As we drove past Milan’s impressive Medieval-style cemetery a few days ago, Sophie (being obsessed with all things Princess) shouted out “Look mummy, that’s the castle where the princess lives with the dragon!”. “Oh yes, so it is” was my reply. To which she responded “but then the prince comes and kills the dragon and the princess says thank you prince!”. Obviously, this old gem is nothing to be alarmed about, but since it’s 2014, girl-power has been around for a while, and so I thought it was worth offering an alternative ending to this slightly tired version. “OR”, I suggest, “the princess could just kill the dragon HERSELF and then she wouldn’t need the prince. What do you think?”. Sophie considers this for a minute, and concludes “OR…… she could just call the prince.”
OK, I see that, at the tender age of three and a half, those classic clichéd fairytale endings are already deep ingrained, and as we go through the various stages of Cinderella and Prince Charming, Beauty and the Beast, Barbie and Ken….there will probably be little I can do to suggest that these little ladies are just as interesting and capable without their male companions …..
This got me thinking about something (perhaps quite controversial) which has been playing on my mind a lot lately, as we go back to work and school and re-haul the family budget for the nth time this year.
I went to an all-girls grammar school which was what you might call “high flying” (yes, I know – I’m not a perfect representation of its usual turnout!), and where the mantra that was drummed into us on a daily basis was “you can be who you want to be, do what you want to you…”. The school motto was “wisdom giveth life”, but it might as well have been “girl power!” given the sheer amount of conviction that we were the future, the world was ours, and nobody could take that away from us. Now, I admit that many of my school peers have gone on to be doctors, lawyers and so on, and obviously these professions bring with them a certain prestige and – not to be underestimated – economic security. BUT, what bothers me is the extent to which the lifestyle, finances and social standing of every woman I know - here in Milan at least - is influenced by their husbands / boyfriends / significant others.
I have a real-life example (because this blog is serious so scientific proof is obviously required!). Take the girls that work in my office. We are all around the same age, from similar backgrounds, with very similar educations and do the same job in the same place for roughly the same salary. This, however, is where the similarities end and the ENORMOUS lifestyle gaps open up. D’s husband is a company CEO. They live in a penthouse in Monza, have a cleaner and a nanny, take several holidays per year and own a second home on the Tuscan coast. K’s boyfriend is a manager in the fashion industry. They own a detached house with a big garden outside the city and spend a fortune on clothes and eating out with friends. They also spend lots of weekends away at spas or similar and so are permanently tanned and relaxed. V’s boyfriend does a fairly ordinary office job in a small-ish company. They have a two year-old and manage to make ends meet by making lots of sacrifices. The family holiday is an option only in the case that they both get their full annual bonuses, otherwise they stay at home. Finally there’s G. Her husband lost his job a few months ago and is having trouble finding something permanent to replace it. They also have a child, and G is worried that they are soon going to have trouble paying the rent and fees for their son’s nursery. It would appear that they have less than nothing left at the end of the month.
So there we have it – 4 girlfriends who started the race lined up together but who appear to get ahead or fall behind as a result of the earning power of their other halves. I used to think of my friends who put “someone with money” high up on their list of requirements for a potential partner as shallow and gold-digging. Now I’m starting to think that they were definitely onto something, and that alongside “wisdom giveth life”, perhaps my girls’ grammar school should also have taught us that “husband giveth money and husband taketh away”. Or maybe I should start teaching Sophie that it’s fine to call the Prince to slay the dragon, but make sure you do a credit check on him first……
They say that as you get older, you tend to search more and more for your roots and go back to what you know. Whilst it's true that, as a mum to a three year-old, my dancing-on-tables-in-dodgy-nightclub days appear to be all but over (never say never!), at 34 I don't yet consider myself totally past it. I do nonetheless find myself increasingly drawn to all things English, little reminders of my childhood, and I feel an increasing need to keep in touch and stay up to date with current affairs in the UK. Much more so than ever before in the 10 years that I have lived full-time in Italy.
Perhaps it's because I'm aware that my child is growing up in a country which is very different from my country of origin, and as such her only (invisible) link with British culture and history is, well, me.
Before Sophie was born, I was quite happy to immerse myself 100% in Italian life, watch the local news, eat classic Mediterranean dishes, and speak only Italian at all times. It felt like some sort of personal achievement - a lifelong goal to make my way in the world in a language and culture which I had learned from scratch and about which I knew nothing prior to my 16th birthday. Now that I have Sophie and have been here long enough for the place to no longer feel even slightly "foreign", it's like I am trying to go back on myself and regain some of that lost ground. Back in the day, being able to hold my own at the butchers or make a phone call to the gas company gave me a sense of satisfaction - a sort of "aren't I clever" reaction, which has now been replaced by the desire to ensure that Sophie knows the names of the things on our shopping list in both languages, and doesn’t forget that while things might be done a certain way in Italy, they are done a different way in the UK. I have become almost fanatical about her bilingualism, to the point where, despite having been born here and going to an Italian nursery every day, her English is now way ahead of her Italian (#smugmummy)…
This summer didn’t involve the classic family holiday to foreign climes, as Luca had to keep the restaurant open and I needed to make up time at the office. As a result, Sophie spent most of August with her English grandparents, some time in the UK and some time at the beach here in Italy for the few days that we did all manage to get away together. She ate Cornish pasties on a chilly town quay surrounded by seagulls, had gelato at midnight in a balmy piazza, watched The Sound of Music approximately 10 times while the rain beat at the windows, and played happily on the beach, chatting incessantly with the other Italian children at the Mini Club.
That’s the thing about having two cultures and two languages to call your own – it’s easy to fall into the classic “no man’s land” expat syndrome, where your home country feels increasingly “foreign” and your adoptive country will always see you to some extent as an outsider. What I truly hope for Sophie is that, having both Italian and English blood, being completely bilingual, and living as much of both cultures as possible, she will grow up safe in the knowledge that her roots are firmly planted in both places and that she can choose between pasties or pasta, fish and chips or gelato, rock pools or swaying palms – and none of it will feel even slightly “foreign”...