nationality

You know you have to come back when…

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Suddenly, you start receiving one, then two then dozens of spam comments on your blog. That’s the sign. It means that you haven’t been writing for what feels like decades and that you have to come back or your collection of sparse thoughts will implode and be swallowed whole by the Internet. So I am. Back.

Not writing is easier than writing. Not doing is always much easier than doing. Anything. But I like this little place too much to let it go and even if right now I feel like I don’t have much to say, I will make the effort of keep coming.

Over an extremely long summer (it’s still surprisingly hot in northern Europe) with my newborn baby nicknamed Otto two things happened: I stopped feeling an expat in Belgium and I realised that no matter how far you go, national feelings are innate and not the byproduct of a single-countried upbringing.

How I started to feel a little Belgian. Since I last blogged there has been the World Cup to keep young and less young people busy during warm summer nights. It happened then: the Belgian Red Devils were all over the place. Supermarkets had special aisles dedicated to the football team and sold all sorts of gadgets. The husband spent a whole Saturday afternoon at the Carrefour with the children and they came back with packs of red, yellow and black Marseille soaps (by the way, the black one actually soiled your hands instead of cleaning them!), themed sunglasses, special Red Devils editions of crisps, cereals, mustard, beer…We had themed ads on tv every single day and dedicated shows where the Red Devils would open and reply to letters received by their youngest fan. Frankly, it was amazing. I come from a 4 times World Champion country but not once I have witnessed such nation wide joy and hope and warmth and support for the football team. Supermarkets in Italy never sold tri-colored Marseille soap bars. (I am sure the green one would soil hands too).

Watching matches was more than witnessing a football game happening far away on a medium sized screen. It was cathartic. Biblical. A myth. The small, discreet, boring little country in the middle of Europe bravely defying the giants of football. A bunch of young, funny, ambitious guys taking a leap of faith. It was cool. And then one night at a party, after Belgium had already been eliminated by Argentina, I found this picture on the inside door of the club’s loo:

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and I felt a little Belgian. Which of course according to Murphy’s law must mean that I am about to move somewhere else. It’s like the last box: I don’t know if this ever happened to you but throughout the several movings of my 20s I used to keep an unopened box, somewhere in the basement. The box you are going to open one day, when you’ll have the time. If you ever come to open that box and thus completely settle in your new place, usually something is going to happen and you will be moving again shortly.

With the help of an extraordinary weather since the beginning of the year I am at peace with this strange place I have been living in since 2003. Do me whatever you want, Belgium, I have finally come to love you.

How my half-blooded kids feel very much pureblooded. I have always thought that a sense of belonging to a certain country, culture and set of values comes from growing up in a place. I couldn’t help but notice when I was in school that children that had transferred from abroad very often were a little different from us, single-countried Italians. They spoke with a metallic accent, they ate different foods, they were less interested in football than us and dressed differently. Nationality went hand in hand with a constant exposure to sunlight, pasta and roman architecture. Well, apparently I was wrong.

I feel very much Italian despite the uneasiness that plagues me every time I stay too long in Italy. I AM very Italian indeed but I never preached it. I have friends actively promoting the Italian-ness of their kids, by teaching songs, traditions and foods and patiently correcting each and every grammatical slip up. I am too lazy to correct grammar every time (and, sincerely, most of their genuine mistakes are so funny that corrections seem unfair) and not orthodox enough to teach things I have forgotten myself. But despite my (non) efforts in this sense, it turns out my children think of themselves as Italians (and a little bit French, not Belgian. That’s another story). It’s not about the sun, then. There must be something more.

What do you feel after your years abroad? And what do your children think they are, if you have any?

Guess who’s coming to dinner or the national themed invitation

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From time to time a generous and well meaning friend will text to invite me to an “Italian dinner”, an “Italian drink” or  – even worse – an Italian blind (play)date. It’s happened dozens of time and the subtitle always is “I met an/some Italians at the gym/work/ salon/playground/school/hospital/cooking class/ and I thought you really ought to know each other”.

Sharing one’s mother tongue and having watched the same TV during the formative years produces good material for conversation but I have seen too many times embarrassed same-nationality guests asking each other with their expat metallic accent where city they come from, half bored, half stressed out.

The smiling host(ess) tiptoes around, careful not to interrupt the pleasant melody coming from his/her new friends and proud to assist to a home replica of the sex scenes in A Fish Called Wanda. (for those who’ve watched the film, it’s good to know that the Italian dubbing replaced the Italian words with Russian ones. Kevin Kline basically shouts “Vodka, Matrioska” and the likes while in bed with Jamie Lee Curtis).

