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Mercedes – a dear friend of Expatclic – is Spanish, married to an Italian and has lived in Milan for many years. In this article she reflects on her mixed partnership and tells us how it is. 

Thanks Merche!!

Allow me to introduce myself:  my name is Merche Mas, I am from Madrid and have been married for nearly 20 years to Guido, an Italian from Milan. 

Our marriage is not the typical experience of a ‘mixed marriage”, in that we do actually share some fundamental things:  a similar culture; a Latin-based language; a similar social, economic and cultural status; common religious beliefs; a concept.  Even though it may seem unlikely, these things ensure that the relationship between two foreigners is less traumatic. 

As if the one who has left “everything” in order to follow the other has more power over the other and as if the other is never completely sure of how permanent this choice of their partner’s would be.

And I use the word traumatic because, after having idealised the intercultural relationship in its entirety at first, I guess I happen to feel that (probably because I had seen it in other mixed couples) while it can certainly constitute a treasure, a wonderful opportunity and blah blah blah, it can also become a grief; a conflict of interest – albeit not an actual religious or ideological conflict.

The emotional blackmail of emigration

A therapist who I worked with a few years ago told me, and I understood her too late, that within all couples whose relationship has developed through the emigration of one of the two of them, there exists a kind of “emotional blackmail”.  As if the one who has left “everything” in order to follow the other has more power over the other and as if the other is never completely sure of how permanent this choice of their partner’s would be.  I feel that during the first years of my life in Italy, my husband may have often asked himself: “How long will she last” in Italy, maybe because he never imagined himself being far away from his own roots.  I think that he finally relaxed about it only when I put myself up as a candidate in the Municipal elections of our town:  if she decides to be a Councillor, then that goes on for a while … (he must have thought).

Choosing where to live

At times I was asked what had made us decide to live in Italy and not in Spain (the thing that had given my mother depression, she was the founder of ANCFI -Association of Mothers Affected by Italian Boyfriends – of which she is sole member, president and treasurer).  The decision had been much easier than we had thought, on one hand because I could ask for leave from my teaching job and Guido was not able to leave the telecommunications faculty where he was in the process of doing his PhD. 

…the suffering that each person involved goes through, when there is no longer the romantic element of the relationship, is enormous.

And on the other hand, we could treat it as a temporary decision, which we would be able to reconsider.  However, the final decision arrived when we realised that for our personalities, if we had lived in “my context”, I would have left Guido for dead and he would have had to hobble behind me for his whole life, which is unacceptable for the harmony of any couple.  To the contrary, the stress of me having to adapt myself to “his context” made me slow down (a tiny bit…), while he moves around at his own pace in the environment that he knows and owns.  This choice, from the point of view of harmony within the relationship, turned out to be spot on.  Even though it has had an enormous cost from the point of view of the relationship with the “abandoned” family.

The conflict of loyalty

One of the aspects of having decided to marry a foreigner that weighs on me the most is the fact that I moved away (very far away) from my family of origin, especially being the only girl in the family, having three brothers.  My mother’s fear was: men don’t pursue connection with the family, they don’t invite it, they don’t bring the family together, they don’t write, they don’t call … so without the feminine daughter influence and presence, the family, in time, becomes defunct, destroyed. 

I know that for my mother the distance has meant a huge grief, which has cost her (and cost us) a long period of depression.  So huge is this burden of distance that when someone says to me: “Did you know that I have a fiancé?”,  my reaction is to be sick rather than be happy for her.  It is then that I envisage all the things that happen after the wedding, particularly in mixed couples:  the drama of holidays (for example, in order to “payoff” the debt that is attached to the long distance factor for us, we spend almost a whole month with my parents); the difficulty of Christmas; of helping each other in times of need; of following the lives of nephews and nieces, of grandparents, of aunts and uncles, of relatives … And this despite being only 2,000 kilometres away and seeing each other at Christmas and in summer.

…and I am very saddened thinking of the pain of the nonni, who cannot understand or communicate with their own grandchildren.

And this even though there is e-mail, telephone and all the rest of it. I can’t imagine what happens to couples when one is Latin American and the other European or Thai, or Filipino … the suffering that each person involved goes through, when there is no longer the romantic element of the relationship, is enormous. In fact, I notice that when I return back to Italy, despite having spent 20 years away from Spain, I still need a couple of days to cut the umbilical cord. I feel confused, sad … sometimes I cry without reason. Until eventually our home, our family, our projects tear me away from the sadness and make me fall in love again with the life I have chosen.

Our conflicts of loyalty are not serious compared to some.  I have seen women friends in couples, for whom Christmas was a time to have to assert her Muslim identity and to demand that her partner leave the village in order to prevent the children being immersed in a Christian culture.  Another friend from my neighbourhood who is in a mixed couple, however – she a Catholic and he a Muslim – says that they don’t have such problems because, like he says “I am not strictly practicing”.

Bilingualism

Of all the elements of my identity that I have fiercely held on to, it’s my language. Even before having our first daughter we informed ourselves and decided to speak Spanish at home, given that she would learn Italian from the contextual environment.  Now Irene is perfectly bilingual and even gives Spanish lessons to make a bit of money.  Rosy speaks both languages really well, however being adopted at 6 years of age, her linguistic story is a little different.  The merit for all of this, apart from my insistence, goes to Guido, who has accepted that we speak Spanish in the home.  This is the fundamental difference for which the children of other mixed couples are not bilingual:  the fact that one of the two speaks the other’s language.  I admit to becoming really upset when I discover such a waste of an opportunity, and I continue to admonish the mother/father in question, telling them:  but if your kids don’t learn the language, they won’t be able to talk to their grandparents, with their cousins and with their aunts and uncles!  They won’t be able to call them on the phone or write to them!”  They seem resigned to it… and I am very saddened thinking of the pain of the nonni, who cannot understand or communicate with their own grandchildren. 

Nationality

There is no agreement between Italy and Spain that allows me to keep both nationalities, so I have to decide on one of the two.  Thanks to the European Union there is not much difference between one or the other in my situation, apart from the possibility to vote and run as a candidate in general, regional and provincial elections.  So I chose to keep my nationality Spanish (that allows me to vote and enter into elections), because it would cost me a lot to give it up.  Even if I know that it is a little bit of a romantic notion …

Merche
Milan, Italiy
March 2009
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