January 30, 2007

Che sarà, sarà

I was thinking about la prof.ssa C. in the car this evening. I mentioned running into her at my son’s liceo a few weeks ago. She had been his principle teacher for the first two years covering Italian, Latin, Greek, history and geography for about 20 hours of each school week. In our cordial greetings I told her how much my son had appreciated the class trip they had taken at the end of the quinto ginnasio (2nd year at the classical studies liceo). He still has the photos of his classmates traveling around baroque Sicily on his computer screensaver and it was the highlight of his ginnasio experience. “Oh really” she answered, “I’d thought that it hadn’t been a successful trip." She looked a bit quizzical and thoughtful for a moment (in a professorial kind of way), “you just never know with kids, do you." She did concede that the class had come together and really molded as a group after that trip – and it showed in their classwork two years later.

So she began to contemplate taking this year’s quinto ginnasio on a trip, although she hadn’t planned on it so far. This had been a difficult class, but they were getting better and maybe it would be a good thing. She sighed, “but I don’t know if I really want to this year”.

I, being American, immediately thought of all that responsibility (and liability) – a group of 14-15 year olds, what a nightmare, who knows what could happen. She looked at me quite surprised, “I had never thought of that, I guess I always just think that if something is going to happen, it will happen, I never worry about the responsibility." No, she was just plain tired and these trips were exhausting to organize and run and the teachers get no extra pay to speak of for their extra effort.

I smiled. We always think first of our grand responsibility in controlling the future and what fate has in store for us. Prof.ssa C. instead sleeps soundly on school trips through Sicily. Che sarà, sarà.

A domani,

January 29, 2007

On the road

Yesterday I had to cross Rome at 7:30 am. It was a Sunday and I was almost alone on the route through Trastevere, along the Lungotevere, up past Parioli, to the Salaria area and finally Piazza Vescovio. What a feeling to buzz along with no traffic admiring the sights in the early morning light.

Yes I drive in Rome. Lots. Everywhere. From the historic center into the hinterland, the raccordo anulare and out of town, even without a navigator.

I have been driving in Rome for so long that it seems normal, but I know that driving here puts many foreigners out of their cultural comfort zone -- “they don’t stop at red lights, there are no lanes, cars cut in”.

It is true that you can’t sit back, put on the cruise control and sleep at the wheel. You have to be on your toes and aware of everything that is going on around you 360° all the time -- pedestrians wandering across the middle of the road while concentrating on their cell phone conversations, motorini weaving in and around until they find their way to the front of the crowd at a red light only to take off just before it turns green, cars merging in without making eye contact, cars cutting in when you leave just barely enough safety distance – it is certainly a different relationship with the road and approach to driving.

Several cultural factors come to mind.

Rules and their particular application. For us, rules are rules and should be followed by everyone in the same way, all the time, with no exceptions. Here there is a different relationship with rules. They are guidelines, often applied in varying degrees according to the particular situation at hand. So when I (rather foolishly) stopped as the light turned red instead of slipping around the corner to the right, the car behind me passed on my left and turned right in front of me. If no one is coming, why stop.

Sense of personal space. We all feel uncomfortable at some point with the Italian propensity to stand just a bit too close. Same concept goes for cars. They just have a different sense of personal space not only around their bodies but also their cars and they tend to get just a bit too close for our comfort.

In group / out group. All those other people out there on the road just do not enter into their inner circle of the people they acknowledge – friends and family. Anyone outside of this inner circle practically doesn’t exist. So if you don’t exist in their scheme of things, they certainly won’t notice you as they merge into your lane or slip into the space you had left on purpose between your car and the one in front of you.

Words of advice. Keep your eyes moving from the back mirror to both side ones and develop intuition and instincts to second guess where the cars around you will gravitate --- there actually is a underlying system to it all and a kind of fluid dance-like quality. They understand each other (again, it is about context and the hundreds of antennas that follow them around) and actually drive in a rational way – to them – we just have to discover the rationale.

