Making Mixed Babies: Ranting About The Obvious Difficulties Of Raising Multicultural Children

I don’t have children. If you would have asked me if I wanted them in my twenties I would hissed at you, covered my vagina, and ran screaming in the other direction. I would have basically done the exact same thing regarding marriage. I always like the idea of someone wanting to marry me but I never intended on actually sealing the deal. It was just nice to know that if I did want to actually get married someone would have done it, I guess. That’s what being twenty-something, somewhat insecure, and an asshole will do to a person. Anyhow, all of that changed when I met Francesco.

I knew in a very real way that we would be getting married. Sure, that waivered a little here and there with some of his bullshit but I worked through the problems with him instead of shooting him in his sleep which was huge for me. Not shooting your boyfriend is love. In a lot of ways Francesco has changed the way that I think about a lot of things. He’s changed the way I view the importance of family, how I approach and solve problems (I care to actually solve problems without hurting him or his feelings…so that’s new), and I actually want to have children. Well, let me rephrase that to be honest, I would like children in our lives who are of our genetic makeup. I don’t want to actually have babies. Being pregnant, sick, tired, and giving up wine sounds shitty. Then, squeezing some giant thing about of my vagina which is a lot smaller than a baby sounds like torture and something out of an Alien movie. I’d totally adopt but that’s too expensive and nobody would probably give me a baby. The point is that he’s made me want to have a family because I want us to be surrounded by loved ones and family for our entire lives. I want to be seventy and painting with my grandchildren. I’ve never believed that the point to living is breeding, or that women’s job on the planet is to have kids, so I’ve never been that inclined to have a family before. I’ve always seen child-rearing as a massive job of huge importance, of huge responsibility, and not something that people should “just do.” Having children to me is one of the biggest decisions of a person’s life and is therefore kind of terrifying. If you add the potential for cross-cultural, international problems to the mix.

Image: AnAmericanInRome.com (check out the blog, it's great).

Horse Baby Food In Italy. Image: AnAmericanInRome.com (check out the blog, it’s great).

And that’s what we’re fighting about right now. We’re trying to decide on which country we plan on raising our kids in. It doesn’t sound that pressing since we don’t have kids but it kind of is because we’ve been talking about starting a family this year or next year. So, where do we want to be? Which country would we like to be living? Where is the best place to raise children? I’ve talked with a bunch of other expats about this but the topic gets a little insane. People get surprisingly defensive and rabid about Italy when discussing children (certain psychos totally lose their shit. I hope you get an incurable yeast infection). I get it, nobody wants to think that the decision they’ve made was a bad decision and so people don’t want you questioning that decision by asking stupid questions about it. I get it. However, I need to ask and talk about it because it’s a big deal to me. As the child of mixed parents, I know what it’s like growing up with parents from two different planets. This weighs on me. My father immigrated to the US 35 years ago and yet my siblings, my father and I, have problems seeing eye-to-eye over a lot of things. The way we communicate is different, the meanings behind the things we say to each other is often misread or misinterpreted. My father feels like he lacks identity with us and therefore instead of having American kids he encourages us to hate that side of us. “You’re Persian, you don’t have the genetics of an American.” When we do things that he likes, we are Persian, when we make mistakes it’s because our mothers are American. He desperately seeks to have some kind of cultural connection with his children, it bothers him that he can’t understand many of the ways that we think or see the world. He doesn’t understand why I can’t Facetime him every day, or why I’m less than thrilled to Facetime my family in Iran for six hours on Sundays. I love them, they are my family, but I can’t speak on the phone for longer than one hour. What is there to say? “WHAT IS THERE TO SAY!? Just be in the conversation of love! Just laugh and love!” My father cannot understand how his daughter has become so “American,” in her priorities regarding family. My father listens to Iranian music on full blast on his Iphone, he encourages my sisters and I to dance to it while he laughs and claps enthusiastically. Last time I was home he videotaped it and then watched it over and over again. Seems creepy to Americans, but dancing for family is about as Persian as Persian can get, even at 33 years old. It’s not uncommon for expat parents to struggle to relate to their children culturally or for the kids to feel a slight disconnect as well. I’ve grown up with it for my entire life so telling me it doesn’t exist…well…it isn’t true.

