Pride, vanity and a certain touchiness: when Italy plays the football card

I like to compare birth countries to birth parents. No matter how good (or bad) they are, you grow up thinking they’re the best in the world. Then you start going to your friends’ house for the first sleepover and you observe another reality. Some things you will find nicer, some others disappointing but in the end, it’s very likely that you will go home happy and relieved to see your parents again and to rest within known walls. It takes years or sometimes forever to develop your own personality and to start looking at your birth parents  – and your birth country – with the necessary distance to judge the good and the bad, things you will keep and others you have to toss.

I was born with the expat virus but I have been told for years that I was somehow touchy when people tended to criticise Italy. I used to react in the same way a teenager does when someone makes unpleasant comments on his parents. Time passes. And time cures everything. I have lost some susceptibility and replaced it with a sense of humour. The good part is that with time, and age, you also develop a certain leniency towards your old folks (people or countries).

Till you open the TV one night and you feel that no, you don’t forgive or understand everything. There’re still things you simply can’t get. Or sympathise with.

The other night I was home alone and as is always the case, I decided to use the rare “me-time” (who did invent this term? It’s awful) I still have to binge on Italian TV. I can’t really impose it on my husband who can’t stand the endless news about natural disasters and the rising poverty in the big cities so it’s become my solitary pleasure. (I, on the other hand, truly enjoy those minutes of tragic humanity on video). I open the TV, on one of the three RAI channels (I can’t remember which one), a bowl of strawberries in my lap and start listening. There’s a program – hosted by some guy I never heard of  – about World Cup matches between Italy and Germany throughout history.


The thing is, Italy generally won. Italy vs Germany is some historical football match for us Italians. There’s always a lot of drama, unexpected action and unpredictable results. It’s one of those situations where Italians act like their stereotype pictures them: they get all emotional and proud and give the impossible to show their composed, efficient, over technical adversaries that they can make it. Nothing to object so far: with the World Cup this year, it’s more than a classic for Italian TV to get old images from their archives and tell for the 1000th time about the football team’s historical exploits.

What struck me was the TV host introducing the video footage by saying more or less that: “Germany has been criticizing us a lot in this past couple of years. They want to teach us lessons, to tell us how to run our country. But when it comes to football, they have to learn that they don’t know it all”. I couldn’t believe my ears. It sounded like a primary school’s courtyard argument. You think you know it all and you are first in class but come out on the football field and I’ll show a couple of tricks, hideous nerd.

The guy didn’t say it once. He kept repeating it, between different videos.

Pride, vanity and touchiness are among the most evident weak points of Italians. They’re not alone about the vanity (and some pride): it is actually a trait of most big countries. French and British – to give an example – do know something about national pride. What’s different about Italians is that they are incredibly vocal about it. They think they are the best but they can’t live without recognition of their presumed superiority. If ignored or diminished in anyway, they’ll go crazy and start acting out as some aged actor who didn’t get the Oscar.

When I was working as a journalist in Italy, my editors made me spend so much time in doing press reviews of foreign newspapers. Who said what about what was happening in Italy: what did the Economist title? And Le Monde? And the NY Times? What were they thinking of our politics and politicians? I had to get out of the country to realise that no one else does it. Can you imagine Americans caring about what Italians think of their President? Or, on a smaller scale, the London Times wasting pages on how an Italian paper sees David Cameron? Of course not. Big countries have their pride. Italy has it too, but craves for the headmaster’s approval.

The funny thing is that if they get the approval they need they start bragging about it but if they don’t, they just take it to another field. If, for instance, the Germans keep telling us how to run our finances (instead of declaring their endless love and admiration for our amazing nation), we will just remind them how better we are at running after a football. Come on: there’re dozens of matches to prove it.

In a similar way, a favorite argument of Italians when confronted about the poor politics and government situation in the past century is that “you know, Romans used to rule the world”. A thousand years ago. Luckily, there will always be football.


What I do miss about Italy


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. 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? 

Tracking Mr. Ripley in Positano

It is maybe the southern blood running through my veins but everytime I visit Naples and its surroundings I am moved by the richness of smells, flavours and sounds. The simple, unspoiled beauty of lemons and bougainvilleas. The freedom of the boundless sea, the dozens of boats ready to sail for the islands, the 50s charm made of handmade sandals and white lace blouses. It feels as if Jackie Kennedy could walk in at any moment, black sunglasses, white jeans and minimal sandals.






See Naples and die


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”.

Chivalry, Sexual Harassment and a matter of latitude

Image“Speeches are like women’s skirts: the shorter, the better”. This is how a few days ago an Italian diplomat welcomed the guests of one of the many Brussels’ institutional gatherings. Someone I know was there and told me he was shocked. “You know – he said – it’s not that he actually said that because the world’s plenty of fools. It’s that EVERYBODY (all the Italians  I mean) laughed, men and women. I looked around for a sign of embarrassment, of uneasiness, of anything but NO. People laughed”. This story and the latest Berlusconi stunt made me wonder when did sexual harassment kill chivalry and who’s going to tell that to the southern part of the world.