A domani,

January 28, 2007

Yours or mine

Today I would like to introduce you to another Elizabeth, a character in the short story Pets* who is having a cultural moment. The italics on the side are my running commentary.

Elizabeth is Canadian and a new arrival in Rome together with her husband and young daughter. She is talking to her friend at the pet shop. He runs the shop with his mother who has announced that she is going to retire and hand it over to his uncle.

“But if it’s your shop, just say no.” (seems to her that this would be the obvious plan of action, direct, to the point)

“Yes, it’s my shop. But my mother owns it.” (seems to him that obviously the question is more complicated. Oh course he would have just said no if that had been possible.)

“So it’s her shop. She’s the owner.” (she seeks clarification, simplicity, direct, clear relationships, and measurable facts)

“No, its mine. But she is the legal owner.” (he seeks a way to navigate unclear waters. There is history here lurking beneath the facts, and that history makes the facts more ambiguous.)

She concludes, “There was clearly some cultural nuance that I was failing to grasp, so I let it drop.”

Sounds like a good idea. She can think about it later and, after peeling off a few layers of the onion, find interesting new ways to see and understand the concept of ownership.

(*by Megan K. Williams in her short story collection, Saving Rome).

A domani,

January 26, 2007

Agree, respect or just try to understand

“I don’t think you have to agree with all aspects of a culture in order to respect it, do you?”

I found this million dollar question on a website forum among expats. No, you do not have to agree and in some extreme cases you do not even have to respect (for example, when physical mutilation enters into the cultural picture), but you should try to understand where the behavior in question comes from, its deep, old and even ancient, twisted, contorted, overlapping and infinitely complex cultural roots. Judging without understanding, or at least knowing that you don’t and can’t ever really understand, quickly leads you down the path to prejudice.

That is what this blog is about – exercises in unraveling the cultural mysteries of every day life abroad, in my case, in Italy. It took nearly 20 years here before I woke up one day and realized that it is about me and my culture, not them and theirs and with this revelation I started to examine the cultural values, beliefs, thought patterns, attitudes that were so deeply imbedded in my personal way of being that I didn’t even realize they existed, but thought were just the way things were. All of a sudden a whole new world of understanding opened up for me that I would like to share.

Even long-term expats here never get used to or accept some aspects of Italian culture, and I expect my husband would say the same about some aspects of my American culture, but by trying to understand the roots of the behaviors which bring on personal “cultural moments” and the purpose of the behavior (which generally is not just to drive you crazy) then you can step back and let it pass. Sometimes you understand and sometimes you don’t – but you tried!

In my training sessions, I love to quote Craig Storti, from his book of Cross-Cultural Dialogues, “Most people do behave rationally; you just have to discover the rationale.”

Easier said than done!! But who said it would be easy?

A domani,

January 24, 2007

Two bills and a ballot

I had a good post office run this morning. There was practically no line and a smiling, polite woman exchanged friendly banter with me as I rustled in my wallet for exact change. Who could ask for more. The only tiresome part was filling out the payment forms, called conti correnti, to pay for next year’s school enrollment taxes and fees – one to a central state office in the amount of Euro 15,13 and the other directly to the school in the amount of Euro 100,00. Today's mystery is not why I couldn’t pay these fees directly to the school, but the two are connected.

Instead, my cultural moment for the day came on as I read the warning on the back of the form which states, “fill out each part fully in black or blue ink with no abrasions, corrections or erasing or the form will be invalidated.” Since I have to copy the same information three times along the long rectangular form, I get nervous as I get to the third section – one mistake and I will have to start all over again! My hand starts to quiver and I break out in a sweat.

The last time I filled out an electoral ballot to the state of Connecticut, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I read, “You may cancel or erase your vote as you wish as long as the final result is clear.” Clear to whom was not specified but this is not the point.

