Friday, November 29, 2013


November is almost over, the sky is crystal-clear, the air is freezing, and it's raining rarely. A cold winter is coming! This is probably my favourite time of the year (but I say it at every change of the season so it's not very trustworthy).

I guess in Italy the usual Christmas carousel has already started: a loop of Panettone Bauli ads on TV, flashy gift packs with cheap versions of the traditional zampone-lentils-parmesan, plastic Christmas trees in the shops' windows, garish lights in the streets, and so on.

I won't lie, Christmas is a commercial holiday in the Netherlands as well. It is also less charming than it can be in Italy, since the decorations are few and cheap. But it's not about the much debated Dutch thriftiness - it's that Dutch people are not focused on Christmas at this time of the year.

This is partly because only 50% of the population has some sort of religious belief (the North is generally protestant, the South catholic), so Christmas is just a commercial spree for many. But the main reason, I believe, is that some very important element of Christmas does not exist here...

...brace yourselves for the shock...


And, being Christmas empty of its religious meaning, not having good old fat Santa is obviously making the whole tradition much less appealing. But of course the Dutch have their own alternative tradition, which is not very different from ours.

The Dutch alter-ego of Santa Claus is Sinterklaas. This guy looks just like Santa, with his white beard and the red clothes, but he's bishop. Which is weird since only a small part of the population is catholic (but who cares, actually). Sinterklaas lives in Spain (he must not be fond of the weather here). Around mid-November he travels to the Netherlands on a steamboat (he evidently got fed up with Ryanair, and who can blame him for this). In the Netherlands he goes around on a white horse called Amerigo, who can fly up high over the roofs. Sinterklaas travels together with his helpers, the Zwarte Piets ("Black Peters"), black guys dressed in colourful moorish suits (they actually look like Django when he gets to choose his own outfit).

From mid-November until December 5th there are many parades in every city, where Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Piets distribute sweets and candies to the little ones. The most traditional sweets of this period of the year are pepernoten, small round cinnamon biscuits the size of a coin, that are sold for a few euros in huge dangerous bags. They are incredibly addicting, and the moment you think “this is the last one” and look down at the bag, this is desperately empty. They are even more dangerous in the chocolate-coated version.


The last day of Sinterklaas celebrations is December 5th, when kids put their shoes under the radiator (used to be the fireplace) alongside a carrot for Amerigo and some chocolate for the Piets. The Piets are the ones doing the dirty job, so while Sinterklaas waits comfortably on the roof, they climb down the chimney and leave small gifts for the kids (or salt, if they haven't been good). Such gift can be simple toys or sweets, and always a chocolate letter (the first letter of the child's name). There is also a short poem dedicated to the little receiver. Also adults celebrate Sinterklaas: they gather with friends or family, exchange chocolate letters and poems which often teases the recipient for well-known bad habits or other character deficiencies.

Sinterklaas arriving into town

Hot daddy
Little Piets

Sinterkaals is not very different from Santa Claus. But the differences that stroke me most are the following:

  1. Children dress up like Zwarte Piets - you can see hundreds of them every day, and they are so cute with the feather on the hat and the black little face.
  2. Sinterklaas is not about the gift (to me, Christmas is, eheh). When I was a kid, we chose our gift in advance among a wide range of expensive and useless toys. Here kids are content with the sweets, the parades, the feathered hat, the poems. And it's so much better.
  3. Zwarte Piets are black, and because of this the Dutch have been accused of being racist. This year a certain Verene Shepherd, head of a group of experts from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, sent a letter to the Dutch government asking for the tradition to abolished. There was a revolution! In a matter of hours a Facebook page in favour of the Zwarte Piets was created, which got 2 million likes (and there are only 16 million people in the Netherlands). Dutch people will tell you that the Piets are black since they climb down the chimney. Which I don't think it's the reason behind that. But I also believe that it is not worth questioning such an old tradition, especially when so many kids are so happy to dress up like a Piet and have their face painted black.
"Order now Black Klaas and White Peter! (and let's not forget the white horse...)"