And that scares me.

I feel like no matter where we raise our kids there will be a disconnect for either me or Francesco. It’s really about picking the place that is best for the kids but also the place where maybe the cultural impact will be less difficult for us as parents. Both countries have their good points, both have their bad. A lot of expats struggle with this aspect because they see Italy with rose-colored lenses but I simply can’t. I’ve read too many damn articles, too many studies. I have an education in Sociology, I study society, even when I’m not trying to. Nowhere is perfect. Which place will allow us to raise children that are diverse, open-minded, and will allow equal appreciation of Italian, American, and Persian culture? As a person, I’m most concerned with balance, mindfulness and an acceptance towards religion, an equality of the sexes, and the ability to live life without being swallowed by expectations. People say, “Your kids will be how you make them,” but I feel like they’re underestimating the power of social norms. Society shapes you even when you don’t realize you’re being shaped. It shapes how people interact, think, feel, even how they commit suicide. Nothing goes untouched.

Image: Wikipedia

Image: Wikipedia

When I announced that I’d fallen in love with an Italian man, my father said, “You don’t know what you’re doing. Cross-cultural relationships are more difficult than you can imagine.”

For once I have to say that my dad couldn’t have been more right. BAAAAAAAAH! I’m going to stab myself with a fork. Maybe you guys can help me with a pros and cons list?

Foraging, Toxoplasmosis, And Eating Until You Die In Cassino, Italy

One morning while visiting my in-laws I sat on the balcony sipping an Americano while watching my father-in-law forage in a nearby field. I could make out a bundle of something under his right arm, on occasion the sun would reflect off of the scissors in his other hand. He’d bend down, pop up, take a few steps and repeat. The man must have been getting one hell of an ass workout.

The foraging field in Cassino

The foraging field in Cassino

“Francesco!” I yelled,” I think your father is foraging random greenery from that field nearby. Can you make him stop?”

Francesco appeared in the balcony doorway, cradling our poodle, “Why would I stop him?” He squinted towards the field, “it’s for dinner.”

“Nooo!” I panicked, “We’re going to get toxoplasmosis. That field is home to about six-thousand feral cats. There was a dead one just lying here the last time I took Oliver out to pee. Which reminds me that Oliver pees and shits there.”

Francesco shrugged and reached for my coffee cup, “Don’t be so dramatic! He’ll wash them and cook them. I had toxoplasmosis when I was younger. It’s not like it would kill us.”

I was no longer looking at my husband, rather, I was looking at a man who had a disease associated with ingesting cat shit and he was slobbering all over my coffee. How had I not known about his infestation of icky before I’d signed legal documents to bind myself to him.

“Why are you glaring at me?” He smiled, “Is it because I had that and now you’re grossed out?”

“Yeah, exactly. Get your hands off of my coffee. You’re lucky you weren’t pregnant. You would have had a Toxic Avenger baby.”

“Huh?” He went back inside.

I really wasn’t that surprised that my husband had contracted a crap disease since at that very moment his dad burst onto the balcony with his glorious bounty, chest puffed out, arms full of green bushes. “You eat the poops of cats,” I mumbled as I walked inside.

When I first moved to Italy I thought, “Pasta! Pizza! Wine!” but that was before I realized that pasta and pizza were just the two Italian dishes that were easier to market to the rest of the world. Some of their other dishes just didn’t catch on in the same way and rightfully so. I was surprised the first time I found Baby Bird Stew, on the menu at a friend’s house, a dish that is exactly what it sounds like: Baby birds, in their entirety, in tomato sauce. Another time a restaurant served us Illegal Boiled Baby Fish that looked more like boiled semen. Then there’s the horse, the pigeon, the cow balls, the stuffed lamb brains, sheep intestine panini, and stomach lining soup. I could now add, “Cat Crap Field Greens,” into the mix of things that I just couldn’t convince myself to try. It’s not only because the food is “weird,” but also because I was vegan for ten years and animal products just kind of scare me. Plus, brains are gross. Zombies eat brains, not people.

Mmmm. Lamb brains (yes, seriously).

Mmmm. Lamb brains (yes, seriously).