Two cultural factors come to mind:
1. Trust. Although we may not trust each other on an individual level and keep shotguns by our sides to prove it, we somehow trust each other on an aggregate level through a system of rules and regulations that are universally applied and generally followed. Unnerving for an Italian – ma ti fidi?? This is the underlying reason why I am not able to pay the school directly – ma chi si fida that the money would be managed correctly and who would be responsible for any missing funds? No problem – all school payments have to be made to a conto corrente at the post office, even a 2 euro fee for a new absences booklet.
2. Change: Even changing something as small as a misspelled street name on a form is suspect. Anything written down is very difficult to change – this is an oral society.

A domani,

January 23, 2007

time is a noun

I am so excited; I have truly entered the internet community of Time magazine cover fame. Thanks to all of you who have left comments – little warm fuzzies, I love them.

So today I am going to comment on a comment -- clearly a “cultural moment” one. It goes like this
“….they don’t show up for a party or they come 2 hours late with two uninvited extras and you only have enough chairs for the invitees. Ahhhhh well. Allora.”

What is going on? Any observation that starts with “they don’t….” is usually a sign that a cultural moment is coming on – anger, frustration, confusion, homesickness etc. It is true. Italians do (sometimes) show up late (two hours is excessive) and bring along uninvited guests. Why do they do that? Or better yet, why don’t we? We don’t because we have a time thing. We come from the most rigid, linear time orientation of any culture in the world -- one where time is a noun (i.e. money). Where time can be bought, saved or used. We can put it in a box. It exists as a tangible partner in every moment of our day and demands respect.

Our time orientation comes through in how we prepare a meal for guests. Everything has to be ready at the same time, served on the same plate, in precise, measure amounts. Therefore, it is very important that everyone arrive on time so as to not destroy the orchestrated triumph of meal timing. A meal has to start -- at a certain time -- and end -- very quickly -- so that we can get on to “doing” other things, even if that is just sitting around and talking.

In a culture where time is more of a verb than a noun, the rhythm of a meal is active. In an Italian meal, everything does not have to be ready at the same time; in fact there are different courses. To allow for latecomers, the first course is not prepared until everyone has arrived, then it is just a 10 minute pasta boil away. The amounts of food are flexible too. If you find a couple of extra mouths at the table you just throw in a couple of additional etti and stretch the sauce, no problem. The emphasis is on the company, the meal will happen quite naturally when everyone is ready – con calma! In any case, there is nothing else to do afterwards but linger over the table. Eating (whenever) in company (whomever that may include) is the point of the evening.

Just make sure to keep some cheap folding chairs on hand.

Oops – I have gone over my self-imposed 400 word limit for the day.

A domani,

January 22, 2007


I happened on a blog yesterday by a woman living in Italy whose highest number of comments on a given day over the year had been to an entry about dish-washing – who does or does not do it in Italy, Naples in particular. A heated forum-like discussion ensued on the cultural ins and outs of this daily task.

For an American women, the trophy husband is one who does things like wash the dishes, the highest status symbol of all. I have overheard women brag back and forth about all the housework done by their man. The whole issue can uselessly take on mythic proportions. The Italian professional two-career couples I know take an alternative approach – they simply outsource the whole question. No one lives with less than three mornings a week of domestic help and many (with children) have full-time live-in help. It is just a regular part of the monthly budget and accepted by both parties as a given, like the heating bill. You may do without other things – like immense SUVs and every kitchen appliance ever invented -- but not without someone to wash that fresh cicoria, make a sugo for dinner, clean up and scrub out the pots the next morning.

I think it comes down to the self-reliance thing we inherited from our cattle-raising, conquering the West days. We just have to do it ourselves and feel very uncomfortable delegating our intimate lives to others. We would feel like we had somehow let ourselves down by admitting that we really can’t (or at least really don’t want to) do it all ourselves and this creates a terrible inner turmoil. Italians have none of this. Being from a culture with more of a group orientation, they very naturally depend on others who in turn depend on them. We are used to ultimately depending on ourselves alone, so we had better be prepared.

