Red Devils

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?

Brussels Bits: The Small Country that dreamed Big

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I am a soccer fan: I have been watching matches since I can remember and still think of the night of 1990 when Roberto Baggio failed his penalty against Maradona’s Argentina as one of the saddest moments of my childhood. Speaking soccer is for an Italian girl a strategy of survival amid soccer-obsessed boys and if it all started to get the attention of the cute middle-school classmate, it ended up becoming a passion of mine.

One of the first things I wanted to do, when I set foot in Belgium, was going to a proper local soccer match. It took a couple of years (during which I had to land a Belgian husband, in order to go to the stadium with an authentic, uncontaminated Belgian little crowd) but I won’t ever forget the night I finally drank beer in plastic cups minutes before entering the Anderlecht – Vienna match. I can’t remember how it ended, but I guess Vienna won. It wasn’t a good season for the Brussels team.

The main reason I can’t remember the score is that I was carried away with the anthropological side of the situation.

I was fully equipped, the Italian way: Anderlecht scarf, cigarettes and a lot of voice to cheer up the team and urge them to win. The match starts, Anderlecht has the ball. I start shouting, all excited by my new expat milestone. It turns out, mine was the only voice to be heard. Long time supporters, seated in front of me with cigarettes hanging from their lips and a resigned look, kept shaking their head. I could hear them grumble: “I have never seen a worse team in my life. I hate them”.

Ok, I think. There must be some inside thing I am not aware of. I ask The Husband. He shakes his head too: “They are no good this year. Too bad”. I still don’t understand. “Ok, they are bad. But they’re your team. Get out the voice, encourage them, make them feel you’re here!”. Silence. Belgian supporting style is extremely discreet. The veterans in front of me spent the rest of the night buttoning their coats, smoking and muttering insults to their players. In the meanwhile, on the other side of the stadium, we witnessed Vienna fans singing, screaming and even undressing themselves whenever their team got very close to the goal.

Some time has passed, I haven’t been invited to an Anderlecht match since (it’s a boys thing here and maybe last time I was too loud) but I have experienced another bit of Belgian supporting. Last Friday, when the Red Devils (such a promising name!) won on Croatia, thus securing their position at the 2014 World Cup, Brussels went crazy. I would have never imagined that this teeny tiny country, who has never won the World Cup and didn’t even play in it since 2002 could suddenly feel patriotic and united by the chance of entering the international competition.

The team – says The Husband – is amazing this time, regrouping some of the young best players in First League across Europe. (I didn’t verify this information, but he’s so enthusiastic I will take it for true). The coach is an ancient Red Devil, who played in 2002 and is a childhood hero for today’s team. According to certain bookmaking sites (which, my Italian friends say, are probably based in a shack in Belgium countryside), Belgium has more chances than Italy to win the Brazil World Cup! Some commentators even said that the national soccer team – composed of Flemish- and French-speaking players alike – could bring together the two sides of the country and delay the electoral strike of the Flemish separatist party (which, otherwise, could reach over the 30% of the votes).

I will still support Italy (come on, 4 times World Champion, I can’t betray that) but I am frankly amused at the prospect of assisting to a metamorphosis in Belgians’ supporting style. Will they wake up a little more Latin, on the eve of their first match in Brazil?