This said, I think the Zwarte Piets costume is pretty ugly... And you can find some really creepy images of Piets around the web...

Monday, November 11, 2013

Expat Life

Let's face it, dai, it's not always a bed of roses.

Being an expat can be though, just like life itself.

But when you are an expat you are standing over a border, you are neither here or there. Your certainties and your social codes are brought into question. You feel shaken. And everything you used to take for granted is questioned.

You may find yourself wondering "was it worth it?", you feel a bit lonely, you picture yourself as a romantic migrant who just disembarked the Titanic. And all the social media, Skype, Facebook, the online newspaper, are useless. You feel cut out. You are torn between the desire of clinging to your roots and that of diving head down in the new culture, which you love and hate at the same time, and that you will always be looking at from the outside. Like a cat left out of the house in wintertime (yeah, just THAT pathetic). Torn up as to wether you should go inside or pout in disappointment.

Is it worth it then? Just like anything in life, yes. Nothing that leaves you indifferent will leave a mark.

Oh, how many times during this first month I have looked back and forth, I have been brooding over my situation, I have felt confused. “Is this the same for everybody?”, I wondered.

I finally got the idea of asking other expats, who have been in this situation before me, what their feelings are. I wanted to collect their emotions, smiles and sighs. I prepared a little survey that I shared among my friends and acquaintances who went to seek luck abroad. These are the results. Please note this is not scientific, it is based on a small group of persons (22), mainly Italians, and cannot therefore represent the expat life at global level.

Who are the expats of this survey and where are they?
They have gone everywhere: to the north and the south, far away and close to home, to wealthy and not-so-wealthy countries. More than half of them moved towards a colder country, to rainy nations such as the Netherlands and the UK. On average they have been abroad for 4.5 years already, but there is someone who moved 14 years ago and someone who just left 3 months ago (the latter answers questions hesitantly, as if to say "but maybe things will change over time"). Almost 80% of them is still an expat, and is young: boys and girls in their thirthies, who - unlike the previous generation - are not married yet and still not thinking about having a baby. But you also have the brave one who left with his wife and two kids.

Why did they do it, so?


Most of the interviewed expats left for hope of a better future. Some left for a PhD, some for a Master: today's migrants are different from those of the past, they are educated and highly skilled, ambitious and determined, they know they'll have to struggle to reach their goals, and they know that excellence and prestige in Italy are either an heritage or a utopia.

Curiosity is also strong: there is who, like N., left because they had “always wondered how living in New York was”. One or two left for love. Nobody left (or admits to have left) out of despair.


Is it easy to start a new life in a different country, with different people and different habits?
No. Almost everybody agrees on the difficulty of making new local friends. Someone is still an optmist, others have given up. L. even says “I live like an old immigrant with my Italian community”. Many blame it on the closeness of the people, claim that making new friends among expats is easier, probably because they are in the same boat as us, and they also speak our same language of gestures, rituals, and social interaction.

(Not) surprisingly enough, those who moved south, like expats living in Italy or other mediterranean countries, had a completely different experience: “I never found it difficult making friends in Italy. Most people are nice and open minded”, “Italians are very friendly”, “there's no problem with making friends”. Hurray! At least we have one thing to be proud about! Let's pat pur shoulders - not for being a flourishing economy of course, but at least for being friendly.

We are regarded as friendly people also when we are abroad: when asked "was it easy to make friends?" two different Italian expats replied “everybody loves Italians!”. When we can be proud, us, the "jennies from the boot", we are super proud.


Personally, I had expected that practical stuff would be the most difficult thing about moving: finding a house, choosing a health insurance, opening a bank account with the website in Dutch. That I feared and for that I was prepared. then, as usual, life surprises you. What was most challenging, not just for me, was dealing with a subsident, uneasy and constant feeling, that of "not being home”.