A domani,

January 20, 2007


I had an appointment at my son’s school today (yes, it is Saturday and yes, they do have school on Saturday). On my way out I happen to see his first teacher from the 4th and 5th “ginnasio” (the first two years of the Classical Studies high school). Back then, she was to be feared, not only by the students but also by the parents, and I was no exception. Today was different, she was reduced in stature by the fact that she no longer had power over my son’s life, and I had grown in stature because I no longer had reason to be terrified of our parent/teacher encounters. We were practically equals and we greeted each other fondly and with warmth – she was human!

The hierarchy question. Yes, it is different. At first I didn’t understand the power teachers hold and the deferential stance one must take in their presence. They can fail your child at any time, for really any reason, or make his or her life miserable, or terrify him daily, or pretty much do what they want, and you, as a parent, are at the whims of fate, powerless. A very strange sensation for an American. You can complain to the “preside” who can listen empathetically, shrug his shoulders, and in the end, do nothing because he really does not have any power. What you have to do as a parent and what your child has to do is exactly what every Italian does and has done: be patient, flexible, learn amazing skills at tolerating ambiguity, understand and accept the forces of fate, bide your time, be clever and astute and bow to the unwritten rules of hierarchy.

Italians learn all those Italian traits at school. The process in which they do so is so subtle and so effective that culture (small “c”) is passed along together with Culture (capital “C”). More on that another time….

A domani,

January 18, 2007

Just a bit of this and that

I’m making lasagne tonight so I opened up my Italianissimo cookbook, Il Piccolo Talismano della Felicità. The recipe for béchamel obviously begins with a short history of this famous sauce. As always, we must begin at the beginning, which often goes back at least a few centuries. In the case of La sauce à la béchamel we only to back to the time of Luigi XIV and his maitre d’hotel by the name of Louis de Béchameil. That taken care of we can get down to business (how American) – what to do. Not first without another paragraph specifying that the sauce can be more or less dense, depending on its final destination (without specifying what those might be), by varying the amounts of butter, flour and milk.

So, here we go. There are phrases like, fatela cuocere adagio, adagio per qualche minuto (exactly how many minutes please), and add a nonnulla di noce moscata (a next to nothing of nutmeg – translated, a 1/8 tsp). Italian cooking -- a bit and this and that. My friend Alessandra once gave me a recipe for a ground chicken and ricotta kind of meatloaf wrapped in prosciutto and then aluminium foil and put in the oven, “until you can begin to smell the aroma as it sneaks past the door of the kitchen” – and how long would that be? Basically Americans have lost their senses, literally, and to compensate we need to KNOW exactly what to do, step by step, teaspoon by teaspoon.

I think it comes down to communication styles and high and low context – remember those hundreds of antennas that surround Italians as they walk down the street? Well, they follow them into the kitchen where they just know, somehow -- maybe its in their genes -- how much, how long, how hot, as they cook. We need it spelled out, directly, clearly in degrees, cups and teaspoons.

Buon appetito e a domani,

January 17, 2007

Nonni -- the highest wrung on the Italian family ladder

Renzo and Anna are part of a slowly diminishing species – real Italian nonni. When I stopped by their apartment this afternoon, Renzo had just come in from taking his 89 year old mother-in-law to the hairdresser. While laying his magic hands (a gift of pranotherapy) on my son’s inflamed shoulder, he greeted his 3 ½ year old granddaughter as she wandered in from her post-nursery nap. Then he rushed back out with us to pick up his 10 year old grandson from school. Meanwhile nonna had taken care of lunch and was busy preparing snacks. This is their retirement. Shouldn’t they be off on cruise ships touring the seven seas, or having fun, relaxing and doing whatever they want to do? Instead, this is what they want to do.

The Italian family taking care of itself – the generation above and two below, quite a handful. My grandparents lived three states away and came around on Thanksgiving or Christmas, never both. Then we would visit them for a few days here and there while passing through on our way south.

