Guess who’s coming to dinner or the national themed invitation


From time to time a generous and well meaning friend will text to invite me to an “Italian dinner”, an “Italian drink” or  – even worse – an Italian blind (play)date. It’s happened dozens of time and the subtitle always is “I met an/some Italians at the gym/work/ salon/playground/school/hospital/cooking class/ and I thought you really ought to know each other”.

Sharing one’s mother tongue and having watched the same TV during the formative years produces good material for conversation but I have seen too many times embarrassed same-nationality guests asking each other with their expat metallic accent where city they come from, half bored, half stressed out.

The smiling host(ess) tiptoes around, careful not to interrupt the pleasant melody coming from his/her new friends and proud to assist to a home replica of the sex scenes in A Fish Called Wanda. (for those who’ve watched the film, it’s good to know that the Italian dubbing replaced the Italian words with Russian ones. Kevin Kline basically shouts “Vodka, Matrioska” and the likes while in bed with Jamie Lee Curtis).

I have met some nice people through these set-ups but the longer I live as an expat, the less excited I become at the prospect of spending yet another evening in an arranged ghetto.

Before cutting the cord it was comforting. The first people I met as a young expat went great lengths to make me feel at home, introducing me to the local Italian community where I could always turn to if I was feeling lonely, sick or depressed. Time has passed, though and I don’t associate anymore comfort with talking to strangers in my mother tongue.

And there’s something else. Long time expats become a little territorial regarding their status. Deep down, they like to think they are the sole representatives of their home country abroad, the unique product of an exotic culture. Once they are forced together in the same room with another dozen of fellow nationals, they (think they) lose all their charms.

A romantic poet wrote once that he loved foreign women because the language filter added an invaluable veil of mystery to the conversation and one could never completely understand all the nuances of the other’s personality.

Listening to someone who speaks your mother tongue means that there are no more filters. A few phrases, the intonation of some words, the pronunciation of vowels and you have an x-Ray scan: you can tell with a certain accuracy where that person grew up, what kind of school he/she went to and whether you share cultural references. In a few words, you can put someone in a box. The advantage is that you can understand fairly quickly if you like him/her or not.

Have you ever been invited to a national themed dinner? Have you ever organized something to introduce same nationality friends? Do you have a group of fellow nationals you meet on a regular basis just because you come from the same place?



The unexpected truthfulness of stereotypes: summer stories

When I first landed in Brussels, ten years ago, I had an accurate list of stereotypes in my mind and I was determined to prove them wrong. My working day usually started in the European Commission’s press room, which offered the unique opportunity to observe journalists coming from almost any country in the world. Friendships, hostilities, affairs, marriages, arguments and intellectual (and less so) debates originated in that room.

Journalists tend to sit together by nationality, in order both to socialize and to keep control of their competitors’ interests and possible stories.

There was the Italian corner, where young correspondents would dutifully keep empty seats for their seniors, who would show up at the very last minute with a calculated indolence and stylish clothes.

On the opposite side, the British were at least a decade younger and always surprised me for their extreme competitiveness and their sharp questions.

The French, somewhere in the middle of the room, wore trench coats with any weather and did their best to live up to the Parisian intellectual, politically active look anyone expected from them. The Germans were reserved and very diligent when taking notes, the Spanish managed to have a better tan than Italians and seemed constantly busy in some endless argument. The few Americans of the group stayed discreetly in the back and had that Robert-Redford-in-“All the President’s men” style, plus tortoise shell glasses.

I spent some of my happiest times in that room but I had to give up on my original purpose since I learnt that stereotypes exist for a reason and they are way more accurate than we’d like to admit. (I guess one of the main reason I wanted them to be false was that I hated the Italian-mama-cooking-lasagna label I was destined to). Of course, I have a couple of German friends who are constantly late and I happen to know a few Portuguese who are way more organized that any Scandinavian but they are exceptions.

Italians are known to be obsessed with their own food and two moments made my heart smile in the past weeks:

1. End of July on the Sardinian coast. We are in the car, 8.30 pm, with a stack of boiling-hot take away pizzas, on our way home. There’s a police block on the road, an elegant Carabiniere in his typical black and red uniform stops us. He’s about to ask for papers when he sees the pizzas on my lap. “Oh, you have hot pizzas! Please, go, you don’t want to eat them cold”. That was just…priceless.

2. Yesterday, in a supermarket in the Belgian countryside. Literally, the middle of nowhere. I hear someone saying in Italian: “Have you found the pine nuts? We have to make pesto tonight”. I turn my head and see two men in Ferrari red and white outfits (the same that pilots wear), shopping around for pasta, pizzas and – apparently – pine nuts. We are only around 15 miles from the Francorchamps circuit, where this Sunday’s Grand Prix will take place. I talked to them and they went like: “Are you really Italian?” (Yes, I am, of course. Please don’t tell me again I speak it very well) and “Do you live here like all the time?” (Yes, I do. Well, not exactly here but a couple of hours away).

The Ferrari guys checking out of the supermarket, only picture I ended up taking

The Ferrari guys checking out of the supermarket, only picture I ended up taking

I was so excited to meet some real Ferrari technicians that I tried to convince my kids to take a picture with them but they didn’t show any interest and I still had enough common sense to avoid asking for a picture myself. So we watched them go, with their pile of frozen pizzas, tomato sauce bottles, basil boxes, olive oil and the famous pine nuts. Of course, they drove away in a red Fiat Punto. Rented.