Last week I was watching for the second time a truly beautiful film (do watch it if you haven’t done it yet), “El secreto de sus ojos”. It’s an argentinian film which was awarded the Oscar a few years ago. Knowing the story already, I was able to enjoy the details. Courting women, complimenting them and mild flirting  – even at work – was (and probably is, I don’t know) part of the local culture. So it is in Italy, Spain, Portugal and generally the latin world. When you are born in that, you don’t even realize it. Compliments are part of the social interaction between sexes. The pursuit of beauty is on the bill of rights. It is widely common, in these countries, to congratulate someone on his/her looks, clothes, sunglasses and sometimes beautiful spouse/children. As a woman, you sit at a meeting and suddenly the guy sitting in front of you will tell you how nice is your green blouse or how radiant you look. He’s not flirting, not yet. He’s just being polite.

Of course, there’s been the occasional incident. It happened to me and to a long list of girlfriends that you would call a man for business purposes and he would turn down the business part and offer you to have a drink together instead. If he was interested in business, he would go play tennis at the local club with your male colleague. It was humiliating and unnerving. But I never saw it as part of something bigger. I just thought I had stumbled on a moron.

It’s now that it scares me. Because I realize that it wasn’t normal. The line between chivalry and sexual harassment in the south of the world is very thin, and can apparently be crossed at any time. Men will play with that blurred line, ready to back off and say they were only being polite, in case you take it bad. After the first few years of Brussels, where you could walk naked in the street or wear a bucket of mussels on your head and NO ONE would even look at you I went to a meeting in Italy with a guy I had seen only once before. He was nice, not flirty. But he greeted me saying: “You look so pretty today”. Well, I almost bit his head off. For the first time I felt how out of place it was.

What is the way out? Mass reeducation? A new cultural revolution, chinese style? How do you educate women not to mistake chivalry with sexual harassment? And…if sexual harassment is always a risk, do we have to give up what’s left of chivalry? What are the rules? Chivalry is ok in private situations but not in business?

I find a certain charm in the kind of gallantry shown by some southern men: opening doors, offering flowers, treating a woman as someone special. But where should this stop?

How is this perceived in your country? And how do you feel about that? How do we do to keep respect and courtship? I’d love to know more.

A little bit of geography – part I


I have been following closely the political news on my birth country these past days and wondering if and how and when I should write about it. Since the ifs, hows and whens rarely get a really smart answer, I’ll just do it. Talk about it, I mean, without thinking further. Having been gone for a decade now (and having spent the earlier one travelling as much as I could) I am considered a sort of stranger by most of my fellow countrymen and women. And a stranger I am somehow: I don’t follow tv shows anymore (too many bare bellies and bikinis and people just losing their temper in eurovisione), I limit my reading to a couple of newspapers and I certainly don’t know who’s the best candidate to win next year’s Festival di Sanremo edition. I don’t care.

What I care about is understanding why a country notorious for its love of beauty and harmony and design and semi-naked ballerinas on tv decides that a 37 year old guy is not suitable to run for the next political elections opposing Berlusconi, who might be his grandfather. I have well educated, smart friends who just said he’s too young and confused for the job, “He wouldn’t look good, you know – a girlfriend said – negotiating with Mrs. Merkel at a summit, or meeting President Obama. Too young!”. As if Mr. Berlusconi looked good last year when he was negotiating with Mrs. Merkel.

It has been said, especially these past weeks, that Italy is a country for old men. Well, I should add “and for infants as well”. It is not a country for responsible adults. Behind politics there is always society and few things are as misunderstood as Italian society. Forget about the myth of the mamma cooking pasta and ragù day and night while nursing her seven children.

Truth is, Italians don’t even like children. They blame the lack of social infrastructure as the main reason for the low natality rate but then they frown upon breastfeeding as did Victorian society. A couple of years ago, a breastfeeding mother was shown the exit in a restaurant in the north of the country because other clients found her repulsive and inappropriate.

Children are raised by grandmothers, while mothers (raised, in turn, by their grandmothers as well) indulge in the sweet, light taste of lack of responsibilities. It has been going on for generation and it is unlikely to stop. Children and grandmothers, that explains Italian society in a few syllabes.  No adult is to be seen, they are way too busy maturing and getting old to get a chance at doing something for themselves (and sometimes society as well).

With children deprived of the right to vote, it is clear that the decision making process belongs to the dinosaurs. It is apparently inappropriate to judge anyone by his age. Why should one retire just because he’s a certain age, Italians argue? Age means more experience, more knowledge, less impatience and more diplomacy. Age is an invaluable asset for any modern society. And young people believe it as well.

How do you change a country like this?