At the beginning of her book, Mother Tongue: An American Life in Italy, author Wallis Wilde-Menozzi tells of moving to Parma with her Italian husband whom she had met, lived with, and married in California. Somehow things were different back in his hometown of Parma, “If we had moved to another Italian city, if we had defined ourselves outside of Paolo’s family and customs” she wistfully wonders….. What she hadn’t counted on was that once back home, he couldn’t define himself outside of his family. He is Italian and although we also define ourselves within the context of our families, our American smallest unit of survival is clearly, deeply and singularly, the individual, ourselves. An Italian’s smallest unit of survival is enlarged to include his or her family. It is a very basic and astoundingly profound difference that reverberates in wider and wider circles to encompass many aspects of daily life. Not a matter of personal choice, but rather a cultural given.

a domani,

January 14, 2007

Sprezzatura -- the illusion of effortlessness

Courtiers were expected to speak in highly contrived language but to make their clever performances seem effortless. The most famous model for this kind of behavior is Baldassare Castiglione’s sixteenth-century manual The Courtier, translated into English by Thomas Hoby in 1561. According to this work, the ideal courtier masks his effort and appears to project elegance and natural grace by means of what Castiglione calls sprezzatura, the illusion of effortlessness.

Megan K. Williams describes this modern day sprezzatura in the short story, The Girls in Bikinis from her collection, Saving Rome. “These were professional women – a biologist, a translator, an economics professor and Oriana, the art historian – but they didn’t have the frenzied, beleaguered look of the high-powered working mothers I know. No doubt they’d worked hard to get where they were – this was male-dominated Italy after all. But they’d somehow slipped their jobs comfortably in among managing their homes and the lives of their children and husbands, ski vacations, summers at the beach and looking gorgeous.”

La Bella Figura includes making “always looking your best” look easy. My brothers-in-law tend to frequent women who show up at my son’s volleyball matches on Sunday mornings in spike heels, perfect hair, nails and makeup, ironed tight-fitting jeans and just the right casual Sunday morning accessories. All with effortless ease, or so it seems. I can do it too, but it takes effort and I think the effort probably shows.

An Italian businesswomen told me the story of being called out of her hotel room at 3:00 am due to a fire alarm while attending a conference in a Northern European capital. A German colleague couldn’t believe that she arrived in the foyer with matching bathrobe and slippers, her hair nicely combed and tied back in place, and exclaimed, “YOU ARE SO ITALIAN!!”. She just shrugged and gave her an effortless smile – now that’s sprezzatura.

January 12, 2007

bigger and better

As a new blogger I am enjoying my meanderings as I explore various expat sites and their respective forums. This one, www.expatsinitaly.com, has an amazing list under “daily life” of where expats can find just about everything they might miss from home. I found things that I hadn’t thought of in years: screen windows, top-loading washing machines, disposals, all sought for with an intensity of purpose and deep internal NEED.

I have a normal household 3KW electricity contract and I can’t turn on more than one large domestic appliance and a few smaller ones at a time. Somehow I manage with only a very occasional fuse. Every activity has its timeframe, dishwasher at night, washing machine first thing in the morning, oven when preparing dinner and I don’t have a dryer. The only real issue is the new AC unit in the summer. I guess I just adapt and adjust with flexibility and pazienza. The extra load of wash has to wait until tomorrow because the oven is on, not a big problem.

Americans do have to have what they want, when they want it and how they want it – bigger, better and now respectively. How exhausting all that wanting and expensive -- bigger, better and now has its costs and those extra KW that allow you to turn on everything at once come at a price.

The only thing I can’t live without is domestic help with cleaning and ironing – the human factor at any price is a given, how Italian!

A domani,

January 11, 2007

problem solving

Today I read a newspaper article on the dilemma parents face in enrolling their children into secondary school as they wait for new reforms that never come, “Classico o scientifico, tecnica o professionale, that is still the question”. In the article, Prof. Vaciago of the Università Cattolica di Milano commented on the need to modernize secondary school education to include “problem solving” skills that help students slide into reality -- interesting that “problem solving” was in English. How would that translate? Not even a distinguished university professor could come up with an Italian word that would encompass this concept, at least in a concise term.

