mother

Alice Munro and all those women who had to find the time

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Some time ago a friend sent me a link, just saying: “I thought about you while reading this. Have a look”. I have a certain aversion to links and seldom open them. Most of the times any email containing a link ends up straight in the trash. But this time it was real good. The article, published by The Guardian at the beginning of October, is a sort of anthropological study of famous writers’ daily habits. It took me a while to understand why my friend thought of me. After all, I don’ t indulge in alcohol and drugs (not as much as my creative side would like, anyway), don’t wake up at dawn, am unable to stick to a schedule and, most of all, I am not a famous writer.

Towards the end of the article I found the only lines I could relate to and felt something between elation and depression:

” Alice Munro.

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In the 1950s, as a young mother taking care of two small children, Munro wrote in the slivers of time between housekeeping and child-rearing. When neighbours dropped in, Munro didn’t feel comfortable telling them she was trying to work. She tried renting an office, but the garrulous landlord interrupted her and she hardly got any writing done. It ultimately took her almost two decades to put together the material for her first collection, Dance Of The Happy Shades”.

I have been writing since I learnt to and, to put it simply, there is not much I can do beside it. (cooking, maybe. But I only briefly toyed with the idea of making a living out of that). From the essays and literary competitions in school till the day I sat in front of a laptop as a professional journalist, I have felt that urge to put my thoughts and feelings into words, to observe, analyze and sometimes detangle lives, habits, dreams and weaknesses in my fellow human beings.

When I was on my own, I spent my whole day reading, writing, watching films and bad tv. It was great. Then life happened, and I wanted it to happen, don’t get me wrong. Those thoughts that once became words, letters, emails, essays now stay in my head for a couple of hours while I look at the chicken’s expiration date, pay the weekly grocery shopping and drive absent-mindedly, so that I always get lost and forget where I was going. They come while I talk to the children and suddenly I keep saying yes or no or I don’t know without listening to their question and they get upset and yell: “Mami, are you listening or whAt?”.

At some point, passed the early infancy stage, I thought I had it under control. I worked hard on a book I ended up hating for almost a year. And it worked. Then came November, and my first NaNoWriMo. I still remember the overwhelming joy on the morning of the 1st of November, 2012, sitting with a huge teapot in front of my unfinished novel. Unfinished, but still loved, every time I lay eyes on it. I walked on clouds for barely a week. Then pneumonia hit the house and goodbye literary aspirations. More or less at that same time, I started this blog. If I can’t keep focus for longer than a day, at least I’ll be writing something.

I wasn’t new to blogging: I’d had a couple in my 20s. One that covered the time between my engagement and my married life. It was fun but once at the end of the ride, I didn’t think it could live simply as an online, public journal of a too ordinary life. I tried out another one on being a new mom and lasted a couple of months. Truth is, I had some lyrical moments while busy with prams and milk bottles and my friends urged me to cheer up a larger audience but I realized almost immediately that it didn’t define me. It was, and it is, a part of me, probably the best. But I felt like I was talking of an arm, when I wanted to write about the whole thing.

I started this blog impulsively while high on powerful antibiotics and thought none would listen. Plus, I struggled between languages for a few days because I had never written actively in English (sauf emails and some crappy free-lance articles) yet I didn’t want to stick to my native language, which I don’t master  they way I used to. The first like happened in the middle of the night. When I found it in the morning, I laughed. it felt like when I was six, and got an obsession for putting letters into glass bottles and then leave them to the sea. Someone actually found that bottle this time.

I have blogged as much as I could this past year. And yet, it is not enough. I’ve spent the past couple of weeks in and out of the hospital with one of my children (he’s fine now, thanks) and as every time a small disaster hits home, I go back into brackets and wait, silently, for the storm to pass.

I maybe suck at running my household but I feel I am not alone. How many women, out there, put their dreams in a drawer to dive into real, happening-now, heartbreakingly bare life and at the same time keep opening an inch of that drawer some nights, when everybody’s sleeping, just to make sure those dreams are not gone?

I chose to raise my children in total freedom and every day I am more convinced I couldn’t have it any other way, given the circumstances of my everyday life and the joys of the job. (Yes, it is filled with joy. And a few migraines. But there’s strong stuff to cure that).

Still, I can’t but wonder: what was Alice Munro thinking during all these years, when she was filling lunch boxes in the mornings and getting up in the middle of the night to change a wet bed?

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).

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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?

