What It’s Like
“I Followed My Husband to America”
Interview with documentary filmmaker Maria Vaccaro
-April Daniels Hussar
When Maria Vaccaro‘s then-boyfriend was accepted into the postdoctoral program at Stanford University in 2005, she faced a decision: to leave their home in Belgium and follow her true love, or let him go. She, like so many other women, chose to leave her life behind and join him on his adventure in a new land.
Maria, a filmmaker and artist, found that her experience was not unusual, especially in the Stanford community, and she was inspired to make a documentary, “Women in a New Land.” The film tells the stories of four women who made moves similar to her own, with all of the inherent complexities they faced – from making new friends, to learning a new language, to questioning their senses of self and identity.
It’s a fascinating topic, one that so many women can relate to – whether we’ve moved to new countries or even just changed towns, or careers, for the sake of our relationships. Maria‘s film is showing May 5, at Stanford University (see below for details), and she took some time to talk with us about being a woman in a new land.
BettyConfidential: What was it like to follow your mate all the way from Belgium to Stanford for his job?
Maria Vaccaro: My first month in California was magical. It was the end of June 2005. The weather was gorgeous and I felt like I was on holiday. My husband and I were spending a lot of time together, visiting apartments, buying new stuff, building up a new home here … But, after he began to work, I was alone at home with nothing to do. I used to be really busy with my work in Europe and here I had my days to fill only as a spouse.
BC: What were some of the immediate challenges?
MV: When I first arrived here, I had not really realized that my career was left behind and that I would have to rebuild a new identity. I was no longer a professional. I was only my husband’s wife — that was the only reason I could find to justify my presence here. Everything looked different from Belgium. French and Italian are my primary languages, and not speaking English made me feel like a child. My first challenge was to learn it. In the meantime, I decided to communicate with my own language and I began to write this documentary, where international spouses would be free to express what they felt facing this challenge of adapting to a new world.
BC: In your film, some of the women talk about how the decision was easy to make, because it just wasn’t an option for them to be apart from their husbands. Was it easy for you?
MV: To be honest, it was not really an easy decision for me … I really loved my job and my life in Belgium and I had never thought that one day I would have to give them up. But I fell deeply in love with my husband. It was sure for both of us that we would do everything to stay together.
At that time, we were not married and I was not ready to get married before making sure that I could fit in this new environment. After three months in California, we decided to get married. We organized the wedding in two weeks, and despite this short amount of time, we had a romantic wedding set in the middle of the forest.
BC: Tell us about the life you left behind …
MV: On a professional level, I graduated in 1996 from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Belgium with a Bachelor of Visual Arts in Videography and Photography. Before coming to California, I had worked for more than six years for the National Belgium Television, RTBF, which is the equivalent of PBS in the United States.
I come from a large family (I have four sisters and three brothers), and we are all very close. My mother and my father are really important to me. I also left a lot of friends back in Belgium but I try to keep in touch with them by e-mail, Skype or sometimes by phone. I really love traveling, and I try to go back to Belgium at least once a year.
BC: Your film brings up the point that “who you are” is so often defined by what you do, the people you know, your level of comfort and familiarity with your surroundings. Once all that has changed – who are you? How did leaving your home and career affect your self-identity?
MV: I believe that what we are is a result of what we live. And this is what makes life so interesting! I would say that my core identity remains the same — I am still Maria — but the last few years have been very rich with changes and evolution, and my experience here in California has made me stronger and more motivated. When I leave California, I will take with me what I have lived here. Every experience I had, every person I met, will forever remain as part of my new identity.
BC: Did the move put pressure on or strain your relationship?
MV: This move made us closer. When you make this drastic change in your life, you very soon realize whether you are really in love with your partner, and whether you are ready to change your life for this person. In my case, I have no regrets about my choices!
BC: Your daughter, Sofia, is almost 2 years old. How do you feel about raising her in a foreign country?
MV: Sometimes I feel lonely, but I also think that I have learned faster to become a mother because I don’t have advice or help from relatives when I need it. Becoming a mother has been the best experience in my life. Sofia is an adorable little girl who brings me so much happiness. She was born here and wherever we are in the future, she will always remember “The American Dream” that I am living now.
BC: At the end of your film, you say: “Behind every spouse, an individual with her own life experience, her own destiny, hides in the shadows.” Do you feel like you are living in the shadows?
MV: Yes, I totally feel like I am living in the shadows because I am not working as I was in Belgium. I sometimes work at home as a freelance, with my daughter always playing around me. (I guess I can say that she is my first assistant). Beyond my own experience, there are many women out here that are highly educated, with strong professional backgrounds. The fact that these women cannot fit in the professional world during their stays here represents a huge waste of talent. This is why I finish my documentary with that statement. Interacting with these women is a source of enrichment for society.
California Bettys! “Women in a New Land” shows May 5, 2009, from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. at the Bechtel International Center of Stanford (584 Capistrano Way, Stanford, CA 94305). Contact Maria Vaccaro: firstname.lastname@example.org.