“I never get used to be far away from my family”, “I don't feel fully at home”, “You remain a foreigner with a different cultural background also after several years", "After many years living abroad you see your friends from school having kids who grow up where you have been grown up, and you realize you will not be able to share this by having kids in a different place", "You might feel homesick and alone from time to time”, “Getting familiar with a new people (intended as "popolo") is difficult”, “I dread the overall hypocrisy”, “Sometimes I don't feel "at home"”, “it's hard to get used to the culture of the country”.

Those moving to Italy, instead, only complain about the ipercomplicated and exhausting bureaucracy. But also “all the types of coffee available” and "the polemica: (that, in my view, unhealthy habit of making a big fuss just about anythig)”.


I asked everybody to tell me “what is the BEST thing about being an expat”. Many, many of them replied “to get to know new cultures”. We do have a heart: we don't just leave to make a career.

Some of the expats, though, are more relieved than happy: they are not enthusiastic about what they've found, they are happy about what they've left behind. “We screwed our country up”, “a few things I was used to live with are now absolutely unacceptable”.

What about expats living in Italy? This time they agree with the Italians. They, too, talk about discovery, enrichment, and “eye-opening experience”.


What do our adventurous Italians miss when they are abroad? I am sorry, this is gonna sound cliché. But it's true. Mama's boy Italians miss their famiglia, of course.
“My family”, “friends and family”, “family and friends”, “I miss my family”, “I'd like to watch a football match on the couch with my dad”. And so on. Everybody used the words “friends” and “family”. But I think it's normal, not just for us, the pansies. Being apart from your loved ones will make you feel eradicated and defenseless, and it's one of the toughest experience you might have in your life. All expats living in Italy also put family and friends in the first place.

What comes second in the list? We are Italians...of course it's foooood! Someone wrote down his shopping list: “prosciutto crudo, mozzarella, tortellini, parmigiano”. The saying is true, the way to a man's heart is through his stomach.

Answers that I liked the most, however, talked about cheap happiness, simple everyday pleasures: having breakfast at the bar (with the iconic cappuccino and croissant), weekend trips to some of the homeland beauties, a special place that you used to love. Someone is nostalgic about the colour of the sky.

As for me, I still don't feel homesick about family or food. I do miss my boyfriend of course, but I would miss him even if I was on holidays in paradise. What I miss is being able to relate with people in a spontaneous way. I am not trained or educated for what I found here. The total lack of ceremony and pleasantries that we are so used to in Italy. I know I hated it when I was still there. But I had become good at it. And now I have to learn a totally new way of interacting, negotiating, having fun. "Going Dutch", to me, also means becoming straightforward. And it is as difficult as closing the bike's lock with frozen hands.


The last question of the survey was the typical one-million-dollar question: will you ever go back?

Yes, no, maybe. Most of the expats want to go back at some point, but they don't know when or how, and they are not sure they will be able to adjust to what they left behind. “I like to think I will be back at some point, but the more I see happening the more I am not sure about that. Especially if I compare what I would not have there with what I have abroad: chance to grow and hope that I can make it”.

They are not afraid to speak of “roots”: either it's for "reconnecting" or "affection", they all feel they have an indissoluble bond with Italy, and they hope to be able to create their family there. No matter how long they have been away, how cosmopolitan they may have become, almost everybody mentions the wish to see their children grow in the same land that they were born, hear them speak with the same accent, watch them play in the same streets and under the same sun.

Foreigners in Italy do not have this kind of thoughts: here we feel good, they say.

Then maybe it's us, the Italians, who don't know how to enjoy our land? Maybe it's not so bad as we think? Maybe we just like to complain? Or maybe you need to be far to appreciate the beauty of this country as a whole? Italy is like a gorgeous but petulant woman, who got under your skind and you don't know how to get out of your head. You know you can't stand her, but she still gives you shiver when you think of her.

Friday, November 1, 2013