Today I visited the American Embassy. Just getting past security was quite a feat, but my name was on a list as I had been invited to do a presentation on American culture for a group of Italian science and engineering graduate students who are off to the Silicon valley on a six month exchange through an US Embassy/Fulbright program.
The presentation went well, the students were bright, prepared and electric with anticipation for their upcoming adventure. Before heading over for lunch, I stopped by the ladies room and, as I looked up from washing my hands, I found this note carefully taped to the mirror, “This is not a waste disposal unit. Please DO NOT throw any kind of leftovers down the sink”. I was sure back in the USA (embassy territory), being told, firmly, in writing and in my face, what to do and not do. On my last trip to the US I brought back a circular band into which you insert your paper cup of coffee. It reads “ Caution, HOT beverage”. I personally would expect a coffee to be hot. Then again, maybe I have been living abroad too long where I have acquired a sixth sense about these things. No one ever thinks to tell me the obvious, I have to figure it out myself and if I don’t, well, I can’t complain (read – sue) because I have only proved that I am just plain stupid or at least careless.
In Italy you have to be on your toes at all times, ready, wide-eyed, ears tuned-in and aware of everything that is going on around you -- no signs to help you out. When you walk into an administrative building, you can’t expect a sign telling you where to go, if there is one, it is a bonus. The lesson is, always ask (several people) and then use your intelligence and creative thinking to figure it out from whatever information you can gleen from the environment – a kind of daily urban treasure hunt. I feel like I go to sleep when I visit Connecticut, it is all so easy that I begin to lose my intuitive, jungle-survival skills. Just read the signs and do what they say. No sign? Stop in your tracks and wait for further information.
Perhaps it has to do with that touch of fatalism in Italian society. If you burn your hand on a hot cup of coffee, pazienza, it certainly wasn’t the coffee’s fault! Americans instead are convinced that they can control the future and avoid unforeseen events if only they can get the right sign put up in the right place. We can control external, future events, “where there is a will, there is a way”.
All for today. Join me in wishing that the Italian US Embassy/Fulbright students' “California dreams” come true.