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


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?

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.