Francesco’s family finds my weak stomach both hilarious and puzzling. But how did I know I wouldn’t like cheese with worms in it? Come on! It’s a specialty from Sardegna! I agreed with them that there was no way to know for sure but I certainly wasn’t willing to try. Yes, it was probably because the food in my country is weird. Yes, it’s probably because I grew up eating Kraft Mac And Cheese. I agreed that yes, that’s exactly why I couldn’t possibly know anything about good food. 

Most of the food is quite delicious in Cassino and the surrounding cities. The food in the south is, and I say this expecting people to get really regionally defensive, my favorite food in Italy. It’s surprisingly diverse and very “comfort food,” in it’s simplicity. My favorite restaurants in Italy are in Cassino. You have Al Mulino, an impressive, incredible restaurant with super fresh dishes made from scratch that surpass many of the restaurants I’ve eaten at abroad. There is also Bianco/Noir, a fish restaurant that serves dishes like Branzino packed in sea salt and spaghetti alle vongola. In Cassino, as with much of Italy, everything is seasonal. In the Autumn we eat a lot of Zucca (pumpkin), squash, greens, simple cooked proteins often simmered in tomato sauce or lemon and oil.

Oysters on the half shell

Oysters on the half shell

Pasta with clams and parsley

Pasta with clams and parsley

My mother-in-law is an amazing cook and can whip up a fifty-course meal in three hours which takes another 7 hours to eat and I leave sick, heavier, tired and grumpy. The seafood in Cassino is often fresh and prepared with minimal ingredients and processing which is delicious, perfect, and totally created another culinary complication for me. Fish is served intact with it’s head or legs or whatever still attached. The first time I ate shrimp with my in-laws I stared at it for a long time trying to figure out what to do with it. I stabbed, poked, and pulled at it for twenty minutes. My husband eventually felt sorry for me enough to pull my plate over to his to help me. He had a look on his face like I’d just asked him to teach me to write my name. My father-in-law shook his head at me, stabbed a shrimp head from my plate, and popped it into his mouth. “Crunch, crunch, crunch, kist americana…”

Most days in Cassino we eat pretty typical things. I start the day with a chocolate brioche-which tastes like heaven and is usually freshly baked that morning-and Capuccino. It’s a sugary, caffeinated combo, a rush followed by a terrible crash, and withdrawal, similar to meth. Probably. For lunch if we’re lucky my mother-in-law makes roasted potatoes, broccolini (ideally not from the cat field), and meatballs or some protein followed by fruit and walnuts (that have occasionally been filled with a worm or two as they were pulled from some random tree nearby). If we’re not lucky my father-in-law makes some perverse version of Minestrone: Water, frozen vegetables, clams and calamari (no broth, flavoring, salt or pepper). Dinners are usually light, a homemade pizza made with broccolini and kalamata olives and occasionally sardines or Zuppa Di Fagioli e Verze (soup with beans and cabbage). Holidays or special occasions are when the hours of eating, and the random weird are brought to the table. You’re moving away? BALLS! Come to our house! GUTS! That’s when the “statement” dishes are busted out along with the delicious, less “bold,” recipes. It’s important to make an impression.

Ricotta And Spinach.

Ricotta And Spinach.

Food is something you give to people you care about, food is how you connect, how you impress, and how you love. You adore your family by stuffing them full of anything and everything you can buy or possibly find.

That one day that my father-in-law was stalking the nearby fields for edible greenery was for a party we were having with friends. He wanted the best cuts of meat so he called all of the butchers personally, he wanted the best produce so he and his wife visited a number of markets, and he wanted fresh so he spent the day out in the sun picking what nature provided. The Mozz Di Bufala was made the day before, there were homemade canned and pickled vegetables, meats from animals raised just down the road, and cheese from a place not even 15 minutes away. There were also other random body parts that in the US we often toss away. That’s the beauty of Cassino cuisine, really. They still have that old mentality that food is food, food is currency, everything that can be consumed, should be, nothing should go to waste, and if the toxoplasmosis doesn’t kill you, the fields are ripe for the pickin’.

THIS IS A COSI POST! CHECK OUT WHAT THE REST OF THE GANG IS SAYING ABOUT FOOD THIS WEEK ON MY COSI PAGE.