I have been quite impressed with the liceo classico experience, the breadth and depth of the subjects it covers, the comprehensive approach, the interdisciplinary orientation and high expectations. Both my sons made it through boot camp (quarto e quinto ginnasio) and are seeing the fruit of their labours -- a newly acquired critical sense and capacity for the rigorous consideration of a subject. But…..there is something “missing”, or at least different – my cultural moment for the day.

Empirical approach. Creating a hypothesis. Defining alternative solutions. Putting alternatives to test. Observing and evaluating results. And most importantly, arriving at a conclusion based on all of the above. In other words, the process that leads to a “problem solving” mind-set of which Prof. Vaciago was wistfully dreaming. It is the one area that is glaringly missing in my sons’ elite, rigorous, theoretical, thorough, chronologically ordered, interdisciplinary education. They are never, never asked to take a personal position, research it and present conclusions based on personal observations and interpretations in an empirical fashion. They write lots of essays – pages of writing with no paragraphs that are, at times, based on personal opinion but they never prepare research papers on individually determined topics. Topics are distributed from above, the same for all. They all learn the same material in the same way based on the same positions – a group forming process in act.

Why is this important? American culture, more than any other one, is based on the individual and we learn this cultural orientation over and over in school, in this case, through an emphasis on direct, personal experience leading to personal conclusions. This approach is often seen as intellectually careless and shabby by Italians. Their system is more concerned with passing on other cultural orientations, starting with the importance of finding one’s place in a group and therefore learning what the group thinks, a priori. To each culture its own educational system.

People and systems usually act rationally; you just have to find the rationale.

A domani,

January 10, 2007

Write it down, continued

Yesterday I wrote about my pet cultural moment, “Please write it down”. Today I would like to explore what is it about my culture that brings on this cultural moment in the first place. Why do I feel such a need to receive information, in step by step bulleted form, in writing? Why do I feel the need for others to write down (in step by step, bulleted form) whatever information I am giving?

My children think that I am peculiar at best and tell me so. Colleagues and friends are more discrete as they side-step the issue. My husband just rolls his eyes, “what a task an American wife”.

I am the odd one out. My children have explained to me why written school calendars are simply not possible. What if something unforeseeable should happen, like a student-led occupation of the school, or the government falling and elections being called, or police closing down the center for a visit by President Bush, or even snow – it could snow for the first time in 30 years. Then what would you do with a calendar set in writing? How would you change it? Who would be responsible for the changes? “You see,” they say, “it is best not to have a calendar in writing and to just make adjustments along the way as they are necessary”.

Having grown up without school calendars, it is difficult for colleagues to deeply understand the need for five year plans and complex multiple critical paths that foresee every possible future environmental factor and plan for its neutralization – like snow days.

Snow days. That is how we calculate and plan for the unforeseeable; we program a margin of five days into the school calendar for the possible inconvenience of snowstorms. In the end it makes us feel good that we foresaw the unforeseeable and had planned what to do about it in advance. I guess we just have a deep rooted need to control or at least plan for the future and writing it down captures the present and projects it into the future. If new environmental elements should come into the picture, we just rip up the old version and write a new one (dated and initialled please). Change is not an issue; it can’t be when you plan everything out without having all the elements at hand. When change is an issue, you can live much more easily without plans and act and adjust as the environment dictates.

A domani,

January 9, 2007

write it down

My younger son just returned from Riga, Latvia where the Italian national youth volleyball team won its qualifying tournament for the European games in April. I didn’t realize until last night that I didn’t know at what time his plane was arriving. Not even my son knew until yesterday evening. And you wonder why Italians love cell phones and text messaging.

