World Cup

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?

Pride, vanity and a certain touchiness: when Italy plays the football card

I like to compare birth countries to birth parents. No matter how good (or bad) they are, you grow up thinking they’re the best in the world. Then you start going to your friends’ house for the first sleepover and you observe another reality. Some things you will find nicer, some others disappointing but in the end, it’s very likely that you will go home happy and relieved to see your parents again and to rest within known walls. It takes years or sometimes forever to develop your own personality and to start looking at your birth parents  – and your birth country – with the necessary distance to judge the good and the bad, things you will keep and others you have to toss.

I was born with the expat virus but I have been told for years that I was somehow touchy when people tended to criticise Italy. I used to react in the same way a teenager does when someone makes unpleasant comments on his parents. Time passes. And time cures everything. I have lost some susceptibility and replaced it with a sense of humour. The good part is that with time, and age, you also develop a certain leniency towards your old folks (people or countries).

Till you open the TV one night and you feel that no, you don’t forgive or understand everything. There’re still things you simply can’t get. Or sympathise with.

The other night I was home alone and as is always the case, I decided to use the rare “me-time” (who did invent this term? It’s awful) I still have to binge on Italian TV. I can’t really impose it on my husband who can’t stand the endless news about natural disasters and the rising poverty in the big cities so it’s become my solitary pleasure. (I, on the other hand, truly enjoy those minutes of tragic humanity on video). I open the TV, on one of the three RAI channels (I can’t remember which one), a bowl of strawberries in my lap and start listening. There’s a program – hosted by some guy I never heard of  – about World Cup matches between Italy and Germany throughout history.

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The thing is, Italy generally won. Italy vs Germany is some historical football match for us Italians. There’s always a lot of drama, unexpected action and unpredictable results. It’s one of those situations where Italians act like their stereotype pictures them: they get all emotional and proud and give the impossible to show their composed, efficient, over technical adversaries that they can make it. Nothing to object so far: with the World Cup this year, it’s more than a classic for Italian TV to get old images from their archives and tell for the 1000th time about the football team’s historical exploits.

What struck me was the TV host introducing the video footage by saying more or less that: “Germany has been criticizing us a lot in this past couple of years. They want to teach us lessons, to tell us how to run our country. But when it comes to football, they have to learn that they don’t know it all”. I couldn’t believe my ears. It sounded like a primary school’s courtyard argument. You think you know it all and you are first in class but come out on the football field and I’ll show a couple of tricks, hideous nerd.

The guy didn’t say it once. He kept repeating it, between different videos.

Pride, vanity and touchiness are among the most evident weak points of Italians. They’re not alone about the vanity (and some pride): it is actually a trait of most big countries. French and British – to give an example – do know something about national pride. What’s different about Italians is that they are incredibly vocal about it. They think they are the best but they can’t live without recognition of their presumed superiority. If ignored or diminished in anyway, they’ll go crazy and start acting out as some aged actor who didn’t get the Oscar.

When I was working as a journalist in Italy, my editors made me spend so much time in doing press reviews of foreign newspapers. Who said what about what was happening in Italy: what did the Economist title? And Le Monde? And the NY Times? What were they thinking of our politics and politicians? I had to get out of the country to realise that no one else does it. Can you imagine Americans caring about what Italians think of their President? Or, on a smaller scale, the London Times wasting pages on how an Italian paper sees David Cameron? Of course not. Big countries have their pride. Italy has it too, but craves for the headmaster’s approval.

The funny thing is that if they get the approval they need they start bragging about it but if they don’t, they just take it to another field. If, for instance, the Germans keep telling us how to run our finances (instead of declaring their endless love and admiration for our amazing nation), we will just remind them how better we are at running after a football. Come on: there’re dozens of matches to prove it.

In a similar way, a favorite argument of Italians when confronted about the poor politics and government situation in the past century is that “you know, Romans used to rule the world”. A thousand years ago. Luckily, there will always be football.