since we drank lemonades together on the beach, dreaming of our future. But I am learning the 30s lesson here: you have to let go of the past. Some friends go, some stay, some will eventually come back, at a different stage of life and some new will come to cheer you up.

You can’t make everyone happy and at some point you might have to cut branches, in order to become who you are. Yet, I still have to deal with the random nostalgia.

Have you been able to nurture old friendships while living abroad? How?I’d love to hear your stories.

When childhood memories are not enough: how expatriation can change your palate

Can you stop loving the smells and tastes of your childhood? Can you stop losing yourself in sensorial memories just because a certain flavor suddenly seems outdated? Would we have the Recherche‘s seven volumes, had Marcel Proust been an expat?

It might be a consequence of cutting the cord but I don’t seem to enjoy my mother’s food anymore. It’s been a slow process completed over the past years but this time I can say it loud: I don’t like it. It looks and tastes exactly the same as 20 years ago but it’s not palatable anymore. And it’s not her fault: it’s me.

For years I travelled looking for that certain flavor: a well-known, reassuring taste that would make me feel at home. As a tween language student in England, I would walk miles to find a jar of Nutella (In 1990, I assure you, globalisation didn’t exist yet. You couldn’t find anything anywhere, apart from McDonalds) and eat it slowly, spoon by spoon, every time I felt homesick (and needed to stock up on calories, since I couldn’t stomach the noodles with ketchup we were presented with everyday at the school’s canteen).

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I went to Vietnam with a secret stash of whole crackers I didn’t dare to show my travel companions. I ended up eating fried noodles with snake but before getting there, I ate several packets of those Italian crackers in my bed at night.

the crackers I devoured at night while adjusting to south-east asian food

the crackers I devoured at night while adjusting to south-east asian food

I literally rushed into a McDonalds restaurant in Casablanca after two weeks of couscous, stuffed pigeons and a cumin overdose. It wasn’t strictly childhood food but it was utterly familiar and took away the dizziness as soon as the burger reached my blood flow.

It's McDonalds but it tasted like home

It’s just McDonalds but it tasted sooo familiar

There’s nothing extraordinary in this, it’s part of the Italian DNA. I read somewhere that Italians are the only people of the world that declare with an astounding majority (something like 80%) to prefer their national food to any other alternative. They might be well-traveled and open minded, they might have walked the desert or climbed the Everest but when it comes to what they put in their mouth they really are all the same: can’t go very long without a dose of prosciutto, bresaola, culatello or their daily fix of expresso.

Unless you close yourself into a fellow nationals bubble, though, you will be exposed to different tastes and smells at some point. For certain countries, with a colonial history or an history of immigration, it’s become natural. New Yorkers are familiar with Pastrami, Pretzels and anything Italian as Londoners consider Chicken Tikka Masala a national recipe. For countries who built their reputation on their cuisine, as Italy and France, it’s less obvious.

I discovered the virtues of cilantro and cardamom as an adult but I couldn’t go long without them now. I learned to put on the same plate meat and vegetables and some carbs after getting married (in Italy you eat meat alone, then veggies alone and carbs always come first) and I took ideas here and there, from friends and magazines and books coming from all over the world. My taste has opened up and my childhood food, simply, seems me dull and colorless now. I tried to introduce my mother to the wonders of toasted seeds in salads, oriental dressing and avocado but it doesn’t work. It can’t. Food is the greatest Italian taboo. We don’t discuss heritage. The kitchen is off-limits to me during holidays and I can feel the tension building up every time I totter around opening jars and giving a piece of my mind on the abuse of tomato sauce.

Ottolenghi, the perfect example of Italian food with a middle-eastern, international twist

Ottolenghi, the perfect example of Italian food with a middle-eastern, international twist

What’s your favorite childhood food? How expatriation modified your palate? What particular flavor would you look for when struck by homesickness?

Going home and living in a bubble: when you take a holiday from expatriation

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Everybody needs a holiday once a year. Some need physical rest, some others a change of scenery. Some need time to spend with their loved ones and yet some need space to find their true selves. My expat self (which counts for a shocking percentage of the whole thing) needs its own vacation from time to time. Going to the homeland is not enough, as an expat often goes through a phenotypic transformation that prevents any true relaxation in familiar surroundings. I have to confine myself to my parents’ house, in the middle of a sun-kissed countryside, rich in olive trees and vineyards and cats. And not much else, to be honest. Here I am not an expat, nor a mother and not even an adult. It’s my personal Neverland.

My two decades of expatriation translate to my parents as a series of odd and worrying eating habits (some years I rant about the importance of organic, some others on my new egg-dairy-wheat free regimen, this year I am all into protein and greens powder in my morning smoothie…); a mild weight gain related to growing old, having kids and living in a sun-deprived country and maybe (maybe!) a surge of occasional wisdom. That’s it. They never asked a single question on how life is out of the national borders or who I made friends with or what people say, up there, about us down here. They don’t care. I am just their child and as unnerving as it was in the early expatriation years, when I just wanted to tell them over and over again how cool I was for living abroad my little adventure, I ultimately find it relaxing. The show is over for a few weeks and since none is interested in my personal philosophy I can even take some time off from my usual rantings.

My children are the actual stars of the season and I can’t even compete. Who’d want to spend time with an almost middle-aged and compulsively dieting child when you can hang around with a couple of blondish, angelic-faced little things who will love you more for every candy you hand them? And what child would obey to the same ol’ lady he sees and hears every day when reality suggests she’s not boss anymore?

So that is how I stop being a mother in my little home bubble . My children don’t recognize my authority anymore and deliberately choose to follow the grandparents’ lead. Which is always sugar-coated. Literally.

There was a time when I tried revolution. You know, teenage style. Like telling my parents all the time how child rearing was a different story up north, how they were stuck in pre-liberal era, how we should educate children to become independent individuals and not spoiled pets. How plastic toys were to be banned, as were DVDs and candies. How mine was a sugar free house and how “youknowsugarisreallybad”, how modern people live now and eat healthily and so “no carbs please, what with all that pasta?”. It didn’t work. I didn’t insist.

I now enjoy this magic place where I can retreat to my room as my 16 years old self (minus the oily skin and the perpetual love chagrin) and when I occasionally switch on my hearing to catch my mother telling her grandsons that “there is a big, nasty man going around houses to take away all the naughty children” in the same way her mother used to talk me into eating my lunch I don’t care anymore. I’ll tell them later there is no such thing as the nasty man, in case they’d be actually worried about him. In the meantime I’ll just lie down and savor the free time.