Information dissemination is an interesting cultural phenomenon. As always, it takes wit, curiosity and gleaning all you can from the environment to put together the facts. At least for me, then again I did not grow up Italian. It often seems that everyone around me somehow “knows” all kinds of things that were never explicitly explained. How do they do that? A mystery for another day. It is about context, which I envision as thousands of invisible radar devices that encircle Italians as they walk down the street. I need someone to tell me, or even better to give it to me in writing.

“Please humor me and just write it down”, I often think to myself. Particularly at meetings when I would delegate tasks, give time tables and such. Or when giving a long list of last details for our apartment renovation to the head workman who would just nod as I got more and more nervous, “there is no way he is going to remember all of this”. A list, what a novel idea. A “check” list to be check off. A “to do” list. Even just a doodled list. Linear with dots and sub-dots, step A followed by step B.

This has been a tough nut to crack for me. I would like to have clear, ordered information on the offices I have to visit and fees I have to pay in order to register my birth certificate with the city hall and finally renew my identity card. “Don’t you have all these steps written out and photocopied for distribution?” Blank stare. I continue taking dictation on the back of my third bus ticket as the line lengthens.

The first lesson is that Italians are very wary of putting anything in writing that might have to be changed. Change can be negotiated if the question and its provisional solution have been left suspended verbally in air. Words can be rearranged as they land and certain thoughts or details can fly away unseen and unheard. Change to written documents is very, very complicated. Written documents need heavy stamps and words are thick, black on white and chained to the page.

Writing it down also implies that someone wrote it and that someone is therefore ultimately responsible for what is on the page. It has to do with the role of the individual and his relationship to the world around. Standing out. Putting your name on it. I am.

Italians learn to memorize and repeat at school through “interrogations” in the place of written exams. The oral emphasis starts in kindergarten. Teachers don’t even use blackboards to summarize concepts. You listen and remember -- skills we did not acquire.

The second lesson is to always have a small notebook along, to jot down those essential bits of information you will never remember, like postal banking codes of 10 digits.

January 7, 2007

Social Mobility

Will Smith’s new movie, The Pursuit of Happiness, has just opened in Italy. He chose an Italian, Gabriele Muccino, to direct the film -- an odd choice for a film that treats the American dream.

Muccino told him that “distance improves vision” and therefore only a foreigner could truly understand the American dream. Smith took a chance and hired him. In any case, Muccino continued, “America is an idea that belongs to everyone.” When an Italian goes from rags to riches they say, “l’America sta qua”—America is here.

As a European, Gabriele sees and understands the fragility of this dream and the obstacles that exist along the road towards its realization – the social, racial and economic barriers that Americans pretend don’t exist. By recognizing these obstacles, the spirit of the main character could dream more freely.

The current American ambassador to the UN agencies in Rome is the son of migrant farm workers from Mexico who rose to be the Director of the Peace Corps and now an ambassador – quite a story, although one that is best not to tell in certain circles here. It would seem quaint and terribly American, but an argument to be treated with discretion and certainly not in public.

A recent European study put Italy at the bottom of the pile in terms of social mobility. Invisible barriers are very, very strong and this new generation of immigrants born on Italian soil and educated in Italian schools speaking native Italian will be a test. In my son’s prestigious liceo classico in Rome’s historic center, there are no children of immigrants (excluding my son and another girl with a British mother). All those Chinese, northern African, Romanian, Albanian children of immigrants get pushed into technical or professional schools by an invisible hand and therefore kept in their place, at least for now.

When will there be an Italian ambassador with immigrant roots? Not in my lifetime!

Here you simply are who you are as determined by your family roots and social environment. Although you can now enter certain professions more easily and the university is open to everyone, there is always a subtle distinction based on a more static state of “being” than the American “becoming”. In a country based on the individual’s power to break with family and environment and be a free spirit, “doing” and “becoming” are important cultural imperatives. Italy being more group oriented, beginning with the family and circling out in various layers of “in-groups”, places the cultural imperative of “being” and who you “are” higher on the value scale than who you become.

