memories

Back to school: tearing up at the smell of new notebooks

Today was the big Day. I couldn’t sleep well, spent half of the night reading blogs on my mobile phone and finally got up at 7. Mixed feelings: relief at the thought of resuming a predictable schedule and a sort of cerebral life and the usual anxiousness at the thought that the kids would go into a new class, with new classmates and new teachers. All on their own.

Tall one played cool: was dressed and combed in a flat 5 minutes, prepared his bag, bragged about being in the last year of kindergarten and finally being in the same class of his best pal. Short one took forever to get up and even longer to dress and eat breakfast. backtoschoolThe Husband and I entered the new school and started having dejà vu: the whirlwind of schoolbags, children, adults, the confusion of lists, unfamiliar faces coming to shake hands and introducing themselves: “Hello, I am the teacher”. I had kept myself together pretty well till we had to walk them in class. Then I couldn’t resist a few tears and tried really hard to think of something funny in order not to show any emotions. If the children had seen me, they would have started screaming like hell.

The interesting thing is, I wasn’t crying because I was leaving my children. Of course, I am sad not to have them around but I also realize that at some point they just need a teacher and a class and community rules.

I cried because the smell of new notebooks, the noise of hundreds of feet climbing a marble staircase, the mixture of cries and reassurances, the drawings on the wall and the smiling teachers all felt very familiar. Too familiar. As if we were still in 1982, with the exceptions that I was now among the adults in the room.

They both cried. Tall one lost his attitude. Short screamed so loud he got the teacher all for himself.

I left with a lump in my throat and went to have a proper coffee.

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.

When childhood memories are not enough: how expatriation can change your palate

Can you stop loving the smells and tastes of your childhood? Can you stop losing yourself in sensorial memories just because a certain flavor suddenly seems outdated? Would we have the Recherche‘s seven volumes, had Marcel Proust been an expat?

It might be a consequence of cutting the cord but I don’t seem to enjoy my mother’s food anymore. It’s been a slow process completed over the past years but this time I can say it loud: I don’t like it. It looks and tastes exactly the same as 20 years ago but it’s not palatable anymore. And it’s not her fault: it’s me.

For years I travelled looking for that certain flavor: a well-known, reassuring taste that would make me feel at home. As a tween language student in England, I would walk miles to find a jar of Nutella (In 1990, I assure you, globalisation didn’t exist yet. You couldn’t find anything anywhere, apart from McDonalds) and eat it slowly, spoon by spoon, every time I felt homesick (and needed to stock up on calories, since I couldn’t stomach the noodles with ketchup we were presented with everyday at the school’s canteen).

250px-Nutella-1

I went to Vietnam with a secret stash of whole crackers I didn’t dare to show my travel companions. I ended up eating fried noodles with snake but before getting there, I ate several packets of those Italian crackers in my bed at night.

the crackers I devoured at night while adjusting to south-east asian food

the crackers I devoured at night while adjusting to south-east asian food

I literally rushed into a McDonalds restaurant in Casablanca after two weeks of couscous, stuffed pigeons and a cumin overdose. It wasn’t strictly childhood food but it was utterly familiar and took away the dizziness as soon as the burger reached my blood flow.

It's McDonalds but it tasted like home

It’s just McDonalds but it tasted sooo familiar

There’s nothing extraordinary in this, it’s part of the Italian DNA. I read somewhere that Italians are the only people of the world that declare with an astounding majority (something like 80%) to prefer their national food to any other alternative. They might be well-traveled and open minded, they might have walked the desert or climbed the Everest but when it comes to what they put in their mouth they really are all the same: can’t go very long without a dose of prosciutto, bresaola, culatello or their daily fix of expresso.

Unless you close yourself into a fellow nationals bubble, though, you will be exposed to different tastes and smells at some point. For certain countries, with a colonial history or an history of immigration, it’s become natural. New Yorkers are familiar with Pastrami, Pretzels and anything Italian as Londoners consider Chicken Tikka Masala a national recipe. For countries who built their reputation on their cuisine, as Italy and France, it’s less obvious.

I discovered the virtues of cilantro and cardamom as an adult but I couldn’t go long without them now. I learned to put on the same plate meat and vegetables and some carbs after getting married (in Italy you eat meat alone, then veggies alone and carbs always come first) and I took ideas here and there, from friends and magazines and books coming from all over the world. My taste has opened up and my childhood food, simply, seems me dull and colorless now. I tried to introduce my mother to the wonders of toasted seeds in salads, oriental dressing and avocado but it doesn’t work. It can’t. Food is the greatest Italian taboo. We don’t discuss heritage. The kitchen is off-limits to me during holidays and I can feel the tension building up every time I totter around opening jars and giving a piece of my mind on the abuse of tomato sauce.

Ottolenghi, the perfect example of Italian food with a middle-eastern, international twist

Ottolenghi, the perfect example of Italian food with a middle-eastern, international twist

What’s your favorite childhood food? How expatriation modified your palate? What particular flavor would you look for when struck by homesickness?

Ghosts from the past (or when an expat gets caught)

A few days after writing on the expat status something strange happened. I was coming back home from the market and saw a woman pushing a pram down my street. She looked familiar but truth is my sight is getting worse these days and I wasn’t sure. So I avoided my Italian gesturing thing and kept quiet. She walked past me, turned back and said hi as if we had coffee together every morning. I looked again and got goosebumps. She looked familiar because she’s my cousin’s cousin and we used to play together when we were, like, 6. It took me 15 minutes of conversation to remember her name and the following 24 hours to get a whole recollection of her family name and a few childhood snapshots. She chose the expat life too, married a Dutch and had a pale, blondish baby. (Just to confirm my theory on actual dominance of Northern European genes).We stand there, talking as if we never parted for quite a long time. It was utterly comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time. Remember when I said that an expat is entitled to a fresh start, new life, new session of self marketing in every new country? Well, I have done all that now and I didn’t like this sudden encounter with a ghost from the past. We politely exchanged telephone numbers, and laughed at the fact that we’ve been living less than a mile apart for the past 8 years and never crossed paths. But I am not sure there will be any more sand playing soon.

To the expats out there: have you ever bumped into your personal ghost? How did it feel?