living abroad

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? 

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.