Going home and living in a bubble: when you take a holiday from expatriation

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Everybody needs a holiday once a year. Some need physical rest, some others a change of scenery. Some need time to spend with their loved ones and yet some need space to find their true selves. My expat self (which counts for a shocking percentage of the whole thing) needs its own vacation from time to time. Going to the homeland is not enough, as an expat often goes through a phenotypic transformation that prevents any true relaxation in familiar surroundings. I have to confine myself to my parents’ house, in the middle of a sun-kissed countryside, rich in olive trees and vineyards and cats. And not much else, to be honest. Here I am not an expat, nor a mother and not even an adult. It’s my personal Neverland.

My two decades of expatriation translate to my parents as a series of odd and worrying eating habits (some years I rant about the importance of organic, some others on my new egg-dairy-wheat free regimen, this year I am all into protein and greens powder in my morning smoothie…); a mild weight gain related to growing old, having kids and living in a sun-deprived country and maybe (maybe!) a surge of occasional wisdom. That’s it. They never asked a single question on how life is out of the national borders or who I made friends with or what people say, up there, about us down here. They don’t care. I am just their child and as unnerving as it was in the early expatriation years, when I just wanted to tell them over and over again how cool I was for living abroad my little adventure, I ultimately find it relaxing. The show is over for a few weeks and since none is interested in my personal philosophy I can even take some time off from my usual rantings.

My children are the actual stars of the season and I can’t even compete. Who’d want to spend time with an almost middle-aged and compulsively dieting child when you can hang around with a couple of blondish, angelic-faced little things who will love you more for every candy you hand them? And what child would obey to the same ol’ lady he sees and hears every day when reality suggests she’s not boss anymore?

So that is how I stop being a mother in my little home bubble . My children don’t recognize my authority anymore and deliberately choose to follow the grandparents’ lead. Which is always sugar-coated. Literally.

There was a time when I tried revolution. You know, teenage style. Like telling my parents all the time how child rearing was a different story up north, how they were stuck in pre-liberal era, how we should educate children to become independent individuals and not spoiled pets. How plastic toys were to be banned, as were DVDs and candies. How mine was a sugar free house and how “youknowsugarisreallybad”, how modern people live now and eat healthily and so “no carbs please, what with all that pasta?”. It didn’t work. I didn’t insist.

I now enjoy this magic place where I can retreat to my room as my 16 years old self (minus the oily skin and the perpetual love chagrin) and when I occasionally switch on my hearing to catch my mother telling her grandsons that “there is a big, nasty man going around houses to take away all the naughty children” in the same way her mother used to talk me into eating my lunch I don’t care anymore. I’ll tell them later there is no such thing as the nasty man, in case they’d be actually worried about him. In the meantime I’ll just lie down and savor the free time.

30s: regretting 20s, looking forward to 40s

I write, think and talk a lot about age. Everyday. It became an obsession when I turned 30 and people expected me to be an adult when I couldn’t feel any actual difference from my younger self. According to my father who is well settled in his 80s it stays like that for the rest of your life: you keep feeling 21 and can’t really process the fact that teenagers get up to give you their seat when you use public transports.

What I find really confusing is that there is no “old age” anymore. I am 34 and I can remember my mother when she was my age. She dressed, behaved and spoke as a grown up. She even had a grown up’s haircut (that mid-lenght, parted on the side thing moms had in the 70s). Now everybody dresses the same between 15 and 85 and you spot grandmothers trying on the same Zara jeans as their granddaughters. So when do we get old? Or when do we stop being young?

I have already written of my (apparently inaccurately remembered) 20s: the Golden Age when you started adult life and risked being obsessed with the quest for real love. My 30s are turning out to be what everybody said: a chaotic number of years where you are supposed to be wise and organized and responsible and to take care of everybody and everything but yourself. I am constantly running, and most of the times I am running late. I still remember the  shock when, freshly married, my husband made me a list of things to do. Errands. Dry cleaner, shoe-repair guy, car repair and so on. The kind of stuff I always outsourced to my mother. Well, I am becoming her. And that is scary.

In these past months I am seeing very often women in their 40s. They seem to have an appeasing effect on my anxiousness. They survived through 30s, some divorces, young children and everyday frustrations. They are better dressed, younger looking than 30-years-old who still have to cope with night waking and dark circles around their eyes and in most cases they resumed interesting jobs. They even know who they are. They are to me the light at the end of the tunnel.

What a strange era, the 30s.