I have met some nice people through these set-ups but the longer I live as an expat, the less excited I become at the prospect of spending yet another evening in an arranged ghetto.

Before cutting the cord it was comforting. The first people I met as a young expat went great lengths to make me feel at home, introducing me to the local Italian community where I could always turn to if I was feeling lonely, sick or depressed. Time has passed, though and I don’t associate anymore comfort with talking to strangers in my mother tongue.

And there’s something else. Long time expats become a little territorial regarding their status. Deep down, they like to think they are the sole representatives of their home country abroad, the unique product of an exotic culture. Once they are forced together in the same room with another dozen of fellow nationals, they (think they) lose all their charms.

A romantic poet wrote once that he loved foreign women because the language filter added an invaluable veil of mystery to the conversation and one could never completely understand all the nuances of the other’s personality.

Listening to someone who speaks your mother tongue means that there are no more filters. A few phrases, the intonation of some words, the pronunciation of vowels and you have an x-Ray scan: you can tell with a certain accuracy where that person grew up, what kind of school he/she went to and whether you share cultural references. In a few words, you can put someone in a box. The advantage is that you can understand fairly quickly if you like him/her or not.

Have you ever been invited to a national themed dinner? Have you ever organized something to introduce same nationality friends? Do you have a group of fellow nationals you meet on a regular basis just because you come from the same place?

 

 

Cutting the cord: when, where and how you became an EXPAT?

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Legally, your are born the very minute your umbilical cord is cut, and you have to breathe for the first time on your own. I was surprised enough when I had my first child in discovering that coming out of the womb is not enough for a person to exist. She has to function correctly  on her own in order to be awarded a valid birth certificate.

We go through a similar process as expats. Living abroad is not sufficient, something has to happen in your brain (and your heart, probably) before you can consider all cords cut and nationality doesn’t shape your identity anymore. It doesn’t happen to everybody, though and that is why you can tell an expat only in the long run. If the cord doesn’t get cut, we tend to go back to our comfort zone, sooner or later.

I have dozens of Italian friends who moved to Brussels a decade ago but never cut the cord. They have their Italian circle of friends, their Italian doctor, Italian lawyer, Italian caterer, Italian realtor, Italian notary, Italian architect and even their Italian contractor should they need to renovate their place. They will see you for dinner dopo il telegiornale (after the TV news) and confess they don’t have the local cable TV because they brought from Italy their SKY decoder so they won’t miss any of the home shows, news and – most of all – football. They virtually never left the country.

I was like that at the beginning (well, more or less. But I did go to an Italian doctor for a couple of months) of the expatriation process: I still remember flushing while confessing to my friends after a few months in Paris that I was overexcited about coming back to Italy and couldn’t choose what my first breakfast should consist of. Cappuccino or Hot Chocolate? (the italian way, as introduced by the Spanish a few centuries ago, is thick and black. Melted chocolate, basically. In France and Belgium it’s just a glass of milk with a drop of Nesquik in it). It’s not that I hadn’t liked Paris. I was sincerely homesick and hadn’t opened up enough to appreciate life there. I would walk the city admiring the buildings, stop in Place Saint Sulpice in awe of the romantic atmosphere all around but end up eating macarons with my italian girlfriends, to whom I would complain about the weather or the horrid landlady. I was a tourist.

It took years to be different. Once in Brussels, my world was still very Italian: working for an half Italian company, eating everyday at an Italian trattoria which used to make the best homemade tagliatelle on earth, going out late at night with Italians and Spanish. My first look out of the box was to the Spanish world, of course. Easier to mingle with, without much surprises and even less cultural crashes. I was comfortable. Safe.

My expat Moment came only when I found myself sent to Germany, out of the blue and without a clue (I didn’t mean the rhyme). I didn’t speak a single word of German (well, apart from Danke and Auf Wiedersehen), had never been there before and didn’t know a soul. It was Sink or Swim. I had to swim: learnt the language (well, more or less), got a dozen fines for obscure felonies (as talking on the cellphone while driving a bike on the sidewalk or crossing while the pedestrian light was still red, bad example to “our children”, as the officer explained), made some friends and discovered the outer world. It was at that point that I started going out with The Husband and I admit  the two things may not be disconnected. 

Today I am always a little bit surprised when we are defined as a mixed marriage (i.e. a local who married a foreigner). I haven’t thought The Husband as a Belgian in many years now and I’ve stopped considering nationality a defining trait of personality. Sauf of course those few times when our divergent attitudes towards food, driving, clothes and cleanliness remind me of our geographically distant upbringing. 

What was your expat defining Moment? When did you stop being a tourist and where?