kids

Little Expats II: Tiger mothers and The Pursuit of Happiness

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Some say that Belgium is the lab of Europe: whatever happens here will eventually happen to the rest of the Continent. It is indeed the place where different and far away cultures manage to mix together with the privilege of remaining largely unaffected by the host country. In this frameless picture I made my first real life encounter with a tiger mother.

The picture above shows my son’s kindergarten homework. They started to familiarize with letters and sounds at the beginning of the school year and although teachers stressed the importance of having a routine in exercising a little bit everyday, they also insisted that children shouldn’t be forced to do their homework at this stage (thanks God!) otherwise they could develop a negative attitude towards the whole learning process (catastrophic as it sounds…).

My son is doing his letters, as often as I remember to pull the notebook out of his backpack. Which is not everyday but at least once a week.

The other day I walked him to class and my eyes fell on an open notebook, in a corner of the room. Unlike my son’s, that notebook was immaculate on the outside and letters were neatly drawn, minuscules and majuscules. All with the same, perfect black ink. Instead of the usual three lines under the given text, a full page of letters was completed and there were no finger or food marks around the lines. I looked around for the owner of the perfect notebook and it came out it belonged to the Chinese girl of the class. The teacher followed my look and understood what was going on in my head and tried to console me. “She has a tiger mother, don’t look at that notebook!”.

The Chinese, perfectly combed girl may have a tiger mother but then what about the Indian kids in the class who moved last September from Mumbai following their dads’ hi-tech jobs and walked into class the first day already knowing the whole alphabet?

I asked an Indian friend if all Asian parents were so competitive regarding their children’s achievements in school. She wasn’t surprised: “Yes, of course they are. It’s pure logic: if you want to stand out in countries like India and China you have to be the best and to be sure you’ll be exactly that you start to work hard. Since the very beginning”.

Standing out and working hard were part of European post-WWII education. The stuff my parents’ generation was made of. My generation got it a little softer: we had to work, and enjoyed being first but the idea that maybe it was not all about success had started to make its way into our head, and behavior and inner values.

The generation after mine – say, guys in their early 20s – are way less attached to past symbols of success. They want to change the world more than they want to make money. They want to get a degree but don’t think anymore that the world will fall apart if they don’t. They want to know who they are and they crave happiness and self fulfillment way earlier than we did. This is old, comfortable, sinking Europe at least.

When we went to California, The Husband met a friend who has moved there a few years ago. “I set a rule in my house for the kids: no more work after 9 – he said – otherwise they would be up till midnight to study as their American classmates do. That is not healthy”. Working hard to achieve one’s objectives is still a typical American trait while in Europe we think that you should never forget that there is more to life than work.

When I told my Belgian friends about the tiger mothers at school, they shrugged their shoulders: “Yes, but then what? Do we want stressed, overachieving children? Don’t we prefer them to enjoy childhood, play outside and be happy?”. Of course we want them to be happy. But my point is: Can we still afford it?

In a global world, where the work market is almost free of entry barriers, can we still think that competitiveness is a wartime thing? Will happiness really matter in twenty years time?

What do you think?

The California Diaries – Through the Silicon Valley

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almond flour pancake, lemon ricotta pancake, coffee and a side of fruit

My last day in San Francisco started at Plow, the city’s best spot for breakfast and brunch (according to local press and to our landlady) in Potrero Hill, a few blocks from our room. It’s cool, it’s cozy, it’s trendy, it’s…ORGANIC. Yet the menu isn’t for dieters or sensible stomachs…Image

I went for one almond-flour pancake (lacking taste without the maple syrup), one lemon ricotta pancake (good, really good) and one side of fresh fruit. The kitchen is on the other side of the counter so you see everything. And my European organic eyes were wide open when the cook flipped the gluten-free almond-flour pancake next to the bacon slices, removing the excess grease coming from the pork every now and then with a small spatula. Pancakes cooking on animal fat? Really? And then, of course, each pancake had a small nut of butter melting on top of it once presented at the table. I think that in Europe, in any fancy “organic” breakfast spot as popular as this one you could go to jail for that. But when in Rome…so I ate the whole thing not without repressing some anxiety regarding what all that trans-fat would do to my almost middle-aged body. The other customers were all ordering without the slightest sign of concern chinese breakfast and other eggs/pork/bacon/fried potatoes combinations and none looked terminally ill to be honest.

The sweetest part was a little girl of around 6, eating at the counter with her dad a poached egg and wearing amazing red cowboy boots under her very preppy grey coat. I took a picture because she looked adorable (and very fashion conscious).

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Red boots for breakfast

Short before lunchtime we left the city to start our journey toward Los Angeles. First stop, the Silicon Valley. Husband was over excited by simply looking at street signs: Palo Alto, Sand Hill Road, Cupertino…it’s his personal Disneyland. He dropped me in the middle of nowhere to get to a meeting on time and I walked, and walked, surrounded by serious-looking office buildings and blossoming cherry trees (cheer up, Europeans, spring still exists). Some baseball (or was that football? I only know soccer so don’t be mad) fields later I spotted a Starbucks and basically ran there, my raft in this hi-tech sea.

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Cherry blossoms and hi-tech offices

Then, suddenly, I was enlightened. Sitting in the corner of a Stanford Starbucks, I got it: flipping pancakes on bacon fat doesn’t matter here because none is thirty yet. Not even 25, I guess. For the past 4 days I had an hard time trying to spot anyone my age or older. They’re all super young, look super bright (I could feel an “underachiever and stupid” growing on my forehead just by listening at their conversations) and dress like Mark Zuckerberg. So I wondered: did he set a dirty-looking tee/bermudas/thong trend and all those young students and techies are just imitating him out of desperate hope to become as successful or he’s just the by-product of Silicon Valley nursing?