How To Fight Expat Depression: Just Remember You’re Not Alone

Let’s talk about the thing that nobody ever wants to talk about because it sucks: Depression. Usually it’s only a matter of time before expats experiences some form of situational depression, anxiety, or the need to hide under their bed with a bottle of wine for days on end. Hell, you don’t even need to be an expat. Sometimes life is just overwhelming and hard. Sometimes we are all going to deal with depression. It sucks. It’s hard. But at least we have each other.

Living abroad means a lot of things, a lot of conflicting things.  One minute life is a paradise and you find yourself  drinking cheap wine in a vineyard, tasting olive oil in an olive grove, laughing to yourself as old men wave to you in the street. Then five minutes later your world is full of confusion, humiliation, it’s a cataclysm of WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING!? This “what the fuck,” moment often happens after your dog poops in the street and an angry shop owner comes out to scream at you while you’re cleaning it up, your papers have been lost or denied by the consulate, your partner moves you into a family commune, or you end up in a house in the middle of nowhere surrounded by wild boars and the sound of deafening silence. Sometimes a breakdown can happen if you’re spending too much time alone or surrounded by people you like but don’t at all identify with.

gif: wheninlawschool.tumblr.com

I’ll never forget the first time I had a total mental breakdown. I was at one of my husbands’ friends’ home and everyone was joking around and laughing but I couldn’t understand why any of their jokes were funny. I just couldn’t get it. I was sitting at a merry table, while everyone was having the time of their life and I was totally bored out of my mind trying my hardest to relate to anyone on even the most basic level. It was as if the room froze, I looked from face-to-face, then back to myself and thought, “I don’t belong here.” I went to the bathroom and held back tears. Nobody was being mean, nothing was terrible, but it finally hit me that I didn’t connect with anyone in Italy at all at that point.  And I didn’t understand it because at home I could get along with just about anyone. I felt like an asshole and totally isolated. It was really, really rough.

Photo: myinsanebrain.com

Expat depression and overall insanity is totally common and you know what? It’s normal. One of my best friends just moved to London from Utah. She’s been totally dying to get out of Utah for years but when I Skyped with her and her husband the first thing they both said was, “This is really difficult. How did you do this?! Having a mental breakdown is a very real thing! Who knew?!” These are intelligent, hard-working, totally amazing, normal people. Okay, normal is a stretch, since she’s one of my best friends, but you get the idea. Living in a foreign country is really difficult for everyone at one point or another whether or not you speak the language. Living in Italy is even harder for us from the anal-retentive English-speaking world because the culture is so different from ours. Dr Kirsten Hogh Thorgersen wrote,“When you arrive in a new culture, you’re shaken in self-confidence, and the more different the culture is, the greater the challenge.”

The difficulty of living abroad often leads to anxiety or depression. In my case it lead to some weird form of social anxiety and agoraphobia where I would come up with any excuse I could to avoid leaving the house. And despite what many people think, depression doesn’t necessarily mean that you feel sad. You could be depressed and not even know it. Signs that you’re depressed:

  • difficulty concentrating
  • insomnia or oversleeping
  • irritability
  • significant changes to eating patterns
  • lack of interest

The worst part about being depressed abroad is you feel totally isolated and misunderstood within your new country, but also nobody at home gets it either. I mean, you’re abroad! How can you be depressed!? Well, unfortunately, it can be really depressing even if you live in a century-old city with incredible food. It’s okay. You’re okay! Every day I receive emails from expats who are struggling abroad. They feel stupid or confused, they’re angry or isolated, and I do my best to remind them that they are all epically awesome because despite the difficulty they keep on keepin’ on because they are total badasses. That’s right! Even if you’re in Italy having a hard time, you’re a badass! And you’re not alone.  You’re a part of the expat mafia, a group of rogue crazies who had the guts to put themselves out there even when things became rough. Sure, an old woman called you a foreign sack of shit, some embassy denied your paperwork, and your in-laws are trying to move into your guest room as you read this sentence…BUT! At least you’re doing something that most people would never get the opportunity to do in their lives. So, it sucks, it’s frustrating, but it’s an experience that can help you grow in new ways, too. And we’re all growing together! That’s exciting, right? I know, I know, but it feels terrible.

