Fashion illustration Stories

Just an expat

January 24, 2017
aldraws fashion digital illustration singapore italy belgium

I come from a town nestled between Florence North hills and the Appenin mountains and it’s not an exaggeration to say I used to hate living there.

I used to hate living in Italy in general.
I spent my adolescence and young adulthood wishing to leave and at 25 I packed my bags and moved to Belgium: the official reason was to do my PhD, but deep inside I knew I was kind of running away.

Most of my Italian expat friends left Italy for practical reasons ( = the Italian job market sucks) but they were still totally in love with their motherland and their roots.
They would visit home once a month – courtesy of Ryanair – and come back to Belgium with a luggage full of Italian food and a stone of homesickness and regret in their stomach.

I never had that.
Which would be totally OK, if not for the constant excruciating feeling of not having a home, of not belonging anywhere.

After seven years in Belgium, I was visiting Italy only the strictly necessary and at the end of my stay I was always happy to jump on my plane back to Brussels… But still I couldn’t say my home was Belgium either.
Ok, it was the place where my life was. Where I had a home, a boyfriend, two cats and a lot of friends. But you know, I can’t speak Flemish. You can’t call a place home if you don’t know the language.
Also if I eat fries more than once a month I feel sick, which makes me totally non-Belgian.
*I can drink beer like a Belgian though*

It is horrible to know deep in your heart that you don’t have a “patria”, a “Heimat” (English has no word equivalent for this specific concept of homeland).
A place you can call yours and proudly showcase in your language, your habits and the front page of your passport.
A place where you still have all your friends waiting for you, where the little alleys remind you of the scorching August afternoons of your childhood spent hunting for lizards, where your usual hairdresser and dentist are and where you call the baker by his first name.
A place you’re looking so much forward to visit during Christmas holidays that you’re starting counting-down in March.

I went there, to my Italian town, for Christmas. Like every year.
And like every year I was very excited to see my family and spend some time in the Christmas atmosphere (which I love and which -side note- is almost non-existant in Singapore), but I was also very sure that I would get that restless itch that would make me want to leave again after just a few days.
I was expecting it, I could feel it coming… But it didn’t happen.

I don’t know what clicked in my head, but I cried when I saw the Florence hills from the window of my landing plane.
I started jumping of joy on my seat when I caught a glimpse of the Duomo just a few seconds before touch-down.
I’ve never felt more home than the first night I got under the duvet of my small bed at my parent’s place, smelling my mom’s laundry soap in the bed sheets.
I’ve never felt more familiar weather than the bright sun of a crisp and icy Winter Florence morning and the thick fog at night in my town’s streets.
I saw many friends, went to the dentist, went to the bakery and called the owner by name.

I felt Italian, I felt that somehow I finally recognized my roots. Unexpectedly and suddenly, I found my home again.
I suffered of an almost unbearable pain when I left to go back to Singapore, I thought I could sense my heart and my stomach fracture in a thousands of fragments.

At the airport, on the 100 meters of tarmac between the gate and the plane I walked slowly.
I breath the air of Florence deeply.
I tried to adsorb the smell of chimneys in the cold breeze, a taste of the afternoon bright sun still lingering.
I almost had a glimpse of the life that, I’m sure, somewhere in a sprout on the hills was already preparing for the long sunny days of Spring.
I sensed Winter almost dissolving on my skin, releasing May roses and lush gardens to be, hidden behind centuries-old doorways and alleys.
I felt like all my childhood was compressed in that very moment, in a mix of fragrances and feelings embracing all the years behind me.

Then i said hello to the automatic smile of the flight attendant.

Grey leather seats, way too familiar.
Open the in-flight magazine, browse a few pages, review the Lufthansa fleet at page 90 like I didn’t know it by heart already.
Sit back, relax but still a little bit scared of a crash.
This is how you fasten and unfasten your seat belts, we will turn off the lights during take-off.

And all of the sudden there is no smell of chimneys and sleeping roses anymore. There are no lights on the hills or memories brought by the January breeze.
All of the sudden I am just an expat. Again.
Not knowing why I’m scattering fragments of my heart across the World, yet damn sure I have to keep moving forward.

Now, reaching cruising altitude, I recognize that angst that made all of us leave our Country the first time and pushed us forward to break our limits and discover new places, unexpected love, heartbreaks, success, failures and friendships.
Maybe refusing my homeland, my history, my Italian genes was just a way for me to make more bearable the certainty I would probably never be able to go back.
Maybe when I was younger I misunderstood the desire to leave my childhood nest to explore the World for an abnormal disdain for my origins.
Maybe I needed the cultural shock of living on the other side of the planet, in a tropical city where the oldest building is from the 19th century and where the mother tongue of all my colleagues is a Chinese dialect to finally find my identity.
Maybe, I really don’t know.

But that scent of January chimneys and the sunny afternoons of my childhood, the smell of my mom, the scratchy tenderness of dad’s beard on my cheek, my sister’s exceptional enthusiasm for every single living thing on this planet, the roses in my grandma’s garden that now don’t exist anymore… That, and only that, is what I will forever call home.

xxx Al (aka your favourite expat)


PS: Thank you so much Agnes for helping me revamping my blog (well actually for doing 99.99% of the work…) and for being my biggest fan, enthusiastic motivator and endless source of inspiration <3

PPS: guys do you like my new blog?? I LOVE IT (you should try it on mobile, it looks absolutely brilliant)


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  • Reply Agnes January 27, 2017 at 7:07 am

    No problem at all, Al! As I’ve told you, it’s an honour for me to revamp your blog!

    Your childhood home sounds lovely! Perhaps you’re right: it takes a shock to make you realise that home is truly where your heart is.

    • Reply Al February 1, 2017 at 2:02 am

      Some people don’t need it, they have a very natural sense of belonging to their homeland (Joeri for example is one of them)
      I really needed a shock, and Singapore was a big one ;P

      Thanks again for your work, I really love it! I’m proud of this little website now, it makes me want to write on it more often!

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