I still had one, simple question. What do you do to old people? Do you shoot them on their 30th birthday? Do you send them away on a special plane once they enter the reproductive phase of their life and start having concerns about clogged arteries, sagging skin and urban safety?

And a few miles later I got my answer. We stopped on the highway around Portola Valley and had something to eat before hitting the road again. We sat on the terrace and watched. Dozens of cars followed ours. Old people at the wheel. Old like white-hair/white poodle/fanny pack old. Here they are. Hidden somewhere on the hills, in low houses covered in green, sitting on a shabby-chic bench in the front garden. Big SUV filled with baseball-capped kids and hockey mums came in at the same time. I guess it was the friday afternoon errands time. I felt relieved (that they don’t shoot you after 30 in the Silicon Valley) and terrified (that they confine you in suburbs) at the same time. Wisteria Lane, it’s not exactly my thing.

A couple of hours of fog later we arrived in Big Sur and went for a Carmel Wheat beer. A beautiful 20 years old waitress warned us:

“Do you know that Carmel and Big Sur are among the 1001 places to see before you die?”.

Fine. We did it. Death may come today. 

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Naples? No. The original say goes: “See Carmel, have a beer and die”. Cheers.

100 years of feminism and a little boy

8th of March, International Women’s Day. Around 8.30 am, I am strapping two reluctant kids into the car for the daily, exhausting, school run when something makes us have a surprising conversation. We cross our next-door neighbor, en route for work, power dressed and sort of stressed. Orange-haired by some incompetent colorist who probably took her seriously when she asked to go straight from a dark brown to a sun-kissed californian blonde, she is pregnant with her second child and I don’t like her. She has the lack of social skills a good number of career focused persons (men and women alike, but I always found it worse in women) show these times, her house smells of trash and her kitchen floor is full of empty glass bottles she apparently can’t dispose of. These few lines to give you a honest though maybe slightly biased description of the facts.

So, we cross the orange-haired career gal and my 4 years old asks: “where is she going so early in the morning?”

“Well, I guess she is going to work”

“To work? Where??”

“In her office”

“A office? Like a dad? That can’t be”

“Yes, of course, an office. Like a dad. Why are you surprised?”

“Because only dads go to work. Mothers have just a laptop at home. They don’t go out”

“Well, she does have a real dad’s job in a office with other people there. And many mothers do as well”

“Do you have an office?”

“No”

“Why not?”

Because I quit my job when i had you and never really got in the business again and so I’m stuck at home drinking way too many caffelattes and writing.

“Because I want to spend my afternoons with you and be there after school”

“Really? I thought mothers couldn’t have real jobs”.

That means at least a couple of things:

I am raising my boys as if they were born in the 50s

Belgian society is actually still in the 50s, where most of the mothers don’t work while their children are in pre-school and sometimes resume a career in their mid-40s to escape the empty nest syndrome.

My feminist side was in some shock after yesterday’s school run. And what an irony, to discover two more male chauvinists in the house (beside their working-a-real-job-in-a-real-office dad) on Women’s Day.

Tale of a very conventional adventure (part II)

I should stop this part I and part II thing since between one and two I usually forget what I wanted to write about. I should just accept that at some point during part I someone will disturb me and ask me (not always in this order) to: walk the dog, fill a glass, go to the pharmacy, find a playmobil sword or gun or knife (why, why on earth are those SO small?), buy more bread, phone the electrician and so on…I should just let it go: I am in a phase in life where I can’t sit still for a whole 20 minutes without being interrupted. So, starting today, no more to be continued on my posts.

Where was I….yes, jumping off boat. It is a little more than a metaphor at this point: I actually lose myself in Titanic-esque fantasies about a Kate Winsletish version of myself flying off old, slow, Boring Belgium to reach some sunny beach, a sort of garden of Eden where people exchange the golf club membership against staying up at night talking and questioning and wondering what they can do to improve their lives, other people’s lives and the world. Where people still have some kind of romanticism, I guess.

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Where to, then? (I have been thinking this out for the past 5 years so I really went through every possibility).

1. I am an idealist but also have practical requirements: I am done with crappy weather, skies so low you can touch them and year-long tinted with all nuances of GrAy:-) Garden of Eden has then to be at Naples’ latitude. (minimum)

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2. I appreciate the kind of comfort some people used to enjoy a century ago (i.e. lots of help, space and very few mundane tasks in everyday life) but I need a certain freedom to do my own stuff and to explore my surroundings if I feel like it. Which pretty much excludes South America and, partly, Middle East and South Africa. I couldn’t survive in an expat compound where I am surrounded by help but can’t go buy oranges by myself.

3. I really, really like skyscrapers and urban surroundings. Anything fast-paced, like an 80s film.

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4. I am an Italian girl who grew up in the late 80s-early 90s. Most of my teachers were born at the end of the war and were just in love with the idea of America. It really was the garden of Eden, the  magical place where people were really free, and brave and active and…DREAMERS! I guess I absorbed part of that during childhood and somehow the US have always been part of my fantasies.

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5. I am an Italian girl who graduated in 2000. During my last year at school everything was about Asia. I even took a class called “The Asian Development Model” and I got top marks for the first time. I was fascinated. I took Mandarin classes (lasting a mere month, lazy me) and thought of moving to China. That would have required more braveness than I was prepared to. So I took that plane to Belgium.

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America or Asia? Wherever it will be, I am soooo ready for a fresh start!