Photo: Hypescience.com

I’m a perfect example of a romantic, europe-obsessed woman turned Italy-repulsed homicidal maniac. It can happen to even the most positive, happy, well-intentioned of us. You’re not broken or somehow deranged for experiencing frustration. You’re in a foreign place and it’s normal to have one or two-hundred major meltdowns for various reasons. I mean, for the first time since being a child you’re thrown into a place where you don’t know how to navigate anything. Plus, you have to start over. It can be frustrating to start your life all over from scratch. New friends, new city, new apartment, new coffee maker. It’s a lot to take in, guys. And there will be days when you don’t even recognize yourself anymore. That was the hardest for me because I liked myself before I moved to Italy, damnit.

gif: giffy.com

So how do you deal with it all? How to help alleviate that sinking black feeling, that rapid heartbeat, or that strange new fear of going outside?

Take it one day at a time. On days that are really bad just try to focus on one positive thing. Write it down, put it on your wall! Or in my case, I combatted my depression with goals and activities. I started THIS BLOG (thank depression for that!), I wrote a book and a screenplay, I also learned how to Flamenco on YouTube. Yes, seriously, i’m terrible and it’s embarrassing but now you know my secret. I’m sure the people who lived downstairs wanted me to trip and die. Depression is hard but you can beat it! Beat the shit out of it. And, more wine, of course.

Gif: stxrbucksbxtch.tumblr.com

FIVE WAYS TO COPE WITH EXPAT DEPRESSIONS (Kick It’s Ass!)

GIF: entertainthis.usatoday.com

1. Make a goal or a list of goals. If you’re working towards something you’ll feel accomplished. Have a task to do every day. Take some pictures, spend the day outside stalking people like an anthropologist. You’d be surprised by how relieving it can be to follow someone in a supermarket whispering, “I’ve just spotted a middle-aged Italian woman buying what seems to be some kind of bread. She’s making her way towards what appears to be salami! Just get a look at her in her natural habitat! She’s examining it! She’s purchased the salami with tiny, round metal objects and paper squares. How fascinating!” Start a blog, or keep a notebook! Venting can be very helpful. Get it out! Take some online classes or take a class in your area. Painting, language, cooking, whatever! Check off some goals you’ve always had but never had time to accomplish!

2. Yoga. Every morning when you wake up, tune into YouTube and do a yoga video. Those videos will really help you to relax yourself. Exercise is a great way to combat fatigue, depression, and anxiety. Plus, it never hurt anyone to get a smokin’ healthy bod.

gif: yogabycandice.com

3. Hang out with people you love from home! Sure, you can’t invite them over but you can do activities with them on Skype or Facetime. Invite one of your friends to do a cooking date with you. You guys can cook together, drink wine, via Skype! It’s totally fun and worth it.

gif: hellogiggle.com

4. Get out of your house, even if it’s just to read a book at a cafe. If you’re anything like me, I get depressed when I’m home too much but I also hate leaving my house when I’m depressed. It’s a pain in the ass, really shitty, super frustrating cycle. Force yourself out! Sign up to one of those meet-up websites like: http://expatitalian.meetup.com. Always take a friend with you or meet in a very public place though. People are usually friendly and normal but can be rapey and psychotic. Go volunteer to walk dogs at a local shelter or buy cheap dog toys and donate them. Teach English.

5. Learn everything you can about the culture. The more you know and understand the less you’ll feel like an outsider. I mean, you’ll probably always feel like an immigrant, but at least you won’t feel like a total weirdo who is always in the dark. Plus, you’d be surprised by how useful it can be to be a cultural know-it-all! Learn the history, the language, the art, the food, become a master of it all and then just rub it in everyone’s face. Just rub it right in. That feels nice, right? Rub a dub.

Bonus: Try to remember that expat depression is usually situational and temporary. If you push yourself out and on you’ll improve hugely. If you have a history of depression or your depression persists and you’re thinking about suicide or self-harm please seek out a therapist for help. I’ve been to therapy and it’s awesome. You’re important, you matter, and I’d miss you.

Have you experienced depression or anxiety abroad? Please, share your story in the comments below so others can learn, relate, or find ways to cope. And of course, “share,” if you’re feeling sassy.

*This post is just suggestions and personal experience. I am obviously not a doctor or any kind of professional.