I will talk more about the invisible barriers another time -- starting in school.

A domani,

January 5, 2007

Friendship and La Bella Figura

Tomorrow marks the end of the holiday season, La Befana brings stockings to children filled with sweets (or coal), the Christmas decorations come down, everyone returns from the mountains and children scramble to finish their homework before school starts -- the new year begins.

The party is over, and it shows. At the pool this morning, Bruna took one look at Annamaria as she slipped into her suit and commented rather loudly, “but you have put on weight!” Quite pleased, Annamaria answered, “yes, you noticed? One and half kilos!” Then a discussion ensued on what she was going to do to get back to her usual trim self. No guilt. Annamaria smiled and laughed as she pointed to her slightly thickened middle. She had enjoyed every bite that had led to her post-holiday kilos.

A few weeks ago, Cinzia watched me dress after aqua fitness and announced, “I had always thought of you as thin, but now I notice that you have some fat on your outer thighs.” Well, this brought a few others into the conversation, and, as they studied my form as if it were a museum piece, they pointed and noted various spots that needed work. After a huddle to confer (as if I weren’t present), they concurred that I didn’t actually need to lose weight, just do some massages, after the holidays of course.

These are not an over-50 version of “mean girls” and their comments were not meant to be taken personally. It is just that exquisite Italian sense of aesthetics, La Bella Figura and all of its ramifications. They want me to look the best I can with what I have. It was also a sign of friendship – after five years of aqua fitness together, I have been included in their group! They care enough to help me present myself in the best way. I almost liked the attention. Although it was a bit odd.

I can imagine the scene in an American pool. The woman under scrutiny – never openly – would most likely respond – or at least think to herself – “mind your own business” and generally feel offended, not warm and fuzzy. Friends are supposed to help you not notice that you don’t look your best, although everyone notices anyway, especially you. Maybe this is even odder. Perhaps it comes from our strong sense of the individual, the unwritten boundaries of casual friendship, political correctness and that ole self-reliance mind-set. (I’ll take care of my fat myself, thank you).

Oh well, besides the massages, it is time to do away with the sweets and spumante and bring on the salads and fruit. I can’t let my friends at the pool down!

A domani,

January 3, 2007


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.

A domani,

January 2, 2007

New Years lunch

Four eighteen year old boys came and went – my son and three friends of his visiting from Trento. In the meantime I haven’t been able to get to my computer through the sleeping bags on the floor in our upstairs study.

After returning home in the not-so-wee hours on New Years day, they slept until nearly 1:00. On awakening and after a quick coffee and a shower, they were ready for IL PRANZO. The guests kindly asked if they could help set the table, cut the bread and such, but they were clearly expecting a sit down, full three course lunch. I knew that, and after a morning run to clear my head from the midnight champagne, I had gotten down to business and I was at a good point – fave beans cooked and run through the food processor, sliced bread set out for grilling, salad ready for dressing, cheese and coldcut platter nicely arranged. They hovered and watched (after two days they no longer worried about what an American mother would possibly serve). Finally everyone converged on the table, sitting poised while I served the crema di fave with lightly boiled shrimp, oil and crostini.

Over an hour later, we had finished. The boys helped clean up the table before they headed out for another round of their Roman adventure, full and satisfied, down to the leftover panettone and coffee.

The pleasant part was sitting at the table with my husband and all this adolescent exuberance in sheer harmony. They described their New Years eve (well, at least part of it), the people they had met and the things they had seen in Rome, talked about school and the upcoming maturità exams, described quirky teachers, and generally conversed with the adults – naturally, leisurely and at ease.
No rush! ‘E l’ora del pranzo.

While American kids struggle to define themselves as INDIVIDUALS, separate from their family and part of a society based on individualism, the Italian kids seem to be comfortable in the nucleus of a family environment – no need to break free to become an individual when you can evolve and grow and become independent within the family.

Happy New Year!
A domani,